Sunday, June 15, 2008

The NZican [en-zed-i-kuhn]

When I complete a form that requires I indicate my ethnicity, I tick “Other”.

And every time I do so, I cringe a little. I hate being asked to choose.

I was born in Ohio, and moved to New Zealand just before I turned 8. I retained an American accent for about 3 years, at which point I decided it was irritating to constantly be asked to “say something” by my peers (I also wasn’t too fond of being called a “Yank”, or of our family Toyota Lite-ace being dubbed the “Yank Tank”), and so I CHOSE to sound kiwi. At home we continued to celebrate Thanksgiving, bake pumpkin pies, and drink root beer. To this day I still say “Tuesday”, “student”, “news”, and “data” in ways that belie my otherwise-kiwi accent. I can still repeat the pledge of allegiance from memory. I am a U.S. citizen and carry a passport with an eagle on the front. And finally, when people mock Americans I can empathise, but I feel defensive knots form in my stomach.

I had to contest the accuracy of my spelling results each time I apparently omitted the letter “U”, wrote an "Z" in place of an "S", or swapped an “R” and “E”. I had to learn “markers” were now “vivids”, “pudding” was any type of dessert, and “tea” in fact means dinner. I spent years wincing at “says” being pronounced with a hard “A” and found many people felt “you” could become a plural by adding an “S”. Each of these experiences attest to me I wasn’t a kiwi that had simply been born elsewhere, else why would I have to learn so much to understand the place? What need is there to assimilate if one already belongs?

Yet sometimes I get the impression from some people that I should “let it go already”. I have been in New Zealand more than twice the number of years I lived in the States. I sound like a kiwi. I have married here. I own a home here. I completed the majority of my schooling here. I know more about this country than I do the U.S.A. Further, I have no desire to return there to live, and feel an immense amount of pride for the land of the long white cloud. So let the U.S. go already? This might have been easy if my parents had been on a holiday when I happened to arrive in this world – maybe then it would simply be a “place of birth”. But I spent my first years there, and then lived in a home that for another decade served as an island of that place.

What’s that? I look white? So I should just tick “NZ European/Pakeha” and be done with it? Yes, some of my ancestors came from Europe, but based on that logic, all the earth could write “Edenites” next to “Other”, right? American Indians could tick “Israelite”, Polynesians might place a check next to “American Indian”, and how many colonised countries could technically select “Roman” Even better, Greeks could be “Phoenician”? (Don’t get me started on my issue with the fact that New Zealand-born citizens cannot tick “New Zealander”. They must choose to be European, Māori or otherwise. Are Greeks told they must be Phoenician and not Greek? Moreover, I won’t even begin to vent about my disgust over the fact we’re asked to tick a box at all! Here we are being asked to be “blind to difference” and not see our races, but regularly we’re called upon to categorise ourselves based on them.)

So on that little line next to “Other” I am never sure what to write.

If my own history hadn’t made the selection difficult enough, the confusion between various terms has surely made this choice problematic. “Culture”, “ethnicity”, and “nationality” are too often used synonymously, with their definitions being rewritten so often (to avoid offence to the idol gods of political correctness), that their meanings have slowly blurred over time.

Until a neologism simultaneously offers a term that communicates my:

  • sense of belonging to New Zealand
  • background in the United States
  • association and upbringing in an ex-patriot family and
  • lack of affiliation with Europe...

...I will be content to tick “Other”, and write “American”.

How I long for the day that all of this will mean nothing, and our divine lineage will be all that matters.

Notes Below:

Ethnicity – “ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association”

Culture – “the behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group”

Nationality – “the status of belonging to a particular nation, whether by birth or naturalisation”


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