Friday, 25 November 2011

snow: check. frozen river: check. vote in nz election: check.

I caught the train to Ottawa today and cast my vote in the NZ elections. The train trip was fabulous and gorgeous and amazing...

snow outside the window
I got to Ottawa, found my way to the High Commission, and was ushered into their man boardroom which doubled as a room for doing special votes. The guy who took me through the process was lovely - he's originally from Adelaide, and has been living in Canada and working at the High Commission for long enough that he could compare the processes of voting for this election with the past few elections. They had about 40 special votes by the time I got there today - tomorrow when they seal the box and courier it off they may have closer to 50... although it's hard to know. Interestingly (well, I thought it was interesting) this was the first time he reckoned they'd had someone from the Maori roll. Hmmm...

I was then ushered into a small office and shown a desk with pens on it; the door was closed behind me and to be completely honest it was done with that kind 'we know you'll want your provacy, come out when you're ready' look that it reminded me a bit of when you go for a urine test and you're sent up the corridor towards the loo with a small pottle in your hand. I don't even know what to make of that association - I surely hope it's not a metaphor. Hmmm. Now, although the States is decked out for Thanksgiving this week, and Canada has already started to get decked out for Christmas, the office was decked out for Elections... There was one of those white cardboard carton booth divider things which obviously is part of the package they received, although it was a bit pointless offering 'sides' to keep your vote secret when you're in a small room with a closed door. There were also election posters: two of them, one with instructions for the election and one with intructions for the referendum about voting systems. The posters had been dutifully drawing-pinned to the bulletin board behind the little desk, and as I looked at the posters I felt, well, a bit homesick I suppose.

At the centre of each poster was a sample of what the ballot/ referendum looked like, and flanking that one either side were instructions in Maori and in English. Then, surrounding those, there were all of these other translations of the instructions in a whole range of languages. Only Maori comes 'from home' really, but over time New Zealand has gathered a few layers of languages, and I realised as I read through the languages that New Zealand is produced as a result of a very particular combination.

Chinese (simplified)
Chinese (traditional)
Cook Islands Maori

This wasn't bland multiculturalism (or, indeed, Canadian multiculturalism despite where we were or, I suppose, given how embassies etc work, weren't) but it was very specific multilingualism which could only have been in NZ. This particular combination of languages tells a range of stories about history and migrations: about NZ as a refuge, a destination, a gracious host, a violent colonial power. I kept looking at the list, reading some of the familiar words (from the Pacific lanaguages) and thinking about people who I know who come from these language groups... including those who would look at their own language in the way I look at the Maori one: fiercely proud it's there, but relying on the English for meaning.

I was so struck by the lineup of languages that I completed my vote then took the black pen and wrote them on the inside of my hand... the whole list... in two columns on my left palm. As I left the small office and went back into the boardroom to place my envelope in the election-themed box, I felt a bit like I had written things on my hand so I could cheat on a test. But what test would it be? Did I do anything wrong? Why did I write them down anyway? What did they really represent to me? Am I exoticising them? Appropriating them? Acknowledging them?

For the rest of the afternoon, then the evening bus ride back, and now in my lounge in Toronto again, I have a gradually-fading lineup of languages on my left hand. It's not the hand that ticked the boxes, it's not the hand that sealed the envelope or posted it through the slot in the box. But I suspect it's the hand I'll remember when I think about this vote in time to come.

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