New Zealand as a Cultural Mecca

New Zealand probably isn’t one of the first ones that comes to mind when it comes to cultural meccas. But in the nearly two months that I have been here, I have learned more than I thought I would about New Zealand and Maori culture.

Maori culture plays a large role in defining New Zealand, significantly larger than that of Native American culture in the United States on a day-to-day basis. The signs here are in both English and Te Reo. There are more classes offered here about Maori culture than there are at USC about Native American culture, and I’m so glad that I am taking one.

This past weekend, I learned that it isn’t just about the Maori culture for Kiwis though. I attended one day of a two-day festival, Pasifika, that was held in Auckland. It was the 25th annual celebration of Pacific Island cultural and the largest in the world. The festival featured “villages” from 11 Polynesian cultures, some of which I had never heard of — Niue and Tuvalu, to name two. I instantly recognized Fijian, Hawaiian and Samoan villages.

I most enjoyed walking around the villages that I had heard of, but have not been to in person. These were the ones where I wanted to spend the most time, learning about a culture that shares many roots with the Maori culture.

We watched several cultural performances in the Samoan, Fijian, Tuvalu, Tongan, Hawaiian and Aotearoa (Maori) villages. There was, of course, delicious food from each culture. and I left more fully satiated than I have been on this entire trip. There were also colorful booths in each village where patrons could buy traditionally made goods. Everything varied in content, but it was all being carried out by people who care deeply about the preservation of their culture and wished to share it not only with their own people, but others who are interested as well.

The festival really got me thinking, though: What cultural identity do we pass down from generation to generation as Americans? Maori children often learn their native language and rituals, but there isn’t an equivalent for us. Perhaps we take for granted the fact that American culture isn’t going anywhere, so we don’t feel a pressing need to showcase our best act for the rest of the world.

There was something powerful in watching passion come from these nations, and it had nothing to do with fireworks or hot dogs. Everything about the festival was promoting empowerment through cultural identity. Certainly, as Americans, we have a cultural identity, but I wouldn’t be able to put on any kind of performance showcasing this.

I have been very lucky to be able to experience the culture of not just one country, but an entire region during my time in New Zealand, and it has brought to my attention many of the deficits that Americans lack in cultural areas. Of course, you don’t have to travel the world to appreciate other cultures, but being aware that other cultures exist and acknowledging the other cultures within our own country is a good way to start. I’ve been able to learn a lot about myself through studying these other cultures, and that in itself has been an extremely valuable experience. As much as studying abroad has taught me about the South Pacific and specifically New Zealand, I have learned just as much and gained as many new perspectives about myself, the United States and what it means to be an American.