Dame Joan Metge sits in her lounge, grey hair pulled gently back, blue slippers on her feet, coffee and cake on the table, warmth and wisdom in her smile.

This grand old lady of anthropology could be anyone's granny.

Except, strictly speaking, Metge is not a granny. Although, on the other hand, she is.

Whether she is, or isn't, depends whose world you live in, and Metge lives in more than one world.

The 80-year-old Pakeha is one of our female trailblazers, setting out in the late 1940s to learn about Maori by listening to Maori - a fairly novel approach for the times.

She has been trying ever since to pass her learning back to Pakeha.

Metge's main message over the years has been for people to reach out across the cultural divide, to listen and to learn, and she urges this again in her latest book Tuamaka: The Challenge of Difference in Aotearoa New Zealand, which is really a collection of essays on how, if we take a little time and care to understand each other, we can all get along.

Metge brings a lot to the table. Not only was she given a damehood by the Pakeha system for her work as an anthropologist, she also has the honour of being a Pakeha formally adopted into a Maori tribe, Te Rarawa. She has spent a lot of time with the Far North iwi.

She has also, over the years, been a whangai foster parent to four teenage boys, three Maori and one Pakeha.

She took the boys in at different times when they needed some help and though she never married - careers and marriage didn't mix for women in the world she grew up in - she smiles her delight at being not only a grandparent now, but a great-grandma too.

To understand Metge's road to anthropology and her desire to this day to push the boundaries of cross-cultural understanding you have to go back in time to the world she grew up in. When she was a little girl, racism was everywhere.

It was so endemic people didn't give it any thought, she says.

She began to realise at the age of about 10 that things were not right.

In the 1940s her family moved to Pukekohe, a market garden town on the outskirts of Auckland and an area which was vital to the war effort.

She was in for a few shocks.

The first came the first night when it soon became apparent the family's new home had been a sly grog shop.

In those days there were about 40-odd pieces of legislation which restricted Maori and gave them fewer rights than Pakeha, all allegedly "for their own good".

An alcohol ban was one of these and Metge says of course there were Pakeha who took advantage and sold them booze illegally for very high prices.

The attitude was so patronising - Maori were treated as legal minors in so many ways, Metge recalls.

Another shock was realising that while most of the migrant workers in town were Maori, two thirds of the shops wouldn't serve them.

She remembers the Anglican Minister being refused service in the barber's shop and says Maori were not allowed upstairs in the cinema.

People used to say there was no colour bar, Metge says - that it was a "dirt bar" which excluded Maori from the shops and pubs.

There was most definitely a colour bar, she says, but there was also a dirt bar because most of the Maori workers lived in appalling conditions on the market gardens.

She would see those conditions every day when she walked to school.

"There wasn't any housing, they were living in tents. I can remember the framework of a house which was covered in tarpaulin and I can still see a water tank laid on its side with a pram and a baby in it as shelter."

Still, there wasn't much you could do, aged 10.

At school, Metge became firm friends with a Maori girl, Eileen. They would play together but she was also aware that Eileen belonged to a completely different world.

In those formative years Metge was an avid reader of books, from Elsdon Best (an early settler who lived among Tuhoe) to stories in the Children's Encyclopaedia about far-off civilisations.

At that time she yearned to be an archaeologist and go off exploring.

But she was also a big reader of the Bible, which she credits with helping to lead her to study in her own backyard and become an anthropologist.

The Bible gave her the "very strong impression" everyone was equal in the sight of God and that the sorts of divisions, prejudices and stereotyping she was seeing in Pukekohe did not wash.

Her drive to understand this other world which was banned from the Pukekohe shops grew and as she continued to read about far-off cultures, she realised she lived in a country which already had another culture.

The trouble was, this was a culture most Pakeha denied - this was a culture they thought was dying.

Metge, though, had seen enough glimpses in Pukekohe to know the culture was alive and vibrant.

At the time, Maori simply put up a facade and lived behind it, she says, recalling a student she later taught at Wellington University who told her he had gone to school with Maori and they didn't have any of this "culture nonsense."

So his assignment for the holidays was to go and look up his old school pals and talk to them. "He came back saying there was a whole world he didn't know existed, right there on his doorstep."

Metge's early work is responsible for lifting the lid on issues which today perhaps seem obvious, but at the time were revealing and groundbreaking, and made her part of a chain of change in this country.

For her doctorate, she spent 2 years talking to Maori who had moved to Auckland city - and discovered there was no such thing as a so-called "drift" to the cities, but a migration: a deliberate movement of people in response to economic and social pressures.

When she began this work everyone tended to think Maori were a rural people and not sophisticated enough to cope with urban life so when they got to the cities they got into trouble and caused a lot of problems - this was known as "the Maori problem".

"It seemed to me that everyone talked about the Maori urban drift and the Maori problem, but nobody talked to the migrants themselves, so that's what I set out to do."

Because there was always so much negativity about Maori, she thinks, in retrospect, that she emphasised the positive, but she also thinks she recognised some of the burgeoning problems, such as poor housing and poverty, men working long hours to support their families and grandparents often left in the country or not living close enough to have much influence on grandchildren.

"I did see the beginnings of the break-up. I saw something of the costs, financial and other costs, such as of coping with death, the big financial cost of taking the dead home for burial, and I saw the beginnings of tension between the migrants settled in the city and the folk at home who were developing in rather different ways and didn't understand each other's problems."

Later, she would co-author a book called Talking Past Each Other which outlined misunderstandings and lack of appreciation between Pakeha and Maori.

That book, she says, is about how we handle daily life - "so much of daily life is a matter of habit and we do so much without thinking about it, it comes naturally, and it's learning to recognise that it doesn't come naturally in quite the same way to everyone else."

Her latest book is another step on the road to understanding. If you really want to understand people from another ethnic group, go and talk to them, listen to what they say and don't assume, she says again.

In Tuamaka Metge explains what myths mean and what words mean - and they mean far more than the simple definitions many Pakeha give them - and she also explains the different ways the Treaty of Waitangi is viewed by Pakeha and Maori.

These are all important for a fuller understanding of each other.

"Never stop exploring," Metge urges. The key is to open yourself up to what is new and different, but you don't have to leave the country to do this.

"It often takes the shock of an encounter with people who are fundamentally different to reveal us to ourselves," she writes in Tuamaka.

"New Zealanders have a history of going overseas in search of this experience but it is time we who are non-Maori in particular learned that we can find it here at home."

* Tuamaka: The Challenge of Difference in Aotearoa New Zealand
by Joan Metge (Auckland University Press, $29.99)