Story by Sonya Bloomfield
A Keen Researcher and Master of Curiosity
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one day in New Zealand we all spoke a plethora of Pacific and Asian languages, starting with Te Reo Māori. We would have a truly rich and culturally diverse country. I recently talked with Pātuki Harding who surprised and amused me with his story of a love of people and languages. Where did this all begin? As a nosey and curious young child wanting to find out what his grandparents were talking about!
Pātuki grew up in South Auckland, his mother is Waikato/Tainui and father is Ngā Puhi. He was interested in culture from a very young age. “Most of the kids were interested in sports, but it just wasn’t for me. I was more interested in culture, so I joined the kapa haka group at Primary School, Intermediate and then again at High School. There was the Polynesian group at High School as well and it opened my eyes as to the connections to Polynesians in general and also to dance, so I joined that too. ”
I can tell by his tone that it is more than a simple interest; it’s a passion that survived into adulthood. Through joining the Polynesian Group, Pātuki says he was able to meet a lot of new friends and connect to the wider community, especially the Pacific Island communities. “I found out that one of my Cook Islands’ friend’s aunty’s husband, was related to my father, and at the time they were all involved in the local Cook Islands Presbytarian church down the road. They invited me to come dance with the youth group there, but the entire service was held in Cook Islands Māori so my love for the Cook Islands Māori language flourished from there. While I knew some Māori, it was mostly self taught.”
Growing up, he explains that his grandparents, who were fluent in Māori, used it as a language amongst themselves so that the grandkids couldn’t understand them. As a young boy with a nosey and curious nature, he would always wonder what they were saying and it peaked his interest in learning the language. “So, I decided to learn in my own time at school. At lunch, I would go to the library and just teach myself so that I could eavesdrop and understand what they were saying.
I was playing with language all the time at high school. I was taking French, Japanese and German. I had Sāmoan friends who couldn’t speak much English, so I began to learn Sāmoan. I was just curious, and I wanted to learn.” When I ask how many different languages Pātuki is fluent in, he lists them off one by one: Japanese, French, Māori, a few Cook Islands Māori dialects and a smattering of Tahitian, Niuean, Sāmoan, Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Italian. Whoever is in my network, I will try and pick up a few words and try and speak their language”.
“I actually studied language at University. I finished with a Masters in Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies with Linguistics on the side. After I graduated, I realised I wasn’t using Japanese when I left High School and it seemed like such a waste after studying for five years.” Through a friend, Pātuki was recommended to do the Japanese Exchange Teaching (J.E.T.) Program where he started off as an Assistant Language Teacher. He is now a teacher, and has students as young as 3 years old up to the age of 78.
Through a coincidence Pātuki met a brother of a friend and other members of Japan’s kapa haka group called Ngā Hau Ē Whā. They have become his substitute family in Japan and helped stave away pangs of homesickness. They’ve also helped introduce him to other countries through performance and promotion of New Zealand. “They have been a big part of me staying here so long. As a member of the group, we’ve been given the opportunity to represent our families, our tribes and country via a multitude of performances mostly due to our long-standing connection with the New Zealand Embassy in Tōkyō. Through their networks within Asia here and our own, we’ve been able to represent our country at internationally recognized events such as the World Expo here, numerous embassy functions here involving a myriad of both home grown and local personages, as well as representing New Zealand in Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and South Korea, all more than once.
It’s Pātuki’s inherent thirst for learning and self-motivation that drives him forward sprinkling his culture into other cultures and intertwining theirs into his. Social media and the internet have provided him with a way to keep in touch with home, friends and other communities and continue to practise his languages. He watches Te Karere, Māori television and tunes in when he can to the Cook Islands’ Māori language program on 531PI.
In his spare time he likes to cook and frequents local international supermarkets trying to maintain ‘island recipes’ from home so as not to forget them. He catches up with friends one on one, relaxing from the hustle and bustle of life, and is always looking for something new to see or do with the various things going on like festivals, fairs and sightseeing.
I ask him what’s on the horizon for him now and what his plans are. He tells me that he would love to come home soon. “This is my 10th year in Japan, so I want to come back home and see my family and friends. We are still connected through Facebook and other social networks but I want to get back into my world, get back to my tribal roots and reconnect with my pacific communities that I left behind.”
From humble beginnings Pātuki has certainly shown that if you put your mind to it you can achieve great things and the world is your oyster. And, keeping that sense of community and family no matter how far you travel helps you step further than you ever thought possible.