Renee Liang (Photo: Bob Scott)

Four plays in four languages staged over four weeks. It’s a theatre experiment which aims to challenge the idea of English as the “mainstream” language and all other languages as exotic.

Starting next week, a collective of theatre companies made up of practitioners from Pākehā, Māori, Cantonese and Sāmoan-speaking backgrounds will each stage their version of the same play — The Chairs (Les Chaises), the classic absurdist play by the Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco.

For many of those involved, the process has led to a rediscovery of their mother tongues. Four of them — Renee Liang, Amber Curreen, Adam Rohe, and Edward Peni — share their reo stories here.


Te Reo Hainamana — Renee Liang

Renee is a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher, and fiction writer. She has written, produced and toured seven plays, written libretto for two musicals and an opera, edited and published eight anthologies of migrant women’s writing, taught creative writing, and organised community-based arts initiatives.

I was born in New Zealand, but ever since I was young, my parents have insisted on me knowing my own language. I resisted this in my teens. A combination of poor discipline and shame that I was a poor speaker of Cantonese.

But, as I get older, and especially since becoming a mother, my language has called to me.

It’s not just about being able to hold my head high in my own culture — people tend to be kind to the daughters of immigrants. “Your Cantonese is pretty good,” they tell me.

The important thing for me is being able to speak to the older members of my family. My father and his generation are all fluent English speakers, but when they’re ready to tell me their stories, I want to hear it in their home language. My mother was right: knowing my own language, or at least making a start, will open my history up to me.

I know, from years of conversations, that my fractured and at times fractious relationship with my mother tongue has its parallels with my friends’ journeys in other cultures. For me, watching a young mother in my clinic address her children in te reo Māori — hard won through classes and practice — clutches my heart, thrills and makes me want to try harder in my own life.

And so I try. I start with restaurant orders and continue with my Cantonese-speaking patients. My halting, terrible grammar is rewarded by wide smiles and gentle encouragement. Even though I soon give up and continue in English, the bonds are seen and recognised.

It astounds me that there is even a debate about learning te reo. Language is a tāonga, the key to our stories, and the tool by which our people describe their view of the world. But language, by its very nature, is also meant to be shared. Teach it to someone and their understanding of your culture will enlarge. Learn someone else’s language and doors will open.

In the 2013 Census, nearly 20 percent of Aotearoa’s population spoke more than one language. That percentage has almost certainly risen. Child development research has shown that speaking two or more languages is beneficial. As well as accessing many cultures and networks, the multilingual brain shows an ability to adapt to different cognitive tasks unrelated to language.

It should be a no-brainer to provide people with access to as many languages as they want to learn. Yet the language landscape in Aotearoa is unnecessarily politicised. Ironically, the people trying to protect their patch the most are speakers of an immigrant language: English.

Cantonese is the language of the first Chinese immigrants to Aotearoa, who came from Guangdong province in Southern China from the 1850s onwards. My parents immigrated to Aotearoa only in the 1970s but, because they grew up in Hong Kong, Cantonese was the language spoken in my home. More recent migrants from other parts of China speak Mandarin, but there are also other languages spoken by ethnic Chinese in Aotearoa — Hakka, Hokkien, and Shanghainese being common.

We are not one, and the confusion over language is just the beginning. China is vast, so of course there’s variation. Add in the different time periods and ages when people have come to settle here – and also take into account that often people move around  –  and it’s easy to understand how “Chinese”, let alone “Asians”, are not some vast, homogeneous audience, customer group or voting body.

In my nearly two decades in the arts so far, I’ve not been able to get this simple idea through to white people, and I don’t know why.

Soon after I was born, my mother took me back to Hong Kong so my grandmother could look after me while she studied for a nursing degree. My father stayed in Aotearoa, working as a junior doctor. So my first language was Cantonese.

But, at age three and back in Aotearoa, I started kindy. And very quickly, English became my preferred language. I brought it home and infected my younger sisters with it.

My Cantonese was frozen in time at toddler level, and I became too embarrassed to use it. My mother tried and failed to enforce a rule that only Cantonese was to be spoken at home. I was too busy learning French and Latin anyway (and calculus and physics and biology). The nerd stereotype ran true in our family.

I resented the efforts of our PE teacher, the only Māori face on our staff at St Cuthberts, to teach us basic te reo Māori. But it was the 1980s, and I didn’t yet understand that language is a gateway to understanding a culture.

It was only when I started writing plays containing Cantonese phrases that I began to realise how precious it was. Cantonese is the language I used to communicate to my grandmother, who spoke only halting English. Its colours had infused my life even after I left Hong Kong. It is a language built on imagery and idioms, a down-and-dirty street language where a polite way to say “fart” does not exist.

Like Māori, it’s transmitted orally, transforming with the times, and was only captured in written form when its home was colonised. And, like Māori, the colonisers are doing their best to wipe it out — or bottle it for use on their terms.

Nowadays, using Cantonese in my writing — I’m illiterate, by the way — has become a political act. But it’s also a personal act, an attempt to reach a part of me I’m still embarrassed and hesitant to display in public.

But, a miraculous thing happened when I started reaching for Cantonese words and phrases to use in my writing. Somehow, the seeds of language that were planted in infancy had taken root and grown during the long period I refused to water it.

Despite everything, my language was still alive and it had even developed. My language still lives within. It lives within and I wish to share it.


Amber Curreen (Photo: Bob Scott)

Te Reo Māori — Amber Curreen

Amber (Ngāpuhi)) is a theatre producer with Te Rēhia Theatre Company and kaihautū of Te Pou Theatre in West Auckland — where The Chairs is being staged. She got her acting start on Shortland Street, and has since performed in television (Kōrero Mai, Ōpaki, Billy), theatre (Hoki Mai Tama Mā) and film (WARU). 

Ngā mihi o te tau hou Māori!

Katahi anō au ka wehe mai i te Wānanga O Aotearoa ki Mangere. He pō tapu tēnei, te pō tuatahi o tā mātou wānanga reo mo Te Aupikitanga me Te Pīnakitanga ki te reo kairangi. I ponitakatia mātou, a, tutungia e mātou te hatete o te reo Māori.

It’s 11pm on a Friday night and I’ve just returned home from the first night of wānanga reo at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. I put work aside, arranged childcare, drove across Auckland in peak-hour traffic to sit and listen to whaikōrero — that’s the long speaking part of the pōwhiri, which is followed by singing.

Four hours later, I arrive home with my heart full to overflowing, my mind bursting with new whakaaro, and I’m still singing!

Tutungia te hatete o te reo was the waiata we learned tonight, nā Leon Blake rāua ko Pania Papa. It’s a stunning waiata that encourages us to stoke the fire that is our language, to build the flames so it burns brightly once more. It reminds us that the language feeds us as we feed it. It brings together whakataukī and old kupu that have been lost to colloquial reo Māori, into a stirring waiata aroha for te reo Māori.

I was so emboldened by the wonder of this night and my good fortune to be able to access easily what so many before me were punished for, and fought so hard for, I decide to write this piece in te reo Māori. The 65 words above is how far I got before I chickened out. A good half of the words are either names or quotes from the song I learned tonight.

I’ve been studying te reo for years and I’d be considered to be at an intermediate level. I’m happy in a total immersion environment, I understand mostly everything, and I can express myself with a degree of fluency.

But writing the 65 words above was painful. As often as I’d have to go back to convince Microsoft that I’m not trying to type “kit e”, I’d have to go back and convince myself of every word, sentence structure and thought I laid down. Is that tika? Is there a more whakaaro Māori way of writing this?

I grew up in an English language household. My father was Māori from Hokianga, but his family hadn’t spoken the language for generations. I was lovingly teased by my grandmother for being her little Māori girl because I was doing fourth form te reo Māori by correspondence. It was a lark, a grand joke that I’d want to learn Māori or even acknowledge our whakapapa Māori .

My Pākeha mother encouraged me to learn Māori. She put me in our bilingual unit at school. I feel extremely fortunate for that. I went on to learn more reo Māori on the set on Shortland Street. My character was a better speaker of the language than I was, so I learned through the translators and language advisors like Quinton Hita and Ngārimu Blair.

I still get: “Hey, you’re that Māori girl from Shortland Street.”

I went on to act in other shows like Kōrero Mai, fortunate enough to do what I love and learn te reo at the same time, with a reo advisor like Pania Papa helping with my pronunciation in post-production. At the same time, I was taking reo papers at university. Despite all of this, my tongue was still thick with te reo Pākehā. I was too afraid to speak of my own volition, and I held the language in my mind as a concept rather than in my heart as a part of me.

It took a one-year full-time total immersion environment to really make a difference for my reo. In 2013, I attended Te Wānanga Takiura with my baby son, who came with me every day, learning te reo at the breast.

At the end of that year, I was no longer tired and frustrated in pōwhiri, trying desperately to understand everyone. But I started to notice the kind of looks I’d get in public for speaking te reo Māori to my kids and friends. It seems to have a polarising effect, evoking either admiration or fear. It’s as if speaking the language exposes the elephant in the room that is colonisation.

Speaking te reo in public, in Auckland, in 2018, still feels like a political action and I cherish the places that te reo Māori sits as a norm — like at my kids’ kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa, at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, and at my work.

In the last five years, I’ve been busy producing theatre in te reo Māori, sending shows around the country, encouraging our reo speakers to act, and putting te reo on the main stages of Tāmaki Makaurau. I also help run Te Pou Theatre in West Auckland.

Because of all of my work with te reo Māori on stage and screen, people often assume I’m more knowledgeable and comfortable in te ao Māori than I am.

This year, I made a resolution to work harder on my reo and do more acting (producing gets boring).

In this next project, The Chairs, I’ll be performing on stage in te reo Māori for the first time in four years. I’ll be speaking the words of Eugene Ionesco as translated by Ani-Piki Tuari.

I’m shaking with both excitement and fear! I’m so looking forward to sharing our language in such a unique setting as an absurdist play.

Tonight, after the classes had done their whaikōrero, we listened to a panel of tutors share their thoughts.

Our lead tutor, Te Kurataiaho Kapea, reminded us that it’s a slow process learning te reo and tikanga Māori. He also challenged us to be proactive in our aspirations for our reo Māori journey, to plan where we want to be in five years, and what we need to do to work towards it.

Where would I like to be with my reo Māori journey in five years? I’d like to be speaking Māori as my main language with my family. I’d like to know the mita of my hapū and to know my whakapapa.

And, importantly, when I’m presenting that year’s te reo Māori play for Te Rēhia theatre and I’m asked to write a piece about my language journey, I’ll be able to at least reach 100 words.


Adam Rohe

Te Reo Pākehā — Adam Rohe

Adam is an actor and poet. He was born in the USA and spent his childhood between there, Cambodia, and Stratford in Taranaki. 

My journey with te reo Pākehā has been tumultuous. I was born in the deep south of the United States, and by the time I was 16, I would’ve needed a translator to order fried chicken in my hometown. The entire texture of the language there is virtually unintelligible to anyone not from the south. Every word feels like it’s dripping in hot sauce.

When I was six years old, my whānau moved northwards to Connecticut. New England is about as far as you can get from Georgia, accent-wise. Imagine if New York sounded a little less angry and much less frantic. The words we used, although they were technically the same language, sounded so different — and different words were even chosen to describe the same things. This was my first taste of having the familiar rug of my mother tongue tugged out from under me.

When I was eight, we moved to Cambodia. My sister and I were the only English-speaking children in the town where we lived for two and a half years. My language was nearly redundant. I didn’t go to school, my parents were at work all day, and there was only one other person in my immediate surroundings where English was useful.

So I almost abandoned it. And I reserved it for intimate evening conversations. It helped me relate to my parents, their drunken expatriate adult friends, my sister, and for stilted conversations with local Cambodians.

Very soon, my Khmer was better than the English of any of the Cambodians. So the most sensible mode of conversation was quite clear.

This experience radically changed my views on many things. If we think of language as a framework for how we shape our ideas, I learned that there are many ways to think about the world around me. Sounds that I had previously found incredibly abrasive were now sandwiched in the middle of terms of endearment. Exclamations had a tinny feel to them. Everything sounded piercing and comedic. My primary modes of expression flipped from hot sauce to gin and tonic, and now were squeezed with lime and chilli.

When I moved back to an English-speaking country — Stratford in Taranaki — I was 11. And, once again, things I thought I could take for granted were all different.

It’s quite unsettling, being in a context that feels familiar — where almost everything is understood — and then suddenly you stumble across a word that doesn’t mean what you thought it did. What was a flannel? Where’s the trash can? When my classmate asked to borrow a rubber, what should I give them?

I think that this journey has lent a freedom to my view of the world. I’m more than willing to adapt to someone else’s ways of communicating, and I’m quick to identify when a miscommunication is occurring.

I see language as a series of arbitrary sounds, rather than a rigid series of meanings. And words are just another fun game, as malleable as paint or puppetry.


Edward Peni (Photo: Bob Scott)

Gagana Sāmoa — Edward Peni

Edward (Sāmoan, Rotuman) is an actor, director, and stage manager. He’s a graduate of the Unitec School of Performing Arts.

When I’m in an Uber, I’m generally open to a conversation with the driver. Some days more than others. But, if there’s a rapport, then I like to converse. Ask questions. How long have you been driving? Did the GPS give you the wrong address? Electric cars are here? In Auckland?!

Mundane but, sometimes, effective.

On some occasions, when the driver is also of Sāmoan heritage, I really feel my lack of fluency in Sāmoan. Then it’s a very quiet, polite ride. The Sāmoan phrases that are whirring through my head just keep whirring and I exit the car at the destination with just enough courage to say: “Fā. Manuia le pō.” Wishing the driver a pleasant evening.

These few words I’m using to rebuild a connection, like Lego blocks, with my Sāmoan heritage, so that the language is ignited from dormancy and becomes second nature, as it was when I was a child. And, while the word count is meagre, I know their value and hope that it’s received in kind, so that the driver will absolve my “white” mind of guilt, because the brown kid is not all white.

I performed Shakespeare in te reo Māori recently, and both languages held the same weight in wisdom and imagery. Love and heartache. Power and mercy. Such wealth. Such hard work getting there. But the persistence was worth it. Ka nui to marama me to ataahua.

Both would help me to dissolve the resentment and shame of not knowing my own language.

They would also, unexpectedly,  reveal that my level of understanding of te ao Māori and te reo — or Shakespeare, for that matter — was still in its infancy, despite years of being surrounded by it.

Not so wise, and not so beautiful. But, tarry a little. There was something else that came with this awareness. A sincere desire to address this imbalance.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can have more meaningful conversations in Sāmoan and te reo Māori. Heck, Shakespeare, too.

I’ll be forthcoming with relatives arriving from Apia, tracing lineages while we are in the fale kuka/kitchen. I’ll share experiences of lenei aso/the day with the Uber drivers wondering if the latest GPS calibration is hōhā.

And we can all enjoy a pale ale discussing Shakespeare’s insight into human behaviour, and appreciating that the circuitry for language sparks and glides along highways that have been wanting to be alive since, well, forever. That would be electric.


The Chairs
Where: Te Pou Theatre, 44a Portage Rd, New Lyn (free parking)
11–14 July: English; 18–21 July: Te Reo Māori; 25–28 July: Samoan; 1–4 August: Cantonese
Tickets:   $12–$22 — discounts for multiple shows
Running time: Approx 60 minutes
School matinees available.


© E-Tangata, 2018

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