20 Mar 2017

My NZ: 'Kiwi stereotypes are going through a slow evolution'

Sean Scanlon with his son in the Port Hills
From My NZ, 2:08 pm on 20 March 2017

Sean Scanlon wants his young son to know that being an artist or scientist is as good as being an All Black. Luckily Kiwi stereotypes are changing, he writes for the RNZ series My NZ.


Read more from the My NZ series:

'If you feel like a Kiwi then you are a Kiwi' by Lucy Zee

'A near perfect time and place to raise my family' by Katie Newton


My son, Jack, will grow up in New Zealand.

Since his arrival, in 2011, I've changed the way I look at this little country, which matters next to zilch to most of the world. Here, Jack will have a better chance than most humans to grow up free of the nastiness that blights some countries (you can name whatever comes to mind). 

I could hurl clichés at you about the landscapes, the people, the lifestyle, but that leads to chest-thumping nonsense. I’ve seen, in my professional life, the dark side of New Zealand – child killings, drugs, poverty, lonely and miserable people. It is dangerous to think we inhabit some kind of perfect paradise. We don’t. There are problems to fix.

However, since Jack's birth, I've found myself thanking God, Allah, Buddha, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Richard Dawkins (choose your deity, or not, according to your beliefs or rational thought) that we live here. I’ve lived in Australia, spent extended periods in the UK and China, and travelled to many other countries. I like them all, but, today, I appreciate New Zealand more.

It is hard to explain, but when I run, or take Jack, up into Christchurch's Port Hills I always stop to look at the views. I didn't use to. When Jack is with me I ask him to describe what he sees, the mountains, the bay, the city below. New Zealand is a great place to see through a talkative boy’s eyes.  

When we bundle a moaning Jack into the car for a trip to his Westport-based grandparents I ask him questions about what is outside his window. I point out the beautiful things I gave little thought to as a kid and know-it-all young adult. Simple things, like the green, gentle, flow of the Buller River on a summer day. I made him watch me whitebait on the river. He lasted about two minutes. 

Sean Scanlon

Sean Scanlon says the 'she'll be right' attitude has its dangers. Photo: RNZ / Julian Vares

We don’t glorify New Zealand when Jack asks about the rest of the world. We tell him that he will see other countries and like them. That he can live where he chooses. He will know New Zealand is here, down at the arse-end-of-the planet, gently getting on with things. 

If I have a fear, it is that Kiwis easily slip into complacency – we are, generally, happy in our comparatively safe, unchallenging, way of life. We shrug our shoulders and say "she’ll be right" and keep moving. That is dangerous, because we stop asking questions about problems - and how to fix them - and fall back on lazy clichés and stereotypes about what makes Aotearoa so smashing. 

I think Kiwi stereotypes are going through a slow evolution. That is good. I don't want Jack to think that being an All Black is any better than being an artist, scientist, writer, teacher or anything else. Or that our entire existence is based on the idea of a little country forever punching above its weight while we cling tenaciously to a piece of No.8 wire. I used to sell the wire in my dad’s hardware shop, along with plumbing, timber and other DIY stuff, but I can’t use any of it to save myself. 

Questioning what it means to be Kiwi is worthwhile. We must do it more.   

I asked Jack what he likes about living in New Zealand. 

He said: ``Because it’s beautiful and full of lots of nice people.’’

Fair enough.

I asked what would make New Zealand better and he supplied the slightly Trumpian: 

``Make it bigger and more beautiful.’’

 Even through the eyes of a 5-year-old boy there is room for improvement.

*Dr Sean Scanlon is a journalism teacher at the New Zealand Broadcasting School. He has worked as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and China.

Join us each day this week as another New Zealander shares how they see Aotearoa in 2017 - what they prize about the country, what concerns them and what they hope the country’s future will hold.