Thailand visit inspires search for cultural identity

Leadership Network member Crystal Tawhai is in the final stages of fleshing out her research proposal for PhD study at the University of Waikato’s Management School. She will be looking at Māori women leaders (Spoiler alert: She’s one herself), exploring their ideas around identity and belonging within the organisations they work for. For Crystal, a former public servant, the research is both academic and deeply personal.

Crystal talks about attending the Leadership Network Kāhui hui in Taranaki in August

It was half a world away, immersed in the richness of a different culture, that Crystal Tawhai started on a journey to better understand herself.

A young, intrepid traveller, Crystal remembers being welcomed at a homestay in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

It was obvious to her that her hosts lived and breathed their culture, and they were comfortable and confident sharing it with overseas visitors.

Crystal (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāti Māhuta) grew up among a close-knit extended family in Hamilton.

She says they didn’t have much, and she was taught to be resourceful.

She had plenty of role models – her parents, and aunties and uncles, all who had a hand in raising her well. At school, she also had teachers who encouraged her passion for learning and she acknowledges their influence on her dream to pursue tertiary education.

But, in stark contrast to the communities she found herself living in during gap year travels through Southeast Asia, she didn’t grow up with a strong sense of her own cultural heritage.

Crystal: “Being Māori guides my actions in terms of how I interact with the world.”

“I didn’t grow up immersed in the Māori world. It wasn’t until I started travelling overseas and starting to engage with other cultures that I started to become more interested in reconnecting to my Māori culture.

“I just saw how passionate others were in places like Thailand about their own culture and how it gave them a sense of themselves and their identity.”

Looking back, her knowledge of what it was to be Māori was shaped by how Māori were portrayed in media, she says.

“I thought that’s what it meant to be Māori – to not have a lot, to come from a low socio-economic background, to not achieve at school.

“And I did actually struggle to achieve in school because of that.”

As a young person, her cultural narrative was crafted by negative statistics and stereotypes.

However, inspired by the richness of her experiences overseas, Crystal began a journey of discovery into te ao Māori.

And she discovered her own rich cultural heritage.

Crystal and fellow Leadership Network member Chloe Thompson sitting on the grass at Waitangi in 2019

Crystal and fellow Leadership Network member Chloe Thompson at Waitangi in 2019

Although she couldn’t articulate it at the time, the Chiang Mai homestay experience was at once foreign and familiar.

“Seeing how they hosted us, total strangers, I can see it now, but I couldn’t then, it’s kind of how we host people in New Zealand on marae.

“I’ve learnt through connecting with communities through Southeast Asia that we actually have similar values in terms of family, hospitality and ideas of caring for our places. And, how there’s a connection between people and place – we see them as intertwined.”

Now, her ability to embrace her Māori heritage makes her a better global citizen, she says.

“For me, it’s how I apply Māori values in terms of how I conduct myself.

“Looking at our values: manaakitanga, caring for people, for the land as well, kaitiakitanga, and aroha.

“Being Māori guides my actions in terms of how I interact with the world.”

She’s keen to help young Māori reach that place of confidence in who they are and how they fit in a global space, she says.

“I know that many of our young people are on a journey to reconnect or aren’t totally sure about their identity as Māori, so that’s a big part of my leadership mission.”

It’s a mission helped by her involvement with the Foundation’s Leadership Network, she says.

“I’ve been fortunate to receive a number of opportunities within the network itself to strengthen my identity as Māori as well, which is cool.”

Crystal sitting on the floor with fellow Leadership network member Guled Mire

Crystal at Waitangi for the Te Ao Māori Hui in 2019

At the 2019 Te Ao Māori Hui in Waitangi, Crystal helped facilitate a session on pepeha, a way of introducing yourself which links you to your ancestors.

“What I loved about that was many of us came from different backgrounds ethnicity-wise…but we connected.”

There was a commonality in different family migration stories, in felt disconnects between inherited cultures and the individual finding their own place in the world, and in attempts to reconnect with that culture for the sake of future generations, she says.

“It was cool to see what pepeha could do in that way, in a global space.”