For Leilani Momoisea, a common question can be freighted with meaning

by Leilani Momoisea / 08 June, 2017
“Where are you from?” It’s a question I have spent my whole life crafting the answer to. Tweaking my response after each reaction, each follow-up question, learning to predict the answer you’re looking for.

It’s an innocuous question, or a subtle accusation, depending on who’s asking — or the day I’m having. I might say, what do you mean, exactly? Do you mean in Auckland? Or do you mean where my parents are from? (Do you mean to ask why I’m brown?) Or I might just cut to the chase: I’ll say I’m half-Samoan and half-Palagi. Is that what you were after? Or I’ll say my village is Vaito’omuli, Palauli, in Savai’i, because you’re Samoan, too, and you’re wanting to know my surname, and trying to figure out if we’re somehow related, or if your dad knows my dad. Or maybe you just want to test me to see how Samoan I really am.

I was born here, but the only time I think to say, “I’m from New Zealand”, is when I’m not in New Zealand. To say in New Zealand that I’m from New Zealand is to troll the person asking the question. Because we both know that’s not what they mean. I’ve watched friends refuse to read between the lines, to say in rebellion they are from here. Daring, forcing the next question to be clumsily spluttered, “No, but where are you really from?” “Yeah, I’m from New Zealand.”

An awkward stalemate, if you can enjoy revelling in the uncomfortable. If you can be bothered. It used to puzzle me. Wasn’t that some kind of rejection of their heritage? Weren’t they proud of where they or their parents came from? Their history? Growing up, I was taught to be proud of being Samoan, so I would always jump at the opportunity to explain, to represent. But my passport doesn’t say “Samoa”, it says “New Zealand”. And yet, here I am, explaining my existence.

Ask any person of colour how they approach that question, compare notes, and you’ll find any number of similar strategies. We are weary and wary of it, we adapt the answer as we go, and are as defiant as whatever our energy for that day allows.

Sometimes the question is truly searching for a connection, an effort to find common ground. And other times we have a gut instinct about something we know, but can never quite prove. It comes from years of unofficial field research, of being asked the same kind of question by the same kind of people, and decoding its meaning.

The words might be, “Where are you from?” but the data reads, “You don’t look like you’re from here.” “You don’t belong here.” “Why are you here?”

 

This is published in the May - June 2017 issue of Metro.


Get Metro delivered to your inbox

Subscribe now

 

/MetromagnzL @Metromagnz @Metromagnz

 

 

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

The 20 Best Movies of 2017
85197 2017-12-15 11:49:48Z Movies

The 20 Best Movies of 2017

by The Listener

Listener reviewers James Robins and Peter Calder pick the best films they’ve seen in the past year.

Read more
Win a double pass to The Post
85156 2017-12-15 09:53:04Z Win

Win a double pass to The Post

by The Listener

Be in to win tickets to a preview screening of The Post in either Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington.

Read more
Why did TVNZ's Mike Hosking and Toni Street call it quits?
85153 2017-12-15 07:18:32Z Television

Why did TVNZ's Mike Hosking and Toni Street call i…

by Colin Peacock

TVNZ insists the pair want to spend more time with families and radio jobs. What's next for a show that's often in the news because of its hosts?

Read more
National claims government accounts show big hole
85149 2017-12-15 06:32:15Z Politics

National claims government accounts show big hole

by Chris Bramwell

National says the opening of the government books yesterday backs up its argument that Labour has a massive hole in its accounts.

Read more
Donald Dux: An extraordinary year of President Trump
84715 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z World

Donald Dux: An extraordinary year of President Tru…

by Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas has chronicled the Trump presidency since its beginning and reviews the extraordinary year since The Donald entered the White House.

Read more
Former punk Kody Nielson is heading in a new direction
84445 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Music

Former punk Kody Nielson is heading in a new direc…

by James Belfield

But it’s no less entertaining.

Read more
The 10 Best Tech Gadgets of 2017
85128 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Technology

The 10 Best Tech Gadgets of 2017

by Peter Griffin

A round-up of the best and grooviest gadgets from 2017 and previews of top tech tempters for the new year.

Read more
Cervical-cancer screening tests are about to change
84383 2017-12-15 00:00:00Z Health

Cervical-cancer screening tests are about to chang…

by Nicky Pellegrino

Cervical-cancer screening tests have been helping to save lives for more than 25 years. Now the focus of the tests is going to change.

Read more