Friday, March 8, 2019

Checking Boxes

The older you get the more forms you have to fill out. And they frequently have these "race" boxes on them—check the one that most applies. I hate those boxes. I am most grateful when the directions read "check all that apply." It's interesting how the first format forces us to only claim one thing, and the other acknowledges that we can be many.

Over my life, I have filled out all these forms in different ways. Sometimes I've marked "Asian/Pacific Islander." Sometimes I've marked "White." I am happy when I get to mark both, but it's still complicated. And there was a moment in my life when these darn boxes became a huge stressor in my life.

College applications.

Me and my dad's parents at my high school graduation.
I will be talking about them soon:)
I was a great student who wasn't the greatest test taker. Now, I wasn't terrible, but my ACT score of 24 wasn't "up to snuff" for schools with tough competition in applicants. I was bemoaning this to a friend, and her reply was quite surprising.

"Oh, don't worry! You can just check the Polynesian box and you'll get in."

This statement was jarring for me. I didn't really understand why at the time, but I would hear it repeatedly from other people who knew my background. Just check the box! Free admission! It was strange, since these same people didn't even believe me when I first told them. Now they were so certain I was that I could use it on my college applications.

I spent months trying to decide if I should really check that box or not.

On the one hand, yes, I had Maori heritage. On the other, I looked white. There are a lot of other complicated things that I felt but didn't have words for at the time. I think many view diversity in college as "taking spots of more qualified just to fill a quotient." But I didn't see it that way—I didn't want to take the spot of a Pacific Islander who might have needed it? It's still hard to explain, but I think I felt like I had already been set up for success. But then that sounds like I'm judging others who might "need that spot."

Ultimately, I chose not to check the box.

I don't know what the right choice was to this day. But that was the choice I made. I didn't feel like I "deserved" to check that box for whatever reason. I wasn't allowed, not when it came to something so big. Because I didn't really belong, did I? All throughout my life to that point, people hardly believed when I spoke about my heritage. How was I supposed to explain it all through college, too? It was time to just accept that white box.

It turns out I got into that competitive school anyway. No scholarship or anything, but I got in to Brigham Young University (the LDS school of LDS schools). My parents agreed to pay for my first year. I would live at home, get a job, and save up for the next year.

So we went to campus to have lunch with Uncle Vernon, who worked in the Dean of Students office at the time. It was nice to catch up with him and we talked of my grandmother and how things were when Vernon first started school in the states. It was nice, and it helped me feel a bit less nervous to start the big adventure of university and being a baby adult.

My parents brought up the question of where to find a job on campus, and this was where things got weird for me.

"I have just the thing," Vernon said. "We'll go right after this."

I expected Vernon to take me to the job listings, but instead he marched me and my parents down to the Multicultural Student Services office. My eyes grew wide as we walked in, because I had always been told I didn't belong there (until it came time for college applications...).

Everyone greeted Vernon with smiles and hellos, as he had once worked in that office. My heart raced as people looked at me. Surely they wondered why he would bring me there. Surely they thought this was as wrong as I did. Vernon sat me and my parents down in an office with a woman named Lynette. He told her I was his cousin and that I liked to write—I might be a good fit for the magazine.

Then he left us there to go back to work.

Lynette was intimidating, but also I could tell she was someone who might teach me a lot about work and life. She told us about Eagle's Eye magazine, the student-run publication they sent out for Multicultural alumni. It was a program funded by grant money, to give multicultural students real world skills in publishing. We would write articles, interview alumni, go to multicultural events to report on them, edit and design the publication, and all that jazz.

It legit sounded like the best job I could ever dream of having in college. Up until then I pictured working in retail or being an early morning janitor on campus.

"I rarely take on freshman," Lynette said. "But this is how you apply. There are still two weeks before applications close."

"Okay." I took the application, and we left.

My parents were thrilled and thought I should apply right away. They went on and on about how it was a great opportunity and so perfect for me and all I wanted to do. I nodded though a pit was forming in my stomach. I couldn't apply for this. I shouldn't. I didn't belong in an office like that when I looked the way I did.

I dragged my feet over putting together an application and portfolio. Finally, my parents noticed, and I had to come clean about how I felt. I wanted that job. But I felt like I could not apply.

My mother looked sad, but she said the exact thing I needed her to say, "How would your grandmother feel hearing you say that you don't belong there?"

I knew what Grandma Dorothy would say, even though it had been 10 years since her death at that point. She would have done precisely what Uncle Vernon did—she would have marched me down there, and worse, would have declared my whakapapa to everyone there who was skeptical. She would have told me I was Maori because it was in my blood, and I shouldn't turn away from that part of me.

So I filled out the application for my grandmother.

I was so extra on my portfolio, sending my writing, art, and photography I'd done in high school. I nervously delivered the package to Multicultural Student Services for Lynette to look over. I figured that would be the end of it, because she rarely hired freshmen.

But I got the job, and that job shaped my college career and gave me friends and colleagues that would teach me and love me and help me grow into a better person. I still often felt like I didn't belong or was taking advantage, but in those times I remembered my grandmother and how proud she would be of me.

Me and my brother in Raglan, NZ.
That job brought many good things into my life, and ultimately connected my family back to New Zealand even more. My brother came to work at Eagle's Eye after I had graduated, and he met his wife there. She was half American, half Kiwi with dual citizenship. They moved back to Aotearoa and my brother got into med school at the university of Auckland. The full circle back to our roots began, my sister eventually moving there permanently after her Master's degree to live with her wonderful husband. They have just started med school, too.

So I took a job I was terrified to take, but that one choice brought about a series of events I'm so grateful for. My family has gone to New Zealand more than ever now that we have immediate family there. We have connected back to our heritage in a greater way than ever, and my sister-in-law has taught us so much more about our shared Maori culture.

One thing I quite love, and that is different from America, is that New Zealand doesn't do "percentages." There's no 1/16th or 1/2 or anything else. There is not a "percentage" that means you can qualify for things or not. There, it is whakapapa (genealogy) and tipuna (ancestors), it is knowing your legacy. This brings people in.

In America, it feels as if we are trying to push people out. We want them to check one box, though a growing number of people are from many backgrounds. While all of these lovely things were happening in my life, there were still not-great things happening as well.

A guy in my church group was studying agriculture, and he announced he was going to New Zealand on a work study trip.

"My grandma's from there! I'm part Maori!" I said, too excitedly. I had gotten comfortable around my diverse work environment, and I forgot momentarily that I wasn't there.

This guy literally laughed in my face. "No you're not!"

Like, not just a short scoff. A full on burst of extended laughter. Even after how far I'd come, that moment cut deep. But instead of sadness, this one garnered anger. "I am. There are a lot of Maori that look like me."

"No they don't."

"You'll see," I said. "And you'll realize what a total jerk you're being right now."

Me and my parents at my college graduation. The ones
that gave me such an interesting blend of heritage. (Maori,
Scottish, Polish, German to name a few.)
"Sure..." The guy went off on his trip, and I went on living my life. I got engaged during that time and was about one year away from finishing my degree.

The guy came back, and I planned not to talk to him at all. Soon I would be moving and I wouldn't have to see him again. But one Sunday, he came up to me. "I'm sorry, you were right. I was a total jerk. Now that I've been down there, I can see it in you."

I was stunned. This was the first time anyone had apologized for their doubt in my heritage. And it meant something that he could "see it in me" now. I choked out a "thank you."

He had seen the New Zealand view versus the American one. Allowing for all facets of one's identity, in comparison to only allowing one part to be dominant.

Another small moment comes to mind. It was about two years ago, when my husband and I were looking for an axe at a Lowe's. Yes, for real. We were planning to cut down the apple tree in our yard.  My husband wanted to use an axe because he's always had a love for dwarves. I was happy to go along. The older man helping us pick one had a familiar accent and an extensive knowledge of axes. I couldn't help but ask him, "Are you from New Zealand by chance?"

"Yeah," he said. "Glad you didn't say I was Aussie."

I laughed, well familiar with the rivalry between the two. "My grandmother was from there."

"Maori?" he asked.


"What tribe?"

"Ngapuhi," I replied. 

He smiled. "Me too. We're family."

This was said with warmth and welcome. He likely didn't know how much his simple acceptance mean to me—it was a rare thing in my life. But he knew. He understood what our shared history was.

"I just married in," my husband said jokingly. 

The man patted my husband on the shoulder, and in all sincerity said, "That means you're Maori now. Welcome to the family."

I had to hold back my tears in Lowe's. This was such a small and unexpected moment, but one of great revelation. I've spent my whole life worrying over what box to check, but the more I've learned the more I realize that the boxes don't matter to those who are part of you. I spent a lot of time self-conscious about what outsiders thought, forgetting that those who truly matter welcome me (and now my very blond and very pale husband and children) with no judgment. I don't need to worry about anyone else.

This is the fifth post in my series on being a white passing Maori in America. I do not speak for anyone but myself, and these are personal experiences I draw from. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Remnants and Revelations

There's a clear picture in my mind of my Auntie Leah and my mom using poi balls in Grandma's backyard. It was a searing hot day in summer, and laundry was drying on the metal tree out there. They spun the long poi with, what I saw as a young child, great skill. I was especially impressed with the one-handed, two poi, move where my auntie spun them as she moved them back and forth over her head.

I wanted to learn! And so they taught me the basics of the long poi. I was clumsy and not great, but I picked it up and used them often as a child. I didn't know any songs or official dances—I only knew what I'd been shown. The basics. The remnants of what our family had learned.

There were short poi. I didn't know how to use those (and they're freaking hard to use!). There were the sticks of the "sticks dances" that I saw in some performances but had never used. I learned some basic skills in a Polynesian dance class I took in college at BYU. Many of the students struggles to shake their hands as is traditional in many Maori song and dance, but I grasped it easily and felt like maybe it was in my blood.

The strange thing about being white passing, about being severed from the main body of your heritage, is that life becomes a series of "filling in the gaps."

Not the best example, but the only one I have. The sparse
trees I remember. (Also me at 5 days old.)
For instance, my grandma would always have my grandpa cut a ton of branches off the bushy Christmas trees of North America. I always wondered at their tree during the holidays, why there was so much gap between the tiers of branches. I once asked my mom why their tree didn't have a lot of branches, and the answer I got was "so we can see the ornaments." Which made sense and I didn't question further.

But when I went to New Zealand, I saw a strange tree that immediately reminded me of the way my grandmother would demand her tree to be cut.

"What are those?" I asked my brother, who lives in New Zealand now, as we drove from Auckland to Hamilton. "Those pointy, sharp trees?"

The Norfolk Island Pine, a sharp
silhouette in Aotearoa.
"Those?" my brother replied with annoyance. "I don't know the name but they're everywhere. I hate them. People use them for Christmas trees here and they just don't feel like Christmas."

I couldn't help but smile. "Really?"


"Grandma used to make grandpa cut her Christmas trees so there were big gaps in the branches. Makes sense now—she must have been picturing these trees as what her Christmases used to look like," I said.

My mother's face filled with understanding. "I never thought of that! But she might have, maybe without even realizing it."

It was a small, but beautiful remnant of my grandmother, driving through New Zealand and seeing these pines everywhere.

Other remnants and revelations aren't so sweet, though. I sometimes wondered why my grandma Dorothy didn't teach her own kids more about her Maori culture. Why didn't she teach them more of the language or insist they learn their culture more deeply?

It wasn't until the last couple years that I knew the Maori language was banned from schools for most of the 19th century.

Much like other colonized countries, the Maori were to "assimilate." That's what the Crown wanted, at least. Maori ways and language were looked down on, considered lesser, and were discouraged as a whole during my grandmother's time. As they were pushed off their land and into cities, the governments even place Maori families within white communities, in order to discourage them from reforming their own close ties. My grandmother likely didn't know much of te reo Maori herself. She might have only had remnants, living at a time when another culture was actively trying to eradicate the indigenous ways of Aotearoa.

It wasn't until the 70s and 80s that the Maori were able to regain some of their standing and rights through activism. I now imagine my grandmother's visits back to her homeland, and what she might have been learning herself for the first time during those pilgrimages.

It's these big and small pieces that come over time, and each one gives me a moment to feel closer to my heritage. Perhaps we were separated from it, but it never completely left us. And I see that in so many ways.

I have long known my mother's favorite colors are black, white, and red (she makes many a quilt in these colors). These are also very important colors in Maori tradition and I wonder if she latched on to them early on without knowing.

Traditional Maori storage building
and garden plot.
 I have always had this strong desire to garden and grow things. It probably has a lot to do with my grandpa Gene, whose garden seemed like paradise when we visited it. Rows of vegetables, trees and bushes and canes dripping with fruit. It seems whatever he touches grows.

But I never got to have a garden as a kid.

We lived in an apartment, and I still remember begging my mom to let me plant seeds in the sad plot of soil outside out front steps. I chose cosmos. The area was too shady and too undernourished for such a tall-growing, sun-loving flower—I was not met with success thought I tried very hard and got several seeds to sprout. They never flowered.

When we moved into our first house, I asked for a part of the backyard where I could grow things. I did not get my garden. Once again when we moved back to Utah, I asked for a spot in the backyard where I could grow things. I did not get my garden.

When I married, we moved to a townhouse where I tried over and over to grow things, though I had to lug water from inside to water all the things on my tiny patio.

The first spring in my garden. 
And then finally, after 11 years married, we were able to purchase a modest home with an epic yard. The garden boxes called to me. The fruit trees made my heart skip a beat. This was very much the garden of my dreams, a place I could finally get my fill of working the earth.

It's been a challenge and a trial, a joy and respite from the world's chaos. If you follow me at all, you have seen many pictures.

My sister-in-law told me it's a "Maori thing" to like growing plants. She said it's in my blood. I do believe that's true, even though no one in my immediate family likes yard work or gardens. Perhaps I didn't get the appearances, but there has always been something deep inside me that needs to plant things, that wants to care for the land that I have.

Maori have a deep, abiding respect for the land. Every iwi has sacred sites and locations—mountains, rivers, oceans. As I spent time in that land, I could feel a connection to it. It was spring when I was there, and I could not stop thinking about wanting to plant things. I wanted to see how they would grow in the soil that was laden with water in comparison to my own desert climate.

I see the legacy of our heritage in my daughter's epic pukana. In my siblings' quests to complete med schoo (my grandma wished to be a doctor, but could only be a nurse in her time). I see it when my family came together for my wedding and my Uncle Vernon brought people to sing. He made my new husband do a haka, which Nick was totally unprepared for though he handled it perfectly.

First haka lesson.
Clumsily dancing a hula I learned in my
Polynesian dance class. (I was too scared to
sing in Maori, which dancing comes with.)

While it might have seemed out of place to some, I was so happy my Uncle Vernon organized such a thing for me. He spoke of my grandmother (who was his sponsor when he came to the states), of her strong will and good humor, of how she helped him adjust to a land far away. He led the songs and helped me feel like my grandmother was there in spirit. She was there that night, I know it, watching on as we honored her memory.

My Uncle Vernon (uncle in the Polynesian sense, aka
related more distantly but who cares), speaking of
my grandmother at my wedding.
It has always been hard for me to let moments like this into my life, because I often feel as if I'm not allowed to (which will be the next post), but I am always glad when I ignore that negative voice and let it happen.

My mother would always tell stories of my grandmother bringing home strangers to feed at dinnertime. Of giving all she had even though she didn't have much. Of comforting and caring for the patients she nursed. This was the kind of deep generosity engrained in my mother from my grandmother, and some of it came to me (though much more of it came to my sisters...).

Even now, that is my standard. I have to make extra food if I'm serving a meal, just incase there are more to feed than expected. I have the impulse to give, unable to ask for money when many might (be it food from my garden, furniture, outgrown clothes, or writing critiques). Generosity is also a remnant, or perhaps the better word is legacy, of our family. Of the Maori, I believe.

This is the fourth post in my series on being a white passing Maori in America. I do not speak for anyone but myself, and these are personal experiences I draw from.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Seeing Wrong, Saying Something, Watching Nothing Change

Okay, here we go. Into the super uncomfortable parts of white passing!

I grew up in the Bay Area, Fremont for almost all of elementary, and then Brentwood (the northern one) for my early adolescence. I was surrounded with people who were different from me in religion, race, class, etc. It felt normal. I had friends from many backgrounds. 

Honestly, I felt more comfortable around people of color as a kid and teen. I didn't really know why, but it might be because of where I grew up and my Maori culture that seeped into me in ways I didn't realize (that's another post in the future). I felt at ease with them, at ease listening to them speak in a different language with their parents. Maybe it reminded me of my grandma singing in Maori. Those different languages and cultures represented love and comfort for me.

I remember there being some arguments or missteps on these differences (my Baptist friends constantly wanted to save my Mormon soul, for example), but I was taught early on from my family and at school that we could all respect each other. In 6th grade, I remember vividly my history teacher discussing every major world religion. It fascinated me, and the amount of respect in our classroom after was palpable.

I grew up in a small apartment in Fremont, in a questionable part of town at the time where we weren't completely poor but not really secure in finances either. Currently my old neighborhood is now top school and swanky? It's hard to reconcile when I remember the constant penis graffiti at the elementary they had to clean up, or the known drug house on the way to school, or the terrible case of a toddler being murdered just down the street. When my father graduated with his masters and got a good job, we moved to a very middle class place in Brentwood. I was comfortable in modest circumstances, in having enough but not more than we needed. 

So when I moved to Utah in 1998, I was not prepared for what was waiting in a more homogenous area (white, LDS, upper class). As I walked the halls on my first day of school there (indoor halls! what???), I was taken back by the sea of blonds, by the single shade of skin color, and even the strange way everyone seemed to have the same body shape (knobby tallness for the boys, elven svelte for the girls). 

Though I might have blended in more than ever before (except I was already far curvier than most), I had never felt so out of place. 

Kids made fun of my California accent and "beach clothes." They were great at immediately pointing out what made me different from them, from my interests in Anime to my outspoken manner to the different things I thought were important about our shared religion. They didn't know what to do with me—and I didn't know what to do with them. 

Because, though we might have looked the same, I was very different on the inside. 

For example, I had chosen drama for one of my elections that 9th grade year, and it was one of those classes with a laid back attitude. The teacher hadn't started class right when the bell rang, and kids chatted amongst themselves. I felt slightly out of place not only as the New Kid, but as a person who'd never been in drama and didn't like the spotlight. 

So I was keeping to myself, drawing like I usually did, when I over heard a conversation. 

"What do you call a Mexican who..."

I stiffened, shocked at the "jokes" that proceeded to come out of this boy's mouth. These sort of "jokes" would have gotten him a fist in the face at my old school. I had heard them before even—but they were almost always called out for what they were. Then he moved on from Mexicans to Jews. No one around me seemed upset. No one did anything but laugh. 

"Dude, that's racist," I blurted out, angry at how long everyone had let this go on. 

The boy looked at me in horror, as if I had mortally wounded him with my accusation. "It's just a joke, dude. Can't you take a joke?"

The mock surfer accent was not lost on me. 

"If it's so funny, would you say it in front of a Mexican person? Or a Jewish person?" I asked. 

He didn't have a snappy reply to that, and his face grew red. The whole class had grown quiet. I would have gone on chewing him out, but the teacher jumped in and decided to start class right then. She made no effort to correct anything, though she had to have heard the conversation. 

I wish I could say that someone learned a lesson from this, but I was the one who paid for speaking out. 

That kid I stood up to? He was mean to me for years after. Every class we had together, he would call me names and whisper about me to others. No one stood up for me. No one did anything. Finally, at some point in high school, I finally asked him, "Why do you hate me do much?"

"Because you were born," was his answer. 

It hurt, but looking back it makes me sad for anyone who was different in that area. Whether it was exaggeration or not, I feel like his reply was incredibly telling of the underlying current of the community I moved into. Of course it wasn't everyone, but there was an attitude, a set of "beliefs" that came with being an upper class white kid in a nearly all white community. Everyone patted each other's backs, telling each other they all earned what they had. There's this sentiment easily shared that if "others would just work harder and stop being lazy or degenerate..." There are many instances of the phrase, "I'm not racist, but..." followed by some terrible statement. 

I think that kid really did hate me because I was born—because I was born female in a misogynist society and I dared to stand up to him in public. To him, the "shame" I'd put on him was more than what anyone else would have to suffer ever in their lives, and he would make sure I paid for it. 

I didn't understand that at the time. It's taken years of adulthood and lessons from other people of color to make sense of what I saw as a kid. 

That's the weird thing about being a white passer. You see. You see racist stuff all the time, because you are coded as white on the outside and thus you are automatically "accepted" as someone who would agree with all the crap some can spew. 

But the moment you speak up, they know you're not "one of them." 

You might think this would cause change, but it doesn't. It only causes you to be isolated. You're a danger to the system. You don't comply with the code. 

And that was the thing—I knew if I spoke up, nothing would change. 

Maybe they stopped telling the racist jokes in front of me, but I knew they were still telling them in spaces where they thought it was "safe" to tell them. I could stand up until I was blue in the face, but I was one teen girl against a messed up system I didn't fully understand. 

Because I didn't fit in the system, nor outside of it, I have never belonged anywhere. Because as a white passer, you see the racism a lot...but you never experience it directly. 

You can't be in the white community fully because you can't comply with their assertions on a ton of things, and you make them uncomfortable when you let them know. And you can't be in your own cultural community in America, because you know it's true that you don't get the same judgment and persecution. It's like getting the benefits of white privilege AND the benefits of your heritage—and according to pretty much everyone that is not fair. (And even I myself feel like it's not fair, and thus I have an internal reluctance to embrace my heritage. Feels very much like having cake and eating it too.)

Another example: Anime was not a normal interest in late 90s Utah, let me tell you. And having that interest was another window into racism. I say a window, because once again I saw what people thought of Asians...but it was never directed at me. 

"You like Japanimation??" A kid would stretch his eyes at the sides. "Ching chong chang?"

Like, seriously. The levels of terrible are mind bending. This was just me as a blond girl drawing Sailor Moon fanfic. Again, I would say they were being racist. 

"It was just a joke, gosh." They would stomp off, never to speak to me again, but happy to do the eye stretch in the hall when they saw me. 

Always, always "just a joke."

Another another: "You have a crush on him? But your kids wouldn't look like you!"

Me staring blankly at the level of racism in the girl's assertion. "Uh, they would? And that's pretty racist..."

"No it's not! It's true!" Yet another person who would never be my friend or talk to me again.

When these things happened to me, they hurt, but I would always think of how much worse it would be if I looked Maori on the outside. Would I get random hula comments? Talk of coconut bras to double down on sexism and racism? I thought of my Vietnamese, Black, Latinx, Jewish friends in California and ached for how it would wound them so much more than me. I knew they would hear it like I had. I'd seen this my whole life, and I knew it was wrong, and I had no idea how to make it any better. Calling it out hadn't helped—I was alone in doing it, no one ever backing me up—so what else was there?

White passers don't have tools. And they don't have a full understanding when they're growing up. If their parents are white passing, too, there is often no one to give them context, to provide that other side of the story they feel but don't have.

I don't know about everyone, but it always left me lost. It left me trying and failing a lot. I had pieces that were right, and I still had the system of privilege teaching me lies as well (for example, I might have been sensitive to race because of my background, but I was utterly clueless about how homophobic my world also was and how much I had absorbed). I knew some things were offensive, but others slipped my grasp. Still, there were things I knew felt wrong, but I didn't have the words or experience to say why.

And yet, every now and then, there would be someone who would find me eating alone in the halls. 

They would come up to me and say, "Thanks for standing up to [insert name here]. What they said was terrible."

"You're welcome," I would say with a measure of relief. So it had mattered to someone. 

On my worst days, I would want to ask, "Why didn't you back me up?"

But I never did say that. Many of these people (not all) who thanked me were people of color. And I didn't fully understand it then, but now I get that they had a lot more to lose when speaking out as the very small minority (we are talking there was only one Black kid at my whole high school of 1500 students, and the others were in handfuls.). These students likely couldn't afford to draw any more attention to themselves.

It's still hard to talk about this stuff, because I know many will get defensive. I've seen it time and time again in my community. I don't want to make excuses, but I have come to learn that for every unapologetically racist person there is another who wants change and learn. And there is some genuine ignorance even still. There have been terrible moments like those I've given, but there have also been moments when I've said, "Um, so 'oriental' is now considered an offensive term, if you didn't know."

And the person turns bright red not with anger, but with embarrassment. "Oh, I had no idea. Thank you for telling me. I feel so bad!"

Because of my strange position as a white passer, I sometimes wonder if my appearance "softens the blow." I have learned since my childhood that telling a white person they are doing something "racist" never goes over well (even when it's true), but offering correction when they know me and know my background often brings a greater measure of reflection. 

Yet...I think people like me are frequently reluctant to offer advice or stand up, because we are so acutely aware that we are not experts, nor are we directly impacted like those in our culture who look as expected. I'm always stepping on toes, no matter where I go or what I do. I wouldn't say I'm fully used to it, but I have come to terms with it for the most part.

I wish I could say that all of this was in the past, in those long ago 90s, but I think we all know that isn't true. And even in my own writing community, I hear things that shock me at times. 

"Right now, you can't get published if you're white," said a writer in a small group.

My eyes went wide. I had thought everyone was welcoming of the push for more diversity, and yet again I was reminded that Utah has a long way to go. "I think that's far from true."

And I was right. People of color still make up less than 10% of children's authors. There's a whole study on these stats. But because of the visibility of the movement, people "see their spots being taken." 

Anyway, I admit I still don't know how best to traverse every situation, but I do know I have a unique perspective and I try my best. I think that's all we can do, even when it sometimes feels like nothing around us changes. Maybe I am viewed as unsettling or unsafe to the majority in my area, but I would rather be seen as a safe place for those who constantly go unheard. 

This is the third post in my series on being a white passing Maori in America. I do not speak for anyone but myself, and these are personal experiences I draw from.

Monday, February 25, 2019

When I Lost What I Once Had

After my grandmother's death, I was desperate for ways to stay connected to her. I still feel that even now, always searching for something to bring us together though she is not with me physically. I've often felt compelled to visit her grave, and I sit there in the quiet and tell her what I've been up to. I wrote a whole novel about a grandmother and granddaughter and their loving relationship (House Of Ivy & Sorrow). And, of course, I try to connect to her culture.

Little Maori doll my sister-in-law
left in my care. To show the clothing.
My mother inherited my grandmother's pari (bodice part of  Maori dress) and tipare (headband) after she died. I did not know these words at the time. Nor did my mother. It wasn't as if we had Google back then to look up words, which is what I do now to learn te reo Maori. It was a very small dress, and as a 9 or 10-year-old I could fit in it.

So I decided I would wear it to school for Halloween.

"Are you sure?" I'd said something like this as my mother painted a moko (traditional tattoo) on my chin.

"Yes," she'd have replied. "Many Maori women would have had these. And your ancestors were chiefs, royalty, so you would have had one."

I took her word for it. And as I looked in the mirror I felt proud. I was descended from royalty? I was basically a princess then, right? Mom found a feather to put in the tipare, and she let me bring a set of poi balls I'd been practicing with. Even though I didn't have the piupiu (flax skirt that goes over the pari), this was as Maori as I ever looked. And I could feel my grandma looking down on me, proud.

Then I got to school.

Many of you can probably guess how this story goes. What I was so proud of that morning was not met with the same enthusiasm by my classmates, who had no idea what I was.

"Why do you have a beard?" some asked.

"It's not a beard! It's a tattoo!" I tried to defend.

"That's weird...why do you have a tattoo on your face?" would be the next and not-much-better question.

"Because I'm a princess! I'm Maori!"

"Princesses don't have tattoos on their face," would be the assertion.

And what could I say to that? I had never seen a princess with a face tattoo either. My childhood was filled with the same Disney movies as everyone else. All I had to go on was my mother's word. Had she lied to me? Everyone at school seemed to agree that tattoos and princesses did not mix.

If it wasn't this conversation, the day was also filled with another one:

"Are you an Indian?" a kid or teacher would ask. (It was the 90s, and people still said "Indian" more than they used "Native American.")

"No, I'm Maori!"


"They live in New Zealand," I would try to explain, happy that they were at least not making fun of my moko. "They are part of Polynesia, and my grandma was Maori."

"You don't look Polynesian," would be the next assessment.

I don't look Polynesian. I don't know how many times that day I was told this, but it sunk in deep and crushed my sense of self. I had been told I was Maori. I was still young enough that I really only interacted with my family and a few friends, all of whom never contradicted what I was told. So I believed it with my whole heart.

But after a day of having to explain something far too complex for a 9 or 10-year-old little kid to explain, I had to question.

Maybe I wasn't Maori.

No one at school seemed to believe it was possible. I had light skin and blond hair. My eyes were green, not brown. To everyone there, I was dressed up as some weird kind of "Indian" with a tattoo/beard on my chin. It meant nothing to them. I was just a white girl in what might now be deemed a culturally insensitive costume. Not a single person considered that Maori could be part of who I was.

I washed the moko off half way through the school day. I never wore my grandmother's pari again. What I learned that day was I had no right to claim something that wasn't obvious in my appearance. I now know this was a crap lesson, but it happened nonetheless. And I hadn't realized just how deeply it had affected me until, once again, I visited New Zealand in 2017.

My sister-in-law, who grew up in New Zealand and knew much more about our Maori culture than I did, wanted to give me as many cultural and Kiwi experiences as I could have while I was there. Which I completely appreciated. But there was one that I dreaded:

She had scheduled a photo-shoot for me to dress in Maori clothing, so I could connect more to my culture.

I was having serious panic attacks over it. I didn't want to do it.

"Why not?" she asked when I told her I didn't want to go.

This story from my childhood then smacked me in the face. I had pushed it out of my mind for the most part. It had been so painful I blocked it off. But I began to tear up as I told her about my only other experience wearing clothing tied to my Maori heritage.

She looked so sad and sympathetic. She said that a lot of Maori in New Zealand looked pakeha (white), because colonization was a thing that happened. It wasn't weird there. She got why I felt that way growing up in America, but New Zealand was different. It wasn't about appearance as much—it was about whakapapa (genealogy). She even said my iwi, Ngapuhi, was often pretty pakeha because the British landed on our shores first. We had the longest and most intertwined contact because of that.

I hadn't known about any of this. That's the strange thing about being cut off from parts of your culture—you often learn much of it backwards. It's a complicated puzzle that you piece together without instructions and often completely out of order.

Growing up in America, where books are most certainly judged by their covers, I had been told repeatedly that I could not be Maori simply because I didn't look it. Nothing else really mattered. That Halloween was the beginning of many more stories of unbelonging, but as I unpacked what that day did to me I discovered it was so much more than I'd realized.

I can now pinpoint why that age was when I started to hate my appearance. I even seriously believed for a good few months that I was secretly adopted and my parents were just refusing to tell me the truth. My mother finally pulled out all my baby pictures and my birth certificate to prove to me that she did, in fact, give birth to me.

I was still skeptical, but I eventually came around.

When I dyed my hair brown, just to see how
it would feel. It didn't bring the magical
"belonging" I hoped it would...
For a long time, I wished to have dark hair and tan skin (Honestly, sometimes I still do...). In fact, I even envied my brother and sisters who did have dark brown hair like my parents. I began to notice over the years that they didn't have the same problems I did. When they mentioned their heritage, people were surprised, but they also said, "I guess I can see that now that you say it." Just having dark hair was enough to flip that narrative a little.

I was particularly jealous and mean to my little sister, and as I've thought about this time in my life more in depth, I wonder if this was part of my trauma I took out on her. She had the dark hair and figure and could tan. She had long hair, in contrast to mine being short (ironically, because my grandma convinced me to cut and perm it into a mushroom top at 8-years-old). She has my mother's cute button nose, while I had my father's more prominent Polish one. She even has my grandmother's smile (and her talent for medical care). Looking back, I was so deeply jealous that she looked Maori and I did not. I was too little to unpack that, but it's come to me backwards like most things having to do with my culture. (And none of this justifies how I treated her and I have no excuses, I'm just diving deeper into understanding my own stupid issues and how I took it out on others unfairly.)

After that Halloween, I didn't share about my culture to others very often. Each time I got up the courage, I was met with similar skepticism. So I locked it away in my heart, because it was important to me and I couldn't stand being told over and over that I didn't belong.

That was the baggage I brought to New Zealand, the weight I carried around for most of my life. So it was hard to believe my sister-in-law when she said the photographers wouldn't treat me like I was taking something that didn't belong to me.

But she helped me gather my courage. And we drove through the oppressively green Waikato region in the cool early days of spring. We arrived at a home and I felt as if my heart would jump right out of my chest. I was trying my best to suppress a panic attack as the photographers finished up their current session. We sat on a well-worn couch and began to look at their portfolios. And, just like my sister-in-law had said, there were many pakeha in those pictures.

The two wonderful ladies who run Soldiers Rd Photography sat down with me and asked about my heritage. They embraced every piece of it, and not once did they look at me like I was lying or like I didn't belong there. They told me that part of the story of New Zealand, for better or worse, was colonization. I was a product of that, we all were. They wanted to capture all of who I was, both my Maori ancestors and the Scottish part who immigrated to New Zealand long ago.

I was so self-conscious—I have never loved taking pictures of myself—but they had eased much of my fears already. They chose both English styles and Maori. They added plaid to reference my McKenzie line. I wore my Great-Grandmother Isabella's gloves and held her kete. It was so much more clothing than the single pari and tipare I'd worn that Halloween, but I felt just as exposed. I was quite literally wearing my heritage for all to see.

Then it came time to do my hair. They placed two red feathers there, a shadow of the feather I had worn that terrible day. Then they came with the black makeup, time to place a moko on my chin. I could feel that little child inside me, scared once again that I could not so boldly claim this. The laughs and questions and skepticism that followed me my whole life stood right there, demanding to be believed.

They held a mirror up for me to see, and the person looking back was overwhelming. It was me, but it was all the pieces no one ever saw in America. It was a vibrant, visual statement of who I was, and who my ancestors were.

It's hard to push out a lifetime of American views, but my two weeks in New Zealand certainly helped me understand and unpack a lot of my complicated feelings as a white passer. It was nice to be in a place for two weeks where I belonged, and where my story was normal and believed.

I had to fly home before I got the final pictures of me, and by then I had fallen back into the American trappings and felt a bit silly for having taken that picture. But when I opened that email and saw myself, I was glad I had done it. One trip and one picture did not fix everything, but it has provided a balm to my soul. It did help me look deeper and find the words to better explain the complexities of my own identity. And for that, I'm especially grateful.

This is the second post in a series about my experiences as a white-passing Maori in America. I do not speak for anyone but myself, and these are personal experiences I draw from.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Beginning: My Grandma Dorothy

In nurse's uniform. She studied to be a nurse
in New Zealand, and even qualified for
the extra certification to become a midwife.
I have long been thinking about telling my story of being a white passing Maori in America. But it terrifies me. I have held it in, afraid of what others would say. It's a complicated story, with complicated feelings that are hard to express. Some of those feelings I'm just beginning to understand more clearly.

But I'm ready to share. 

And I'm going to use this old blog to do it. Because, back in the day, I was good at blogging. And posts about my life are what often brought other good people into my circle. I hope that will be the same now. 

Disclaimer: These are solely my own experiences. I am not speaking for anyone else or all Maori or all white passers from other mixed heritages. The stories I tell are from my own life and memories. Everyone will have unique experiences with this.

So we're going to start at the beginning: My grandmother Dorothy Mary Repia McKenzie Buss. 

She was my origin point to the Maori part of my heritage. I didn't understand a lot when I was small, but I loved my grandmother deeply. I don't really know why I was so specifically attached to her, but every minute I could spend with her I would take. I loved to hear her speak. She said to-mah-to instead of to-may-to. I knew she was from a far away place called New Zealand, where my grandfather served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She laughed often and had a radiant smile.

We would visit my grandparents once a year or so, driving from California to Utah. I was always eager to be with grandma again. I loved the tiny house she lived in, with its safe walls that were constantly close enough to touch even for a child. I loved the garden my grandfather tended vigilantly, a paradise of fresh food. I loved laying on the sheepskin by her bed. I did NOT love how she never let me have more than two inches of water in the bath. "That's plenty to wash with!" she'd say.

My absolute favorite thing was when Grandma Dorothy would tuck us in at night. Because that was when she would sing. And she would sing songs in a language I didn't know, tunes I hadn't heard, but I loved them all the same.

I was too young to remember the music now, but I do understand that she was singing Maori songs. She was singing the songs she practiced for the Utah Polynesian Choir she was part of. These songs, just a fleeting memory, are the deepest and earliest connection I have to the world my grandma left to come to America. And still, when I hear this kind of music, something inside me springs up. I'm taken back to that tiny bedroom with barely enough room between two mattresses to walk. I can see her sitting there, her smiling face above me, singing my ancestors into my heart. And I cry nearly every time.

How I knew Grandma in her later years.
I didn't know having blond hair wasn't common for Maori people when I was little because when I knew my grandmother she had blond hair. It was lost on me that she had dyed it until after she had left this world and I saw photos from her youth. My Auntie and Uncle had blond hair like me, though my own mom didn't. I felt like I belonged when I was too little to know different.

She was the only Maori from New Zealand I really knew. She was my standard. She was the key for all of us, really. 

And we lost her when I was eight. 

I have never really gotten over it. Her death was my first experience with a life ending. And, looking back, it was almost as if part of my heritage was locked away with her. I still miss her desperately. I miss all the things I might have learned. I often wonder if I would have had a firmer footing in my Maori culture had she lived longer. Instead, I've had to piece it all together from scraps of pictures and family memories and historical records.

My mother tried. And really she did a good job with what she knew herself. She had been an exchange student to New Zealand her junior year of high school, and she shared many stories of my grandmother and her family. But as all American immigrants of that time, I think my grandma wanted her children to have American opportunities and be "American." Being different wasn't...embraced back then. And even my mother and her siblings could pass as white. Perhaps that is why Grandma Dorothy colored her hair in the end, to blend in a little more. (There is a wonderful story about her accidentally dyeing it green once, because of course she did it herself.) Utah is still quite homogenous today—I can't imagine how much more it was in the 60s and 70s. 

It wasn't until long after she died that I learned more about where she came from. Born in Maromaku. Part of the Ngapuhi iwi (tribe). Her grandfather was Hohepa Heperi, an icon of sorts in the LDS Maori circles. My mother would show me a picture of Euera Patuone, one of our ancestors with a full moko tattooed on his face.

I also learned that she would go to New Zealand yearly, leaving her family for a couple months at a time. It likely cost more than my grandparents could afford, and the whole family could never imagine going together on a carpenter's salary. I think my grandma missed her homeland very much. More than she ever said out loud. 

I know she was far from perfect. I don't envision her in an idealistic way as I did when I was little. She had a hard childhood she didn't talk much about. Her brother died before his time. Grandma Dorothy was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 35. My mother was 10. She was ill, and not always there for her family. Yet she was also generous with her time, giving it to care for others. She would love on me, but also be stern, telling me to wipe up my crocodile tears and get on with it. She was that strange combination of hard and soft I also see in myself. Perhaps it is in me because of her. 

Meeting her first grandchild. (Me.)
I was the first grandchild on both sides of my family, and I feel lucky to have all the memories I do have of Grandma Dorothy. I have discovered not even my closest siblings and cousins in age remember as much as I do. 

But it's hard, too. Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier had I been younger, had I not been able to grasp what I lost. And maybe that is why I cling so much to the Maori parts of myself—because it's what connects me to my grandmother. To her legacy. And, ultimately, the legacy of Aotearoa and our people. 

I've learned over the years that most people don't even know who the Maori are. If they do, we are often lumped into Polynesia as a whole, though all our cultures are unique despite being related. If they know anything, it is the haka perhaps (the most commonly performed one...not the hundreds of others that are all specific to the iwi who used them.). 

Great Auntie Claudia slicing Maori bread.
When I finally had the opportunity to go to New Zealand in 2017, I was going to be with my family (brother and sister live there). I was going to connect to the place of my ancestors, see my great-grandparents' grave, finally get a chance to be in a place that I had dreamed of going my whole life (the trip at 9 months old didn't count because I can't remember!). What did most Americans ask me? 

"Are you going to see the Hobbits?"

They thought it was funny, clearly. But after about the 5th time (and many more after...), I was deeply upset. This place that meant so much to me and my family was only known for the fictional characters filmed there. I was sure most of the people who asked probably didn't even know who the Maori were. And it made me angry and tired. I dreaded even saying I was going there, because I didn't want to glare at the next person to ask about Hobbits.

For the record, I did not "see the Hobbits."

My great-grandparents' grave site.
Dorothy's parents.
But I did visit my Great Auntie Claudia, my grandmother's sister and only one still living of their family. She shared pictures we hadn't seen, gave me tea cloths from the family, and showed us her well-loved doll collection. For a moment, it felt as if all was right, a bit of my grandma was there in Claudia. 

She lives right across from the cemetery where her parents, my great-grandparents, are buried. And as I stood in front of that gravestone—the physical proof that I was, indeed, tied to this land of Aotearoa after all—I once again felt like I did when I was little and Grandma Dorothy was alive. 

Like I belonged.

This post is the first in a series about my personal experience as a white passing Maori in America. Stay tuned for more.

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Change Of Plans

Sometimes your best laid plans just...poof. I had this whole plan to bust out a ton of sci-fi novels this year to build my pen name, Nat McKenzie. I would have so much time with my kids all in school full time!
...and then I went and had a baby.
While I *did* write a ton of novels, they weren't the sci-fi ones I planned to write. They were Fortnite novels I was being paid to write—thus they came first. Now I am so behind on my plans. Plus, my baby is the type who sleeps through the night but doesn't nap for more than 30 mins during the day. And I have to be I'm holding him, or he has to be in the carseat while I walk the track at the rec center/run errands.
I am well rested and incapable of being productive on my writing. It's an interesting combo. I have lost some baby weight from all that track walking, though!
All this to say it's become abundantly clear that my plan for a pen name is just not going to work. It makes a lot more sense to republish THE VENGEANCE CODE back under Natalie Whipple, given the speed I will be getting books out now (i.e. slower than a snail).
It's annoying. And I feel a bit silly. But it is what it is. Plans have to change, and the great thing about being indie is I can change them! I do apologize to those few people who have purchased the book, for the odd change, but at this point having all my backlist under one name is the only logical choice.
With any luck, THE EXECUTION LOOP will be out at the end of summer 2019. I sure wish it was sooner, but at the rate I'm could very well be later. I'm so sorry, but alas. Life is life. And mine is super weird like that.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

How To Not Sound Elitist (Intentional Or Not) About Publishing Methods

I've been debating talking about this because it could hurt feelings/offend, but I gotta just lay it out. While attitudes towards indie have improved a lot over the time I've been a writer, little things still sneak through. 
It's usually at conferences on panels where no indies are repped but the topic veers that way. Or online when traditionally pubbed people are giving advice they believe is universal but is insulting to indies. It can be in the way we measure "success" in the business. Or what people deem as "writer skills."
Here we go!
1. You Have To Have An Agent. 
Regardless of changing perceptions of indie, this has stuck around hard. I've had three agents. I currently do not have one. I stayed in my last agent partnership longer than I probably should have because I felt like I would be "less of a writer" if I didn't have one. (And that held me back in a lot of ways I won't go into right now.)
Just stop telling people you MUST have an agent. If you're traditional and you want to pursue the Big Five, YES, get an agent. But you don't NEED ONE to be a great and valid author.
2. Traditional Is Always A Better Path To Success
Having spent time on both sides of the fence, I really beg to differ at this point. Both are a lot of work, both can find incredible success. What really is a factor? GENRE. Some genres (like YA and MG) still see more "success" in traditional. Others (Romances, adult genre fic)? Holy crap can you do SO WELL as indie. 
3. Only Traditional Publishing Can Provide "Quality Work"
I call bull crap. I've worked in traditional with my own original work, on contracted books, AND in indie. Honestly? The editor I hire for my indie is the BEST one I have worked with. She has time for me specifically. She is efficient and thorough. She is worth more than she makes me pay. 
AND then there's the cover art and other book production factors. Is there a learning curve in indie? Oh yes. But that doesn't mean indies don't improve and find their groove. There is so much quality work out there in indie, as there is in traditional....also, there is meh stuff in both as well.
4. It's All About The Writing All The Time
The secret indie writers seem to know is this—writing to market makes you money. There's this idea in traditional publishing that "writing true to yourself" is the only way to go and eventually if you wait around long enough some publisher will pluck your brilliance from obscurity and you will be famous.
How does traditional make you famous? Marketing. Oh, and marketing. Also, some promotion and marketing. It's great if your books are "amazing" but it's better if they fill a niche market or hit a massive wide market. 
Indies have their "write to market" strategy and their "passion projects." A LOT of the most successful are incredible and savvy marketers and I admire that skill set SO MUCH. They have the control over their work to advertise it and target their audience at a level traditional authors can't—they're at the mercy of their publisher for the most part.
(Now, to the meaner more obvious ones.)
5. Indies Are Writers Who Couldn't Get Published/Didn't Try Hard Enough
So not true. Many out there are hybrid. Others found they could produce much faster than traditional could publish. Some wanted the full cut for themselves and knew they were capable of the Whole Job, from writing to editing to publication. Others enjoy that full control and don't want extra cooks in the kitchen. Stop assuming you know why an indie chose their path.
6. "Writing To Market" Is Somehow "Bad Writing"
This happens a lot. We see a successful writer, indie or traditional, and we want to write them off because "Oh, they just hit the market right but they're not actually good." Psh. That's a remark spawned from jealousy. Market fiction, genre fiction, can be both well-written and successful (though maybe not to your personal tastes)—it can also come from indies and traditional. 
7. "I've Never Read An Indie Book, But..."
There are so many writers who have lots of opinions on the state of indie publishing but have never bothered to read indie work. And then they ADMIT IT, and somehow BRAG about it, as if they are better off because they haven't tainted their eyes with such "low writing."
I could go on, but this is a good start. If you can remove those last three from your mouth and brain entirely, that's a decent start. The next step is removing your more subtle biases towards traditional publishing. 
There truly is more than one way to be successful in publishing. And there are so many indies who love what they do and wouldn't have it any other way. Let's keep pushing for opening our minds to all the options authors have today. It's a good thing!