Passports to understanding
In July, a crowd of children clutching colourful Global Passports gathered in the Palmerston North City Library to take part in a range of cultural activities. With each activity, another visa stamp was added to their passports, marking waypoints on a journey towards shared cultural understanding.
Small children. Tins of paint. Glasses of water. Apprehensive parents. At the table run by British migrant Heather Knox of the Facebook group Palmy Rocks, children are painting river pebbles with their choice of flags and emblems of countries around the world.
Later, varnished and dried, the pebbles will be placed in parks and gardens for others to find. They will be small tokens of how multicultural and multi-national Palmerston North is becoming.
Further on, beyond the rock-painting the children are taking on other challenges and activities at the Global Festival. And every activity they complete entitles them to another stamp in their Global Passport.
They are colouring in self-portraits, or locating famous sites – maybe the pyramids or the Leaning Tower of Pisa – on a world map. They are learning the Māori stick games known as tī rākau or taking part in building a model wharenui (meeting house).
From 1.00pm, when the festival launches with a karakia and whakatau (opening prayer and formal speech) and Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Manawatū Kapa Haka (performing arts), until 4.00pm, when it ends, the ground floor of Palmerston North City Library is packed with quietly focused children.
The people behind the Global Passport and the Global Festival are a group called Global Parent Support: six migrant women from different countries and professions who have set out to promote cultural awareness, understanding and respect in their community.
The city of Palmerston North is growing and changing. According to medium growth projections, by 2043 the city will have added 17,200 people to the population it had in 2013. There will be more jobs, income levels will be higher, and the population will, on average, be slightly older. But the most dramatic change will be in the ethnic mix.
By 2038, according to the projections, the Pacific community will have increased from 3,870 people in 2013 to 8,410, with Pasifika people making up 8.7 per cent of the city’s population. The Asian population will have climbed by 7,950 people, making up 17 per cent of the city’s population. The Māori population will have risen by 10,500, accounting for 25.6 per cent of the city’s population. Meanwhile, the ‘European and other’ category will have fallen from 79.9 per cent to 69.7 per cent of the population.
But you do not have to wait for time to go by to see the new Palmerston North emerging. In 2016, around half of the students on the Palmerston North school roll were European Pākehā, with the other half made up of 27 per cent Māori, five per cent Pacific Island and nine per cent Asian.
Angel Kwan is a founding member of Global Parent Support, and her son, who speaks English with his classmates and Mandarin with his parents, is part of that nine per cent. Originally from Hong Kong, where she was a registered social worker, Angel arrived in New Zealand from Michigan in the United States five years ago with her economist husband and their infant son.
In Michigan, while her husband worked towards his PhD, Angel had set up a local voluntary group called International Spouse Connection, which still thrives. When she arrived in Palmerston North, looking after her preschool son took a lot of her time. But after he turned five and began school, Angel had the time she could use to make a difference in the community.
Nina Rosiana Kirschbaum, another member of Global Parent Support and also the parent of a young child, remembers meeting Angel when their children went to the same playgroup. Originally from Indonesia, Nina has travelled the world, working as a nurse in places as far apart as the Middle East, Germany, the United States and Australia, before moving to Palmerston North 10 years ago.
The Global Parent Support group formed in March 2017. In April, at the close of the school holidays, it held its first event at the library. This was Touch of Asian Art, a chance for the public to try a range of arts and crafts, including origami paper-folding, making the Nepalese/Indian sand patterns called rangoli, or creating a Chinese opera mask. In April, working alongside Jeremie Corroenne of the Palmerston North City Council, the group launched the Global Passport initiative.
Palmerston North has a schedule of multicultural events that would be the envy of many larger cities. There are multicultural singing and music performances (which Angel and Nina have helped organise) and a line-up of celebrations held throughout the year. The highlight is the multicultural Festival of Cultures held in March, when thousands of people come out onto the streets to watch a spectacular lantern parade and sample the food from 100-plus food stalls.
These events are wonderful, says Nina, but the Global Parent Support group wants to influence things at a deeper level by working with the most important group of all: children. The experiences children have in their early school years are crucial to the way they see themselves. Out on the playground, children who are seen or heard to be different sometimes find themselves teased or bullied, and this can have lifelong consequences.
Nina and the other members of Global Parent Support know that life for the children of migrants is not always easy. “If someone brings along a lunch box with rice or sushi and the other children say 'Eew!', we want children to know that potatoes and bread are not the only foods in the world. Everyone deserves to have their culture treated with respect,” says Nina.
The initiative is encouraging children to understand that there is a wider world beyond Palmerston North, one with different people, lifestyles, cultures and landscapes, says Angel.
“We hope to motivate children to find out more about the wider world and broaden their horizons. If we understand and respect each other’s differences, it will be good for everyone.”