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Mixed identity: half-Maori, half-Chinese

When people ask 27-year-old Arlene Tuang where she comes from, she finds it difficult to answer.

The half-Maori-half-Chinese woman doesn't look Maori and was thought to be an Asian in New Zealand. Once at a university orientation program for Maori students, someone shouted "Go home" because she didn't look Maori at all.

This incident and Tuang's sophisticated feelings about her mixed identity are recorded in "Being Maori-Chinese - Mixed Identities" by Manying Ip, associate professor for Asian studies at the University of Auckland.

With a PhD in history, Ip brought her book to the Shanghai International Literary Festival and talked about the seemingly narrow approach of cross-cultural relationships.

"It shows us the difficulties they have been through, but more significantly, how such hurdles have been turned into advantages. People with different identities are more accustomed to different cultures, a helpful position in this era," says Ip.

She gives examples in her interviews with other Maori-Chinese she has met, including a successful businessman currently learning Chinese in Nanjing (capital city of Jiangsu Province), an established lawyer teaching at Maori universities during her leisure time and a respected professor who commits a lot of time to community service.

"A lot of Maori-Chinese used to prefer to identify themselves as Maori for the preferential policies. Although both Chinese and Maori traditions are kept in the family, most Maori-Chinese know how to speak Maori but very little Chinese," says Ip.

She also finds that many Maori-Chinese have recently been trying to retrace their Chinese roots. From pictures in her books, most family photographs in early days were taken with everyone wearing Maori dress, while more Chinese costumes are seen in recent pictures.

Starting with an academic approach, Ip adds a great deal of spice to the book through the individual experiences of seven Maori-Chinese families in New Zealand. Though it is a small group, many echo the details confronting different cultures.

For most Chinese people, little was known about New Zealand before the "Lord of the Rings," not to mention the Maori, about 15 percent of the population. It was not until recently that Chinese heard how anthropologists had proved Maori may have been Chinese who traveled a great distance before settling in New Zealand.

"They are not ethnically related though," says Ip, who gives a more accurate historical account.

People from the original 12 tribes of Taiwan traveled around the Pacific Islands and those that settled in New Zealand were the ancestors of the Maori. Ip also recalls how one of her Maori interviewees found many similar pronunciations and phrases in native Taiwanese languages.

Ip became interested in her subject in 2001, when she realized that both the Maori and the Chinese "were intimate and close in the 1920s and 1930s, when both were considered marginalized communities."

With nearly no records of such liaisons, Ip became curious about the reasons for and how they adjusted to the different cultures.

"In rural areas, the link is still there. But in cities, Chinese might have considered Maori less educated while Maori saw them as outsiders," says Ip. "So I really went to dig out the intimate liaisons in the past, when they were neighbors, friends and married couples."

Along the way, she found many thrilling stories and experiences, which came to unexpected conclusions.

"Maori and Chinese actually share a lot of cultural similarities, such as ancestral respect, strong family values, a love for pork and fish, among many other tedious but important details," says Ip.

The similarities are also provided in the book, with accounts of daily family life at an early period of the inter-marriage - cultural shock exists but to a much less degree than expected.

Ip is currently working on the Chinese translation of the book, which is scheduled to be published in Hong Kong around the end of this year.

Her next project, "The Dragon & The Taniwha - Maori and Chinese in New Zealand," is a more academic exploration of the changing relations between Chinese and Maori, in light of the economic and social history of New Zealand.


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