Washing away culture

Some friends who immigrated from the UK six years ago recently took citizenship. They also redecorated their house, and put in a brand new kitchen. Myself, two other kiwis and one brit were there the other night and had a fun but heated debate about the fact that they’d put a washing machine in the kitchen, kind of where you’d expect a dishwasher to be. Its apparently very common in europe. To us kiwis though it was just weird, like putting a bath in the kitchen. Both sides tried to rationlise the reasons for and against. When it came down to it though, it was just that we were used to different things, and found the others way just plain strange at a gut level. I think this is part of what culture is, the “how we do things here”. The rationlisations were just a way to try to make our position out to be the ‘sane’ one.

When I told Dad he said the reason kiwis have laundrys might have something to do with the influence of maori culture. Maori traditionally make a strong separation between places you prepare food and places you wash your body and your clothes. To maori having a washing machine in a kitchen is possibly almost as offensive as sitting on a table. Maybe that got consciously or unconsciously taken into pakeha culture. Or maybe it’s that many  british houses are much older and when plumbing came along it was hard to install so it was only added to the bare minimum of rooms.

Culture is an ever changing thing. To what extent do we expect immigrants to change their speech, lifestyles and habits when they become citizens of NZ? To what extent do we welcome the change and new ways that people of other cultures bring? Do we actively try to preserve our kiwi culture? How does that relate to preserving maori culture? We changed their culture irrevocably, so what right do we have to think it weird that some brits who arrived a few generations later than we have different ideas about where to put a washing machine?

When I mentioned the maori culture idea as a reason for the difference one of the british immigrants said it was funny how we’d taken that on but very little else. My knee jerk reaction was to say I was glad we hadn’t taken on the eating your enemies part. It really got me thinking though. I know lots about maori traditional and modern social and cultural practices, their myths and their art work, and a bit about their modern business management and political practices. What I know very little about is their spirituality. I wonder that learning more about their deeply held beliefs might help me understand the other things more, to come to grips with the similarities and differences that inform our bicultural, and increasingly multicultural society.

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2 Responses to “Washing away culture”

  1. Sarah Says:

    I have had offhand discussions with people at times about where the idea of taking your shoes off to go inside came from.Although not all kiwi households do this many do including a fair number of NZ pakeha. During one of these it was said that in the UK you do not wear barefeet anywhere always wearing shoes or slippers. Asian and Pacific cultures all appear to take their shoes off to go inside. I kind of assumed this little tradition filtered into NZ homes from Maaori tradition. Wondering if these Brits could comment on this.

  2. Anna D Says:

    Not that I was part of the original washing machine conversation but…

    It seems to be very mixed as to whether you take your shoes off in British households or not – some families do, others don’t, but neither is seen as odd. However those that do usually have slippers (at primary school we had ‘indoors’ shoes to change into which were often pumps or sandals) mainly I suspect because for the vast majority of the year it’s too cold to be wandering around in bare feet!

    From experience though the households that tended to have a no shoes indoors policy were far more likely to have that to ‘spare the carpets’ than any other reason (in fact I can’t actually think of any other reasons given!) – shoes wear them out quicker and if ‘outdoors ones’ they make them grubbier! Carpets being traditionally very expensive (the old wool ones that is) and something you made last as long as possible.

    As someone who walks around in barefeet a lot (yay it’s finally warm enough in Welly again!) I get a bit flummoxed about what to say when people ask me if they should take their shoes off here – I do, but I like being in bare feet and given that I’m quite likely to have just wandered around outside in barefeet (to the post office or dairy never mind to just hang the washing out) someone taking their shoes off to keep the carpet clean etc (that being the reasons I grew up with) seems somewhat superfluous given that I don’t wash my feet at the door and they are just as grubby! I just say it’s up to the individuals…

    So what about you guys who’ve grown up wandering around barefoot here? How does that fit in?

    As for where the washing machine should be, if it’s a noisy as mine then as far away from where you are likely to be trying to hold a conversation as possible….

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