Alan Duff, one of our most renowned authors, uses his time and distance away from home to reflect on what makes us who we are.
The internet and several trips home a year keep me up with New Zealand news. Thanks to democracy and capitalism, our education system, we Western nations enjoy technological advances and huge societal advantages. We owe science too. And our institutions, our rights as citizens. We should all be grateful.
Living here in France for six years, I’m a New Zealander before I’m anything. Before Duff the novelist, the newspaper columnist, commentator on Maori issues, before the movie and its sequel. Before my financial woes, before all of it, I am a Kiwi. And thankful that I am.
What living in a foreign country does: it has you look at yourself, at what New Zealanders are, and appreciate our unique qualities. Our open, friendly manner, our decency, no religious extremism, and if the Greens are our political extreme we’re in pretty good shape.
I think rugby plays a major part in who and what we are, some by default in being avid spectators and analysts rather than former players. As children – I’m talking boys here – influenced by the rugged types who coach the game and instil its principles in us, influenced by memorable team mates and teachers who got the best out of us. And don’t forget the ever-supportive mums and dads yelling and cheering from the sideline.
Rugby’s ethos of being what you train. Teamwork not individuals. No excuses for a loss or poor play. Every player must look in the mirror. No place for big egos. And so on. These are really life principles which, whether you know it or not, impose on every New Zealand child’s outlook, if predominantly boys. But girls too, applying the same attitude to netball and other sports.
Coming to a highly cultured country like France can be a bit daunting. I should love it as they consider authors right at the top of the admired list, like we do All Blacks. But you quickly realise that what separates you is being a New Zealander. We’re not complicated. Not pretentious. Only a few Kiwis practice class distinction. And on the whole we’re more honest than most nationalities. Hence our being consistently voted the number 1 least corrupt nation on earth. That makes us feel proud. And safer. We can express ourselves without some thug cop shooting us, or be arrested by secret police in the small hours. No-one has invaded us; we’ve fought in other people’s wars, the one against Hitler’s Nazis was the world’s duty to fight. But we’re not cynical and battered by a history of warfare.
The nation’s all-consuming obsession with the All Blacks, their remarkable track record, it all goes into what makes us New Zealanders. And if the All Blacks went into decline we’d be okay as a nation. Our character has already been built. They’d come back stronger at any rate. In the last 25 years we’ve changed hugely. Men who used to drink beer in 750ml bottles now drink stubbies or cans, or have even switched to wine. Thank God there are smoking bans and a whole lot less drink/driving. Our food was stodgy and unimaginative, like the service anywhere you went. We brew the best coffee in the world. Our formerly mediocre restaurants are now excellent, or have gone out of business. We mostly get service with a smile.
We’re less regulated than other countries. Like France where, for example, obtaining a driver’s licence is a nightmare. Fully 41% of applicants fail. It can cost up to €3,000 for compulsory private driving school lessons, one of 37 highly regulated, protected industries in France. This means no competition. Very few politicians, most of whom graduate from elite universities, have any experience in business, therefore no empathy and even antagonism to the enterprising.
A question from the licence test: “If you run headlong into a wall, would you be safer in a tank or a car?” A car because, duh, it has airbags. I would have thought a tank would bowl the wall.
Running headlong into a wall of government rules is fatal for a free competitor and a guaranteed income for the entrenched. New Zealand never wants to be like this. If only New Zealand’s book buying population was fifteen times larger I’d be home in a shot.
Alan Duff is one of New Zealand’s best known authors and has written novels, including Once Were Warriors and What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, several children's books and a number of non-fiction works. He was the driving force behind the Books in Homes scheme, which, with commercial sponsorship and government support, aims to break the cycle of illiteracy, poverty, anger and violence among underprivileged children by providing books for them to own. He currently lives in France.