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

 

 

Latest

How you can help crack the insect code at Te Papa
101529 2019-01-23 00:00:00Z Science

How you can help crack the insect code at Te Papa

by Sam Button

Te Papa is on a mission to decipher the secret life of insects.

Read more
Bill Ralston says goodbye to Auckland
101333 2019-01-23 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Bill Ralston says goodbye to Auckland

by Bill Ralston

Our columnist finally turns his back on the congested, costly city of his birth.

Read more
Decision to force woman to pay likely abuser will have 'chilling effect'
101496 2019-01-22 11:12:54Z Crime

Decision to force woman to pay likely abuser will…

by RNZ

The lawyer of a woman ordered to pay $28,000 to her likely abuser has urged the justice minister to intervene.

Read more
7 traits that show how unsuited Trump is to the White House
101194 2019-01-22 00:00:00Z World

7 traits that show how unsuited Trump is to the Wh…

by Paul Thomas

Instead of striving to be disciplined, dedicated and presidential, Trump is flitting between seven characters that have no place in the White House.

Read more
Why vitamin D production is slower in old age
101151 2019-01-22 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why vitamin D production is slower in old age

by Jennifer Bowden

Getting our quota of vitamin D becomes more important – but more difficult – as we age.

Read more
Why ethical eating often stops at the restaurant door
101520 2019-01-22 00:00:00Z Food

Why ethical eating often stops at the restaurant d…

by Rachel A. Ankeny and Heather Bray

Can a chef promote foraging, seasonality and plant-based eating, yet also serve meat and other animal-derived protein products on the same menu?

Read more
Why the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery is bound to attract the curious
101463 2019-01-22 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Why the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery is bound…

by Ellen Rykers

Artist Bruce Mahalski's museum is the result of a lifetime of collecting.

Read more
Gillette ad isn't anti-men, it's anti-toxic masculinity – it should be welcomed
101480 2019-01-21 16:59:29Z Social issues

Gillette ad isn't anti-men, it's anti-toxic mascul…

by Nicola Bishop

The backlash against the Gillette ad shows how painfully little distance we as a society have covered since the #MeToo movement.

Read more