Being Pākehā in 2020

Performance poet Ben Fagan continues his investigation into just what exactly the term Pākehā means in contemporary New Zealand life.

The first line of my second poem in the Pākehā 2020 series – the first in my monthly series was posted last month - comes from the definition of pākehā.

I received the dictionary featured in the video as a graduation present from Clive Primary School. It was a late-night event (5pm) where my peers and I were celebrated for painting enough pictures and playing enough foursquare.

The ceremony was a serious and dignified business. Names were read, graduates lined up and received their gifts and handshakes with solemn little faces. The book was strange. It looked so grownup, so heavy. I’d never owned a book with a dust jacket.

Rows of parents and grandparents smiled and gave thumbs up, some inexpertly hefting video cameras. Decades later, as shaky footage expanded and contracted, we’d realise the novelty of the zoom hadn’t yet worn off.

In that primary school dictionary, pakeha (no macrons) is immediately above ‘Paki’ (offensive) and below pajamas, the American spelling of pyjamas. Both pajamas and pyjamas are words that look more bizarre the longer you stare. Pajamas. It’s a controversial page.

Once we had received our dictionaries, we all sat down in the new hall and immediately looked up every bad word we knew. We knew a surprisingly large amount. My friend Wilson was the best at knowing the bad words. One time I rolled my sock down off my foot and Wilson told me it looked like a condom. I had to look up what that meant.

After hearing some dubious definitions of pākehā in the past, it struck me that ‘non-offensive’ can't be where the bar is set. Stoicism seems to be an old-fashioned trait in modern New Zealand, and I wonder if our resistance to talking about our collective nouns is a hangover to a time when ‘being from New Zealand’ meant keeping to ourselves.

Are we ready to talk about it now?

WATCH the video below:

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