Tuesday, 10 November 2009

"Where are you from?"

This is one of the first things Maori people say to each other when they meet. What follows is a rapid-fire exploration of regional, tribal and inter-tribal connections which usually nets some connection or other be it family, friends, schools or clubs. Surprisingly often such an exchange produces a grin followed by the exclamation "We're related!"

European New Zealanders don't do things the same way at all, and I haven't noticed Maori people doing it with Europeans, so I've found it fascinating to observe this cultural reflex which Maori people have with each other. I talked to Rewi about it and he confirmed it.

This way of exploring links is smart: it's mutual and inclusive and helps each establish their place in the wider community.

In white western culture emphasis is too often on occupation with its attendant status. This applies not only to social introductions and networking but also to the way we relate to professionals. I've come to appreciate the effort some professionals have made in taking time to say a little about themselves and their background and to ask about mine before launching into whatever business it is that we have with each other; it's not nosy or intrusive, it's polite. It doesn't happen very often though, more's the pity. I wish it were more usual.

Instead we make assumptions: that our dentist is qualified to inspect our mouth, that our lawyer is skilled because he or she is part of a law practice; that those in positions of authority have the necessary mandate to do whatever it is they do, when usually we have no idea who any of these people are. No wonder fraud is a growth industry! We give all manner of licence and information to people we don't know at all, because of their qualifications, because of their positions. Our acceptance is expected, and their power to act for us (or against us) is conferred by their status. We meekly fill in forms and answer questions when we often have no idea why we are being asked or what the information will be used for. I find this weird. It certainly isn't the only way to do things.

I remember a story I was told about a caregiver who took a disabled Maori woman to a local agency where she was to be interviewed to establish eligibility for some service or other. The interviewer launched into the usual list of questions only to be met with blank incomprehension. "I don't know who you are" the Maori woman complained. The interviewer responded with her name and job title and went back to her questions. However, this was not what was needed: the Maori woman, now totally frustrated and feeling belittled by the anonymity of the interviewer burst out "I don't know who the [expletive deleted] you are" and left the room. Quite! Why should she allow herself to be grilled by someone she didn't know, who didn't have the courtesy to introduce herself as a person?

To meet another person on a purely human level requires that we take time over introductions and impart something of ourselves. This makes such a difference to how we feel about each other. This is what the fox is talking about when he describes the importance of 'taming' (refer earlier entry) - it's about taking time to get to know each other, even if only a little, and of establishing a bit of mutual familiarity.

I have referred to this sort of thing in a number of times in other parts of the Chronicles. It's the time we take to get to know each other, even if only in small ways, that contributes to a sense of belonging, of community.

I've tried to learn from what I've observed of the way Maoris make themselves known to each other. I applied something similar to how I set about researching my family tree. I wanted information, much of it from people I'd never met, some of whom I hadn't previously known existed. There was no reason for these people to even bother to write back so I knew I would have to do things properly and be prepared for it all to take a sizable chunk of time. I got good at writing very careful letters: along with making my requests I explained how we were related and talked about family members we both knew. Part of the assurance I offered was that each contributor was totally in charge of the information they supplied in terms of how I would record it and what they permitted me to share with others. Relatives learnt they could trust me and we could then choose how much more we wanted to share with each other. I made some friends. It was a fascinating process and took over a year. Taking time to do things properly and allowing others to go at their own pace produced a very satisfying result which brought pleasure to many.

How much better do I now know where I am from! In fact I've been surprised at the number of times I've found connections, even if distant, with others who come from places familiar to me through family history. On a global scale we have many more links with each other than I would have thought possible. I like that.

In other instances I'm still working on improving how I handle introductions, to apply better what I've learnt. I don't often get it right, but I feel good when I do. It feels good to make greater demands of my acquaintance, to ask "Where are you from?" There, that wasn't so hard, was it? And did you mind me asking?

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