When I was 9 years old, I went to a friend’s house to play Age of Empires. Some of his extended family happened to be there at the time, and his step-father asked me “where are you from?” Truthfully, I answered “Birkenhead”, the suburb where I lived. His response was “Don’t you be cheeky, where are you actually from?” Confused, I answered “Here?” Suddenly, he held me in a headlock and shouted “you bloody well know what I mean, where are you from?” The sounds of laughter from the rest of the room rang in my ears. I managed to mumble something like “my parents are from Taiwan.” He let go and said “that wasn’t that hard, was it?”
When I was 13 years old, I was a patrol leader at my local scout troop. One of the other scouts was sitting on an empty wooden box and swinging his legs against the sides, creating a lot of noise. I asked him to stop because the constant banging was making me uncomfortable and a little bit anxious. He said “you can’t tell me what to do, this is my country.” I had to go sit somewhere else.
When I was 15 years old, I was sitting in math class at the desk closest to the door. It was open, and a breeze was blowing in. While the class was working on some exercises, I asked the teacher if I could close the door because I was getting a bit cold. He said “If you think it’s too cold maybe you should go back to Asia.” I replied with “I was born here” and shut the door. When I later told a friend that racism was well and alive within our school she told me to “stop being ridiculous”.
I am relatively lucky because I live in comparatively multicultural Auckland, study and work in an environment where immigrants outnumber non-immigrants, and nowadays am largely safe and isolated from these sorts of interactions. Ron Mark’s comments during the first reading of the Shop Trading Hours Amendment Bill brought all the memories rushing back. He told Melissa Lee “if you do not like New Zealand, go back to Korea.” I sat in a laboratory quietly seething, unable to do any work. I don’t like these memories. I don’t like sharing these memories either, but maybe this can demonstrate to some people why the statement to go back to where you came from is offensive. I cannot bear to imagine what life must be like for migrants living in less ethnically tolerant areas of the country.
We cannot simply write this off as more of the same from New Zealand First. This is a party that has been polling between 5 and 9 percent. That’s a sizeable chunk of the electorate that believes in this party. 67% of respondents on a RadioLIVE poll said that Ron Mark’s comments were not racist. Every time any of our elected representatives engage in this kind of rhetoric, it signals to the population that this behaviour is okay. To be clear, that time Maggie Barry told Russel Norman to go back to Australia was just as wrong. But let me also say that just because one side was racist, that doesn’t give the other side free license to say whatever they want. An eye for an eye only makes the world go blind.
For Ron Mark’s NZ First colleagues to back him up only further reiterates that this behaviour is apparently okay. Winston Peters said that any claims of racism were “poppycock”. Barbara Stewart said that the comment was not racist and was “taken out of context” (when his comments were very much in the context of a racist speech targeting public holidays in Korea and India and implying that these other countries have too many public holidays; in fact his entire speech was laced with derision and offence). Pita Paraone said “it was said in the heat of the moment as part of the theatre of Parliament.” None of these statements are anywhere near satisfactory for a parliament that seeks to represent an increasingly multicultural nation. The closest we got was Tracey Martin saying “it’s not a statement I would have made.”
I can appreciate that Ron Mark didn’t like being told that New Zealand should “grow up”. That’s possibly a fair point to make (just because other people do it overseas doesn’t necessarily mean we should do it here), but the way he addressed that point was completely wrong. Never mind that the claims made by Ron Mark about public holidays in Korea and India and shops being closed were factually wrong anyway. As Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi said, “Your knowledge is totally zero … on any religious day in India, on a holiday, shops open.” It’s the fact that his approach makes migrants feel unwelcome, that their opinions are not valid, that they should just “shut up and conform” that is deeply problematic.
Ron Mark makes it clear that Lee and Bakshi are not real New Zealanders when he says in his speech “while we know certain people are toeing the National Party line like a little bunch of whipped puppies, back in their world they would never, ever dare stand up and say this.” His use of “back in their world” effectively says that the fact that Lee and Bakshi have been in New Zealand for 27 and 14 years respectively is worth nothing. “Go back to where you came from” is a phrase that has always been loaded with xenophobia, and I really don’t see a context where it could be used to mean anything other than “you’re not welcome because you’re not from here.”
It doesn’t matter to me that Ron Mark was directing his statement at migrants and I was born here. The common racist usually doesn’t take the time to establish my place of birth. His comments to “go back where you came from” were of the same vein as statements directed at me throughout my childhood that made me feel as if I did not belong. The intolerance and xenophobia is an ugly side of New Zealand that degrades the experience of living in this country for many. I’m sick and tired of hearing it from our MPs. They should simply be better.
In my opinion Dame Susan Devoy has been doing a great job in her role as the Race Relations Commissioner in giving some marginalised groups a high-profile voice. Earlier today she said “Kiwis born overseas have a right to a say over the country they call home, where they work, vote, pay taxes and contribute: overseas born Kiwis are not second class citizens who have fewer rights than other New Zealanders… We’re at a crossroads when it comes to race relations, we either get on with each other, and lead the world in race relations: or we take pleasure in prejudice and leave our children with a race relations crisis to deal with, it’s up to us.”
When the current generation of parliamentarians put their prejudice on display as Ron Mark did on Tuesday, it makes me feel like I shouldn’t participate because my voice is not valid. Personally, I would actually quite like the shops to be open over Easter. It would be a lot more convenient, and if someone wants to stay closed for religious reasons they can stay closed. I guess if I don’t like it the way it is now, then I should go back home… to Auckland. I’m grateful to the various people, both in and outside of the House, who have criticised the comments and refused to let it slide. It helps me to feel a bit of hope that one day this type of racism and xenophobia can be eliminated. It strengthens my resolve to stay here and try to make New Zealand a better place.
There was a small ray of humour arising from all of this for me. When the clip of Ron Mark came on the news, my Irish flatmate who moved to New Zealand recently was shocked. “Oh my god. Is that the Prime Minister?” Thankfully, thankfully not.