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Kermet Apio's Laugh Corner

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July 2006

Maori and Mango

In 1990 I took a trip to New Zealand. I’ve decided to devote this column to that trip because, well, I have a column due tomorrow and, quite frankly, how many more Iolani jokes do I have in me? It is topical, though. As difficult as it is to see the Akaka bill struggle in congress, be encouraged by the fact that the New Zealand government is trying to address grievances of the indigenous Maori people. Of course, this is a government that has elected women to the top four most powerful government positions, has zero percent unemployment, and has no Fox News.

This was my last trip as a United Airlines employee before I took up comedy full time. So the flight to New Zealand cost me 75 percent less than my first flight to Wenatchee. I try not to think about it.

New Zealand (or Aotearoa, as the Maori call it) is comprised of two major islands and a few small ones. Hey, if you want details, go online. The people are called ‘Kiwis’, which I’m glad didn’t catch on elsewhere. I would hate to have this hypothetical conversation in a Days Inn lobby bar gig right off the freeway exit in Idaho:

“Hey, comedian, you one of them Mangoes?”

“Well yes, but I’ve been an Apple for a few years now, Mr. Potato Head.”

Meeting a group of Maori people was an amazing experience. First, you are greeted by a warrior. You think he is a normal size person 20 yards away, but he is a Maori warrior a half mile away. He is dressed in traditional “It’s go time” Maori garb, complete with warrior tattoos, and I mean real tattoos. The kind they earned through ritual and then received the traditional way, not the kind that suburban white kids get because they had $50 and a ride to downtown. He wields a spear and does a truly terrifying dance with loud noises, angry facial expressions, jumps, and movements with the spear as he approaches you. He then comes up to the men (and believe me, at this moment I could barely be called that) and does these threatening movements inches from your face. If you don’t challenge him it means you come in peace, but in my case it meant I may need new pants. As he retreats in welcome, you concentrate on trying not to cry.

I found out that the Maori really love Hawaiians, although it was hard to believe after the warrior episode. They see us as cousins because our ancestors came from some of the same places and many Hawaiian ancestors came from Aotearoa. They feel a bond with us because of our linked history and our present struggles for government recognition. I felt guilty because I didn’t think of them at all. I knew very little about the Maori because I wasn’t a good student and the movie “Whale Rider” hadn’t come out yet. So I instantly got a history lesson and a few thousand cousins.

The Maori greet you by rubbing noses. No one told me that. I puckered. That’s what I learned about myself: when a warrior threatens my life with a spear and then later grabs my shoulders and leans in, I have no problem kissing him. I wish I didn’t know that about myself. Rubbing noses with another man really makes you uncomfortable in a way that’s difficult to explain. To the person who invented the handshake, kudos.

Understanding the Maori accent takes a bit of effort. The Maori dialect sounds like an Australian who has been living in Boston for three years and just got braces (I realize this joke is for the 3 percent of you who have heard a Maori person speak, but basically every joke I write for the NWHT hopes for a 3 percent success rate). Once I got comfortable deciphering their pidgin I was amazed at their knowledge of not only Hawaii but all of Polynesia . They told stories that were amazing and funny about their people and their history. I won’t share any of those right now because I can’t remember them. It was 16 years ago. I can’t remember stories I heard last week.

The food was great. Oddly enough no kiwi. It was similar to Hawaiian food but with lamb instead. They eat a lot of lamb. Once again if you’d like to know why, go online. When one of them offered me one of his beers I realized that we, indeed, were cousins.

They were warm and sweet and so cheerful and welcoming just like Hawaiians. I had only just met them but I felt like I had known them for years. To be so far away from anything familiar and yet feel so comfortable is a credit to the people I met that day. And that’s what I learned. Whether the Akaka bill passes or not, our warmth and generosity will teach people what they need to know about us.

p.s. – 16 years later, the warrior has yet to return my calls.

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