Terina Kaire grew up in Auckland with a Niuean father and a Ngāpuhi mother – but it took a move to Hawai’i before she started embracing her Polynesian roots.
If you were to ask me where I’m from, I’d say that I was born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand. If you were to ask me about my ethnicity, I’d awkwardly admit that I’m half Māori and half Niuean.
That’s not something I was ever proud of when I was growing up. Throughout my life, “Māori” and “Niuean” were just boxes that I ticked on forms rather than cultural identities that I felt any real connection to.
Growing up in Auckland, I had surprisingly little exposure to my parents’ cultures. My dad is a first-generation New Zealander whose parents had migrated from Alofi in Niue in the late 1950s. He’s lived in Auckland his whole life, and despite travelling all over the world, he’s never been to the country his parents called home.
My mum is Ngāpuhi. She moved to Auckland from Whangārei when she was 16.
But we weren’t close with our extended family, and my parents were hardly the embodiment of their cultural backgrounds. Dad didn’t speak Niuean, although he’s one of the proudest Niueans you’ll ever meet. And Mum didn’t speak te reo, either — like so many Māori of her generation.
On top of that, we lived in a predominantly Pākehā neighbourhood and I went to a primary school where it felt like I was the only Māori kid in my class. Outside of my family, I had few interactions with other Pacific Islanders — I wasn’t around people who embraced their Pacific heritage. I hung out with Pākehā or around Pacific Islanders who, like me, had pālangi-fied themselves to blend in.
So, most of what I thought I knew about being Māori or Niuean, I learned from watching TV. Thanks to Police Ten 7, I grew up thinking that to be a Pacific Islander was to be a criminal. I didn’t want anything to do with Māoridom, either. For every Victor Kahu (the CEO of Shortland Street for a short time), there was a Jake the Muss and the constant news stories that showed Māori in a negative light. Sure, there was Paikea from Whale Rider, but I saw her as the exception, not the norm.
I absorbed these negative stereotypes and was embarrassed to be associated with anything Māori or Niuean. I avoided anything that could mark me as a Pacific Islander. I would lie about my ethnic background (I’d say I was Egyptian). I straightened my hair every single day of my teenage years, dyed it blonde twice (very badly), and mimicked the TV1 Pākehā news presenters.
I avoided the sun so I wouldn’t get any browner and listened to emo music, because, as far as I knew, that’s what Pākehā listened to. I’d even say my own name incorrectly to make it easier to pronounce and to sound less Pacific. And for years I believed that the nicest compliment I’d ever received was: “Wow, you’re Māori? You’re Poly? But you’re so well spoken!”
Clearly, I’d missed the thinly veiled racism in that compliment.
But all that changed after I met my husband.
Justin is a proud Hawaiian, although he was born in Florida and grew up there. Six years ago, he moved to Hawai’i and did a BA in Hawaiian studies. He’s now fluent in the language and speaks it beautifully. He embraces every facet of his culture, and wears his Hawaiian pride on his sleeve — quite literally, too, as he dresses himself in “aloha wear” whenever an opportunity presents itself.
His pride in his culture is infectious, and it’s one of the many reasons that I love him. A year ago, I moved here to Hawai‘i because I knew how much these islands mean to him. But it was an easy decision for me because I felt no strong ties to Aotearoa at the time.
Justin’s passion was so contagious that I wanted to immerse myself in his culture. I even decided to learn ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i and enrolled in a Hawaiian language class. (Mind you, I also wanted to ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i so we could talk about people in public without being caught or called out.)
But, as my fluency in the Hawaiian language grew, so did a guilt in me for not having the same desire to learn te reo Māori or vagahau Niue. I started to feel embarrassed about how little I knew about Aotearoa and Niue — and the more I learned about Hawai’i’s history and its language, the more guilty and ashamed I felt. I had immersed myself in another Pacific Island culture while my tongue still struggled to wrap itself around the language of my ancestors.
It was these feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment that finally motivated me to seek out information about my own cultural heritage. After all, how could I confidently introduce myself in Hawaiian when I wouldn’t know where to start in Niuean? How could I continue with my ‘ōlelo Hawai’i lessons without a plan in place to learn te reo Māori?
In this way, moving away from Aotearoa has helped me embrace my Māori and Niuean identity. I don’t come across negative stereotypes of Māori or Niuean culture in Hawai‘i.
It’s also become easier to embrace my cultural identity since we now live in a world where Aquaman is Polynesian, Disney’s Moana was a global success, Taika Waititi is internationally adored and admired as a movie director, and comedian Rose Matafeo’s star shines brightly.
My only regret is that I didn’t come to this appreciation while I was living in Aotearoa, where it would’ve been a lot easier to find material on Māoridom and Niue. Despite this, I’ve learned more about Niue in the last month of living in Hawai’i than I did in my 26 years of living in Aotearoa. And, for the first time I’m in my life, I’m actually taking an interest in te ao Māori.
Here in Hawai‘i, I’ve stopped straightening my thick island curls. I wear my pounamu proudly and freely tell anyone who asks (or doesn’t) about how Niue is the Rock of the Pacific. And while I wouldn’t call myself a proud Pacific Islander just yet, I’m at least happy to admit my cultural identity openly.
It’s funny to think that it took moving across the moana and immersing myself in another Pacific culture to gain an appreciation of my own.
Terina Kaire (Ngāpuhi/Niuean) is a student who is completing her BA through Massey University. She was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and now lives in Hilo, Hawai’i, with her husband. She spends her time reading and exploring her new home.
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