“Goodbye My Feleni” and Cultural Boarders

Māori Battalion performing a haka, Egypt, by unknown photographer, 1941. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Māori Battalion performing a haka, Egypt, by unknown photographer, 1941. Alexander Turnbull Library.

“We are always walking forwards backwards.”

The play Goodbye My Feleni opened Apr. 16th and closes on the 25th, ANZAC Day. I saw the play this evening and noticed a lot of familiar elements in the show that I recognized from the theater I’ve been exposed to back home. The theatre space was a small black box and the set consisted of some army bags and crates. We relied completely on the actors to transform the stage and take us back to 1941- I always enjoy this kind of set up. The play was about a Samoan, Niuean, and two Cook Island soldiers in the 28th (Maori) Battalion of WWII. The writer explains in the program, “Goodbye My Feleni came about because the last thing I expected to hear on a CD of the 28th (Maori) Battalion’s songs were the voices of five Pasifika soldiers singing Samoan songs of love, fear, home and country.” One of my Kiwi friends, who is Maori and well educated in Maori culture, commented “I didn’t know there were Samoans in the Maori Battalion.” One particularly striking moment was when the Cook Island alpha solider character was talking about his brother who died in war. He was arguing against his brother’s choice to join the army and said, “The minute you pick your friends over your family, I hope you never come back.” This was a difficult moment for the character and the actor, Samson Chan-Boon. In the moment, he went there and it created a breathless moment in the theatre. It got me thinking about the importance of family in the Pasifika and the notion of family within the army community. How difficult that must be to choose between the two.

In regards to my project, I noticed all the jokes at the expense of other Islanders. For example, the Niuean said something like, “No, I have money… I’m not a Maori.” The play was full of jokes about other island cultures, and each joke made got a roaring response from the audience. It was similar to when one of my Pacific Studies professors made a joke about Tonga being better at some trivial thing than Samoans are. Again, the class, more than 80% Pasifika, thought it was just too funny. Witnessing this, sort of, sibling rivalry between the island groups reinforced my initial idea that the island groups function as a whole community of the Pacific. Some were shocked to learn about Samoans being in the Maori Battalion. What does that say about the Samoan’s who decided to join? Is it possible that, in crisis, did they feel their cultural boundaries between Maori and themselves fall down? I speculate that each Island has their own culture and way of life, but they are all a part of the Pasifika identity, and therefore a part of all the other island identities.

So all this got me thinking about the relevance of cultural lines and categories. In this case, a Niuean making a joke about a Maori is acceptable and encourage able… but if a Frenchman or and Indian made the same joke, what would happen? In America, it’s generally acceptable for a hispanic person to make jokes about hispanic culture and for African-American to make jokes about African-American culture. At the same time it’s socially acceptable for white people to make “White people jokes.” (“white” is a problematic and interesting term like “black” or “brown” is. That’s a post for another day.) It’s my understanding that because certain people “belong” to their culture, they can make, sometimes offensive, jokes about them that perpetuate stereotypes that are probably harmful to their cultural identity. This leads me to ask: How does someone belong to a culture? It’s almost as though by making jokes about your own ethnicity, you’re taking ownership over your association with that community… But how does one “own” their cultural identity?

Further, there are those who find themselves called into a culture or ethnical community that they were neither born into or raised in. Can you be connected to this culture if it isn’t physically a part of you? I think if some way of life on the other side of the world resonates in your blood, in what ever way, that feeling and where it comes from should be investigated.

I was immediately reminded of a white female rapper who calls herself “V Nasty.” With the intention of laughing at her efforts, I was actually really perplexed and intrigued with how she embodies the identity of an urban gangster rapper. It’s interesting because, at this point in time, this role is generally governed by black men (or at least, they’re the ones in the public eye). And don’t get me wrong – she’s a terrible rapper and I don’t support anything she does in any way… But I think this video makes an interesting comment on how culture groups sometimes have clearly define boundaries.

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White Girl

An 11 hour plane ride almost erases the idea of distance. Initially only the multitude of unfamiliar trees made me feel as though I were carrying a small terrier in a wicker basket and wearing ruby slippers: I weren’t in Texas anymore. The first two weeks of living in Auckland were full of adjusting, adapting, and maneuvering myself to appear as invisible and unassuming as possible. I didn’t realize how uncomfortable testing the waters of a new culture could be. Luckily for me, Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and it was easy to blend in within the surprisingly international crowd. Eventually, as I familiarized myself with the layout of the city and formed friendships with those living with me, I felt I had a right to own the space I occupied.

Like your last hairpin inhaled into the vacuum, the feeling of validity vanished when I walked into my first class at University: Intro to Pacific Studies. I immediately realized, for one of the handful of times in my life, I was a racial minority in this space of 170+ people. I also realized  I had never spoken to anyone of Pacific Island ethnicity before. At this point, I didn’t feel particularly uncomfortable, I simply noticed it. I gravitated toward a group of American students I knew from orientation week. The warm, smiling professor introduced himself and proceeded to discuss typical “welcome to class this is what we’re covering” type topics. As I was listening and taking down some notes, the prof. mumbled a joke in Samoan (I think) to which the class roared with laughter. I was startled by the energetic response and looked around to see everyone around me, save the 4 or 5 American students beside me, was rolling with laughter. I awkwardly laughed along. I laughed for the fact I had no clue what just happened, for the fact that none of my friends did either – but mostly I laughed because at that moment I felt so different and small that I wanted to jump on a bald eagle and fly back to Texas right then and there.

An overreaction? Probably. The regret for leaving my comfort zone was fleeting. It was only for the duration of the laughter  that I continued to dwell on my insecurity. I’ve since made many friends from all over the world, a few of them I met in Intro to Pacific Studies. But this whole event got me asking some hard questions of myself.

Why did I notice, the moment I walked in, that I was ethnically different from everyone else? What does it mean that this made me feel uncomfortable? What’s up with this human craving to fit in? Did everyone else notice I was different too?

Does all of this make me racist? … What does it mean to be “racist”?

The woman on the left side of the coat of arms...

The woman on the left side of the coat of arms of New Zealand is Zealandia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)