SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2008 Personal Memory Ethnographies
An Ocean Away: From Arizona to Australia
It was 1994 and the summer before my freshman year in high school. I was selected by one of my teachers to participate in the People to People Student Ambassador Program. During this trip, a group of 25 students, three teachers and I were to spend three weeks abroad; two in Australia and one in New Zealand. Though I had been out of the country before, I had only been to Mexico and Canada; two countries not completely unlike the U.S. and the parts of southern Arizona I had grown up in. In addition, this was to be the longest period of time I had ever spent away from my family, friends and home.
I recall that I was excited and very apprehensive as I boarded the plane from Phoenix to LAX and then my connecting flight on Qantas airlines to Auckland, New Zealand. Despite my anxiousness, something in me said this trip was more important than I understood at the time. Though it wouldn’t fully resonate with me until years later, I knew taking this trip into a foreign location and meeting different people was something I desperately needed to do.
This trip proved to be the first time I was simultaneously aware of how big and small the world actually is. I remember being terrified at the thought of the tremendous distance between myself and my loved ones, which was, at times, isolating. I remember indulging in this new culture and language, thinking it weird at first, but acclimating quickly to my surroundings. There were moments, however, when I was also reminded of how technology granted us the ability to travel the distance of half the world in just over half a day’s time and that perhaps, on some level, the world was not so daunting.
I enjoyed many new and exhilarating experiences while in Australia and New Zealand. My group and I toured Parliament, threw boomerangs, sheared sheep, milked cows, visited Auckland’s largest museum (equivalent to the U.S. Smithsonian), planted trees in the rain forest, sand tobogganed, whale watched, snorkeled, saw the Great Barrier reef and participated in a home stay experience with local families. All of those experiences, while enriching in their own right, pale in comparison to the memories I have retained about our visit to the Maori land New Zealand.
It’s 1994 and here we are, still resigned to the land “granted” to us by the queen after we were duped into a contractual agreement that did not accurately translate in Maori as it did in English. It’s frustrating to be confined to this land when it all used to be ours. I like to believe my ancestors would have kindly shared the land. But to consign us to reservations was unnecessary. It is nothing more than a way to keep us away from “them;” it’s a designated spot for us to host our ‘strange’ rituals and practices and keep it out of their Westernized society. We raise our children here and hope that they will someday grow and learn to appreciate other cultures and ways of life without forgetting ours. But how can they do so when you have to choose an alliance here or there; you can never be both places at once. You are with us or them; Westernized or aboriginal. Those are their options.
Still, to encourage commingling and introduce the Westerners to our culture and way of life, we host tour groups. It is our way of reaching out to the world. It is smaller than people realize and those relationships need cultivating. We hear many giggles and under-the-breath scoffs, during our dances and presentations, but sometimes we touch someone. We help them see there is more to life than that which they already know. On those days, our outreach well outweighs the ridicule and hope for the future of all people is renewed.
We arrived at the Maori reservation via tour bus from Auckland on a damp and dismal day. The ground was wet and the air was very cool and thick as we departed the bus. Our first encounter with the Maori tribe was shaking the hands of our tour guide and the tribal elders as we simultaneously touched noses; a traditional Maori greeting. There were uncomfortable giggles from many as we headed down the line. For me, of touching cold noses with a stranger while holding his warm hand was like an awakening. It was a moment I will never forget as I was overcome with the sensation of intimacy. Born into a civilization where personal space and privacy are at a premium, breaking down those personal barriers and being nose to nose with a perfect stranger was exhilarating. It was humbling. It was in that moment that the vastness of the world came together and I first realized that underneath it all, we are all human and we all have an inherent need for relation.
While on the reservation we ate a traditional Maori feast which was cooked for us all day underground. We saw and participated in their ways of dance, which are really a telling of their history and origin. We were given an overview of the Maori religion and provided the opportunity to participate in making handicrafts. We learned the importance of the land to this group of people, who held stock in old traditions and ways of survival, though their homes and many amenities were very westernized. Taking the time to listen and learn about other people and other ways of life makes it easier to understand the alleged “differences” between us all. This was, in fact, the recurring theme of the trip for me. We are only as different as we wish to see ourselves.
This group is not substantially different from many others who have visited here. A select few speak up and ask questions during and after presentations. The others giggle and comment to one another quietly, which is to be expected. Some, however, sit almost silently and wide-eyed. It is difficult to say if they are the ones taking in their new surroundings or if they are altogether disinterested in this opportunity. My hope is that this is the group who will make a difference. My hope is that they will process this experience, reflect upon it at some point in their life, and draw upon the potential for change; the need for interaction and oneness.
We slept in the worship hall during our stay. The building was made mostly of wood which was exposed on the inside and carved with intricate faces. The faces varied in size, shape and expression, all of which we later learned represented various Maori stories. These stories are passed down orally, though the tour guide commented that he and others have a group dedicated to writing these stories down for future reference. The carvings had abalone shell eyes, which reflected off of the moon and other light throughout the night. It was hard to relax with all of those faces watching us try to sleep. Yet, on some level, it was reassuring to know someone was keeping watch.
All in all, this trip did many things for me; it allowed me to see how my two hands can make a difference in the grand scheme of things and despite the vastness of this large planet. When I returned from Australia and New Zealand, the trip was all I could talk about because of how much “fun” I’d had. Now it’s all I can talk about when people ask me why I’ve chosen to be and American Studies/Ethnic Studies major. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to have met so many wonderful people along this journey and I look forward to the many more I will encounter along the way.
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