Reverse culture shock!

Baby is napping, the house is tidy so I’ve found myself with an inch of time to quickly type out my thoughts about my trip home to NZ in July/August this year.

Firstly, words really can’t describe how it felt to see my baby in the arms or homes of my nearest and dearest.  The closest thing I could use to describe it are heart warming feelings of wholeness or contedness, like all is right in the world.  Which, toward the end of the trip, made it harder than ever for me to leave.

Returning ‘home’ to France has also been a bit confusing for me.  So I’ve been in a sort of contemplative mode over the last week.

To start, I’ve never felt comfortable to ‘go there’, since it was very personal and quite problematic, but to be frank, I didnt ever want to move to France. I didn’t feel like I had much choice in the matter, other than the fact I wanted a future with my husband. Which was the only choice I had.  But one of those reasons I didn’t want to move was because at the time we’d planned to leave New Zealand, I was already feeling the chimes of my biological clock. But despite wanting to travel the world my whole life, I’d NEVER envisaged raising a family in a country other than New Zealand. I have such a strong relationship with both sides of my family, because of that I also have a strong sense of where I belong, as well as a strong network of good friends too. I believe in the idea that it takes a community to raise a child, and thats what I’ve always wanted for my own child/children.  To grow up with the safety and support of my family, my friends, my community.

So yeah… leaving home was hard in that sense.

But, and this is a big ‘BUT’, at the very beginning of our trip, I found myself a bit overwhelmed with reverse culture shock!!! Who would’ve thought?  This country, my home, which I’ve yearned for, and still do, was giving me feelings that were very new.  As a couple of my French friends have put it, I’ve become more French and I was seeing New Zealand through my French eyes.

New Zealand’s customer service has always been of such a high quality that France just can’t compare. I’ve always known this on an intellectual level and its something I’ve often complained about here in France.   But on experiencing NZ customer service after 4.5 years in France, I felt harrassed… even aggressed.  In many instances I simply wanted to purchase an item and didn’t require discussing my day, my mood, or become best friends with the cashier.  I really found myself feeling annoyed… forced into this false relationship for no good reason. I had such a limited supply of time and energy and I just couldn’t see why I should waste that on the salesperson.

By the end of my trip there, I’d re-adapted to life back home and was able to partake nicely in these irrelevant conversations.  But at the beginning it was just annoying, like they were holding me hostage because they have a need to pass the time (there was literally an incident where the transaction could’ve been done in a heartbeat but due to the chashiers need for some kind of human interaction or intimacy, held onto my goods for so long I wanted to pry it from their hands just to end the interaction!).

Then there’s the housing crisis, which has affected my family and friends in such a way that their stories are heartbreaking.  Not being able to buy in our own neighbourhood because its in the process of gentrification. It just pisses me off.  The worst part is that I know of several families from middle to upper-middle class backgrounds who’ve bought in our neighbourhood, a traditionally low socio-economic community aka ‘the hood’, and thus taken part in keeping my family out of the housing market.

Then those that are able to enter the market are having to slave their butts off at work to pay ridiculously inflated mortages.  Which is a scary prospect for my hubby and I to have to consider, given that we plan to return to NZ at some point for schooling and acculturation.  If we were to consider moving back to Auckland, where my hubby is more likely to find work, then we’d have to consider a mortage of c.830,000NZD, which is just unfathomable for each of us.  Thats not the kind of life that we ever envisaged for ourselves, being locked down with debt for the rest of our lives.   So then we’d have to consider living out of Auckland, which equates to a life of commuting and traffic jams, which is far from the quality of life that we currently have here in Albi.

Then there was the Metiria Turei saga. Mon dieu, it highlighted a very ugly side to our Kiwi culture.  Where we often say the French are arrogant (disclaimer: we could say many things of the French, but I have to say they aren’t actually guilty of this! Its all just one big cultural misunderstanding), but at least we can say that at a collective level, they understand the need for a social safety net and as such, they’ve created a compassionate system. It might not be the best there is, and the French tell you this til kingdom come, but it is there and most people accept that there is a need for it.

I’ve now come to believe that we Kiwis are the opposite.  Where the French are said to be arrogant, Kiwis are said to be some of the friendliest people in the world. But maybe thats only at face value these days? The kind of superficial friendly where a cashier wants to get all up in your business just to pass the time. Coz what I witnessed through the whole Metiria Turei saga was a nasty, mean spirited side to our country. One which lacks empathy and compassion for those less fortunate.  What does this say about our society?  Perhaps it validates what I was first shocked to hear from some French friends, that NZ is a superficial society… coz the debate around what Metiria did, lacked any real substance or profound discussion on the whole ethics and morals of our broken welfare system.  The vitriol that was aimed at Metiria Turei was ugly.  Thats the only word that keeps coming back to me, ugly.

Finally, during a trip back to my marae, we drove from Porirua to South Taranaki. For the first time in my life I became aware that we passed farmland after farmland for that entire journey.  At an economic level this concerns me hugely because climate change is going to impact on the worlds consumption of meat and dairy, and it really dawned on me that we are far too reliant on these industries to power our economy.  Living in France I already hear the discussions about changes in consumption (small scale farming is best; meatless meals; alternative sources of protein), and if NZ is behind the 8 ball on this, who knows what damage this could do to our country? More importantly, how is this going to impact on our communities if we just haven’t prepared or adapted to a world impacted by climate change?

So anyway, here I am, all confuddled.  I want so desperately to raise my baby surrounded by my friends and family.  But for the first time ever, NZ society as a whole, doesn’t actually seem very appealing.  I’ve always loved Ackland city, but in fairness, it  could just as well be any other cosmopolitan city in the world.  Other than the natural beauty that comes with being squashed into an isthmus, it doesn’t really have an X factor, does it? So what I’ve realised I love about home, are the people, my community, the untouched and especially virgin landscapes, the plentiful beaches and feeling of peace that I get from visiting the countryside, and especially my marae with Pukehaupapa in the distance. At least Wellington city is still cool little city, and I will always LOVE brunches and mochas with marshmellows, but jobwise I’m not sure it’ll be a possibility.

All in all its made me realise that the quality of life that we have here in Albi just can’t be beaten, not unless we have a radical change in lifestyle (or win the lotto).  So I can’t help but think that life would be perfect if all my NZ peeps moved here! Alas, that aint gonna happen any time soon.  So for now, I’ll try harder to appreciate the good life that we have here ❤


Anxiety about the French medical system, as the witches walk outside.

I’m reblogging this mostly because i’m going through EXACTLY the same motions, at least with respect to how medicalised my birthing experience is likely to be, as compared to New Zealand.

I trust my body. I trust my body in a way that probably freaks out medical professionals. But on top of the fact that women have been giving birth for millenia, I have also been working hard to exercise and strengthen my body, more specifically, my pelvic muscles, to function as effectively as possible and help my baby through his birthing journey. Before yesterday, I was actually feeling quite confident and zen about giving birth.  Now… I feel powerless about the whole thing, and its not a good feeling.

Yesterday I went for a tour of the obstetric ward and was told that, in spite of wanting a natural birth, I had no choice about:
– the birthing position (on back; legs in stirrups – not the most effective for easing discomfort, helping baby through the birth canal or avoiding perineal tears – and they’re supposed to be f’ng experts?!)
– being injected with syntocin to help the placenta detach (when i said this wasn’t advised by the NZ Midwives Council, the midwife rebutted with ‘yeah but whats the rate of post-natal haemorrhage?’ as if to prove a point which doesn’t stand because its more likely in underdeveloped countries; and AGAIN, they’re supposed to be the experts).
– skin-skin not immediate but AFTER the 15-20 observation period where baby is taken to another room (and this time, I ask: what the f*** do they learn during their training???).

I feel really angry that in spite of going private, which i thought would allow me to a) build a rapport with the staff and b) have my birth choices respected, I feel like i have no choice over my birth experience.

With exactly 1 month to go to my due date (23 Sep in France, although 16 september in NZ), I’ve decided to meet with a liberal sage femme (independant midwife) to ask her what real choices I have in the delivery room. It seems sooo last minute to have found out I don’t have choices about one of the most important moments of my life but I hope she will be able to provide me with reassurances of some sort…

At the very least, reading this blogpost has validated my own experience (thus far) and for that, I’m greatful. To feel like I’m not the only one who feels ripped off.

Life In Two Languages

Today is Halloween. I’ve been home alone as my husband and brother went to Paris for the day. Mostly it went well, but at a certain point I traveled down one of those horrible paths that googling “birthing experiences” can take you and got rather traumatized.

Not from a particular story (I’ve found them all to be very inspiring, and I’m really glad that I’m reading them) but of a comment I read, by accident, really, as I was heading towards the “next post” button.

“I lost my baby at 38 weeks,” it said.

My heart froze, my lungs stopped working, and I frantically tried to remember when the last time I felt the baby move was. Unfortunately this occurred during what was probably a sleep cycle and I realized that I hadn’t felt the baby move in awhile. I poked and prodded until I got a feeble kick.

And then spent…

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Why Americans See Racism Where The French See No Problem

Original article written by David Berreby and retrieved from Big Think, 15 June 2016, from utm_campaign=Echobox&utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook#link_time=1466004554.

“In some ways the United States and France are unusually similar nations—still enchanted with their 18th century revolutions, eager to export their ideals (via pamphlets, speeches, language schools, paratroopers, whatever it takes) so that others may live as they do. Maybe this similarity is why Franco-American incomprehension can seem so profound. Each side seems to think: How could they not get it? It should be obvious! In the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the French were appalled by the “perp walk” (that man wasn’t convicted of anything, why shame him?) while Americans couldn’t believe that French media casually named DSK’s accuser (she didn’t do anything wrong, why shame her?). And now, asThomas Sotinel explained recently in Le Monde, there’s a new example: Divergent reactions to the hit film Les Intouchables.

The movie is about a rich man who is paralyzed in an accident and hires an ex-con from the ‘hood as his all-purpose live-in assistant. The fish-out-water pair become friends and Mr. Rich Guy gets his mojo back thanks to the other man’s down-to-earth love of life. Poor guy learns to appreciate nice things and classical music. Rich guy learns to enjoy Earth Wind and Fire. The rich man is white, the poor guy is black.

French viewers loved it. American critics saw the servant part as a classicMagic Negro. David Denby, in The New Yorker, for example, complainedthat the movie is “disastrously condescending: the black man, who’s crude, sexy, and a great dancer, liberates the frozen white man. The film is an embarrassment.” Similarly Jay Weissberg in Variety wrote that Driss, the ex-con, “is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get ‘down’ by replacing Vivaldi with ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and showing off his moves on the dance floor.”

The French reaction to this reaction, as described by Sotinel, must strike Americans as pretty funny. It amounts to this: Oh, yeah, that one guy isblack. Leave it to you race-obsessed Americans to pick that up; we hadn’t noticed. We didn’t really notice that. (Negative French reviews of the film complained that it was hokey, Sotinel writes, but none mentioned skin color.)

To Americans, this is a willful refusal to admit the obvious, something we consider a Gallic specialty (France cannot say precisely how many Muslims live within its borders because the government is barred by law from breaking down the population by race or religion in its statistics.) To the French, the Stateside reaction is American sanctimoniousness at its worst. We’re the nation that produced, oh, Beverly Hills Cop, after all. And we invented the Magic Negro. Who are we to talk?

What explains this mutual duh (or beauf)? In a word, I think, it’s immigration, and the cultures that have evolved in response.

Both countries are nations of immigrants, but their approaches to newcomers could not be more different. Come to France, and you’re welcomed to the table—if you’re willing to speak French, eat French food, and see the world as French people do. (In the last French presidential debate, both candidates fell over each other to assure their people that there would be no halal meat offered in French school cafeterias—a bizarre note to my ear here in New York, where parking rules are suspended for Succoth, Idul-Adha, Good Friday and Diwali, and no one frets.) Assimilation in France is hierarchical, in the sense proposed byHarvard’s Jim Sidanius: Success is measured by how close people come to the summit, which is perfect Frenchness.

In the United States, though, assimilation is what Sidanius would call authoritarian. It’s not about a standard of culture or conduct or speech. It’s just a contract. There are rules, and you’re welcome if you adhere to them. What language you speak, what God you worship, aren’t relevant. That approach makes for less community but more openness of mind. Put it this way: If someone is acting in a way that is far from a French person’s idea of what is French, then said person is most definitely not French. If someone is acting in a way that is far from my idea of what is American, well, hey, you never know. The guy could still be as American as I am, in the eyes of the law and my fellow citizens.

In both nations, then, millions of people feel that it is wrong to be racist, and they make an effort not to appear so (an exquisite sensitivity to the dangers of appearing racist appears to kick in at about age 8 or 9,according to this research). However, the American version of anti-racism includes an obligation to consider how things look to the Other. After all, his view could be just as American as yours. Beverly Hills Cop, after all, made fun of all its characters, not just Eddie Murphy’s.

So, you know a joke that makes fun of people of a certain race that isn’t yours? In the U.S. you show you are enlightened by not telling it, because you know what seems funny to you could offend someone of a different background. The French version of anti-racism goes the other way: You show you are enlightened by telling the joke, because we’re all equally French. We have the same background, so if I’m not offended, how could you be?

In our cautious urge to let all differences have room to breathe, American art and culture can strike the French as flighty and childlike (the way Californians look to the rest of us Americans). In their urge to erase difference, though, the French can look, to us, condescending and close-minded. Sometimes I think the French want to say to Americans, “just because it’s strange and new doesn’t mean it’s great.” And Americans want to say to the French, “Could you just appreciate that for what it is, instead of having to make it French?”

Hence our mutual incomprehension about this movie. The French think we’re obsessed with race; we Americans think we’re just being polite. The French think the film is a buddy comedy; we think it displays a condescension that they don’t see. So near, and yet so far.”

Walking between two worlds :-)

As always, its been some time since I’ve written a post… and I’m sure the intervals are going to become much, much longer as the hubby and I are having a baby in September this year 😀

I’ve just returned from a three week trip back home to surprise mum for her birthday. To say that I loved being home is an understatement.  I can’t describe how much it means to me to have been able to spend some well needed quality time with my family and close friends. To me, thats what life is about.  Quality time with loved ones, and nothing compares. It was especially awesome spending time with all the kids, seeing how they’ve grown and how their personalities have developed.  And meeting all the new babies/toddlers was a real treat too… even though I already felt like I knew them, it was lovely to have cuddles and to see their characters up close and personal.  So while my time there was very, very brief, it was really just so lovely to be home.  To re-charge, re-connect and feel grounded.  I also felt relieved at the ease with which I slipped back into the rythym of life, despite being gone for 2 years. I suppose thats the blessing of having grown up moving between different cultures and world views, adaptibility.

And I really, truly can’t emphasise enough just how friendly everyone was and how EASY everything is.  Customer service was just amazing…. mind blowingly amazing.  I went to the bank (without any documentation) to ask why my bank card wouldn’t work.  In 10 minutes maximum the bank teller had asked a couple of question about me/my lifestyle, ascertained that there were more appropriate services for me, updated my accounts AND – get this – she even cleared an outstanding balance of $80NZD! All the while, providing excellent customer service.

And that was only the beginning.  It really feels like people want to help you, and if they have any power/control, they use it to make your life easier rather than try to make things difficult for you.  They actively seek solutions for you, according to your needs – and they do it all with a smile, because thats their job. Thats what they’re there for.  It makes you feel…. human.  It makes you feel valued.  It’s one less obstacle you need to deal with in daily life, coz the staff are there to do all the hard work for you.   It made me miss home.

But while I’ve decided that 3 weeks just isn’t enough time back home (it broke my heart to decline invitations from people),  arriving back to my adopted homeland has been waaaaaay easier than last time.  In less than 2 weeks I’ve already slipped back into the rythym of life in Albi, and this is a truly AWESOME feeling.  Especially because last time I felt myself questioning so much and feeling stuck between two worlds.  This time round, I dunno… it just feels like this is all so normal.  I guess I’ve finally become accustomed to this lifestyle and feel quite proud to say that this is my life now. And I’ve truly come to appreciate how fortunate I am to call two countries on polar opposite sides of the world, home.

To jump on planes and traverse the world to spend time with loved ones – whether its from NZ to France, or from France to NZ – it’s all so normal now, and I love that it feels like this.  I love that I can get off the plane at each end of the world and just walk and talk at the same pace as the locals.  And most of all, I feel so lucky to have loved ones waiting for me at both ends.

After 3 whole years away from my home, I love that I can walk between two worlds with ease 🙂  And its amazing, almost mindblowing to think our baby will be lucky to grow up with all of this being second nature.


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Je suis Kiwi

Wow, its been a while since i’ve written a blogpost – woopsy!  Oh well, I’ll hopefully try to blog a bit more regularly in the near future.

Anyway, this post is just a little reflection i’ve had.

Six months ago I found myself feeling homesick and a bit mamae for home, or rather, for all of the ‘normal stuff’ that makes home what it is.  I knew I’d get past it, and I’ve got to a place where I almost feel more stronger and confident then ever before.  And it’s got to do with remembering my roots, my whanau, my turangawaewae. It grounds me. It makes me feel secure.

As long as I remain steadfast in what makes me who I am, and where I come from, I’ll be right no matter where I am in the world.

But it is frustrating that people misinterpret this strength of identity.  Its true I’m forever going on about Maori culture, traditions as well as of my tribal history, just as we do back home, because we draw strength from sharing these things, building new relationships and solidifying old ones.  In France, sharing these things provides me with a compass so that I can orientate myself in this foreign land. But rather than appreciate it, I get the sense that European people perceive this as a bad thing, as if I’m looking back, or holding on. They don’t seem to understand that its an obligation to keep my culture and history alive, and this is my way of doing it.

Which is rather ironic when you consider how proud and patriotic the French can be about, well, everything French. I wonder if its coz they’re blinded by the colour of my skin?

A few months back I had an uncomfortable experience where an older French man took me by the shoulders, exclaiming “you are not a minority. We are all the same”.  I literally had to hold back the tears. He seemed completely oblivious to the inequalities that exist in this world, and to the privileges he has as not only a white man, but a European one. In fairness to him, when he saw that I was upset he did try to apologise, resassuring me that there’s no need to feel embarassed or bad about my identity.  He didnt understand that when I say that I’m maori, I say it with pride. But in his European mindset, anyone who claims to be a minority must feel ashamed, embarassed and degraded. He simply couldn’t understand how it could ever be a positive thing.  His aggressive reaction was supposed to knock the sense into me, help me feel better, to encourage me to shed this ‘minority’ label, to abandon my sense of self and start singing the Marseillaise with pride.

I didn’t quite know how to react.  Except to state the fact: That Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, are a minority population making up less than 16% of the total NZ population. As I am Maori, from four iwi, I am a part of that minority population.  I explained that he had gravely misinterpreted my tears as a sign of shame.  I explained that I’m unbelievably proud of my heritage and that after all the destruction that Europeans have caused, economically and environmentally, they could learn a lot from Maori, as well as other indigenous people.  You should’ve seen the look on his face.  Priceless.

So anyhow, I’ve got to this weird point where being in France for 3 years has really cemented my Kiwi identity, more than ever before. I suppose it raises questions about my ability to adapt or integrate, but that doesn’t really bother me. Its more important to be true to myself and to stay rooted, than to go chasing waterfalls.

culture shock

Its timely that I’m currently teaching a module on Cross Cultural Communications. A couple of weeks back I spoke briefly about culture shock, and thanks to this, I recognise that I am going through this process right now.

I dont want to feel like this, I want to move beyond it, but its difficult given that its a two way dynamic: I need to accept French values as legit, but I strongly believe they also need to accept mine as legit too…. and that second part isn’t there.

On discussing the subjects ‘what is sacred to the French’ and ‘what is french culture’ more recently, I came across a couple of concepts which have helped me to make more sense of France…. but they also made me feel resentful because a) I disagree and b) regardless of whether or not I agree, I am being measured by these values.

The first concept was mastering one’s emotions. The French see it as futile and weak to allow your emotions to show, so one must learn to master and overcome them. According to my source it is also seen as unfair to subject someone else to your untamed emotions. So for the benefit of everyone, you should learn to suppress them.

I accept that this is how it is in France. But I hate the idea that I am perceived as weak for expressing my emotions. I happen to think I’m quite strong, and I think it is healthy to express your emotions. In fact I think the idea of having to master your emotions ignores what it is to be human. I’m not saying that we have to fall into a crying mess every time we feel something, but I am saying that we ought to be taught to recognise our emotions and to deal with them as we each need to (as individuals). What might be right for one person, may be completely wrong for another.  Take tangihanga, the Maori funeral process which takes three days, as an example.  I strongly believe that tangi are a healthy and appropriate way for me, as an individual, to grieve and come to accept the death of a loved one.   But I also recognise that this process can be extremely uncomfortable and inappropriate for many others, and that’s totally fine by me. We all process emotions differently, and I don’t believe a ‘one size fits all’ way of managing emotions is possible.

I also dont agree that we shouldn’t subject people to our feelings just ‘coz they might make people feel uncomfortable. I especially think we need to express our sentiments to those who perpetrated or provoked us to feel any given way. Again, I dont think you need to sprial into a rage at someone, but I think it is your right to tell someone how they made you feel.  If we upset those we love, I believe it is our right to know we have caused harm and it is our duty to accept responsibility and sort it out. Having this information means that we can do some sort of damange control; we can try to rectify the situation or at the very least, we can avoid it from happening again in the future.

I also learnt that you should never admit wrongdoing. You could (possibly being the operative idea here) apologise, eventually, but you should never say you were in the wrong. Apparently this causes you to lose face, as well as anyone that you wronged.  I should add that all of this conversation took place with a communications practitioner who worked for a multinational french company, so I gather that they know what they’re talking about. But again, while I accept this is how it is in France, I have difficulty accepting that it is a healthy way of communicating and dont want to be measured by my ability to do this. I would rather suck bit up, have some humility and say I was wrong.

Whether in France or Nz, I have seen how damaging it can be to not admit any wrongdoing, and I just cant accept it as a general guideline. I understand that validation is one of the most important things you can do for someone and invalidation, one of the most isolating. But this idea of never admitting to any wrongdoing appears (to me), to be the opposite of validation. How do you find closure and/or learn to trust people who have wronged you, but who refuse to acknowledge the impact this has to you and/or them? What does this say about the level of respect someone has for you, when they simply refuse to acknowledge the hurt they caused?

I mean, when you look at the Waitangi Tribunal process, first and foremost iwi usually want acknowledgement of the wrongs that were done by the NZ Crown. By doing this, it provides validation and it recognises the effects to the victim. These allow the victim to heal, to find closure and to move forward. So to turn a blind eye to the grievance process…. to me it seems inhumane. Like we’re supposed to be superhuman or something.

Ah, but if there’s one thing I’ve started to come to terms with, especially since teaching English, it’s that the French (in general) aspire to perfection.  The thing is, I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I’m also a perfectionist, yet I don’t see how divorcing myself from my emotions helps me succeed in life. Perhaps the difference is that I don’t aspire to any external ideal of perfection, rather I try to be the best I can be. This means recognising both my strengths and my weaknesses, and working to both. Isn’t it just foolish to try to succeed without recognising our potentital as well our limitations?  We are only human. We will never be perfect, no matter how hard we might try. And divorcing ourselves from our emotions, I just don’t see it as a very realistic way of being in this world.

As a side note, while researching for my class last week, I came across a study claiming that Japanese people aren’t able to identify and/or respond appropriately to extremely positive or negative emotions. As they’re taught to supress emotions at either end of the scale, they’re not exposed to them as often and as such, they’re not in the habit of having to read or de-code these emotions in others. I find it rather fascinating and wonder if the French might have the same issue, though maybe not to the same extent.

Anyway…… I know I’m going through a stage of culture shock, so lots of cultural differences are magnified ten-fold, and they’re annoying me. At least I can admit that much.

I cant wait for this moment to pass though ‘coz right now I just feel like an alien. While I speak the language, I know I dont communicate according to French values. In NZ I know how to communicate effectively and respectfully, but right now NZ feels soooo far. It is a small comfort though, to know that my values do exist somewhere, if nowhere else.

Sacre bleu….. or not?!

Since our last Cafe Citoyen discussion, I’m more confused than ever before about French culture.

Thanks to the Rugby World Cup, the spotlight has shone on the All Blacks over the last 6 weeks. Of course the haka, and by association, Maori culture have been the topic of many conversations too, and I’ve found myself having to explain the haka countless times (not that I’m complaining, I love to talk about my culture).  But I’ve also found myself explaining that as I haven’t been taught how to do any haka, I’m not going to do it. I won’t mock Ka Mate by performing like a trained monkey because that would disrespect the integrity. And for me it just wouldn’t be right, tika. I thought the easiest way to explain this to French people is to say the haka is sacred.  But even after explaining that it’s sacred, people continue to push for me to do it, as if i haven’t JUST explained the reason that I won’t.

This got me thinking, what, if anything, is sacred to the French? So at last week’s Cafe Citoyen I opened the disussion ‘est-ce qu’il reste des choses sacre dans la culture Francaise?’ (is there anything sacred left in French culture).  While the conversation was hugely enlightening, and probably my favourite discussion to date, I left asking more questions about French culture.

There were about 40 people at this discussion and the large majority agreed that there is nothing sacred in French culture, except for the liberte d’expression (freedom of expression) which necessarily questions and mocks everything, including the most sacred. There was a lot of tooing and froing of how to define sacred, which to me is something highly important, to be left untouched, which if transgressed would have a consequence or punishment of some sort.

But it seems the French have a much more complciated view of what the word ‘sacred’ means.  To them, sacred exists purely in the religious sense and denotes things that are divine, sacred and superior to the populace; it is contrary to the idea of the average Joe Bloggs.  Several times throughout our discussion people made reference to the enlightenment and the search for reason as an antidote to that which was religious and dogmatic.  They also referred to the revolution, although there was a dispute between whether the important date was 1789 (the date King Louis was imprisoned) or whether it was 1793 (the date he was actually killed), as putting an absolute end to everything that is ‘sacred’. This act gave Joe Bloggs the ability to make a name for himself, rather than having to bow down to the sacred and unquestionable divine right of the King – the foundation of the French Republic.

And while I appreciate and respect the foundation of the republic, (I am a big fan of direct or representative democracy myself), I am still left confuzzled. Just because you got rid of the King and his silly divine rights a couple of hundred years ago, surely doesn’t mean that you now have a ‘god given’ right to disrespect everything that has ever been held important to others? But it seems people were more caught up in defining what sacred means, than in giving me any indication of what might be sacred or highly important to the French as a culture.

The most satisfactory answer I received was that as a society there isn’t anything sacred, apart from the liberty of expression which necessarily mocks everything and anything, including the most sacred.  So no, there isn’t anything sacred in French culture.  As individuals, however, everyone will have something sacred, be it a religious value or what not; but as France is a laïque (secular) country, these most sacred values must be kept private, kept to oneself or shared only in their most intimate relationships.

Most people in our discussion tended to agree with this response.  So I have to accept it as correct.  But even if that might be the case, there are a couple of things I find difficult to accept. Though thanks to my cultural studies, I’m very aware of my own ethnocentricities and am trying to move past them.

Firstly, and I’m glad that someone else raised this issue, if those most sacred values are a no-go zone, it means that there are important parts of who we are as individuals that are kept hidden from the outside world.  But this is how I personally connect with people, how I build relationships and I never had a problem with this back home. People weren’t afraid to be vulnerable with me and vice versa, and I feel incredibly humbled and grateful for that. But it’s fair to say that while I continue to build special relatioships in France, after two and half years I still don’t have many intimate relationships with French people.  While it’s something I craved for some time, believing it to be a successful measure of my integration process, it feels more elusive than ever.  After the discussion last week I’ve come to realise that I find it incredibly difficult to be vulnerable with people who can’t be vulnerable with me.  I also have my own values and if they can’t be reciprocated, or at least respected, then I suppose it does make integration difficult (after introducing the discussion, someone asked what the haka was; before i explained, the facilitator slapped himself and stuck his tongue out making noises….. after i’d JUST explained that it was sacred, and not be to mocked!).  Thankfully my desire to overcome obstacles is greater than my desire to give up, but it is demoralising to keep trying at something that is like banging your head on a brick wall.

The other question I’m left asking the world (literally), is ‘what is French culture?’.  Through my cultural studies I’ve learnt that culture is defined as a whole lot of ‘shared’ things: values, norms, beliefs and traditions, all of which have rules to help guide us.  If the rules are transgressed there is usually a consequence or punishment of some sort.  This ensures that the integrity of any given value, norm or tradition and thus, culture, is protected. But if there is nothing sacred at a national level, if the integrity of everything is up for debate, and if it’s OK to scrutinise what your neighbour considers most sacred without any consequence, what is it that binds the French as a people?  Indeed, someone suggested that the French culture itself is a myth; that it doesn’t exist at a national level and that what binds people are the local and regional values more than anything else.

After sharing these insights with someone, I was told not to analyse it so much. He reckoned that even as a born and bred French person, he barely knows what it is to be French. I won’t lie, part of me wants to take his advice.  But when I came here, I arrived with the intent to integrate as much as possible. I have also become really aware of the vast distance between my values and those of the French, and I want to make sense of it (don’t get me started on fraternite, egalite and liberte, which provide a platform for the bourgois to get on their high horse, but which leaves the vulnerable high and dry – Kiwis display these values more readily than the French!). Besides, the French themselves are always claiming that migrants need to make more of an effort to integrate into their society and if that is true, I think it’s only fair to ask these questions and to have a bit more clarity on the answers.

So far what I’ve got is:
a) nothing is sacred;
b) French culture is a myth; and
c) local/regional cultures are most important to one’s identity.

So while I might have received answers to my question, I don’t feel satisfied that it matches the reality. I think there’s a need to dig deeper to answer these questions coz if there was really nothing sacred, or otherwise highly important, why would the French – as a nation –  be so scared of migrants?

The mind boggles….

At least one thing has been made very clear – I can’t equate the haka to anything that exists in French culture.