Tūrangawaewae is a Māori word meaning “Place of belonging where you draw your strength from, your ‘standing place’” (Cain, Kahu, & Shaw, 2017, p. 9). It’s a concept that I have struggled with over quite a long period of life; Let me explain.
Yesterday, I spoke to my mother on Messenger. Somehow, as conversations do when they meander, talk to turned to my early years and Mum started singing the songs she had sung when I was a child. I’m sure every mother has such songs, but it just so happens that my mother is Dutch; consequently, my baby songs were Dutch as well.
Oh, the nostalgia! Immediately I was transported back to those safe, warm moments, curling up in Mum’s arms as she crooned a lullaby in a familiar, comfortable language. Long-forgotten lyrics tumbled through my memory, and while I couldn’t exactly identify individual words, they spoke their gentle message as clear as day.
But things change: As I grew older and started school, I became increasingly aware of being ‘foreign’, particularly in provincial New Zealand in the 70’s when the country saw itself as a little Britain. Our large, boisterous family of 10, our exotic names, Mum and Dad’s cringe-worthy Dutch accents- all screamed ‘DIFFERENT’ in my child’s mind. Even my parent’s writing on school notes howled out ‘FOREIGN’. They crossed their sevens and only half-crossed their ‘t’s. They drew figure eights starting from the middle and used funny squiggles for ampersands.
Oh yeah, We Stood Out. Not in a good way. We were always running late to church- the Catholic one, not the Anglican one-, always awkwardly filing in to the third pew on the right-hand side – (for some reason lost in the mist of time, that row seemed to be reserved for the van Hattums. Probably because we took up the entire row, probably because we were unfailingly late and so it was either a case of dedicate a row to us, or have screaming kids dispersed across the church, and probably also because no-one else wanted to sit beside a bunch of squirming, irritating children). Yep, we stood out. I remember clearly when I was about nine years old, the Queen came to New Plymouth. My entire school, church, soccer club- my entire world -was going down to Devon Street to wave British flags and cheer. Dad wouldn’t let us go, because “no child of mine is going to wave a flag at a British Queen”.
Oh, for a family that didn’t have weird names, odd customs, decidedly strange food and an army of kids! I longed to belong, to be cool, like other kids. I wanted a ‘Grandma’ instead of ‘Oma’, an ‘Aunty Mary’ instead of a ‘Tante Mien’. I guess as a consequence of these cumulative experiences I was determined to be ‘as kiwi as, bro’. So, conflicted and torn between loyalties, I sought to identify with my very Kiwi school friends and distance myself ideologically from my very Dutch parents.
It was during my primary school years that I discovered my mum had been a budding writer and actress in Holland. This was astounding news to me; how could my mother with her ridiculous sentence structure and embarrassing accent ever hope to be a writer or an actress, let alone be good at it? How could you tell your kids to “Yust put a Yumper on if you’re coldt” and then hope to be a writer? It made no sense.
I suppose, in the way that children do, I strove to rise above what I saw as mum’s limitations. I resolved to become good at English. It became my strongest subject and I revelled in it. It became my way to prove my kiwi-ness, and it carried through to my adult life; I wrote training plans and reports, I drafted schedules and instructions, I constructed itineraries, list, inventories, letters to government departments and local councils, and then, that crowning glory of glories; I went to University, and got letters after my name. I had cast off the shackles of my Dutch origins. I was Kiwi! Born and bred! Chur!
But somewhere along the line, both I and my country of birth changed. New Zealand became much less of a little Britain, and much more of a Pacific nation. Streams of immigration injected diversity into the country, different cultures and foods became more visible; our national narrative slowly changed. Change happened for myself in different ways. I became a parent and started thinking about continuity, about connection, about notions of home, places to stand. I became less wedded to rejecting my Dutch heritage and became more interested in my parent’s stories of home, of growing up, of family and customs. I started learning a bit more Dutch, cooking Dutch dishes (my olie-bollen are to die for, just saying) and speaking to Mum in Dutch- the odd phrase, the odd sentence. And when my kids were little, those songs that Mum used to sing? I also sang them softly to my kids, in the quiet of the night, sharing my Mum’s traditions in the gentlest of ways. Gradually, I became really proud of my Dutch connection, and I wanted to pass that connection on to my own children. I wanted them to have a sense of connection and of pride. And I became Dutch kiwi, not just Kiwi.
So, imagine my sheer delight when I was offered a three-month fellowship at Wageningen University, just 30 minutes away from Utrecht, home of my parents. I was going back to my tūrangawaewae! I would walk the streets my parents had walked, see the homes they grew up in, catch up with dusty old tante’s and oom’s,(aunties and uncles) reconnect with neefs (cousins), climb the Domtoren, the church tower that looms over Utrecht, watch Utrecht FC battle it out with Feyenoord on the football pitch (In Holland we call it “football” instead of ‘soccer’) and drink espressos in the café’s down by the canals. I was going back to my ancestral home!
Except, it didn’t feel like that. Oh, I made lots of connections and reconnections, for sure. I reignited friendships with cousins that I had met as a child, and I caught up for endless coffee and cake (that’s a huge Dutch thing), I bought komijnenkaas cheese from the market and ate salted haring like it was going out of fashion. I saw threads of identity weaving through the smallest things- the types of plants Mum chose for her garden, the ‘photo-wall’ with every centimetre of wall-space taken up, the woven table-runners, the ever-present Delft Blue china… And I had fun! I really did. But I didn’t belong. I felt more kiwi than I ever have, more connected that I ever did to this beautiful, soulful land of ours. I missed home. This was a totally unexpected reaction for me, but through it I came to understand how much New Zealand has shaped me; my love of the outdoors and the sea, mountains, our casual, easy way of life, our customs, our diversity.
It’s now six months since I came back from Holland. I’m infinitely richer for the experience, both professionally and personally. Surprisingly, as much as I missed New Zealand while I was away, I also miss Holland now that I’m back. Again, a reaction that surprises me. (Although I’m not surprised that I miss being able to walk into a shoe shop and find shoes that fit my very Dutch-sized feet! – Little-known fact: Dutch are the tallest race in the world).
I’ve now come to understand and accept that I am a product of diaspora, that I, like many kiwis who make up this proud, diverse nation, have connections that weave back and forward through time and space. That my personal story is also a public story, and I share experiences of change and bridging cultures that are both different and the same with other people; people from diverse origins: India, Pacific Islands, South America. Moreover, that tūrangawaewae is both a physical and a metaphorical place, that belonging is such an important part of identity, that it’s possible, in fact rich, to belong to different places, and that the constituent parts each have value in different ways.
Stella Pennell is a PhD Candidate as Massey University and won the 2019 Student Blog Competition with this post.
Cain, T., Kahu, E., & Shaw, R. (Eds.). (2017). Tūrangawaewae: Identity and belonging in Aotearoa New Zealand. Auckland: Massey Unversity Press.