Dr Bronwyn Wood reflects on what ‘being a Kiwi’ in an increasingly multicultural New Zealand means today 

Being a Kiwi is often associated with eating Pavlova, wearing gumboots and watching the All Blacks play rugby. But given the rapid growth in immigration in the past 20 years – to the extent New Zealand has the fourth largest number of foreign-born residents in the OECD, with 23 percent of the population born overseas – are notions of what it means to be a Kiwi changing?

This was the focus of my Marsden Fund-supported research into young people’s experiences of ‘belonging’ in some of New Zealand’s most culturally diverse secondary schools. My study involved a selection of four ‘superdiverse’ schools – three in Auckland and one in Wellington – and included 180 high-school students.

At these schools, Pākehā European students made up less than 50 percent of all students and between a fifth and a half had been born outside New Zealand. In one class, 18 different languages were spoken and all but two students spoke two or more languages.

The question “What makes someone a ‘real’ Kiwi?” is not quick or easy to answer. So I developed a technique of recording peer-to-peer conversations rather than formal interviews to encourage discussion between students. The question generated a lot of heated debate and four broad themes emerged in all schools.

Students frequently began by stating that a Kiwi is someone who was born in New Zealand or holds a passport or citizenship status. However, students quickly pitched in that this doesn’t apply to people they know – or even themselves. Frequently, this led to another discussion about what Kiwis eat, wear or do, such as this typical conversation:

Student 1: A real Kiwi is someone who drinks L&P and wears gumboots and you eat kiwifruit and wears jandals to anywhere you go.

Student 2: Just because you wear jandals doesn’t make you a Kiwi!

Student 3: A real Kiwi is…

Student 2: Someone who supports the All Blacks.

Student 3: And the Warriors?

Student 4: I’m not a Kiwi then! [all laugh].

Inevitably, this list of things Kiwis like, wear and eat fell short as students could think of people they know it excludes.

This led many groups to focus on the things Kiwis value. For example, students referred to caring about the environment, acknowledging New Zealand’s Māori status and heritage, contributing to society or showing kindness to others in a ‘Kiwi’ way. One student said, “You need always be welcoming and friendly. Never too polite – you need to be relaxed.” Such discussions tried to capture a shared set of beliefs and ideas held by people living in New Zealand.

However, many students struggled to answer the question as they described how the very concept of being a Kiwi is problematic, because “all Kiwis are so different” and “we have such a diverse country”. They felt the idea of a ‘real’ Kiwi is limited, often reflects a dominant white culture and fails to encompass and include everybody living in New Zealand. Many of their own experiences as newcomers were also not always inclusive either.

This meant many students concluded that being a Kiwi is much more about choosing to be one. This is the broad statement most agreed with:

“It doesn’t matter if you’re from New Zealand or if you were born somewhere else, it really just matters if you consider yourself a Kiwi. I think it really depends what you identify yourself as.”

Many other groups agreed with this, saying “You’re a Kiwi if you call New Zealand home”.

Their discussions showed there is little sense of agreement about the traditional ways being a Kiwi has been articulated – by birth, status, what you eat, wear or believe – as these vary so widely.

Many challenged and critiqued the traditional narrow and hollow notions of being a Kiwi. Their critique drew from themselves, their experiences, their feelings of belonging (or not) and their encounters with diverse others.

This saw them attempt to redefine and rewrite understandings of belonging and the nation to be inclusive of more people – especially in light of their multicultural selves, their peers and their schools.

The study highlights how ‘being a Kiwi’ is not something that exists outside the lives of people. Instead, individuals themselves, such as these young participants, show how understandings of the nation of New Zealand are (re)produced by engagements and encounters in daily activities.

For young people growing up in some of New Zealand’s most culturally diverse communities today, the nation is multicultural and looks and feels like them – less homogenous than prevailing attitudes suggest and less mono-cultural than previous generations.

Leave a comment