Professor Alison Jones

Alison Jones is a professor at Te Puna Wānanga, the School of Māori and Indigenous Education at the University of Auckland. She explores what it means to be Pākehā in her new book, This Pākehā Life: An Unsettled Memoir. In this extract, she writes about taking a reo-Māori immersion course at a South Auckland wānanga.


I had been making sporadic attempts to learn Māori for years, going to night classes, learning basics, forgetting, and starting again. I never seemed to get beyond the beginners’ level. 

Now that I had completed my PhD and was working as a lecturer at the University of Auckland, I felt embarrassed at work when colleagues spoke to me in te reo and I replied in English. 

Understanding the language was one thing; speaking it was quite another. If someone in the staff kitchen asked casually, “He pai ō rā whakatā?” (Did you have a good weekend?) I would baulk at wasting their time as I stuttered through a reply, “Ae, he tino pai ōku rā whakatā!” (Yes, my weekend was very good!) 

I could fluently recite a ritual greeting: “Tēnā koutou katoa. Ka nui te mihi ki a koutou kua tae mai nei i tēnei ata.” (Hello to you who have come here this morning.) But I could not cope confidently with a simple conversation.

I decided to enrol in an immersion course at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, in South Auckland. My friends were impressed, commending me for my “bravery”. I have often noticed an unpleasant competitiveness among Pākehā about competence in the Māori world, and my going to the wānanga was regarded with some envy. Many saw me as heading into a sphere they wanted access to, but felt too daunted or anxious or busy to enter.

Some added that they were troubled by what they saw as the sexism of formal Māori protocols that required that men sit in the front row on the marae and forbade women to make formal speeches on the paepae. I can’t say that rule bothered me, not least because it removed any pressure on me to speak.

In any case, the women were always quick to share their views under their breath about the male speakers, which created an enjoyable solidarity in the back row. I knew the women were powerful behind the scenes. I also accepted that Māori protocols were based in valued Māori cultural tradition, even if that tradition had sometimes been affected by European patriarchal ideals. If change was sought, it was up to Māori women, and not an outsider.

To make room for the four-day-a-week classes, I reduced my work hours at the university. But I felt more nervous than excited. I secretly knew that what I was doing was both too little and too late. I was too old to master a new language. And I expected to be near the bottom of this class. 

I bought a CD of waiata to play in the car. For a year, four mornings a week, I battled through the morning traffic from my inner-city home to Māngere, through the poor and unfamiliar suburbs of Manukau, down suburban streets with their few trees and dried-up lawns. Past Pak’nSave, KFC and Burger King, to the modern buildings of the wānanga.

On the first day, there was a huge pōwhiri in the car park for all the students — returning and new — and their families. Standing at the back of the crowd of hundreds, I could not hear the speakers or see the front. There were few Pākehā, and I saw no one I knew.

We later met our teachers and the library and support staff: “May God bless you all as we journey together in this education world,” said one, enthusiastically. Amen to that, I thought.

I found the room number on a noticeboard, then wandered around, struggling with my tendency towards anxiety-induced myopia. By the time I finally found where I was meant to be, others were already inside, talking in English and laughing.

Gravitating towards the familiar, I sat down next to an older woman. She introduced herself as Mere (“My name was Violet but I’m not a Violet”) and I liked her immediately. She was in her late seventies, and a whaea in her community up north.

She said she felt anxious, too, and that she was desperate to learn Māori. “All the old people are dead now. It is up to us and we know nothing. The younger ones know more than us!”  

Her story was familiar: her schoolteachers had refused to allow her to speak Māori and her parents, both fluent speakers, actively discouraged her because they believed it would impede her success in a world dominated by English. “They thought that was the best for us, and now we can’t do what they did on the marae,” she said with poignant resignation.

There were 19 of us in the class, 17 Māori and two Pākehā, ranging in age from 18 to 74. Most came from South Auckland. One man let us know he was “in the business world”, and that “Māori, including all my relations, have to front up, stop taking welfare, and get off their arses”. No one appeared bothered by this viewpoint, though I bristled quietly.

Emma said she had changed her surname to Clark because Pākehā couldn’t pronounce Karaka. An older woman had three mokopuna to care for, including two with foetal alcohol syndrome. One, who looked after her terminally ill father, had a serious heart condition herself. Someone’s small rented two-bedroom house contained three large families. The other Pākehā was a schoolteacher looking for a new flatmate; the last one stole her stuff.

No one was self-pitying. Except me. My own situation — one couple in a three-bedroom house — seemed almost wickedly selfish. But I was simply being the tragedy queen of my own universe — self-absorbed, inward-looking. This tendency to feel guilty about my privilege had little value, I soon discovered. I learned to identify, then laugh at and dismiss, my own self-focused anxieties, while never forgetting my own social power and the benefits I gained from it daily.

Some of my classmates were curious about why a Pākehā would want to learn Māori. Although I declared to Mere, and to Rāwiri and Rachael, that every New Zealander should have a command of at least everyday te reo, they were not convinced.

Rāwiri made the not-unreasonable point that the language “is so impractical for a Pākehā — when would you use it?”. Rachael said with a smile that she suspected I was “a closet Māori”, though I wasn’t sure what that might be. Mere sought my assistance as she grappled with unfamiliar classroom tasks; once she whispered in English, the forbidden language: “I want to learn Māori from just sitting here.” 

I had tried the osmosis approach myself. At home, I listened to Māori Television hoping vainly that the language would magically take up residence in my brain.

I was alarmed by the teacher’s basic rules, the rules of the Ataarangi Method of teaching Māori: kaua e kōrero Pākehā (don’t speak English), and whakarongo, titiro, kōrero, that is, learn through listening, observing and speaking. We were not to use books or take notes or look for words in our dictionaries.

Having spent my whole educational life completely dependent on the written word, I was desperate to take notes, to find and record unfamiliar words, so I propped up a dictionary and a notepad out of sight under my desk. I sat far away from the teacher. I avoided her gaze, and remained silent. I behaved like a scared kid in school.

Alison at Apanui Primary School in Whakatāne, 1965. ‘A curious and diligent child, I was in my element in the classroom.’ (Photo: Alison Jones collection)

Time in these classes took on a different dimension. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion and the students were often in charge, though no one else seemed to mind. I had to just relax and let it all unfold. The teacher did not intervene; she sat impassively, arms folded. I could not tell if she was annoyed, amused or just plain tired. 

I noticed that men like Toka seemed fluent Māori speakers in a formal context like a pōwhiri or a karakia, but when it came to learning the language rules bit by bit, or saying “the sheep were chased by the dog” and “who has my pencil?”, they found it impossible. And when a younger woman prompted him in a language game, Toka got openly hostile. I felt for him, but was fearful of his anger too.

I could tell from their private jokes that some of the younger women found their elders’ behaviour exasperating and funny, but in class they were straight-faced and respectful. And I had to stop myself from crossly growling at seventy-four-year-old Ronnie when, having grasped the wrong end of the stick in our small group sessions, he insisted on telling us what to do.

As the weeks went by, I painstakingly and painfully learned verbs, tenses, grammar rules and vocabulary — and promptly forgot them. My mistakes and ignorance and poor memory made me burn with humiliation. When I tried to scribble down notes, the eagle-eyed teacher reminded me, “Whakatakoto te rākau!” (Put down your pencil!). When she singled me out with a question or comment in te reo, my words felt like marbles in my mouth.

At night, I had nightmares about being lost and confused. In one dream, my neighbour’s house had been purchased by a senior person from the wānanga, who had built mansion-like extensions that kept coming further towards my small house until they extended right inside it and I did not know where my house began and ended. Returning home, I would be perplexed about how to get into the house. I always did have rather obvious dreams.

Despite my private anxieties, I kept going to class. Mere relied on me and I was being inexorably drawn into the group. If I missed a day, my classmates would interrogate me on my return. They were not so much being nosy as assuming that my business was their business, that each of us was responsible for the others, as well as being responsible to the others. 

Even so, people would be absent from our small group activities when we all relied on each other. Those absent without a good excuse would become the focus of merciless jokes. It was a complicated dance in which we all participated; there was no way to stand on the sidelines because everyone was relentlessly included. 

An individual arriving late to class had to sing as a punishment. Everyone would join in with gusto, so there was no discomfort for the latecomer. The slowest people in the class were uniformly encouraged, even if they never managed to get anything correct.

This atmosphere of relaxed positivity benefited everyone and I was struck by the paradox that Māori collectivism foregrounds the individual in that each individual is actively included. Pākehā individualism, on the other hand, effaces the individual, who must keep up or be left behind.

Even though I felt part of the group, I was, inevitably, on the outside of the others’ social world. The conversations in illicit English among the women before and after class were about things beyond my sphere: local kōhanga reo politics, tangihanga of people I did not know, hapū and community gossip, basketball, touch rugby, kapa haka, drinking parties, hospital emergencies, television programmes, new tattoos, people in prison.

For Rachael, I was a conduit to new knowledge. She asked me to teach her about “new Pākehā words”, like “implicit” and “synonym”. She had never heard of the extinct huia bird, and asked me why people talked about the Treaty of Waitangi and what I thought of the prime minister. She laughed at my need to write everything down in class, and was mystified by my reliance on a dictionary. She had a great memory, and learned a lot faster than I did.

I was learning about being “in the everyday” amongst Māori. I greeted acquaintances each morning with a casual kiss, or a hongi. It was quite common for someone to come in late and still take the time to warmly greet every classmate.

All decisions were made with others. No one ever announced they were going out that weekend by themselves; no one ever seemed to do anything for or by themselves. 

When Manuka turned up to class with lollies in $2 packets to raise money for his mokopuna’s kōhanga reo, I donated $10, with no intention of actually taking the lollies. When he offered me the five packets I said “Ngā mihi. He koha. Kāore au e hiahia. I don’t want them. You resell them.” Rachael and Ana-Lisa, sitting next to me, did not hesitate: “We’ll have them,” and passed the sweets around the room. 

Considering only yourself was not thinkable in this group. I knew that if my elderly mother were to die, for instance, the group would take a day to come to her funeral, even though they had never met her.

Strong emotion was never far beneath the surface in the class. We rarely got through a day without some intense feeling: a spontaneous song (sad or happy), loud laughter, silent tears, quickly rising hostility, sullen glances, silences, pūkana, smart comments, jokes, gossip, arguments. Nothing was straightforward.

And yet, by the end of each day, we returned to an even keel and after the final karakia left (usually) with good feelings all round. The group felt like a family, with all its complexities. However irritating someone might be, we all stuck together.

Singing and laughter made the glue that connected us. Everyone loved to sing, at any time or place. Toka always had his guitar on hand. Most of all, I loved the constant enthusiasm for wordplay, and all the jokey made-up words that pepper Māori language in common use: hāwhe pai (half pie); miki api (mixed up), maka raoni (muck around); inawhi rumi (enough room); palani pī (Plan B); katie pie (kei te pai). My favourite was tītautanga (tea towel tanga — rules of the kitchen).

The Māori language has absorbed countless words from English just by simple and sometimes playful mimicking, like kau for cow, miraka for milk, pae kare (by golly) and harirū, a transliteration of “how do you do?” for a handshake. 

Despite some scholarly disapproval, people just go ahead with transliterations and the everyday language changes. Tūreiti (a transliteration of ‘too late’) is a common and funny way of describing a latecomer, allowing tardy students to laughingly introduce themselves as Ngāti Tūreiti (from the tribe Tūreiti). 

But not all new words are transliterations. Creative new vocabularies have emerged — a process that started from the first contact with the European world — to name modern technologies: computers are rorohiko, literally brain (roro) lightning flash (hiko); digital is matihiko, with mati meaning finger; waea pūkoro is cellphone, from a transliteration of “wire” and pūkoro, pocket.

With a sudden shock of realisation, I recalled the words we used commonly as children without knowing they were Māori: cock-a-bully (kōkopu, small freshwater fish); e-haw (e hoa, friend); pucka-roo (pākaru, broken); boo-eye (Pūhoi, referring to a distant place); biddy-bid (piripiri, a sticky seed); Jacknaw-hee (nohi, a Māori pronunciation of nosy); worry or warry (whare, a hut, small house).

Every day, a new aspect of the language came into view. The onomatopoeia was always fun: kihikihi, cicada; katakata, laugh; ketekete, click the tongue; kōmuhumuhu, murmur. Repetition of sounds often intensified them: kare is a ripple, karekare describes a choppy sea; kata is laugh, and katakata is to giggle and laugh a lot; kōrero is talk and kōrerorero, conversation.

I noticed that single words had many subtleties of meaning, only properly understood in context. The Pākehā tendency to find a single meaning for a word just does not work. For example, the lovely soft word pae can refer to horizon, perch, step, orator’s bench, shelf, circumference, or mountain range.

Aroha is commonly taken to mean “love”. Yet the word refers to a variety of feelings towards others, including sympathy, apology, pity, compassion, empathy and respect — depending on who is speaking and why.

My language discoveries did not impress one Pākehā friend who insisted the language was limited if it could not “say what it meant” — that is, if word meanings were multiple and flexible rather than fixed and reliable. 

I could not agree; for me, the subtlety of meaning-in-context was intriguing. It forced me to understand that, for Māori, language binds speaker and listener (and the environment) together as they create shared meaning in the moment of their communication. 

And multiple meanings easily lend themselves to metaphor and to the skilful and humorous language-play so often present in Māori contexts.


This Pākehā Life: An Unsettled Memoir is published by Bridget Williams Books. Alison Jones’s first book with Kuni Kaa Jenkins, He Kōrero: Words Between Us — First Māori-Pākehā Conversations on Paper (Huia, 2011), won the Ngā Kupu Ora Māori Book Award, the PANZ Book Design Award, and the Best Book in Higher Education Publishing (Copyright Licensing New Zealand) in 2012. Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds, co-authored with Kuni Kaa Jenkins, won best illustrated nonfiction book at the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

© E-Tangata, 2020

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