My Pacific & My Auckland
Story by Ema Tavola
Fundamentally, I am opposed to the idea of Auckland being called a Pacific city. I don’t take the word Pacific lightly. It describes my heritage, community and socio-political context, and Auckland reflects little to nothing of who I am.
I am from Suva, Fiji – an actual Pacific city. Fiji’s capital is teeming with Nesian flavour. Void of resorts, Suva is a melting pot of the Pacific with its embassies, regional organisations, tertiary institutions and thriving commercial centres. Pacific people, Fiji people, are the newsmakers, the politicians, the event planners, the strategists, the teachers… the leaders. While plagued with political instability for much of my lifetime, Suva is where the Pacific is truly present.
I live in South Auckland and have studied and worked in Otara for the past decade. The community I call home here in New Zealand is predominantly Polynesian. In Otara, New Zealand’s demographics are turned upside down and the Pacific community defines, creates and is the mainstream. I feel close to the Pacific because I am surrounded by Pacificness – language, laughter, children, brown skin, food and movement. I still get a culture shock when I leave South Auckland and I feel a deep sense of relief when I return.
Because I am embedded in a sense of the Pacific proper and also in the Pacific relocated in Otara, Pacificness for me is where we/I am visible. In Auckland, the Pacific community makes up 14 per cent of the population, less than that of the Asian community and less than a third of that of Pākehā. We are a minority on the margins. As such, Pacific people and issues rarely feature in mainstream media and are rarely seen in advertising. Our representation in the leadership and governance of Auckland is grossly under par. For a Pacific city, Pacific people seem fairly invisible.
Auckland is a settler city now home to a multitude of ethnic groups. Central Auckland hosts the annual Pasifika festival attracting broad audiences to a two-day celebration of Pacific music, food and culture.
But Pasifika is no more important than the other major cultural events like the Lantern Festival celebrating Chinese New Year, and Diwali Festival of Lights. These large-scale culture expos paint a picture of Auckland’s diverse economic potential, giving minority communities the civic limelight for one to two days in the year.
But Auckland is home to the majority of New Zealand’s Pacific population. Now generationally entrenched, over 50 per cent of the population is New Zealand born. The Pacific diaspora has become increasingly integrated into the social fabric of New Zealand and as the community grows, identities evolve. For many Pacific people, our perceived identity is not related so much to where we are, but to where we have become visible when previously we were invisible. The number of Pacific Islanders playing elite schoolboy rugby has grown from almost none to domination of many of the teams.
This creates a problematic measure of Pacific identity. It is arguably a model of oppressed thinking from a community still over-represented in statistics around poor educational achievement, poverty and political dislocation. It feels like a strange colonial Stockholm syndrome that stops us expecting and demanding more of a country that has been built in part on the backs of Pacific labour.
If Auckland were truly a Pacific city I would expect a deeper consciousness about Pacific people and ideas, the wider region and our relationship with not only Polynesia, but Melanesia and Micronesia.
Whilst we have visibility in sports and in small windows of programming on mainstream television, we need to have visibility in decision-making at local and central government levels. We need more leadership in our community, in order to have presence and contribute fully to the Auckland dynamic. Potentially, strong and informed Pacific leaders could confront the large-scale political disenfranchisement we saw so clearly in our last national elections.
In a truly Pacific Auckland, engagement with Pacific communities would be meaningful, intergenerational and mutually beneficial. Mainstream institutions would not only foster relationships with Pacific communities, but actively deliver programming which appeals and educates wider audiences on Pacific lives and experiences.
I’d like to think that in an Auckland conscious of its Pacific community, we would stop building environments that enslave and harm our most disadvantaged sectors.
There are too many urban health hazards: there shouldn’t be liquor stores and takeaways on every corner and substandard imported food sold at every dairy in Mangere, Otara and Ōtāhuhu.
SkyCity and everyone else who introduces pokie machines to the community should be considered stakeholders in problem gambling, and held responsible for the damage they cause.
Tighter regulations around targeted and exploitative money lending would stabilise a community already faced with disproportionate financial challenges.
Sports commentators, news readers and leaders would be educated in how to pronounce Pacific names, and they would understand that mispronunciation is offensive and unnecessary.
Right now in New Zealand, emigration has never looked so appealing. Like many of my friends and networks, I look for jobs regularly in Australia.
If I left, the truth is I would miss South Auckland terribly. I would miss this little piece of the Pacific with its abundance of churches, swarms of brown children, multi-coloured everything. Here, Pacific people have made their mark – survived adversity and built strong, proud communities. Much of South Auckland exists in a parallel universe to the wider Auckland region; it was a self-sufficient little world before the Super City.
If an amalgamated Auckland means South Auckland’s Pacificness is now part of a bigger blander civic picture, then perhaps Auckland is a Pacific City. But there is no doubt in my mind that South Auckland is its beating heart.
This article was written for Metro magazine (August 2012)