Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Winning Unity Award Speech by Rayhan Langdana @ NZ Diversity Awards last night @ Te Papa.

NZ Human Rights Commission
Race Unity Speech Award 2009
Winner: Rayhan Langdana - Yr 11, Wellington College, Wellington

Dear God, please make me white”, the non European child prayed after another day of being bullied at school for having brown skin.

Where do you think these words were spoken? Maybe in the deep south of the US? Perhaps in England in the early 60’s? No. These words were spoken in Island Bay, Wellington, New Zealand, 2009. I was shocked. To me, this kind of stuff only happened in the articles of the newspaper. But the harsh reality is that racial prejudice is alive and well in our own little antiseptic bubble at the bottom of the world. Little year 1’s at school taunt their classmates because that is the way they have been brought up. This raises the question: if kids are turning out like this, where do they learn it from? How would the father of the bully treat the new Chinese family who moved in down the street? How would his mother treat the little Indian girls selling Girl Guide biscuits?

It is children like the bully mentioned above who must quickly learn that good neighbours come from all races and cultures. The definition of neighbour is “a person who lives next to or near another”. However the word extends far beyond this dry dictionary definition. The kid you sat beside in year three, he was your neighbour. Your batting partner in the cricket team, he was your neighbour. The nice lady whose office was next to yours, she was your neighbour. Therefore the message that good neighbours come from all races and cultures is not only applicable to domestic life, but to school, recreation and the workforce. This makes the message doubly important to teach.

When I come back from hockey late on a Friday night, I drive down the street and smell the delicious aroma of beef rendang wafting over from the Hassans’ house at number 32. The Dales on the other side are having a barbeque, and the smell of grilling sausage is mouth watering. Our house is fragrant with the smell of mum’s special chicken curry. What does this show, besides making us all hungry? It shows just one of the countless streets in which families of completely different cultures live next to each other in perfect harmony. When mum cooks a large amount of some amazing Indian food, my brother and I are dispatched to the houses on either side of ours bearing containers of it to give to our neighbours and last weekend we all went over to Tony and Carols’ for a BBQ. We’ve learnt to accept the fact that when Ramadan ends, the Hassans have guests whose cars take up the entire street and who party until the wee hours of the morning. We’ve learnt to realise that Guy Fawkes Night for the Dales means alarming booming noises until what feels like sunrise, and both our neighbours have learnt that on Diwali, they may as well come and join the party at our house because they’re not going to get much sleep!

This relationship between our three families began as wary suspicion. The Dales were courteous enough when we first moved in, but it was apparent that they were unsure of what to expect: their previous neighbours of 20 years had been European like them. However, this soon shifted to tolerance and then to friendship. Why was this? Because they looked past the colour of our eyes, hair and skin. They looked past our accents and made the effort to get to know us as individuals. After that, it was smooth sailing. In my opinion, a good neighbour is a person who initially throws the life raft to the new family next door, helping them navigate the rough waters of a different kind of suburbia. This neighbour then reels in the family and nurtures them on their metaphorical ship. After the family have acclimatised to life in this part of the ocean (or this part of the city), the good neighbours send them on their way. We experienced this instantly. On day one of moving in, Carol Dale from next door weaved her way through bulky furniture movers, many boxes and a piano to give us some fresh baked cookies. These cookies were like polar bears–they broke the ice. Later that week she invited us around to dinner and made a real effort to get to know us. Over the following weeks she introduced us to various parents of kids who went to my brother’s school, and friendships began being formed.

This family fulfilled the one key criteria of being a good neighbour: making us feel welcome. Because of it, we quickly became happy and truly settled in to life in Northland, Wellington. I think that point (feeling welcome) is a key factor in experiencing acceptance regardless of the neighbour’s race, age or gender.

However, some further steps must be taken to ensure neighbours of different cultures feel welcome in their new community. A key one is understanding. The people living on either side must try to understand their new neighbour’s culture. That doesn’t mean knowing their country’s entire history but it does help to refer to the new family as Japanese instead of Chinese; as Maori instead of Samoan. Because when the roles change; when one of us is seen as the neighbour of a different culture, how would we like to be called Australians? It would make us feel that we make no difference to our new neighbour. It would make us feel that our new neighbour didn’t even care to try and understand our culture. Understanding is a further step one can take to being a good neighbour to someone of a different culture.

On the other side of the scale, the book “40 Ways to Raise a Non–Racist Child” (by Barbara Mathias) raises an interesting point. It says that while it is good to foster good relations with people from all races and cultures, we shouldn’t do it as a project or as an activity to prove to ourselves how liberal and PC we are. There is a difference between being nice to the new Chinese family because they seem like nice people and being nice to them just because they are Chinese. The former is being a good neighbour. The latter is being patronising. One should choose to get along with their new neighbour because they like them as people, not because they want another brownie point for when they’re at the pearly gates.

A good relationship with a neighbour is like a good relationship with a colleague at work. If you don’t have one, then you become permanently prepared for confrontation. If you’re impassive, then you will watch them move away and be just as much of a stranger to them as you were when you first met. But if you get on well, both your professional and personal lives will flourish. You’ll have someone to go and borrow a bike pump from. You’ll have someone to talk to when the dreaded in-laws are coming and you haven’t got enough pillows. But most importantly you’ll have someone to trust.

Next time you hear one of your friends darkly muttering about the new people who’ve moved in down the street, stop them in their tracks. Persuade them to understand and welcome their new neighbour and. Tell them about the time your son had international week at school, and the closest he’d ever been to going overseas was a week in Nelson, and how your neighbour from China kindly told him some Chinese myths and legends for him to share with his class.

If you ever hear your kids or siblings taunting a classmate because they look different, don’t tell them that we are all the same underneath – we’re not. Instead tell them that everyone being so different is why the world is such an interesting place. Remember – we don’t watch movies in black and white anymore; we watch them in full colour. Similarly, our society has changed from being strictly divisive to being brighter, more vibrant, a better place. The path to racial prejudice being eliminated is long and we are only a few paces along it. But seemingly small things like being welcoming to your new neighbour can make a world of difference not just to them, but to you as well. Good neighbours come from all races and cultures. How do we know this? Look around you. We are all living proof.
posted by luveiviti@myvuw as member of the NZ Diversity Program.

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