Scrawled in white paint on the exterior of my neighbours’ peach-coloured weatherboard abode were three letters: “PHB.” The locals knew exactly what that stood for—the street’s resident “Home Boys.” It was the nineties. MC Hammer, New Kids on the Block and Janet Jackson were blaring from the boombox, and I was a pretty new kid on that block myself, at all of two-years-old. Still, back then it was simply my “hood;” I was the unofficial mascot of the PHB, and I needed no further validation. My parents had moved into that South Auckland community to do youth work before I was born. This eventuated in a toddlerhood spent blissfully ethnically confused—my white blonde crop of hair bobbing amid a closeknit adopted whānau of entirely Pasifika and Māori descent. “New Zealander” didn’t really come into it. I thought I was Samoan until I was three.
This sense of cultural ambiguity was only cemented during my school years, where with help from my darkening hair and skin I became a chameleon with ease. My aptitude for camouflage probably peaked with leading the pōwhiri for my school’s kapa haka group in public at 12, with most none the wiser that I wasn’t remotely Māori. I was an odd specimen: an unusually olive “NZ European.”
“Where’s your mum from?” “England.” “Where’s your dad from?” “Australia.” “Well then why are you so brown?” “Nana’s Welsh. Dark Welsh. Like Catherine Zeta-Jones.”
Just two years later: high school. Same city, new suburb. White-kid-central. After a few years in this environment, all that remained of my former PHB immersion were residual penchants for hāngī and rap music. Assimilation complete. I heard a lot about “New Zealanders” and what “being a Kiwi” meant throughout those years, but reconciling my melting pot childhood with a teenaged era spent with mostly fair-skinned comrades seemed nigh on impossible.
There seemed to be two New Zealands. Two ways of looking at the world, within a 20-minute drive of each other.
I grew increasingly grateful for all those compulsory primary school Te Reo lessons; learning both “peanut butter” and “pata pīnati,” with some time spent incognito in flaxen attire on the side. I was richer for it. But I confused myself with feeling equally at home studying Latin and discovering my British roots. I found myself wondering how it all integrated, and whether it mattered that I could never fully identify with either side. Having moved around so much, by this point, different groups knew me in different ways.
I realised—after much deliberation—that I belonged on these fair isles because I was born here, and not because I adhered to any prescribed stereotypes. Rather, none of them stuck to me. I’d learnt to approach people from across the spectrum without presuppositions, wanting simply to know their story the way others had shared in mine. The more people I met, the more I saw how incapable those stereotypes were of revealing the depths of anyone. Ultimately, it is only in the context of our histories that any of us are fully understood.
The stories we are told of ourselves and our families powerfully mold our identity, and my parents continued to regale me with anecdotes from “the HB years” long after we left; of finding neighbourhood kids hiding in trees in our backyard as police circled the block in search of them, and of houses built so close together that my mother and the affable lady next door would literally throw spare eggs across to each other through the kitchen window if someone ran out when baking. Looking back on that time compared to my life now makes me realise that those people knew something about community that I haven’t experienced since, but am determined to replicate. I do not know my neighbours’ names, and any egg throwing around my current suburb would not be for baking purposes.
My family still fondly refers to the ‘90s crowd as “The Whānau.” We look at old photos and smile, and wonder where some of them scattered. I struggle to articulate the beauty of what we found within that community, and what it meant to be part of it. For this former chameleon, the realisation has dawned that some things are not cultural; they are just human. I will always be grateful to The Whānau. They taught us things that transcend culture; they opened their homes, and our home was theirs. No one ran out of eggs.
Observing now that I have spent exactly half my years in one culture and half in another, I can see how each phase has drastically informed my view of life. Nowadays, I’m as at home at a Feist concert as a Samoan wedding, and perhaps in that way, my upbringing represents the growing cohort of confused young folk who have grown up in such multi-cultural settings that no one ethnicity neatly defines them. We have learnt to look past assumptions about what “the other” is like, because we have already lived among each other for years, and we know how much better we are for it.
For those of us for whom this is our story, I believe it is our role to learn to weave these experiences together and help many more of us to push through the barriers of prejudice that so often trap us into isolation as individuals and as groups. Outside the labels, we found kin.