Shame to flame – how awakening stokes the fire of culture

My mother has the honey-brown skin and the pearl-white smile that sets the tone for Samoan culture.

She’s part of the magic of the Pacific. She belongs to a people whose culture is the poetry of the waves, the canvas of the stars, and the music in the language of her island race.

As a young boy, I used to lie in bed at night and listen to her speaking on the phone in her native Samoan to her sisters, my aunts, overseas. I would try and pronounce some of the words. Her culture was strong, but she admitted that she didn’t teach us Samoan customs and language because she didn’t think it would be helpful to us growing up in New Zealand.

Easier to fall culturally asleep

As a powerful force in the family, she was immensely proud of her Samoan heritage. But when I went out from the family into the other three of Bronfenbrenner’s* four worlds — school/work, peers, and community — I felt a kind of shame. So it was easier, or less difficult, to fall culturally asleep.

I’ve seen this same cultural slumber in many young people with whom I’ve journeyed as a youth worker.

In my early thirties I did some social work study, part of which examined Maori culture. The curriculum called for everyone to explore and share their own cultural heritage.

It touched me profoundly. I underwent a cultural awakening in both my mother’s Samoan culture and my father’s Scottish heritage, along with my own experience of Maori and New Zealand culture. And I realised that what had been missing or empty could nonetheless be replaced.

It was an awakening to something I innately knew but was too immature as an adolescent and young adult to acknowledge. Young people, of course, want to fit in at almost any cost. It’s only in adulthood that they realise there is something more, a void to be explored and filled. That’s where the cultural awakening, or enrichment, can begin. It goes from ‘so what’ to ‘wow.’ And it’s never too late.

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Article written by Roger McDonald and Gregg Morris, facilitator of Mahana Culture’s Culture Connects program

* Urie Bronfenbrenner, US psychologist known for his work in ecological systems theory in child development