Being Kiwi: Staying Kiwi as we open to world

The New Zealand Herald marks its rebirth in a compact format with a week-long inquiry into our changing national identity. Today: The 40- to 59-year-olds who forged links with other nations.What do you think? Send us photos and 200-word suggestions on what you think defines New Zealanders to top5@nzherald.co.nz.

(From left to right) Bella Aislabie , Alyson Aislabie, Stephen Aislabie, Ron Burkes, Kurt Gurau and Joan Burkes. Photo / Steven McNicholl
(From left to right) Bella Aislabie , Alyson Aislabie, Stephen Aislabie, Ron Burkes, Kurt Gurau and Joan Burkes. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Alyson Aislabie felt she had cut herself off from the world when she came to New Zealand as a schoolgirl in 1977. Today she feels connected again.

Her parents, Joan and Ron Burkes, moved from England to the other side of the world "for our children".

"We wanted a better life for them," says Mrs Burkes, now 76. "And it's worked."

Mrs Aislabie, now 47 and a mother of three children herself on Auckland's North Shore, feels fortunate that her parents brought her here - but she didn't feel that at the time.

"When we first came to New Zealand in 1977, geographically we were really quite isolated and it was a terrible time for me," she says.

"I think it's become a better place because I think globally and geographically I don't feel the distance any more ... I don't feel so distant with Facebook and Skype."

And her son Kurt Gurau, a 24-year-old apprentice mechanic, will consider living anywhere.

"I'd like to travel everywhere and live everywhere," he says. "I want to be a global citizen but I will always consider New Zealand home."

The generation now in their 50s and 40s, like Mrs Aislabie, reached adulthood in the 20 years after Britain joined the European Community in 1973, forcing New Zealand to diversify fast both economically and socially.

They were the shock troops of the Rogernomics revolution in the 1980s and 90s, required to adapt as old jobs disappeared. Mrs Aislabie started as a beauty therapist and has worked as a cosmetic consultant, dispensary technician and health pricing official. She is now a teacher at Belmont Primary School.

Recently married for a second time, she has also taken in a succession of mainly Asian homestay students who have opened up new links to the outside world.

"It's changed the way we eat. I try to cook something that our homestay students like," she says.

"Ethnic diversity just teaches us more understanding and gives us a growing awareness of how the rest of the world lives."

Through all the upheavals of the past century, the core of human nature has been constant. We are social beings. We crave connections with each other.

In New Zealand, where men substantially outnumbered women from the start of European settlement right up to World War I, our need for connectedness was expressed in Pakeha culture as "mateship".

"Forced to rough it in the backblocks and faced by physical tasks of considerable magnitude, the colonist, therefore, naturally turned for comfort and aid to the other men around him," wrote Jock Phillips in his 1987 history of the Pakeha male, A Man's Country?

"To be a mate," he wrote, "was to be invested with a certain expectation of loyalty and protection. Looking after an injured or sick friend is one of the archetypal experiences to be found in colonial memoirs and novels."

For Mike Douglas, 47, a former jockey who works at the Cambridge racecourse, that tradition is still strong. This year he took his 8-year-old son Taylor duck-shooting with his mates.

"The greatest thing about duck-shooting is you have a certain date, you know it's the first weekend in May, and the boys catch up with each other," he says.

"We took the 8-year-old this year, he's being educated by my friends - he's seeing a work ethic, he's seeing how we poke fun at each other, in a good way hopefully. He's seeing the camaraderie.

"It's getting up early, cooking breakfast, going across the farm in vehicles, chasing things. They learn their safety and being with other people in a different atmosphere. Those sorts of things are very special with the kids."

Even in urban New Zealand, mateship is at the root of a lingering egalitarian ethos which Rogernomics has not extinguished.

"Can-do attitude, no social barriers, anyone can do anything," is what being a New Zealander means for North Shore computer support worker Lesley Coshan, 55.

"People were quite surprised at me as a New Zealander in England, where I was quite happy to talk to the company vice-president and sit down and have lunch with him while the other secretaries were running around and hiding," she recalls.

For her, and for others of her generation, it has been natural to extend this sense of equality to all human beings regardless of their origins.

"We've broadened and absorbed a lot of international stuff and that's added to the country," she says.

"Living in England would be rather nice if you had a lot of money, but the people there make me sad - they weren't interested in the world."

Rotorua teacher Rachel Weinberg, 41, spent 2000-01 teaching in a poor part of Atlanta, Georgia, and found that most people there too "have never been out of their own city, let alone their state or country".

"We don't think New Zealand is the be-all-and-end-all, we get out and see what else there is," she says.

Determined to overcome our geographical isolation that so upset Alyson Aislabie 35 years ago, New Zealanders have leapt on to cheap air travel and communications with extraordinary enthusiasm.

Asked for the most important thing they have done in their lives so far, almost everyone in their 40s and 50s says it was raising their children. But as soon as the children have grown up, their top priority is to see the world.

"I'd like to stay alive and healthy enough to be able to go on a camping trip in our campervan around New Zealand," says another Rotorua teacher Lyn Martin, 57. In Christchurch Murray Dalley, 59, celebrates the world that is available at his fingertips.

"It means I can sit and watch rugby, cricket and golf from around the world all weekend!" he says.

"The diversity of food available is magic. A lot of us have travelled extensively, and why? To see how the rest of the world lives."

Cambridge High School art teacher Zane Holton, 49, who takes a long-term view grounded in art history, believes all the changes in the past century are only on the surface. "Some of the clothes have changed," he says.

"We have always had diversity. When my mother was growing up in Avondale in the 20s and 30s there was a big difference between her and the Irish, and we just homogenise that.

"We are becoming more multicultural, I think that defines us. Right from when Europeans first came here and the Maori dealt with that, that's been a commitment for us. We all came here on a boat, so in that sense we are probably more the same than perhaps we think."

The question
Who are we: what does it mean to be a New Zealander in today's interconnected world?

The context
The "typical" New Zealander who will read the new compact Herald is much harder to pin down now that we are more likely than ever either to have come here from overseas or to have been born here and gone.

The methods
A DigiPoll of 750 New Zealanders plus in-depth interviews with 91 people in New Zealand and 16 NZ-born people in Australia, including similar numbers in five 20-year age bands. The NZ interviews were arranged with the help of primary schools spanning the decile range in north and West Auckland, Cambridge, Rotorua and Christchurch. In addition historians at the online encyclopedia Te Ara selected 30 key events that helped shape our identity over the past 100 years.

The team
Greg Ansley, Kurt Bayer, Simon Collins, Yvonne Tahana, Lincoln Tan, Vaimoana Tapaleao.

The series
Monday: Pioneer stock - aged 80-plus
Tuesday: War babies - aged 60-79
Today: Opening up - aged 40-59
Tomorrow: Children of Rogernomics - aged 20-39
Friday: Sport unites the nation - aged under 20

Snapshot: New Zealanders aged 40 to 59

* European 77.2%
* Maori 7.5%
* Asian 6.9%
* Pacific 3.9%
* European-Maori 2.7%
* Other/mixtures 1.9%

Where we are:
* New Zealand 81.9%
* Australia 14.1%
* Rest of world 4%

Source: Statistics NZ

What shaped us: Key events 1952-72

1953
Edmund Hillary climbs Everest. On the eve of the coronation Hillary gave a perfect gift to the young Queen and confirmed that we were the "best of the British" and a modest, physically strong outdoor people.
1960
Television begins. New Zealand began to see itself on the screen and to have instant images from the rest of the world.
1961
Doctors begin prescribing the contraceptive pill. The pill gave greater sexual freedom to Kiwis and allowed women more control over their lives.
1965
New Zealand enters the Vietnam War. Opposition to the war developed a belief in the importance of an independent New Zealand whose identity was not in providing territorials for the British or American empires.
1966
Census announces more urban Maori than rural. In 1936, 90 per cent of Maori lived in the country, very separate from Pakeha. Now Maori had followed most other New Zealanders into the city and had to live and work together. New Zealanders were an urban people.
1969
Save Manapouri campaign. The largest petition in New Zealand history revealed a national desire to save the country's environment. "Clean and green" was born.

Source: 30 key events 1912-2012 selected by Dr Jock Phillips and his team at the online encyclopedia Te Ara. More online here.

- NZ Herald

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