There I was, staring into bowl full of some sort of soup. It was dark orange in color and smelled of seafood. I was at the end of the long buffet table where local delicacies were all laid out in front of me– pāua in a rich crème sauce, white fish diced into a salad, kumara and other various root vegetables in a steaming roast. However, the dish in front of me seemed… daunting. Behind me a Maori elder, whom I have come to lovingly call Pops, whispered, “That’s kina (sea urchin), one of our prized dishes: you should try some.” He proceeded to plop some on my plate and we returned to our seats.
A girl from my New Zealand university was turning 21 and naturally her whole whanau (family) was invited. I, being a guest of her auntie was lucky enough to attend the party. And boy, do Maori people know how to throw a party! Growing up in a big family myself I know how these things go. You get a space big enough for everyone, all the aunties and mommas cook a big feast, and little kids get a special table to sit at. Native American people and Maori people are not so different in this way. We celebrate birthdays and other events with big get-togethers; a chance for everyone to gossip, to laugh, and to remember the good times. So there I was surrounded by Maori aunties and uncles, eating and chatting about my life back home and life in New Zealand while we waited for the real party to begin.
The Maori people are so special because a lot of their culture involves performance art. Their Haka war dances have made them world-renowned but there is so much more to the Maori arts. They are excellent guitar players and exceptional singers; their harmonies string so naturally together in a robust way. As they dance everyone keeps track of the rhythm, like one beating heart. With my plate of delectable food I watched various family groups come up and perform in honor of the birthday girl. The room was filled with Maori people of all walks of life; singing, dancing, and laughing together, and I, a small-town Native American girl, was laughing with them.
When all the performances were over and all the family members said their speeches, we packed up and started to say our goodbyes. The bustling hall was filled with family members hugging, kissing cheeks, and children chasing each other. As I patiently said my goodbyes to the family members I had met I couldn’t help but to feel like I was home again. Everything about the celebration reminded me of all the birthday parties we’ve had and how beautiful it is to have a large, loud family. I smiled at the people around me; we were now a little less than strangers. It was at this moment that Pops came up behind me and told me how happy he was that I attended the birthday. “I just wanted you to see us as something different from the stereotypes. Everyone comes here with ideas about the Maori and poverty and alcoholism, but I wanted you to see that we are not statistics you know? I wanted you to see the good side.” I saw wet tears make their way to the crinkly corners of his eyes as he pulled me in for a hug. I knew this was a day I would never forget.
On the other side of the world I had found solace in a family that wasn’t mine. We understood each other’s struggles and met with open minds and hearts. Yet this is only a small portion of the whanau I found in my study abroad experience. When you travel, you must go with an open perspective. Things– people, places, cultures– are not to fall victim to presumption. You have to go out and experience them for yourself. Plunge into the local culture, eat the food, and meet the people. These things, even so far away from where you come from, can make you feel so loved and so at home.
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