By Maria Hepi
What does it mean to be a bi-cultural researcher? The following eight key reflections are based on working bi-culturally in New Zealand.
I am a Pākehā (non-Māori) New Zealander and started learning Māori language and culture at university in 1995. Previously I had little to no contact with te reo Māori (the Māori language) or te ao Māori (the Māori world and culture). During my studies I became involved in kapa haka (the university Māori cultural club), and as such was exposed to a whole new world.
When I embarked on my journey into te ao Māori I naively thought I would be only learning about the Māori language and culture, however I also learnt what it meant to be Pākehā. I had been blind to my own culture as I had nothing to reflect it back to me.
The reflections below are based on my master’s research, which involved interviews with 12 Pākehā who had learnt the Māori language extensively and been involved in te ao Māori and their experiences of this, as well as my own experience. The quotations come from my interviews.
1: It can be difficult and frustrating being within another culture, not being able “to be as loud as in your own”.
“I think it is important to remember, whether you are going on to a marae [meeting grounds] … or whether you are talking to someone [Māori] who’s got strong feelings about something, to remember that it is not your culture, that you are a guest and that you do sometimes just have to take second, third, or fourth best and be prepared for that…you can’t be as loud and as outspoken as you are in your own culture, because it just doesn’t wash, and I have learnt that, the hard way!”
A useful analogy relates to families. It is fine to criticize your own family but we do not appreciate others criticizing our family. Outsiders will criticize from an ill-informed knowledge base, and also your family is not theirs to critique!
2: It is impossible to know another culture as you know your own. Do not presume that you do or can.
“It is just like another camera angle … you just see things or understand them in a different way … . The glimpses I have caught of them have been pretty cool, and I am fully aware that they are glimpses in regards to what other [Māori] people can understand and see, and I think it is important to remember that.”
This can be compared to women and men understanding each other. As a female I will never know what it is like to be a male; I may get glimpses of understanding but no true understanding.
3: Although sometimes difficult, bi-cultural research is also very rewarding. You can gain a deeper understanding of issues from dual perspectives.
“It is almost like you get a binocular vision. You can see that there is another world out there and another way of seeing things, and you get both, and I think that is quite exciting actually.”
I have sometimes asked myself why I continue to do bi-cultural research when it is more difficult than just working within my own culture. However it always comes back to how fortunate I feel to be able to see and understand the world from a different perspective and how that then enriches my own analysis or understanding of the world.
4: In order to work effectively within another culture you have to be comfortable in your own culture
“I think by actually getting into the Māori world I think I have actually become comfortable as a Pākehā, I feel really comfortable as a Pākehā … my world is really a Māori world in many ways, but I feel Pākehā. I am a Pākehā New Zealander, and I think that is a really comfortable place to be.”
“And to realise more and more that I am not Māori, and they don’t want me to be, or to pretend to be Māori. They don’t need me to help them, but I think it is certainly important that I respect who they are and … I think it is respecting my own inheritance.”
To me this is key to being able to work effectively. You have to value your own culture as much as you value the other culture. There will always be things that are better and worse (in different people’s minds) in each culture. One is not better than the other, they are just different.
5: Something done differently in another culture is not wrong, it is merely different; there will be valid underlying reasons.
“And so, when I am confronted with the fact there is a completely rational reason for the opposing view, I am thinking, ‘Wow, we can’t both [be right], but you can!’ It is just understanding that the views are different, but right. Yeah that would be my greatest gift really.”
Often people want the same things, we all want to be safe and healthy and happy. However how we achieve those things and how we view what it means to be safe, healthy and happy may be different and we may also have different mechanisms to achieve that. For instance, as a Pākehā, I view health as a mainly physical dimension eg., as absence of disease. However for Māori, health may not only include the physical side but also the spiritual side of their being and their connection to the land, their iwi (tribe) and their tūpuna (ancestors).
6: Do not aspire to be the ‘knight in shining armour’; rather be a resource and support for the other culture’s own aspirations.
“Yeah certainly there have been people that have questioned my involvement and I think that’s good, I think it’s healthy, I think I need to be questioned on a regular basis. If there’s no real reason why I should be the person doing this, I should stop. So that’s one of the criteria that I apply, ‘Are there any other people that could do the job?’ and if there are, then why the hell am I doing it?”
Māori do not need rescuing. The best way for Māori to achieve what they would like to achieve is for Māori to do it themselves in the way they wish to. Therefore your role as a non-Maori is to just be there as a resource to be pulled upon and to support Māori aspirations. I do this by working with mainstream organisations to get them to expand their understanding past their own cultural viewpoint to include an understanding of how Māori may address an issue.
7: Learning about another culture does not happen through a book; it needs hands-on experience.
You cannot learn about a culture through a book, it is the lived experience that gives you the understanding of that culture.
8: When working on issues from/of another culture, it is important to work with people from that culture.
I applied the Tuākana-Tēina model that is part of Māori culture to undertaking work with our Māori community co-researchers. The Tuākana-Tēina model is about acknowledging different people being the experts at different times, with one learning from the other, the roles can be reversed at any time depending on the context. Tuākana means older/senior and tēina younger/junior. For example when we as Pākehā go on to the marae or are undertaking analysis with data from Māori participants we are the tēina (junior) and our Māori community co-researchers are the tuākana (senior). Whereas when we come to writing research proposals we are the tuākana and they are the tēina (because we are trained in writing proposals).
Do these reflections resonate with you? Do you have other lessons or experiences to share?
To find out more:
Hepi, M., Foote, J., Marino, M., Rogers, M. and Taimona, H. (2007). ‘Koe wai hoki koe?!’, or ‘who are you?!’: Issues of trust in cross-cultural collaborative research. Kōtuitui: New Zealand Journal of Social Sciences Online, 2: 37-53.
Jellie, M. (2001). The Formation of Pākehā Identity in Relation to Te Reo Māori and Te Ao Māori. Master of Arts in Māori, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
Biography: Maria Hepi is a social scientist for the Social Systems Team at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research in Christchurch, New Zealand. She specialises in bi-cultural research and applies social science methods to expand the understanding of representatives from mainstream organizations past their own worldview to include an understanding of how Māori may address the same issue. She undertakes research with communities, hapū (subtribes), industry, local and central government, and other agencies to address challenging or intractable problems that involve high levels of complexity and uncertainty. Current research projects include supporting iwi evidence-based social investment and co-framing for health gain.