One of the consistent themes that has emerged thus far in my study abroad experience here in New Zealand is the notion of invitations. In some instances, they have occurred on a smaller scale, such as when Craig invited us to board his coach for our daily travels. We’ve also witnessed Bilbo receive an invitation to participate in an adventure far outside of his wheelhouse while reading The Hobbit. The most impactful invite I believe we have all received has been the opportunity to witness and embed ourselves in Māori culture and ritual.
On my first full day in New Zealand, we were granted the privilege of being guided through the Waitangi treaty grounds. One of my greatest takeaways from that experience was the eagerness with which both the tour guide and concert performers shared their culture. Inhibitions and invisible walls didn’t exist in that space; there was an openness with which they spoke that made me feel welcomed into an unfamiliar environment. I was allowed to enter into their lived experiences without encroaching upon something I wasn’t meant to approach. My encounters with students and faculty at both of our school visits were no different. We all were asked to take part in their ceremonies even as outsiders. A buzz of mutual excitement seemed to constantly hover in the air. Those living here in New Zealand were just as intrigued by our way of life as we were of theirs. Difficult questions and somewhat taboo topics weren’t sidestepped in the pursuit of maintaining a comfortable and politically correct environment. Genuine conversation took place, and legitimate learning flowed from that discourse. Individuals from distinctly differing backgrounds coalesced without emotional combustion.
The term “divided” is one both Americans and non-Americans alike love to use when talking about the current nature of the United States. On some level, you can’t fault people for believing in something consistently fed to them through media outlets. In my opinion, division and fear are two wickedly effective instruments often utilized in the pursuit of power or financial gain. There is a steep profit to be made off a frightened, segmented society. However, placing a label of “divided” on our nation contributes nothing to the idea of sewing together a melting pot of individuals as “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” The attitude of willingness towards cultural exchange I have experienced so far during my time in New Zealand is something I desperately wish would be more present in the United States. Combining cultural humility with a lack of cultural gatekeeping could lead us towards the true empathetic understanding of one another many people long for. I fully recognize that each individual has the right to withhold as much of their background or native ways as they please. I am also not advocating for full cross-cultural participation in every circumstance. However, I do believe that it is hypocritical to simultaneously desire understanding from others without being willing to share your lived experiences. I also find hypocrisy in those who claim to be culturally empathetic without taking the time to genuinely listen to people of dissimilar backgrounds. The line between cultural appreciation and invasiveness is everchanging depending on circumstance. No matter where it falls, there is always an opportunity for deepened understanding. I have been encouraged by New Zealand’s transparent pursuit of this porous passing of knowledge. I hope Americans can take a page of out the Kiwis’ book and find more avenues through which to engage in an exchange of personal and ancestral experiences.