The Te Kaa Journey: A Portal Home
Updated: Sep 29
When the Te Kaa course comes to a close, participants are invited to share their journey with the group while spending the last day together at Ōrākei Marae...
I recently found myself in a small group of white women, whom I’d never met before. And one of the women asked the group, “where are you guys from?” while looking very clearly at me. I answered simply, “oh, I’m from here”, and the other women in the group went around repeating the same answer. It felt kind of awkward, and afterwards I found myself pondering - what was so uncomfortable about that?
On reflection, I realised that the question “where are you from?”, while dependent on the social context, who’s asking it and who’s answering, in terms of a way of building connection with other people, OR as an entryway to have a deeper conversation with someone - the question simply is lacking. Sometimes, it’s just not quite the right question. It definitely wasn’t the first or the last time I’m going to be asked this question - but it was the first time, now having experienced Te Kaa, that I’ve questioned my response and the whole context of the question itself. Because what I love about what a pepeha can do, is that it carries with it, the potential to connect in a meaningful way.
The shortest, most straight-to-the-point, uninteresting and perhaps closed off way for me to answer, "where are you from?" is one word, "here". Here meaning Tāmaki Makaurau or Aotearoa.
But the real answer, the one I feel more deeply connected to, is the one that involves my ancestors.
My father is Melanau which is an indigenous ethnic group of Malaysia, they’re also known as the river people. While he grew up playing in the jungles over there, he is mixed and also part of the Chinese diaspora with his ancestors having travelled from Southern China to settle in Malaysia. He migrated here on his own, as a teenage student in the 70s. On my mother’s side, my Pākehā grandfather ended up in Japan after World War II with the army, where he met my grandmother from Hiroshima. She was a survivor of a nuclear bomb, and an unconventional Japanese woman who wanted to get away from oppressive, traditional Japan. She settled in Aotearoa in the 50s.
And so being on Te Kaa, being gifted a pepeha has helped me explore my own ethnic identity, my concept of home, my Asian-ness, and my New Zealand-ness.
This journey hasn’t happened in a vacuum. I don’t see how me being on this course in 2020 could be a coincidence, when on reflection, it just felt like this was meant to be.
To give you some context, this year:
My role at Play CoLab expanded and included me becoming a certified coach, which has helped me in formulating more impactful, curious and open questions.
Out of pure interest, I’ve been studying part time at Uni. Last year was East Asian Philosophy. This year my papers looked at the devastating impact of British colonial rule over India, as well as looking at the history of Chinese diaspora and immigration trends in New Zealand. My study has involved both the decentering of whiteness and the exploration of the impact of white supremacy.
Covid happened. Which for me, forced a real surrender to things outside of my control. As Arundhati Roy wrote earlier this year, the pandemic is a portal - and so I had the privilege of slowing down enough to really question - a portal to what? A portal for whom?
The Black Lives Matter movement meant marching, donating, questioning, signing petitions, and having really challenging conversations with my own whānau about our own complicity in upholding oppressive systems
So, it’s been quite a year. What perfect timing for a Te Kaa journey.
Beyond learning the practical tools and lessons surrounding pronunciation, history and te tiriti, Te Kaa for me has also been about:
Expanding on what it means for me to be a New Zealander as a descendent of non-white migrants
Seeing the links between colonisation, racism, white feminism, colourism, capitalism and climate-change. I used to not really engage in politics. Now when I’m asked if I must make everything about politics and/or race, my answer is simply - yes.
I am not usually in spaces where there are more Māori than not. I am not usually in spaces that are led by Māori. I’m not even usually surrounded by Asians. I have very close proximity to whiteness and could be considered a very palatable Asian - because I don’t have a foreign accent, I’m fair-skinned, and expertly know how to navigate white spaces. And so Te Kaa for me, has not just been about the course content - but experiencing what it’s like to be in a room where Pākehā aren’t the majority. Where whiteness isn’t centered.
Learning about Te Ao Māori has deepened my relationship with my father and opened up conversations about his own indigenous roots, his Chinese-ness and colonised upbringing. And somehow along the way, among my group of friends, it has become normalised to pronounce Māori words correctly. Or at least, we all give it a go.
This has been about acknowledging my privilege in being able to learn about this country’s real history, as someone who’s non-Māori and as someone who doesn’t identify as Pākehā. As someone who’s not the colonised or the coloniser, it’s in this context that I’m able to learn this history with a detachment from any intergenerational or direct trauma. And this is a huge privilege I had never considered until this year. There is not only privilege in sitting outside of this biculturalism, but I’m beginning to really sense that there’s opportunity as well.
Where to from here?
I’m asking myself, what can I do with my privilege? How can I utilise my intersectionality that sees me as a fair-skinned, Asian, able-bodied, English-speaking, cis-het woman?
On the first day of Te Kaa, when we were taking turns pronouncing words, I was given Tino Rangatiratanga to say to the room and feel the word in my mouth.
Some months later, I joined: Asians Supporting Tino Rangatiratanga, and recently attended a workshop facilitated and attended by Asians to discuss Te Tiriti and our own communities. It was encouraging to be in that room with like-minded, curious, caring people.
Along the same vein of wanting to deepen connections and have conversations that matter, I very recently started my own podcast, called Asian in Aotearoa. Am I comfortable with being visible? No. Do I have any idea of what I’m doing? Also no. But to quote Arundhati Roy yet again, “there’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”. And so, I am quite literally practising using my voice.
I’ll close on these two images from two different cultures, that symbolise a transition. A gateway. A portal. This is really what Te Kaa has been for me - and that’s an entrance point into my own journey of decolonisation, learning and unlearning. It has opened up opportunities, conversations and connections with people in a way that I simply couldn’t have predicted. My curiosity is dialled up and there’s so much more learning for me to do.
So thank you Precious and Kataraina for this gift and thanks to my cohort for walking alongside me.
Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tatou, katoa
Left: O-Torii gate at Itsukishima Shrine, Miyajima, Hiroshima Prefecture
Right: Waharoa at Ngāti Whātua ōrākei Marae, Tāmaki Makaurau
Learn more about the Te Kaa experience here.