Siena Yates is doing a full-time immersion reo course at Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme in Tauranga. Here’s her latest column, reporting on her progress.
Just before Anzac Day, we got a break of about 11 days. It was a welcome rest, but it was also the first time since starting this new reo journey that we’d been sent back out into te ao Pākehā on our own. It was our biggest challenge, especially because none of us realised it was coming.
I had a better time of it than others. I’ve spent the last couple of years carefully curating my circle of friends and even whānau to surround myself with people who I enjoy being around, who are good for my hauora and wairua, who love, support and celebrate me, and vice versa.
So when I went on a break, I was surrounded by people I could kōrero Māori with, and I was able to do so every day without fear or judgment.
When I got back to class, I realised my experience was very much the exception.
I te ata tuatahi, i wānanga mātou about our experiences over the break — at first, it was all very much at surface level. We swapped stories in te reo Māori and asked “i pehea tō hārarei” — how was your holiday? — about 100 times in one hour.
But then our kaiako encouraged a deeper wānanga. I pātai ia ki a mātou what it was like for us to be out of the TTP environment for the first time. Whether our reo became like an accessory that we took off for the week and put in a drawer, or whether we kept it as a part of us and our everyday lives.
From that came multiple kōrero about how many of us have felt judged outside of our uni environment whenever they speak te reo — and not even just by random strangers, but by people they know and who are supposed to support them.
People reported getting comments like:
“Oh, so you want to be Māori now?”
“You’re just showing off.”
“You think you’re better than us because you do TTP?”
Others reported what we all knew would happen, which is people asking for free mahi — translations, tracing whakapapa, help with their own reo. People demanding knowledge we don’t even have yet.
For many, it was a release to speak about their experiences, mamae and frustration, and a revelation to hear that they weren’t alone.
For me, it was a wake-up call about how lucky I am to have not only people who support me unconditionally but also people who can and do kōrero Māori.
And that was our kaiako’s advice: to set pātuwatawata, boundaries, and find people to support us. That doesn’t mean cutting someone out of your life, it simply means prioritising who you spend your time with, and what — and who — you give your energy to.
Thanks to the break, we quickly learned that unless you live in a Māori-speaking household, you really have to make a concerted effort to stay in te ao Māori.
Whether that’s organising reo Māori Zoom catch-ups, communicating by voice notes rather than texts, meeting up to kōrero over kai, or seeking out other experiences in te ao Māori like kapa haka or waka ama.
Even just around the house, my mum and I tried to match up our knowledge when we could, and test each other a little bit, and even went over some of my coursework together.
But even doing that, and being able to do that with people outside of my class, it was hard. Some days, it was easy and welcome, other days it felt like homework. Like a chore.
Most people don’t have to schedule in time to be their authentic selves, and just dealing with that reality alone is tiring.
But the upshot was that we got to come back to TTP with a new appreciation for what the full-time, full-immersion learning environment really gives us: a space where we don’t have to try so hard to be in te ao Māori, where we don’t have to curate our interactions or worry about what people will say.
It’s a space to breathe so we can focus on what matters: learning the reo.
We’re on to the second paper now, and it’s been hard. To be honest, it feels like the training wheels were taken away and suddenly we’re going way too fast toward a brick wall.
Some have talked about quitting. I’ve felt like crying more than a few times. Every day we face something that feels impossible, but then, every day, we get it done. Every day, our kaiako remind us how much we’ve actually learned and that we have more language and tools than we think we do — that we can, in fact, steer ourselves to safety.
We smashed out another kōrero-a-waha on the first week back despite it being a short week, and we did it without relying on cue cards for the first time.
And our confidence to kōrero Māori outside of the classroom is growing every day — at least one classmate even speaks Māori to random shopkeepers whether they understand or not.
It feels like taking that short step away from our environment really cemented how important it is for us to take advantage of our time here.
A year feels like a long time when you think of it in terms of learning and assessments, but when you only have a year before you’re pushed back out into te ao Pākehā to fend for yourself, it’s the blink of an eye.
So yes. It’s hard. And it’s just going to keep getting harder. But as the course evolves, so will we. We already have.
Our next break is three weeks long. It’ll be our biggest test yet. But at least now we know how to pass it.
Whāia te iti kahurangi, ki te tuohu koe, me he maunga teitei.
Seek the treasure that you value most dearly. If you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain.
Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri, and Ngāti Kuri) is a journalist who was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty, where she’s now doing Waikato University’s Te Tohu Paetahi programme. Siena has worked for Stuff, the New Zealand Herald and WOMAN magazine.
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