Really, there’s no way to describe the way in which New Zealanders self-identify except to say that you can’t quantify it. Naturally, the response to any claim by a New Zealander to being anything other than an ‘Anglo’ is guaranteed to meet opposition from persons who judge our culture to be nothing more than an extension of our British heritage.
And that's an interesting little conundrum, because self-definition is an important part of nationality. We have to be able to think we are something, and have it recognised as ‘true’. But having this identity denied acts to undermine us, and is bound to cause some kinds of insecurity.
But there is a way around this problem. Sure, we all know we’re New Zealanders, and we actively locate ourselves within the boundaries of this identity, but what really makes us, us? In other words, what are the boundaries that define who is, and who is not, and New Zealander?
Over the course of the past few years, when not delving into hard theory about nationalism, multiculturalism, liberalism and a plethora of other ‘isms’, I’ve enjoyed indulging in artistic expressions of what it is to simply be a member of a nation.
The difference between the academic and the artistic world is that while the academics work oh so hard to really get down to the kernel of what makes us what we think we are, artists just seem to enjoy expressing their identity in ever-changing, evolving and indirect ways.
As I’ve come to understand it, being a member of a nation is all about the recognition of a part of your own personality, likes, dislikes, and habits in not only the people around you, but the people who have been before. What this means is that yes, we are characteristically British, but that this part of our nationality is something like a foundation layer upon which our current identity is growing.
That is of course a truism, and just me acknowledging the past, but I used the term foundation for a reason. Try to imagine nationality as a house. The foundation of the house is the older identities we each brought with us during the Colonial period, the pre-Colonial period, the pre- and post-World War Two periods. You know they’re there, and you walk upon them every day, but they do little but hold up the really important stuff, the everyday stuff that determine our lives.
All the stuff in the house that you use, talk about, see, ignore, hide away and surround yourself with is your ‘real’ nationality. The real world things like money, the national flag, the familiar faces on TV, the kinds of cars people drive, the way people speak, the streets you ignore the details of. All these things contribute to making up the small facets of our nationality.
Where an academic will try to tie down the entire content of that house, and explain the how and why, the artist will write about the things they see there, or paint a view of how the house feels, or sing about just being in there and the people they’re nearest to.
What this means is that when you claim to be a member of a nation, what you’re really doing is tying yourself to the kinds of things the artist would see around them, and staking a claim in the ongoing evolution of those things.
And what all that reading of fancy books and ivory tower argumentation really taught me is that the true definition of identity, and the best way to assume you place within a national society, is to simply act like a member.
Naturally, the exceptions to this statement as are broad and sweeping as the identity itself, but the thing that is most important to my mind are the kinds of tethers we each form to the objects and space within our ‘national house’, and the way we use them to underwrite our daily interaction with others.
But of course, these tethers are never permanent, and all too often fall away as new things become important. Old stereotypes are challenged and defeated by new generations, traditional norms are gradually relegated to obsolescence, long-forgotten objects are brought again into the public imagination, and new expressions make their way from the minority into the general tongue.
And when it all comes down to it, you know you’re a national when at least some of these activities, and some of the tethers, make a kind of sense to you that they may not to, say, an Australian.