5:00AM Monday April 30, 2007By Lincoln Tan
Is Lincoln right? Should we all be hyphenated New Zealanders?
I was waiting for a flight to Christchurch when an Asian man asked me where I was from. I instinctively said Singapore, then tried to qualify it by saying that I had been living in New Zealand for 10 years.
Introducing himself as a Korean-American who has lived in New York for the past 12 years, the man quipped that I would not have been forgiven by Americans had I lived 10 years in the United States and made a similar remark.
Americans, he said, considered it almost a mortal sin for anyone living there not to consider themselves American.
I told him the attitudes were quite different in New Zealand, and that I was actually on my way to Christchurch as a presenter at a forum on national identity to discuss the very issue of what makes a New Zealander.
Some people here would like to keep the term New Zealander as an exclusive term for people of New Zealand's main culture.
So, unlike the Americans, it does not come naturally for most ethnic minorities living here to identify themselves with a hyphenated term such as Chinese-New Zealander or Korean-New Zealander.
I told him about this column and the lambasting I got from readers following the column where I said some will never consider me 100 per cent Kiwi.
In that column, I also wrote about the shock I had when a third-generation local-born Chinese man said some New Zealanders don't consider him a Kiwi and he still faced taunts from people telling him to "go back to where you come from".
What I wrote drew letters to the editor labelling me as being misguided and obsessed with wanting to be Kiwi.
Garth George said in his last column that it was a fact of life for columnists that readers who disagree write letters to the editor and those who agree generally send lovely personal emails. I wish I could say it was the same for me, but it is not.
Most of the emails to me were even more vile and venomous than the ones sent to the editor.
One read: "The truth is, neither you nor any of your Chinese friends and relatives will ever be a Kiwi, so don't bother trying."
Another said: "I want to go somewhere where I will not have to read such ignorant, stupid and harmful views as yours. What right do you have to come here and make New Zealand worse for me?"
Bruce Morley argued that New Zealand is no different to China. He wrote: "If I were to spend 10 or even 20 years in Beijing, would that suddenly miraculously make me an Asian? Why should being a Kiwi be any easier or different?"
Charles Laing felt that New Zealand was no different to Japan and Korea where the people don't even realise that they are racist in excluding outsiders by claiming to be ethnically and culturally unique. But New Zealand is different and so is being a New Zealander.
Professor Francis Fukuyama, of John Hopkins University, wrote: "Japanese (like other old societies of Europe and Asia) were a people with shared histories long before democracies. They have other sources of identity besides politics. They have seen a variety of regimes come and go."
Societies such as those in Japan and France are very different from those in the US and New Zealand, or even Singapore for that matter, which were founded on the basis of a political idea.
On America, Prof Fukuyama wrote: "There was no American people or nation prior to the founding of the country, and national identity is civic rather than religious, cultural, racial or ethnic."
In many respects, New Zealand is like America. So while immigrants to Japan or China will never become Japanese or Chinese, ethnicity should not be the basis on who gets to become a New Zealander or American in countries where national identity is a civic one.
In the last Census, more than 11 per cent of the population categorised themselves as ethnic New Zealanders.
Reports tell us that in the previous Census they would have been put into the category of New Zealand Europeans.
Is this just another way for some in the majority culture to claim exclusive rights to the use of the term New Zealander?
In looking at the diverse ethnic makeup of the new New Zealand, in a country where a quarter of its people are born overseas, would it not be more advantageous if we took the American attitude in encouraging people to feel a greater sense of belonging and emotional attachment to their adopted country?
Perhaps adopting the American way of identifying people with hyphenated identities is the way forward.
I can't run away from the fact that I am ethnically Chinese, but New Zealand is where I belong so I'd be happy to be termed a Chinese-New Zealander.