Who am I? Who the hell are YOU??

Written by Alice Chisnall-Kalouniviti
New Zealand born of Fijian/Scottish descent

I’ve always been painfully aware of the contrast between my dark skin and white relatives due to strangers who cocked their heads disbelievingly when we introduced ourselves as family. “Why are you different colours?” they’d all ask. “I’m adopted,” I say – easier than saying “My alcoholic Fijian father tried to beat my Scottish-Kiwi mother to death when she was pregnant with me, so she fled Fiji, came home to New Zealand, had me, then married an Italian freezing worker and had three perfect, blonde children.”

On the odd occasion I’ve actually blurted this out, I’ve received odd, sympathetic looks along with awkward silences. The usual interrogation usually follows – “Have you ever lived in Fiji? Did you ever meet your Fijian family? Do you ever want to go back there? Do you speak Fijian?” No. No. Yes. No.

I spent years convincing myself it’s fine that my Fijian family never bothered to try and contact me. Then I spent years convincing myself I needed to uncover my roots before I could really know myself. Now, after spending a year working for a Māori Health provider, I’ve finally realised no matter what I do it’ll always be wrong, so I’m no longer going to bother trying to please. Trying desperately to fit in.

I’m not a Kiwi, because I’m not white or Māori. I’m not Fijian because I know nothing of the customs or language, and I was born in New Zealand. My colleagues delight in reminding me that being an 8th generation Nelsonian on my mother’s side does not give me the right to call myself a true New Zealander. My Fijian family ignore my Facebook requests for Fijian language lessons, but call regularly regarding some random cousin whose brother’s uncle’s sister’s nephew needs to come and stay in New Zealand to play rugby, and can I host him for six to eight months and help him get residency?

If I speak my mind on matters of politics, religion or social policy, my white family nod knowingly and say things like: “That’s the Fijian in her – stroppy islander women are all like that.”

My Fijian family trampled on my self-esteem and cultural identity by ignoring me for years. My white family disrespect me by refusing to acknowledge the different life journey I’m forced into based on my skin colour and ethnicity - “But WE don’t see you as different, so just get over it!” The Māori I work with stubbornly refuse to acknowledge my academic achievements, nursing experience and leadership skills because I’m not “mana whenua”. If I point out system flaws, clinical errors or dangerous practices at work, I’m told “you just don’t understand tikanga because you’re not Māori – stop thinking with your white brain.” Or worse: “you don’t have the right to speak because you don’t have mana yet.”

Well guess what? I have mana. I have mana that I’ve bloody well given to myself, because it will never be bestowed on me by anyone else. I’m a solo mother raising two beautiful girls alone – without the benefit of their lazy, selfish mixed-race fathers, nor the wrap-around assistance of a collective whānau unit. I studied my brown butt off so I could get a degree, postgrad, and Masters papers. I’ve worked hard to develop effective working relationships with those in health and social service. I’ve studied Māori, learned about Pacific cultures, joined clubs, trusts and volunteered for NGOs and charities supporting migrants, refugees and Māori living below the poverty line. I’ve steeled myself dozens of times when Māori work colleagues insist on invading my personal space with the obligatory, disingenuous kisses and hugs every week. I’ve been delayed and inconvenienced numerous times by those on “Island time”, and accused of being culturally insensitive in my expectation that colleagues respect my time, effort and work. I’ve given of myself physically, emotionally and financially to immerse myself in alien cultures.

All for nought. Despite my best efforts, I’ll never be wholly accepted in any group – Māori, Pakeha or Pacific Islander. My accent is all wrong, my hair is too straight, I’m too passionate, too aggressive, too hard to please, too outspoken; I don’t sacrifice enough of my own personal time and money for my patients or other staff; I don’t revere men or church pastors, my clothing doesn’t bear frangipani, I’ve never watched a rugby game, I don’t take off my shoes before I go inside, I don’t own a pair of jandals, and I hate rap music and coconut milk. I expect health professionals to abide by the rules of medico-legal law, not the contrary nature of “tikanga” or the whim of uneducated, unskilled staff hired under the title of affirmative action and the korowai of nepotism. And I believe there’s no excuse for racism, violence and bullying. Especially not that bullshit excuse “you’re not (insert ethnicity, blood-line, whakapapa, religious affiliation, etc here), so you wouldn’t understand how disrespectful you’re being.”

Actually, I understand perfectly. I understand that those who place arbitrary barriers in my way are doing so out of insecurity and spite. I’m articulate, intelligent and well-read. I’m ethnically and culturally diverse. I wear Japanese retro fashion items, swear daily and play field hockey. I have no interest in rugby, choir practice, kapa haka or church. I won’t be herded into a nice, neat racial or cultural box. I won’t blindly accept unhealthy, misogynistic practices, and I certainly won’t be told by full-blooded, “culturally secure” Pacific Islanders, Pakeha, Palangi, Māori or anyone else that by being half-caste, non-bilingual, non-Catholic, that I’m somehow “LESS”. By not allowing my own culture to develop naturally to include my own habits, interests, passions and pursuits, I’m effectively allowing my children to accept the same fate as myself - cultural insecurity and a sense of not belonging to any country, any culture or any ethnic group – and to let others make them feel guilty, culturally insensitive or incomplete in the process. In my culture, respect and “mana” will be the result of hard work, effort, generosity and deliberately acquired knowledge - not decreed by church elders, whakapapa or family connections. And the goal posts will not be moved to accommodate incompetence and inconsistency.

So, I’ll continue with my Highland Dancing, Mori Girl sewing, French-speaking, church-shunning, science-minded, book-reading, pants-wearing, feminist life, and encourage my children to do the same.

In the indignant words of my hilarious 6 year old: “I’m not Māori-Scottish-Fijian! I’m Esmé Alice Chisnall!”

Alice is a Registered Nurse who has struggled to find her cultural place to stand in this world. She loves teacups, science-fiction, Scottish history, Te Reo classes, Robin Cook novels, hockey and watching YouTube surgery videos. Her children are currently learning French and Chinese, and when they’ve flown the nest for Medical and Dental School, Alice intends to volunteer for vaccination programs in the third world.

She currently works for a Pasifika Community Trust where she runs an Oral Health Project.