Global Journeys: New Zealand’s migrant culture

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 13 minutes

New Zealand has forever been thought of as a bicultural society. Despite the difficulties and wrongdoings surrounding Te Tiriti o Waitangi, it is commonly regarded that we have adapted as a country. Our “team of five million” is starting to embrace Māori culture and heritage and Te Reo in everyday life. Post-COVID, we will likely witness an influx of migrants seeking a new home after our government’s response to the global pandemic. Are we ready to welcome and accept multiculturalism more than what we have to date?

Immigration began in New Zealand earlier than most are led to believe. Māori are descendants of Eastern Polynesian travellers who arrived on the shores of Aotearoa during the thirteenth century. These travellers likely hailed from Southeast Asia, having settled Polynesia nearly two thousand years before – around 1100 BCE.

After the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the first organised group of English settlers arrived with the New Zealand Company in 1840 and by 1852, approximately 28,000 Europeans had immigrated into the country. The rest of the nineteenth century saw the introduction of several government-legislated acts as more cultures began to arrive in the newly

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 13 minutes

New Zealand has forever been thought of as a bicultural society. Despite the difficulties and wrongdoings surrounding Te Tiriti o Waitangi, it is commonly regarded that we have adapted as a country. Our “team of five million” is starting to embrace Māori culture and heritage and Te Reo in everyday life. Post-COVID, we will likely witness an influx of migrants seeking a new home after our government’s response to the global pandemic. Are we ready to welcome and accept multiculturalism more than what we have to date?

Immigration began in New Zealand earlier than most are led to believe. Māori are descendants of Eastern Polynesian travellers who arrived on the shores of Aotearoa during the thirteenth century. These travellers likely hailed from Southeast Asia, having settled Polynesia nearly two thousand years before – around 1100 BCE.

After the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the first organised group of English settlers arrived with the New Zealand Company in 1840 and by 1852, approximately 28,000 Europeans had immigrated into the country. The rest of the nineteenth century saw the introduction of several government-legislated acts as more cultures began to arrive in the newly colonised country. The Chinese Immigrants Act 1881, the Immigration Restriction Act 1899, and the bizarrely dubbed Imbecile Passengers Act 1882 were all conceived to regulate the intake of migrants, as well as ensuring settlers of New Zealand would not become a “charge on public or charitable institutions” (Parliamentary Library, 2008).

From 1923, applications for naturalisation were made available for non-Britons of “good character” who had “an adequate knowledge of the English language”. These changes to legislation were what became known as the unofficial “White New Zealand” policies that made it increasingly difficult for non-Europeans to immigrate and attain permanent residencies. Ward & Masgoret (2008) state that these policies made New Zealand “one of the most ethnically homogenous societies of European settlement” in the world.

New Zealand’s systems of migration were developed further in 1948, with the introduction of New Zealand citizenship. Migrants were now able to obtain New Zealand passports. 1945 – 1955 welcomed British ex-serviceman, their families, as well as many refugees (Opara, 2018), which were followed by nearly 10,600 Dutch migrants and 1300 Hungarian refugees by 1956 (Parliamentary Library, 2008).

In the mid 1800s, the country saw an influx of Pasifika temporary workers, as cheap labourers. This led to the infamous Dawn Raids in the 70s in which hundreds of Pasifika men, women, and children were racially targeted and forcibly deported back to their countries of origin. The introduction of a government register in 1976 allowing illegal immigrants to renew their residency in New Zealand whilst remaining in the country without penalty, hardly compensated for the suffering and trauma caused. Finally, one month ago on the 1st of August, the New Zealand government has formally apologised to Pacific communities impacted by these unjustified and discriminatory actions.

Migration to New Zealand has continued to grow. In 2021, we find ourselves living in a more progressive, multicultural society. 27.4 percent of those counted in the 2018 Census declared they were born overseas, with almost every country in the world accounted for (Seatter-Dunbar, 2019). In a study on the social attitudes towards immigrants and multiculturalism, eighty-nine percent of interviewees agreed that a society built from many different races, cultures, and religions was beneficial (Ward & Masgoret, 2008). Eighty percent also agreed that migrant integration was essential.

New Zealanders of European descent generally regard that the bicultural aspects of New Zealand – those being the current state of Māori inclusion and participation in national culture – are positive and support a move towards further multiculturalism (Ward & Lin, 2005). Although this may sound positive, the statement in itself is complex and is reflective of a colonialist narrative.

Not every aspect of our culture is supportive of our substantial immigrant population, however. Guanyu Ran and Liangni Liu of Auckland’s Massey University recently documented a case study on Chinese families living in New Zealand. Immigrants can ‘sponsor’ their parents back in China, providing them with a reliable source of income once they have retired. This sounds like a positive system, allowing younger generations to travel to New Zealand, start a new life and raise children that will likely remain a part of our culture and communities.

The required income to sponsor parents does not easily make that dream a reality. Sponsors must earn anywhere between NZD$101,046 and NZD$265,200 (Immigration New Zealand, n.d.) to qualify to retain their Visas and lawfully provide for foreign parents. Interviewees of Ran and Liu revealed that the societal pressures of living in New Zealand make their family lives difficult. Speaking a new language in a country that has yet to provide as much support for Mandarin or Cantonese speakers as it has for Te Reo, means they are often judged. Secondly, the stresses of providing for parents or grandparents on the other side of the world, as well as a family here in New Zealand, is a strain that not many Kiwis can understand. Although simply being required to maintain such a wealthy income – one that is intentionally over double the New Zealand median income (New Zealand Immigration, n.d.) – is enough; the dynamics of an international, inter-generational migrant family can be too much.

Hagyun Kim, also of Massey University, reports on a similar topic from the perspective of Korean families in New Zealand. Most participants of Kim’s study reported that immigrating to their new home required major shifts in their daily routines, for which they were largely unprepared. Some of the stories shared included financial hardship, anxiety, depression, unemployment, and a lack of close friends or networking opportunities. A great deal of their negative experiences come from the sizeable language barrier.

South Korea has one of the lowest scores of linguistic diversity (a measure of how many individuals speak more than one language fluently) in the world. Thus, a great deal of South Korean migrants will suffer from a great deal of difficulty learning and communicating in English. One such interviewee said their partner had been a successful businessman in Korea, but in New Zealand had been forced to work as a butcher as he lacked quality knowledge of English. This changed their spending habits to be more frugal, feeling as if they had to “start from scratch”.

What most immigrants seek is total acceptance into New Zealand society. Most would state that New Zealand is known for its “clean and green environment” and a low occurrence of racism, crime, and bigotry but accordingly, what they discover may differ from their expectations. They may grow to feel isolated or disconnected from the rest of their community as barriers continue to appear. Many migrants are encouraged to live outside of major cities, where established communities of their respective countries’ citizens already exist.

New Zealand’s ‘bonus points’ system awards immigration applicants a higher chance of success if they elect to live outside of, for instance, the Auckland region. In exchange for a better chance at reaching New Zealand shores in the first place, they are often signing away a community to represent and support them.

A commonality between many experts is a recommendation that New Zealand continues to pursue better means of integrating immigrants into our society. We are a country that has thrived off immigrants, who stimulate our economy, culture, communities and workplaces with diverse new perspectives and motivations.

Moving forward from COVID-19 will begin an interesting chapter for New Zealand’s immigration. Akbari and Macdonald, two researchers reporting on trends in immigration policies across the globe, documented several years ago that New Zealand could be exposed to higher rates of illegal immigration surprisingly quickly, stating that if legal immigration policies, regional conflicts, and economic instability continues to rise, more people will be driven from their countries in search of a safer haven.

We can only imagine how much this prediction has been exacerbated by the rise of COVID-19 and the stresses that millions around the world have experienced. Many now look to New Zealand as a shining beacon of hope and security, an example of a quality government, and a place where cultures can co-exist. Are we really prepared for more immigrants than ever to grace our shores? Or are we forcing people out of the country, due to the extensive period it takes to adjust to our culture, as well as gain citizenship or permanent residency?

Researchers of global migration have proven that for most immigrants, New Zealand is simply a ‘stepping stone’; a country that does not encourage long-term residency, instead utilising the gravitas of an extended stay to leverage a more permanent relocation elsewhere.

What then needs to be done to continue development of multiculturalism in a positive way? It remains to be seen whether this may happen through a cultural shift, a reform of our immigration and residency policies, or some combination of both. Migrants are expected to adjust their ways of living to better fit our local culture, and for some that is too great of an economic, socio-cultural, or personal strain to bear.

We like to think that we have a well-documented, rich history of immigration here in New Zealand. Over eight hundred years have passed since the first journey to Aotearoa was completed, and we still show a thriving, diverse community of migrants and refugees. But these newcomers are subjected to matters not yet addressed, experiencing language barriers and crippling societal pressure imposed by multi-generational, familial expectations.

Although we seem to have a solid foundation of biculturalism to build upon, it appears we have not yet been able to open up and embrace true multiculturalism.

If we want to continue to represent what the world can be post-COVID, we must take responsibility and look at ourselves, our culture, and our laws – each of which govern how migrants experience their time in New Zealand. It can be done. We are a team of five million, after all.

 

Sources: 1. Immigration policy in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States 2. ‘Forced’ family separation and inter-generational dynamics 3. “Knocking on the door to immigration 4. Pacific migrations 5. Calculating your sponsor’s income for the Parent Resident Visa 6. Skilled migrant category: Expression of Interest guide 7. Examining trans-Tasman migration of New Zealand’s new immigrants from the People’s Republic of China 8. From settler society to working holiday heaven? Patterns and issues of temporary labour migration to New Zealand 9. Immigration chronology 10. New Zealand’s population reflects growing diversity 11. Welcome to our world? Immigration and the reshaping of New Zealand 12. Investing in cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, UNESCO 13. Immigration, acculturation and national identity in New Zealand 14. Attitudes toward immigrants, immigration, and multiculturalism in New Zealand

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