My parents were refugees to New Zealand 60-odd years ago. New Zealand was a very different place back then – back when pubs closed at 6pm, everyone still called England “home” and the standard fare was mutton and boiled veg. My mum tells me that it was decades before avocados were even available in this country let alone the pickles and paprika of her native Hungary.
I was thinking of these changes the other day while I was feeling hungry. Not only do I get thoughtful when I’m hungry, but I also take a walk on the street by the Albion factory and visit a couple of excellent food places there. Next to each other, in something of an epicurean mixed metaphor, is not only the Bombay Bazaar Indian supermarket but also the Meditteranean Food Warehouse, home of all manner of obscure Italian imported foodstuffs.
And the presence of those varied food establishments is, of course, a symbol not only of New Zealanders’ increasing cosmopolitan awareness of the big world out there but also of the hugely changing face of our society. As I make my way for a daily libation at C4 Coffee, I’m as likely to see an Indian, a Somali or someone originally from South East Asia as I am someone with English or Scottish ancestry.
And this change is hugely refreshing. The New Zealand of my youth was uniformly grey. I grew up in Wellington and all I remember is grey people walking down a grey Lambton Quay under a cold grey sky. Fast forward to today and you have cafes. restaurants and vibrancy. it truly is a world-class international city.
All of these changes have made New Zealand, in my biased view, a better place. We’re more comfortable in our own skin and more aware of our place in the world. Obviously, we chafe a little bit when Peter Jackson builds a Michael Jackson-esque playland in the Wairarapa, or when American billionaires buy up vast tracts of coastal land to plant another golf course but, generally speaking, we’re in a better place.
For all of these reasons, it has been worrying to see examples of closed-mindedness towards immigrants that have stemmed from the Coronavirus pandemic. There have been the blatantly racist remarks towards those of Chinese extraction but I’ve sensed an increase in sideways glances at anyone with an accent that identifies as “an other.”
It’s like us Kiwis have, as a nation, been watching Fox News too much and have given credence to Trump’s “the Chinese virus” comments. It’s like we’ve witnessed the exceptionalism that has resulted in Trump on one side of the Atlantic and BoJo’s Brexit on the other and we’ve communally said: “Oh, we’ll have a bit of that over here, thanks.” It’s like the right-wing commentators, so loved by talkback radio listeners, with their inflammatory words designed purely to fire up those to the right of centre, have worked their way into our collective subconscious.
It’s actually pretty tragic, we’re a country that has such a rich history of doing the right thing. We were, famously, the first country in the world to give women the vote. We have a Prime Minister who preaches kindness and compassion, and we’re feted globally for being a prominent foil to the virulence and vehemence of hate that seems to exist. While the aforementioned commentators would sigh and call all of that a load of Woke claptrap, it’s actually something simpler – New Zealand showing a humanistic face to the world.
The fact that we, as an (almost) untied team of five million put in the hard yards to get us in such a good relative position should be seen not as a chance to stand aloof, but rather to further step up to our global position of leadership. It’s a time when we should respond to other countries’ tendency to do exactly the wrong thing not with berating and posturing, but rather with quiet encouragement and mentorship.
We’ve long been happy to take global applause at our leadership on the rugby field, but we’re less united in our understanding of how powerful a global social-license really is. The number of informed and globally-aware people who are calling out New Zealand as an exemplar for how humanity can look should give us pause of thought when we next get anxious about immigrants.
Let’s honour our past, but do so by embracing what, and who, New Zealand is today. There’s an excellent Indian supermarket down my way, situated right next door to an Italian grocer, that would really appreciate it.