Kiwi values are to chill, not to troll
Discovered nationalities, discovered genders, discovered communities: They are the people who cause talk radio to crackle with barely suppressed outrage. They are the new New Zealanders, writes Rob Mitchell.
Until now, MP Golriz Ghahraman and her comedian partner Guy Williams have kept their working lives separate, as Golriz has battled some of NZ’s most vicious social media abuse. Today, they join up to celebrate values that unite, not divide. Golriz says Kiwis give others a fair go. And Guy’s favourite? ‘‘I’m proud of how chill we are.’’
Golriz Ghahraman is laughing loudly. She wasn’t born in this country but our first refugee MP has at least two key things to prove she’s Kiwi as. There are the nicknames she’s picked up from friends and also her partner, good Kiwi bloke and comedian, Guy Williams. ‘‘He calls me Golrizee or Little Golrizee, because I’m so much smaller than he is. My friends call me Rizza.’’ And she says it all with just a hint of that particular, peculiar inflection at the end of the sentence, a rising intonation made famous by Lyn of Tawa and infamous by Laura Langman. Nine-year-old Golriz and her family arrived in New Zealand from Iran in 1990, two years after all-female band When the Cat’s Away sang of a ‘‘great big melting pot, big enough to take the world and all it’s got’’. It would be close to three decades before she would have the chance to represent her fellow Kiwis in government, but she and her family represented a pattern of migration that would change forever the make-up of the country’s community. Those are some of the changes documented by Sunday Star-Times as part of a series looking at what it means to be Kiwi.
New Zealand’s ongoing influx of immigrants is one of ‘‘the most profound changes demographically in this country’s history’’, says Professor Paul Spoonley, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University. Our largest and fastest-growing city has been the greatest beneficiary of this demographic change; it is now regarded as one of the most diverse centres on the planet. Two-thirds of all future growth in this country will blow through the city of sails, says Spoonley. Golriz didn’t take long to find her own place in that changing community. Within two years her English was good, the Middle Eastern accent was pretty much gone and she was making friends both at school and the suburb of Kelston. ‘‘It was diverse. There were South Asian-background dairy owners and takeaway shops up the road, a bit of a Pacific community.’’ At ‘‘Ag’’ (Auckland Girls’ Grammar), Rizza and her mates listened to hip-hop on Mai FM, which went down well with the 70 per cent of students who were Maori or Pacific Islanders. Many lived in nearby Grey Lynn, although that was getting harder, with poor families being pushed further out by the gentrification of inner-city Auckland and inexorable rise in property prices. Other things were changing in the late 1990s. ‘‘It happened really fast,’’ says Golriz, ‘‘but a lot more Asian migrants were coming in. ‘‘On Mt Eden Rd, there’s a Chinese fruit shop that’s been there for 100 years – Mrs Loo’s fruit shop. She’s this little old lady and she’s got the thickest Kiwi accent . . . and suddenly there were all these people that looked like Mrs Loo but they didn’t sound like her.’’ With the new foods and culture there were also fears of the impact on New Zealand life and liberty.
Talkback radio crackled with intense debate and barely suppressed outrage.
Ironically, the refugee from repressive Iran shared some of those concerns.
‘‘By then I didn’t see myself as an immigrant . . . it was interesting to experience the Kiwi reaction to it, which was starting to go, why is this happening, who are these people?’’
At KC Loo Fruit Centre on Mt Eden’s Owens Rd. Eileen Loo, 86, tops up the new-season strawberries and asparagus. Her mother brought her to New Zealand in 1939, as the war between China and Japan gathered momentum. Her father was already here and brought in his family as refugees. It was meant to be for one year. But as the war dragged on, New Zealander granted the family citizenship. ‘‘I was seven,’’ she says.
They settled in Rotorua. ‘‘I believe we were the only Chinese there. So we couldn’t communicate with the neighbours.’’
But they managed. They did some gardening in the back yard; her parents eventually opened a fruit and vege shop. ‘‘I remember my father had a stick and we used it to point to the vegetables people wanted, or they had to point, because we couldn’t speak English.’’
Eileen went to kindergarten to learn English before school. And she always felt like a New Zealander. ‘‘Yes, ever since I started school. I had New Zealanders as friends and neighbours. There was no other Chinese community so we became New Zealanders. In a small town we didn’t experience so much racism as you would think. We had a few slings, you know, ching-chong Chinaman. But that was it. We had Ma¯ ori friends and customers. We didn’t think much of it.’’
She married an Aucklander, Kong Chew Loo, and they opened their own store in Mt Eden. Now, she muses, their store is one of the last. ‘‘The small shops like butchers, fruit and vegetable, fish shops, they’ll probably be things of the past, as the supermarkets take over.’’
Across town, a young economics lecturer was struggling to see himself as a man. Jeremy Traylen’s journey to Jem would mark another significant change in New Zealand society – the rise of gender identity issues
and questioning of traditional roles and family dynamics.
Born in 1968, he was the middle son of three boys in a ‘‘pretty standard nuclear family’’. Mum and dad were teachers, she a product of a farming family but also the ongoing population drift from the regions to our bigger cities.
Partly in response to the values of the time, partly ‘‘peer pressure’’ within the community, she gave up her career to look after the family. A few decades later that would become a rarity, with women driven by economics and ambition to remain in the workforce; similarly, more now choose to have fewer children, and later in life. ‘‘The big event of the year was the Melbourne Cup,’’ recalls Jem; ‘‘it was two TV channels, horseracing, watching cricket and rugby, there wasn’t a lot else on.’’
Neither was there a lot of talk about or interest in homosexuality.
Jeremy and his family had attended an Anglican church since he was young, but the church’s grip was weakening. He was struggling to embrace the societal shift.
He’d known since the age of six that he was different, had tried to ‘‘come out’’ a few times but couldn’t quite scale the barriers being broken down around him.
‘‘By then the internet had progressed and it was so much easier to make contact with other trans people and their experiences. It made you feel like you were not alone.’’
Jeremy finally put aside the stove-pipes and picked up something ‘‘floral and feminine’’. He became a she. Jeremy adopted the name of Jem. Mx Jem Traylen.
The rise of Rizza, Jem and many others personifies significant cultural shifts in the wider New Zealand community: the migrant, the gender Mx, the change in women’s roles.
But in the Ghahraman household, Golriz’s father is still trying to save something of the culture of his former country while embracing those of his adopted home.
‘‘Father focuses on Iranian cooking,’’ says Golriz. ‘‘He wanted to preserve that. He’s an avid gardener, plays lawn bowls at the local club and religiously watches the All Blacks. He’ll be sitting there with his slow-cooked lamb and aubergine, with his mates, having a beer and watching the game.’’
That’s as Kiwi as.
PHOTO: CHRIS MCKEEN / STUFF
Eileen Loo, 86, at her fruit and vege store in Mt Eden, Auckland. She was 7 when she arrived in New Zealand in 1939, fleeing the Sino-Japanese War.
Guy Williams and Golriz Ghahraman.