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  This is currently being worked on. Joris is supplying the hard copy and Simon is going to provide a digital copy from some software he has

The Boat People - by Joris de Bres 1997

Along the Petone foreshore, the street signs proclaim the names of the boats that brought the New Zealand Company settlers to Wellington last century. Most Maori New Zealanders readily whakapapa back to one of the canoes that brought their ancestors here. We are an island nation, and before the advent of air travel, it was the particular boats we came in that helped to define our communities, the means and the point of our arrival, the link with our places of origin.

My waka, by contrast, was a very private one. For all I know, my immediate family could have been the only people that arrived in Wellington in September 1954 on board the SS Waterman from Rotterdam. I once read an interview with New Zealand athlete Dick Quax in the Listener, in which he said he was on the same boat on the same trip, but it seemed little more than a strange coincidence. I don’t know of anyone else who made that momentous five week journey with us. Yet I know the exact day we left the huge departure hall and embarked in Rotterdam, the exact morning we steamed into Wellington harbour. I was seven years old. I have memories of Curacao, the Panama Canal and Tahiti, places we stopped en route, photos of which grace our family albums.

More than forty years later, I had a chance conversation with another child of 1950’s Dutch settlers. It crystalised passing thoughts over the years. Although she was born in New Zealand, she too could name the boat her parents came on, the Fairsea. Just as I could recite the names of the other boats of the Rotterdam Lloyd fleet that carried the Dutch to New Zealand - the Zuider Kruis, the Johann van Oldenbarneveldt (hardly a candidate for a street sign) and the Oranje, she could list the other boats of the Sitmar Line that sailed from Southampton. I suppose it’s the same for the children of the English, the Welsh, the Irish, the Scots, the Greeks, the Italians and others who were recruited en masse to post-war New Zealand. Their boats and ours never became symbols. There was no great fleet of the 1950’s, although it poured thousands of migrants into New Zealand. How we got here, where we came from, was best forgotten. We were here to start a new life, wipe out our past.

I was flying back to Wellington on the metroliner with others who had been to a meeting in Gisborne. The woman sitting in the single seat across from me had a name as obviously Dutch as mine. She had started the conversation with a hesitant question. “Were you born here?” No trace of a Dutch accent in either of our voices. A sense of curiosity. I’d had the same question during the meeting, but hadn’t asked. We were both part of a generation of immigrant children who came to New Zealand when “assimilation” was the official culture. We weren’t Dutch, the Government called us “new New Zealanders”, we bought into it, but our Dutch accents set us apart. We wanted desperately to be the same as everyone else. Our parents had left Holland for good. To help us adjust, English was spoken at home. In our own eyes, we were “kiwis”, although we were obviously foreign. Our parents’ accents were an embarrassment. It was a shock to find out later from former classmates that we had one too. We hated being labeled as Dutch.

For a long time, I thought it was just the way we were. There was a sort of fellow-feeling with the few other Dutch children at school, but you didn’t feel inclined to get too close to them. Dutch children that came to visit were more like surrogate cousins than friends. It only dawned on me later that it wasn’t the way we were, but how others defined us and shaped our attitudes. It was like the adoptions of the time - forget your past, your other identity, you’re one of us now. Don’t hang out with your former kind.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but a Dutch accent still sets off alarm bells in my head. I’m nervous about Dutch clubs, people who call themselves Dutchies. My defences go up. Not as much as they used to, because I’ve been back to Holland. There, Dutch people are normal, relaxed, not trying to impress anyone. They don’t speak with an accent. When they speak English, there’s an American flavour, just like with other Europeans. There is a new breed of Dutch person in New Zealand too, those who have come without fleeing post-war Europe, who are relaxed about being Dutch, whose residential intentions are not so single-mindedly permanent. There are Dutch backpackers, Europeans just like the Swiss, the Germans, the Belgians. They aren’t required to assimilate. They are welcomed for what they are.

Now it seems that the Dutch migrants of the fifties were a class of their own - a unique product of post-war Europe and pre-multicultural New Zealand. A try-hard generation, an embarrassment to their own children, brave, high achieving, driven by a need for acceptance, proving a point, burying their past. I can pin-point the accent of my parents’ generation. We tried to train them out of it. (“It’s an egg, Dad, not an ack.”). We mimicked it and mocked it. It’s a peculiarly New Zealand Dutch accent, littered with consciously learnt colloquialisms which sound strange. They conjure up my father with his dictionary of colloquial English, methodically learning one phrase a day, which he would somehow manage to weave into the conversation over breakfast. I can even pick the other children. There is no obvious trace of a Dutch accent, but you can recognise an almost exaggerated New Zealand one.

My parents’ generation are showing up now where we seldom saw them in earlier decades - in the honours list, rest homes, death notices, cemeteries. As New Zealand has become more tolerant of diversity, and air travel has made emigration a reversible operation, they have reconnected to their homeland, reunited with their families, rekindled an interest in Dutch language magazines, made Dutch friends, talked about their past.

And what of their children? In an odd sort of way, the beginning of our parents’ passing has given us roots. We have children of our own, and they have grandparents who lived and died here. While for many, uncles and aunts are beyond reach (and the special birthday postings of salted licorice and other Dutch delicacies are long gone), cousins are meeting each other. We are enriched by an extra dimension, rather than impoverished by its suppression.

More recent Dutch arrivals are a special connection, and contacts with other children of the migration offer insights into our common experience. We are reinterpreting, reclaiming our past. Memories of earlier decades are being rediscovered, re-examined, repackaged, finding their place. Some things about ourselves that earlier couldn’t be contemplated or admitted start to find expression.

Mental and physical landmarks testify to the journey we’ve made. Like the Delicatessen, which back then was a cluttered shop at the end of the shopping centre or in a back street, eschewed by most New Zealanders but frequented by Poles, Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Jews, us. We bought our smoked beef, sauerkraut, rookworst, biscottes, salted licorice and spekulaas biscuits there, picked out from amongst the olives, salamis, and dolmades. It was normal food to us, strange foreign food to the majority. We ate it in private, with our weak tea and our strong coffee. Now the deli is a feature of every shopping precinct, a counter in every supermarket. They’re eating our food (and drinking our coffee) in New Zealand.

Some of us came from Indonesia, an Asian country, off the Commonwealth map. My grandparents were missionaries there. We ate Kroepoek, Nasi, Bami, Sambal, foreign foods no-one knew the names of except us. There were delicate pictures and carvings of Balinese dancers in our homes. Foreign stuff. When I went to a conference in Indonesia with two New Zealand students in the 1960’s, it was exotic to them, strangely familiar to me. They spoke Dutch there. Indonesian students felt at home in our house. Now, everyone goes to Bali. We are part of Asia. Nasi Goreng and Bami Goreng are on every Chinese takeaway menu. There are Malaysian and Indonesian restaurants. Indonesia is a shared experience.

Our parents never talked about the war, they wanted to forget. We learnt about it from a New Zealand perspective, “our boys” going to Europe, the Pacific, the Middle East. A glorious chapter in our history. Whose history? Our parents were uncomfortable, grateful. They couldn’t forget the experience of Nazi occupation, of the liberation. It was the other side of the story, but not so glorious. We didn’t hear war stories from our dads and grand-dads like others did. Our mothers were in the theatre of war, not left at home. Now, slowly, the stories are coming. Dutch people, like Jewish people, are writing their stories, remembering, coming to terms with their nightmares. Recently, I read a book by a Jewish Dutch American, written with great difficulty and pain, much of which was centred on the time she was in hiding with my grandparents in Rotterdam. I learnt of the aunt, after whom my sister was named, who had died of typhoid caught while nursing patients in a makeshift Red Cross hospital. My parents wrote a book, which told me things I had never heard about their experience in the occupation. I was finally told of an uncle who had collaborated with the Nazis, and was ostracised by our family. As children, we began to see our parents in a new light, as heroes, sheltering Jews, hounded by the Nazis, going underground. We wondered what it was like to live in an occupied country, how they coped, how we would cope. We found our own perspective, shared with others in war torn countries and dictatorships, with refugees and survivors.

German stereotypes outlived the propaganda movies for those left at home during the war, surviving in comic strips, war movies and schoolboy war games. Achtung, Achtung, Englischer Schweinhund. They were comic characters, with exaggerated German accents. We were good at imitating them, a party piece. Rather like a Dutch accent really. What did that tell us? I never really thought about it at the time. German was an easy subject at school, something we could do well. My parents spoke it, but when I got a scholarship to Berlin, my mother was uncomfortable about me living in Germany. My German is better than my Dutch. My grandmother told me disapprovingly that I spoke Dutch with a German accent. Today, there are lots of German tourists in New Zealand. Our Holland is the bridge between Germany and England, not just in geography, but in language.

Anzac Day was when New Zealand men went to dawn parades and wore their medals. The day they showed an unusual degree of passion, put their chests out, and then got drunk at the RSA. The RSA was their club, their retreat, not open to us. My father, a Minister, was blacklisted by them in Upper Hutt for spoiling the service by preaching about turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. The Dutch perspective. War was horrible. After Vietnam, it became more acceptable to speak of the darker side. This year, one of my daughters was selected to represent the youth of New Zealand at the national commemoration at the Cenotaph. I wished her grandfathers had been alive to see it, one had been in the Dutch underground and the other in the English navy. Everyone was talking about peace, the horror of war. It was a coming together. Anzac Day is OK.

The Springbok Tour was a challenge to the dominant culture. The united front broke down. There were images on the television of rows of helmeted police, the Red Squad bludgeoning demonstrators. Images that re-awoke memories in our parents. My mother buried her head in a cushion when the news came on. Nazis. She came here to get away from all that, couldn’t bear to remember, feared it would shatter her dream. But New Zealanders were just as shocked, even many police. Something changed.

South Africa was another place where Dutch people went. “Boer” is the Dutch word for farmer. It sounded warm and familiar, and featured in a favourite nursery rhyme. My grandmother lived there as a child. New Zealanders fought the boers. She was there around that time. The boers supported the Nazis because they hated the English. The Dutch hated the Nazis. It was confusing. Their accents were not dissimilar to ours - a blend of Dutch and English. The Springboks came to our monthly Presbyterian Dutch service at St Andrews on the Terrace when they were here on tour in the fifties. It was easy to hate the accent when we joined the anti-apartheid movement. It was that Dutch accent again. Now, with Mandela, the familiarity is back, the accent sounds friendly in front of the new flag.. There are even some boer heroes who opposed apartheid. There are Africans with Dutch names and Afrikaans accents. It feels like a bit of our history that’s coming right, a connection that’s re-established.

I could hardly speak a word of English when I started school. My first six weeks were spent in the office of the powdered infant mistress before I was released into Primer 4. I couldn’t even say I needed to go to the toilet, and got sent home early when I burst into tears. We dipped in IQ tests when we couldn’t match needle with haystack, a stitch in time with saves nine, a pot of gold with the end of the rainbow. But we were good at language. Later, a well-intentioned teacher told my sister’s classmates in secondary school that they should be ashamed of being beaten in English by a Dutch girl. I topped the English class as well. Dangerous territory. But English was the test, we had to be good at it. A secret pride.

We laughed along with people who good humouredly laughed at us for getting things wrong, bringing an empty plate to a function in response to the exhortation for ladies to bring a plate, being given a packet of Zig Zag cigarette papers for a family of nine in a dairy when we thought we’d asked for toilet paper. It was worse when people were too polite to tell us to our face and we found out later.

My father told me to find a good New Zealand girl when I got married. I mustn’t marry an English immigrant, because they got homesick (God forbid). Most of my generation complied, but I married an English woman, a real one, from England, where I met her. She was only born a few hundred miles from my own birthplace, closer than Invercargill is to Wellington, but it was like she came from the other side of the world. She came back to New Zealand with me, a fellow immigrant. She stayed.

The church was very important in our lives. We were Dutch Reformed, which logically made us Scottish Presbyterians. Our new icons were the burning bush, St Andrew’s Cross, John Knox. Presbyterians were protesters against English Catholics and Anglicans. It was strange but familiar. Maybe it was easier for the Catholics, with the icons remaining the same, although the flavour was Irish rather than European. We weren’t different enough to have our own Church, Tabernacle or Temple (although some did, and were frowned upon). We had daily prayers and bible readings at home, morning and evening, and family hymn singing. Our parents took their religion more seriously than most New Zealanders. We strictly observed the Sabbath, while others dressed casually, went to the beach, did the lawns. Despite the liberalism of my parents, I had a fear of Catholics, memories of watching Catholic processions in Holland, of the milkman having a charcoal cross on his forehead on Ash Wednesday. Later, I learnt of a history of religious division in Holland every bit as bitter as in Ireland. Something else to share and overcome with other New Zealanders, from Ireland. I felt a sort of perverse pride that I and my two brothers all married Catholics. A bit of history, shared, understood, resolved.

The Huguenots were a family tradition. No-one else seemed to have heard of them. All my sisters were given Huguenot crosses, an elaborate cross with a dove. The same cross is engraved on my brother’s headstone, unexplained, in a cemetery in Palmerston North. He was named after a proudly claimed ancestor who was a leader of the Dutch Protestant rebellion, the author of the Flemish Confession of Faith, put to death by the Catholics. A private pride. It was a history I thought was unknown to New Zealanders till I learnt that the Huguenots had also fled to Ireland, England, Scotland, and ended up all over Europe, in South Africa. There are lots of New Zealanders with Huguenot ancestry. We are part of an international tapestry woven centuries before.

England was referred to as “home”. It was where all the other New Zealanders, except Maori and “foreign” immigrants, came from. We learnt about England at school, English history, English geography, the Kings and Queens, the British Empire, the red bits on the world map. We didn’t know anything about Dutch history and geography. Later, when I went to London, I had the strange experience of feeling at home. Then, in Amsterdam, I felt the same. But I was seen as a New Zealander in both places. Home was New Zealand.

Maori were the people who weren’t English. They weren’t very evident, but were very much a part of New Zealand for us. One of two peoples in the country, living in harmony with each other. We didn’t see the reality. We learnt their songs and stick games at school. They spoke with pure vowels like the Dutch, we could pronounce their names if we tried, and they could pronounce ours. Later, they were the pathbreakers for cultural diversity. Their renaissance was as much a liberation for us as it was for them. They were the first to be interested in our ancestry. They welcomed us. We didn’t purport to be indigenous. They valued my parents for learning Maori, when others couldn’t see the point of learning a “dying” language. They kindled a pride in being different. We recognised their feeling about the wrongness of assimilation, our common experience of the colonial Anglo-Saxon straitjacket.

The naturalisation ceremony was the big moment when you got to become a New Zealander, a natural. It took five years to qualify. It was eagerly awaited. We paraded across the stage of St David’s Presbyterian Church Hall in Upper Hutt, shook hands with the mayor, watched by a packed audience who beamed with a sense of a mission accomplished. It felt like a baptism, a confirmation or a prizegiving. We were told that as minors we could make a choice when we turned twenty. Unthinkable. There was a family crisis when one of my sisters didn’t want to attend the ceremony. What was the matter with her? Her glum face in the photo now conveys enviable courage. Today, it’s called a citizenship ceremony. You can do it in private.

No-one could pronounce our names, they made us stand out. So we changed them. In our family, Tjitske became Lyn, Margreet became Margaret, Joris became George. Lots of others did the same. Some people had it done to them, whether they liked it or not. I changed mine back when I went to university in Berlin, because the German for Joris (the same) sounded better than the German for George. My real name sounded more normal, and I got to like it. I tried it out when I moved on to England. It was OK. When I came back I stuck with it, but still used the English pronunciation. It’s easier. My own family struggled with the change. The only people who pronounce it correctly now are Dutch and Maori. It sounds good.

Europe was a place somewhere behind England. It had been saved twice from self-destruction by the English, the Americans and the Anzacs. It was the Old World, the home of French culture, German militarism and communism. The Dutch came from Holland, which was over there somewhere. We didn’t know much better, except that our relations lived there. It wasn’t the place it is today, with European fashion, food, furniture, style, the European Union, and high standards of living. Even the English have become Europeans.

We were brought up to call our grandparents Grandma and Grandpa, the New Zealand way, even though our grandparents referred to themselves as Oma and Opa. We taught our children to use the same English term for our parents. Now, the next generation have started to refer to their great grandparents as Oma and Opa, something special to distinguish them from their New Zealand great grandparents, and they love it.

We were lucky. One set of our grandparents followed us to New Zealand and moved to be near us whenever our family moved. My grandfather got relieving jobs as a Presbyterian Minister in parishes where they couldn’t recruit, in Mangaweka, Kawerau, Shannon, and Ruawai. He and my grandmother looked an odd sight, riding their high, black, Dutch-shaped bicycles with straight handlebars and ivory coloured tyres on their way to visit parishioners. In the end, they went home again, to be with my grandmother’s family. It left us with a sense of pretention about our roots. We were third generation New Zealanders, we had memories of our grandparents in small town New Zealand just like others, yet none of us had even been born here.

We regarded our Dutch family as the people that stayed behind. They were a long way away, and we probably wouldn’t see them again. They weren’t as adventurous as us. They were not as liberal. They didn’t have free milk at school, couldn’t all go to university, didn’t have a social security system like ours, plentiful food, fresh fruit and vegetables, white bread, butter, beaches, warm weather. They didn’t wear shorts or go round barefoot. They wrote us letters in Dutch handwriting on funny looking pallid blue aerogrammes with printed stamps and sent us parcels. They had children whose names we didn’t know. Later, a few visited. The were very Dutch. Then we started to visit them. They were prosperous. Their Dutchness wasn’t frozen in time like ours. They were more liberal than we imagined. They had more modern gadgets, more modern cars and buses, more stylish clothes, they were more cosmopolitan. Their pubs were open all hours, and they didn’t have a hang-up about alcohol. They spoke several languages. They didn’t have a New Zealand accent when they spoke English. They were widely traveled in Europe. They were nice, we were related, and we got on well. We were part of their family. There were lots of people with our name, it was on their front doors, and it didn’t look out of place. We had a home in Europe, we weren’t just tourists.

There was a turning point for me when I was a postgraduate student in England, wanting to leave university. After a year in Berlin and two in England, I had spent almost equal parts of my life in Europe and in New Zealand. The arithmetic was compelling. I thought of going back to Holland, rang the Dutch Embassy, and asked if I could get a residence permit. With a familiar touch of Dutch directness, the official told me that they had spent all their time getting rid of people, and they weren’t about to take them back. I was a New Zealand citizen, so I didn’t qualify. I realised there was no turning back New Zealand was my home. I think I knew it anyway.

We are left with the question of why. What made our parents’ generation come here, when at the time the decision had to be so final? No doubt reasons varied, but to us children the obvious answer was that they thought New Zealand would offer us and them a better future. New Zealand was a promised land, a land of milk and honey, with equal opportunity, social security, full employment, health and education for all. It was a vision shared at least by pakeha New Zealanders. It was how New Zealand marketed itself to the potential migrants it needed to boost its workforce. It was something New Zealanders needed to believe themselves. As new migrants, we were required to affirm it in response to the frequent question “How do you like it here?” Woe betide you if you said you didn’t. But unbeknown to us at the time, our parents must have also have wanted to forget the war, to escape the depression of post-war Europe, to make a fresh start at the other end of the earth. They didn’t talk about that, so it wasn’t part of our consciousness. When the tables turned, and Western Europe overtook New Zealand economically and socially, we could contemplate a return, at least for a while, but our parents couldn’t. Their children had grown up, settled, integrated. They would have to leave them and their grandchildren behind, just as they had left their own parents, brothers and sisters. Whatever the rigthness or wrongness of their original decision, they had passed the point of no return. The material dream might have dissipated, but the cultural adjustment had been made.

When I first started school in New Zealand, I was told I had to write with a pencil. You didn’t use a pen and ink till later in the standards. It seemed like a step back. A small thing about which we could privately feel superior when everything else had to be better in New Zealand. Slowly, things have changed. New Zealanders have become less defensive about themselves, more interested in others. Now it’s OK to be Dutch. Harry Duynhoven got into Parliament, there are people with Dutch names in all walks of life, the public service, the arts, commerce, industry, medicine, the law, IT, the church, education, the media. We’ve got a new name, Dutch New Zealanders, recognising our origin and our nationality.

We have a useful understanding of what it is to be an immigrant. We can sympathise with Pacific Islanders, Bosnians, Asians, Ethiopians. When you count the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, the English (previously undifferentiated as “poms”, a special category) and all the rest of us who came in the twentieth century, the majority of the population are immigrants. Not just our children, everyone’s children are descended from immigrants. Even Maori came from elsewhere. We hopped continents, they hopped islands. They are tagata pasifika as well as tangata whenua. We are part of an immigrant nation, a voyager people. Like the credits in American movies, we are a wonderful mixture of names and nationalities. Everybody’s different, not just us. We’re all in the same boat.

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