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A message to my prodigal brothers

No one reminds Anna Rawhiti-Connell better than her brothers that she can be 'an insufferable bore'. As they return to New Zealand she needs to tell them about this place. Now. So, listen up, boys.

The new year, 2020, is almost upon us. It’s going to be a hard year for those of you who like to hear your 'twenties' enunciated with a crisp ‘T’.

It will also be a big year for my family. We have not one, but two prodigal sons returning home to live in Auckland after more than a decade overseas. Skyping Dad’s forehead will soon be a thing of the past. One of the boys is bringing his Australian partner and we will be sure to ask her what she thinks of New Zealand.

So, what exactly are you coming back to my brothers? What kind of New Zealand is waiting for you after years of living in London, the US, France, and Melbourne?

The tyranny of distance has abated a bit. The world has shrunk and so too has the gap between what the rest of the world has and what our tiny part of the world gets. IKEA will be here soon and there are rumours that your faves, Uniqlo and Muji, may be setting up shop in Auckland.

Alongside the fast fashion, we also have the daily dilemmas about our consumer choices and a growing unease about the price we’re paying for convenience. Decades of sweeping environmental concerns under the rug means you’ll enjoy regular news stories about poor water quality, a biodiversity crisis, and soil degradation. You’ll use an app to find out if you can swim at beaches across Auckland.

Culturally, the cringe has all but been banished and we seem far more comfortable in our skins, celebrating both global and local success. We still lose our minds when Lorde performs at the Grammys but we are equally as happy embracing artists who specifically speak to local audiences and tell local stories.

We are also more connected to the rest of the world than ever before and but enmesh ourselves a little too much in the goings on of our World War Two allies, despite India, China, South East Asia and the Pacific Island nations being closer and arguably more relevant to us.

You will be happy to find that Auckland is blessed with the same gifts, brought forth by migrant populations, as London, New York and Melbourne. Auckland is bursting with culinary excellence and invention. Colourful, messy and delicious life exists far beyond the CBD and city fringe.

Auckland is also a city experiencing growing pains. Underinvestment in infrastructure will have you fondly recalling Melbourne’s trams. After years of neither of you owning a car, instead biking and taking public transport most places, you might need to get one here. Plenty of people will take umbrage with my suggestion and it’s getting better, but for now I maintain that Auckland tolerates, but does not fully embrace, methods other than the car for getting around.

For all that we love the noodles, the markets, and the Diwali fireworks, we’re still grappling with how to honour our bicultural foundations. At the highest levels, invoking Te Tiriti can sometimes only mean an invitation to work with the Crown, rather than self-determination for Māori. Inequities leap out from health, justice, social welfare, and education sector statistics on a weekly basis, yet we seem intent on sticking with a ‘one size fits all’ model for addressing them.

On the upside, te reo is flourishing. You will need more than Kia Ora or Haere Mai to get by. You will find our house covered in post-it notes as I try to learn more than ‘e hoa’ and ‘Ngā mihi’. One of you will be delighted to know I have learned how to echo the plaintive cry that used to come from the toilet when we were growing up, in Te Reo. ‘Can somebody pleeeeeaaaasssseeee get me some toilet paper’ is ‘Tīkina mai te whērū’ in this house.

I don’t think you’ll find that much has changed politically. One of you left during the Clark government, the other while John Key was Prime Minister. Winston Peters is still a predictably mercurial beast and the Greens and Act are still minor parties. We remain a nation of centrist voters with light tilts to the left and right.

That would be quite comforting if it weren’t for the increasing number of people affected by the maintenance of the status quo. You will join the ranks of Generation Rent, paying hefty amounts to borrow someone else’s house while watching the dream of owning your own home evaporate. 57 out of the 63 MPs who make up our current coalition government own property. Do not expect transformative change on housing for a while yet. It’s just not politically convenient.

I think you’ll be genuinely shocked at the levels of socio-economic inequality in New Zealand. You will see what you saw on the streets on London, New York and Melbourne here. You will find the sanctioned displays of wealth and the extreme poverty equally jarring, not because you haven’t seen that elsewhere, but because you haven’t seen them in this country before. My memories may be as rose-tinted as yours, but I think it’s fair to say you recall a more egalitarian New Zealand than the one you’re coming back to.

While you were here for the hardship that resulted from the market-based reforms of the 80s and 90s, it is the disparity between the poorest and wealthiest of us that has worsened. Based on Max Rashbrooke’s helpful summary of a recent Ministry of Social Development report on household income, those in the richest tenth of New Zealand made 5-6 times as much as someone in the poorest tenth in the 1980s. The richest tenth now make nine times that of the poorest tenth. Some kids will get a new European car for Christmas this year while other kids are queuing with their parents at City Mission centres around Auckland for food parcels and a little Christmas cheer.

Importantly, you’ll return home to your family. More than once over the past two weeks, as the country has grappled with the tragic loss of life on Whakaari, I have thought about how lucky we are. That our small family is intact. You may not sit at the Christmas table with us this year, but you’ll be there next year. That is more than the families of the victims of Pike River, the Whakaari eruption, the Christchurch earthquake, and the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre shootings will ever be able to say.

The country you come back to is a little less innocent than the one you left. It always feels like a bit clichéd to say that. Trauma, both acknowledged and unacknowledged has been part of this country’s core since its beginning. There is no ‘National Innocence’ meter, but it’s my humble opinion that events of the past decade have left us a little raw, our nerves a little more exposed and our realities a little starker. After the Christchurch shootings, many people simply couldn’t believe that ‘this’ had happened here. Sadly, we end this decade with a reminder that ‘this’ does happen here and we’re not immune to the racism, hatred and division that afflicts so many other countries.

Finally, you come home to a sister who is less likely to provoke you into stabbing her in the hand with a wood-cutting knife or goad you into throwing a wooden spoon at her with such force that it shatters the window behind her. A sister who has missed you both very much and is so happy to have a sister-in-law of the unwed variety arriving with you. A sister who knows that if she drones on for too long about the issues she has documented here, your eyes will glaze over, you will stop listening and you’ll relieve everyone else of their suffering by suggesting it’s ‘time for a wine’. There is no one quite like you for reminding me I can be an insufferable bore. I’ll see you at the airport. Just follow the sound of my voice cry-singing Dave Dobbyn’s ‘Welcome Home’.

To everyone whose eyes haven’t glazed over yet, I wish you a safe and relaxing summer. Thank you for reading each fortnight. For all those who are suffering and grieving, I hope you can take some comfort in knowing that my family and many other families will be thinking about you and doing what we can to help ease your pain and hardship this Christmas. Some things may have changed in the past decade, but I remain convinced that most of us are good buggers and though we are but small, our generosity and kindness remains mighty. Arohanui.

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