Being a New Zealander.

By exploring the multiple worlds she grew up in in New Zealand, Helene Wong’s memoir ‘Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story’ tells us much about our worlds too.

Economists have a predilection for the open economy  because, I think, openness to trade tends to be associated with openness to ideas, to technologies, to people, to opportunity, to the future. So the import controls on carpets in the 1960s meant New Zealand was unprepared for the rise of synthetics which decimated the market for coarse wools, crashing their prices in 1966. On the other hand, at about the same time it was agreed to relax the restrictions on imports of speciality cheeses to generate a public taste for them. The success of the strategy is not only evident in the domestically produced speciality cheeses displayed in our supermarkets but that we now export some.

 I was reminded of this sentiment when I came across a scabrous letter reproduced in Helene Wong’s memoir Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story. But first some background. Helene was born in New Zealand, as was her Chinese mother, while her father came here from a Cantonese village when he was seven. Born in 1949, she is best known as an actress and film critic.

 Much of her memoir will resonate with anyone who grew in New Zealand at about the time she did, for her public life was much like everyone else’s. (She suffered some nasty jeering over her ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ status, although gangs of children tend to be cruel to anyone they deem outside their circle.) Her home life was particular – everyone’s is. Her parents were greengrocers and she spent a lot of time in the shop and helping Dad down at the wholesale markets. Her social life was enriched by many Chinese community celebrations.

She was not a banana – yellow outside, white within – as a white stepfather once described to me his adopted and assimilated Chinese son. For while outwardly she was like other Pakeha, inside there was a Chinese foundation. (She married a Maori, but that is a private story, which does not feature prominently in the book.)

Her integration proved to be a journey exploring the worlds to which she belonged. Ultimately the trip was about what it means to be a New Zealander and yet to have other cultural elements in one’s makeup. Since we all do, her challenge was not much out of the ordinary, although perhaps it is bigger for Asians; we are probably more tolerant of some backgrounds than others.

 That is where the dreadful letter comes in. The New Zealand Chinese practice has been to take a low profile, but with growing confidence arising from her success in the New Zealand public world, she spoke out against the presentation of Chinese stereotypes, receiving in response an abusive letter, anonymous of course, which was, to use the mildest terms available, ignorant, intolerant and racist.

 Sadly there are some of us like that – Helene has the grace to suggest the writer may have had a bad Asian experience, perhaps in the military. My immediate reaction was to think what a closed mind the writer had, unable to engage with something different except with abuse – probably still only eats cheddar cheese.

That led to me to ponder on Trump supporters. People often say ‘isn’t it obvious he is a fake?’ Well not to a closed mind. Perhaps one day the accumulating evidence will change their minds, but a poll had 25 percent of the population supporting President Nixon on the day he resigned in disgrace.

 There is an interesting row in Canada arising from Hal Niedzviecki, the editor of a literary journal, writing that everyone ‘should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities’; seems to me be a very appropriate sentiment. However Niedzviecki used it to defend ‘cultural appropriation’. I am not so politically correct as to reject all  cultural appropriation but it should be done with respect; it may be hard to do it well.

 Recall Gordon Walters, who as an educator did much to promote Maori art. His elegant koru paintings were described by the politically correct as ‘cultural appropriation’. A better response was a retrospective of his Maori students at Porirua’s Pataka Gallery acknowledging their debt to him with works based on the koru.

 Helene’s description of her Chinese background provided a perspective to engage with my being a New Zealander, something which has been greatly puzzling me as globalisation seems to compromise national identity.

You’ll have to read the book to find how Helene satisfactorily resolved to think about being a Chinese New Zealander but to give a hint, her family values (which an open-minded person would not grumble about) were anchored in Confucianism and Taoism which she only learned about while studying at Harvard in her thirties. Her family did not seem to know their ancestral culture’s great thinkers, but it practised their values.

Reading the book you will also learn of a different perspective on the world and even a little Chinese history. For instance, Chinese resistance to the Japanese invasion in the 1930s delayed the fall of South East Asia. The book reinforces the unease I feel about interpreting the Chinese leadership using our values. There is also material on the history of the Chinese in New Zealand. I am embarrassed that some of it reflects attitudes as ugly as that letter.

You will enjoy the numerous anecdotes about being the New Zealander that Helene evidently is. My favourite is that in her thirties she had some public business in China and took a side trip with her parents to the village where her father was born. Because she was a member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Group, Chinese officialdom provided an official car. I imagine that the villagers expected their visitor would be in a suit, probably a man. Instead the representative of the New Zealand premier stepped out of the car in a floral skirt and jandals – which any respectable New Zealand woman would have worn in the circumstances.


PS. I have just read David Galler’s Things That Matter. David is an intensive care physician and public health specialist. The book will be valued  reading by anyone involved in the health system. He was the child of two immigrants – David’s mother survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, his paternal grandfather was  Chief Rabbi of Poland.The memoir is another illustration of how migrants from ‘minority’ ethnic backgrounds can make extraordinary contributions to New Zealand.