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  • Writer's pictureTamara Bisseker

The following may or may not be based on (many) real events


“Kia ora!”

“Wasn’t it all lovely just now?”

“Beautiful. Everyone was so happy.” Please let me be wrong about you, please let me be wrong about you...

“Do you know the bride or the groom?”

“Both actually. I went to school with both of them.”

“Oh lovely! University?”

“High school. And I went to primary school with the groom, so I’ve known him a long time”

“Oh so you’ve been here for a while then? Where are you from?” Here we go.

“Oh Christchurch. I live not far from here actually.”

“No I mean where are you really from?” I knew what you meant.

“I’m from Rangiora. My father still lives in the house that he and my mother moved into four months before I was born.”

“Oh so you’re from here? New Zealand?”

“Yes.” Believe it or not!

“Oh I see. So where are your parents from?”

“Dad is from Lao, mum is from Indonesia.”

“Oh I see. You speak English really well.” Elite Asian much?

“Thank you.”

“Do you speak...what language do they speak in Lao or Indonesia?”

“No. We spoke English at home.”

“That’s a shame you didn’t speak your native language at home.” Not just for me.

“Yes, perhaps. But it wasn’t because anyone was unwilling, it was simply because Mum and Dad’s native languages were different and English was the common language they both spoke.”

“Do you think you’ll learn, or want your children to learn your parents’ language?”

“Never say never right?”


* Politely smiles*

Tamara and Mr P at their family celebrations for Lao New Year 2023
Tamara and her Dad at their family celebrations for Lao New Year 2023

I find that there is an (almost cruel) irony to these conversations. Having spent the better part of the past five years working for Māori organisations, my understanding of the legacies of the language is deepening. There are many positive and real legacies. One of the best ones is getting to see and hear the tamariki of my generation speaking reo Māori as their first language. A positive outcome of the commitment from their parents to learn something that was denied to their parents and beaten out of their grandparents – those negative legacies still carried as trauma today.

My children come home from pre-school and school and share with us waiata and karakia and insert the kupu they know into their English sentences. We grab as much of these little pieces of taonga as we can to embed into our own whānau life, becoming all the richer for it. We hope that our small efforts will have a more meaningful effect in the future of all our lives and know that this is a slow and steady journey. My father, a man who has seen and experienced war, discrimination and the effects of colonisation and political upheaval on his own people quietly reassures me in his broken English, “You in New Zealand. It’s important to know Māori”.

For many non-Māori such as myself, the belief that te reo Māori should be championed and made much more visible (and audible) is a dream we share with our Māori friends. Yet, there are as many voices on the other side of the fence who don’t share that same view. They will make that point to me and then in the same conversation will say that it is a shame that I don’t know my “native language”. What makes the language of my ancestors (from an entirely different country) less threatening than the language from people who have lived here for centuries? Maybe I’ll make a submission to my local council for some Laotian street names and find out.

Nā Tamara Bisseker

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