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My family landed at Auckland's newish international airport in Mangere in 1968. We didn't hang around, unlike the two-thirds of Pacific igrants who did not venture beyond Auckland.

Our journey took us to inner-city Wellington, and then state-house Porirua, where our experiences mirrored that of many other Pacific immigrants.

By the time I returned here in the early 1980s, the difference between Auckland and the rest of the country was already pronounced. It wasn't just the taro leaves, banana trees and gardenias that flourished in some backyards; Auckland was noticeably browner - and the Pacific Islanders here seemed to wear their Pacificness with more confidence and pride.

They seemed, to me anyway, to have a sense of ownership and belonging.

It may have been because I was meeting the self-assured sons and daughters of that first cut of Pacific migrants who'd made their homes in Auckland's inner city suburbs just after World War II. Or maybe it was just the sheer number of Pacific Islanders on the streets.

About 67 per cent of 336,000 Pacific people are concentrated in Auckland, making up more than 14 per cent of the region's population. The next largest concentration (Wellington, with 13 per cent) is a long way behind.

Samoan is the second most spoken language after English in greater Auckland, Waitakere and, of course, Manukau, where Pacific Auckland is at its most visible.

About 28 per cent of that city's population is of Pacific origin. In
Otara, the figure is an even more remarkable 79 per cent. Auckland, described in every touristy blurb as the biggest Polynesian city in the world, is also the de-facto capital for Cook Islanders, Niueans, Samoans and Tongans. There are more Cook Islanders and Niueans in Auckland than anywhere else in the world - including their home islands.

As University of Auckland anthropologist Dr Melani Anae has observed, "the browning of Auckland is unparalleled in any other city in the world".

"The 'browning' of sport, the arts, fashion, academia, business and the corporate world, politics, music, performing arts in New Zealand has created a unique Auckland identity and one that should be celebrated."

We can point to the cultural markers of that Auckland Pacific identity: the popular annual Pasifika festival at Western Springs, the Polyfest secondary schools cultural competition, the imposing Fale at the University of Auckland, the Otara markets, the existence of the pan-Pacific community radio station 531pi, the popularity of bro'Town, kilikiti at Grey Lynn Park, the browning of
numerous sports teams and the increasing visibility of a so-called
brown middle class.

But what does that really mean?

Anae, a first generation New Zealander and a product of that first Pacific settler community which grew up around the Newton PIC church, has argued that the browning of Auckland is more than just numbers, demographics and the negative social statistics that too often dominate the discourse about Pacific people. It is about influence, and the infiltration of a strong Pacific identity on Auckland's consciousness.

"Auckland is the Polynesian capital of the world and has become the showplace of Pacific culture, and the strong and vibrant Pacific identity in and around Auckland is there for all to see."

Immigration from the Pacific has dropped dramatically, particularly since the 1990s, as changes to immigration rules have favoured the wealthier and better-educated migrants from Asia and elsewhere. But the Pacific population has continued to grow, fed by higher than average
birth rates.

As sociologist Cluny Macpherson has pointed out, we're no longer an immigrant community. More than 70 per cent of Niueans and Cook Islanders, the Pacific communities which have been in New Zealand the longest, are Kiwis by birth. In fact, majorities of all Pacific groups except Fijians are New Zealand-born.

With 6 out of 10 people of Pacific origin born here, we have become Pacific people, says Macpherson, rather than Pacific Islanders.

The Pacific identity - and the vexed question of what to call ourselves - has been evolving since we got here.

New Zealand turned us into the deceptively homogenous Pacific Islanders, which was both an official convenience and a way for otherwise too small to count Samoans, Cook Islanders, Tongans and Niueans to attract official attention and funding, and claim some political influence.

We were Polynesians with Maori until the Maori renaissance forced a necessary separation.

More recently, we've been PIs, shorthand that reflected the growing number and influence of New Zealand born or raised Samoans, Cook Islanders, Tongans, Niueans, Tokelauans and Fijians, whose experiences of growing up in urban New Zealand (97 per cent of Pacific people live in urban centres) made them more like each other than their cousins
in the islands.

Real differences exist between island groups of course, but the longer we're here, the more we have in common, the less likely we are to speak our parents' and grandparents' languages, and the more likely it is that our children will be multi-ethnic, thanks to high rates of intermarriage. Already, half of all Pacific babies born can claim more than one ethnicity.

In 16 years, Pacific people will be 10 per cent of the New Zealand population, but being younger than the rest of the New Zealand population (median age 21 compared to 36 for the rest of New Zealand) and with faster natural growth, the significance and influence of Pacific people will be greater than even that figure suggests - particularly in Auckland where Pasifika remain heavily concentrated.

No one knows exactly what that will mean for New Zealand, for Auckland - already the most diverse region in the country with Maori, Pacific and Asian making up more than 44 per cent of the population - or for the everchanging, ever evolving Pacific identity that's being forged here.

But whatever it is we're becoming - and however that continues to influence and shape the rest of the country and the still inchoate New Zealand-Pacific identity that all New Zealanders can, and will, lay claim to - we will see it here first.

Tapu Misa is a columnist for the Herald.