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Cover detail, He Maramatanga: Māori Language Teaching Manual, 1981. Image: Archives New Zealand, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

I am perpetually embarrassed.

At Riverhead Primary School Mr Tawhiti comes on Tuesdays to take some of the kids for Māori lessons. We sing waiata and learn kupu and push each other out of the way to get the nicest looking poi to swing around ourselves; the plastic-bag coated balls hit our hands and hips and shoulder blades sounding like a flurry of footsteps. We use rolled-up magazines to play tī rākau, and we think we are cool because we get to do stuff the other kids don’t.

At the end of the year, Mr Tawhiti gives me a red plastic Santa boot filled with mini chocolate Santa boots for being his ‘best student’.

‘Shame’, I hear.

‘She is such a try hard’.

‘Shame’ means: shame on her. She should be embarrassed.

I am.

We are having dinner at my Pākehā boyfriend’s parents’ house. His dad nonchalantly lacerates a Māori place name beyond all recognition. ‘That’s not how you say it’, my boyfriend says. He breaks the syllables down, slowly (too slowly) accentuating the vowel sounds, trying hard to eliminate room for error. His father is defiant: ‘That’s how I’ve always said it.’ My boyfriend stares, challenging: ‘Well, you’ve always said it wrong.’

I am embarrassed and want to be anywhere but here, both grateful for the solidarity and exhausted. This is not the first conversation like this, and it will not be the last.

I am the person who lies wide-eyed in bed at night, overcome with embarrassment at some stupid thing I did in front of people I don’t even talk to any more, reliving the shame over and over and desperately trying to reimagine what the less shameful outcome might have been.

I am the person who feels embarrassed for people, and then becomes embarrassed by that too: betrayed by my complexion, slinking to the back of the room before slipping out entirely.

Shame is speaking and not being understood. It is not being able to understand when it seems like everyone else can.

Shame is speaking and not being understood. It is not being able to understand when it seems like everyone else can.

Shame feels like fluorescent lights and nowhere to hide and a thousand eyes staring and it surges within me as I try to learn the language of my tūpuna. Shame at the thought of needing to do this, shame at the thought of not following through. My vocabulary is limited – but I do know the word whakamā.

Poet Tayi Tibble explains that whakamā, like many kupu, doesn’t really have an exact English translation, but that it is akin to ‘feelings of inferiority, self-doubt and self-abasement’ and is connected with feeling dislocated: of not having ‘a sure-footing in te ao Māori’. Dr Kiri Dell draws similar comparisons, noting too that whakamā feels like ‘a weakening of oneself’ and is related to feelings of inadequacy and disconnection and the many fears and emotions which accompany that.

No wonder then, that whakamā is part and parcel of the reo-learning journey for some of us. For to take steps to reclaim the language of our ancestors, is to acknowledge the reasons why reclamation is required in the first place: it is to confront our colonisation, our disconnection and our intergenerational whakamā head on, and sometimes in a public forum.

I start learning te reo Māori. Again. Classes start with karakia (an incantation or prayer) and we share kai and slowly get to know each other and feel a little more comfortable, knowing that at least we are here and trying. I watch as some of my Pākehā classmates kōrero with confidence while some of us remain hesitant. We don’t talk about why that is.

I see my kaiako in the supermarket. ‘Oh hey, how are you?’ I say. ‘Kia ora, e hoa. E pai ana au’ he replies – hello my friend, I am well – and I feel my puku tighten. I have failed to do the only thing required of me in this moment. I have not shown my gratitude for his teaching. I have not put into practice all that I have been at pains to learn.

English is automatic. It is a given. It is ingrained.

And I am so fucking ashamed.

To take steps to reclaim the language of our ancestors is to confront our colonisation, our disconnection and our intergenerational whakamā head on.

Like with most things, and because I am a long-time Māori literature fangirl (one thing I am not ashamed about) I turn to our kaituhi, our writers, to find out what they have to say about whakamā. This way I get to excavate its layers, little by little, quietly, and on my own terms.

Our language, Anahera Gildea reminds us, wasn’t simply ‘lost’, although you will often see this euphemism attached to te reo Māori, implying that we simply misplaced it – how embarrassing for us. ‘It was stolen. Not the same. Not equivalent.​ Not shame.’ I think about my grandfather’s generation who were physically punished at school for speaking te reo Māori. I think about inherited silences where kōrero should have been. I think about both of these things as I put post-it notes in every corner of our whare, the yellow flags urging me to say their names out loud – moenga, matapihi, paenga, whakaahua. I think about how my feeling whakamā is benefitting some people. I wonder what would happen if I stopped.

Learning te reo Māori vocabulary. Image: Supplied

I drop my son off at day care, stopping for a moment to speak to his kaiako, knowing that she and the rest of the whānau are a little apprehensive; education review officers begin their assessment of the centre that morning. ‘I am so nervous’, she whispers. ‘I always feel like this speaking Māori in front of them’. For a moment I am shocked and don’t know what to say. I am in awe of her knowledge of the reo, inspired by the way she speaks to the tamariki, so grateful for the kindness and aroha with which she shares it with all of us. I am halfway out the door before I realise what I should have said: But that’s how I feel when I’m talking to you.

My whakamā is shared and I know this already. I know it is not just me and it is not really about me either. And therein lies one of the ways we can start to understand it, to assess its prevalence, to compare our experiences. ‘Connection’, writes Kiri Dell, ‘is the antidote to whakamā’; but of course it’s not just in our shared familiarity with whakamā that this connection is possible. The answer is in the reo itself: our language is relational.

Te reo Māori reveals to us the beauty of whakapapa: the many layers of relationships and connections we carry within us, and the knowledges and worldviews that are embedded within them. It’s in the way we introduce ourselves – first by naming the mountain, the river, the waka of our tūpuna, the kinship groups we belong to. It’s in our specific words for ‘we’ and ‘yous’ and ‘them but not us’, and the way we talk about our relations – our sisters, brothers, whanaunga. ‘Our language’, writes Nadine Hura, ‘constantly reinforces the understanding that our story is just a small part of a much bigger story’.

In other words, it is about time I got out of my own way.

I start learning te reo Māori. Again. And in one of our first lessons, our kaiako teaches us a new kīwaha – a chorus of eager manu repeat after her in unison (it is the start of semester after all). ‘Patua te whakamā’, she says – roughly, ‘kill the shame!’ And I’m like, cool, but how? I mean, I’d like to, but what is the Māori word for – sorry, he aha te reo Māori mō, ‘easier said than done?’

Maybe it’s not really about ridding ourselves of whakamā at all. Perhaps the way we navigate whakamā is to talk about it.

The more I think about it, and the more I return to the inspiring words of kaituhi Māori, the more I realise that maybe it’s not really about ridding ourselves of whakamā at all. Perhaps the way we navigate whakamā is to talk about it – or in my case, to write about it, to explore it, to take part in the ongoing kōrero: to remember the strength and beauty of collectivity, and the ways in which it continues to reveal itself as I learn the language of my tūpuna.

Most sentences still feel laborious. It is hard to be a fledgling in this world. I get frustrated, and overwhelmed. And yeah – I feel embarrassed.

But I think there is room to consider whakamā not so much as a burden to be carried, or an obstacle to be overcome. Rather, we might be able to think of the kōrero which surrounds it as another potent source of fuel for the fire, the ahi of reo we tend and nurture with every word we learn, speak, sing, read and write again into the world. It’s like Tayi says: we can feel the whakamā and do it anyway.

I ring my parents every other day. They have been learning te reo too. Dad knows more than me, and he knows that I know that, but it is always me who initiates our conversations in te reo. We break back into English before it becomes necessary. I think about whakamā and how it permeates and operates in ways that I’m still uncovering. I think about the things we do not say to each other, in English nor in Māori. Maybe the right words don’t exist.

Or maybe it’s just that we haven’t learned them – yet.


For Māori–English translations, see Te Aka Māori Dictionary