ADVANCE NOTE: This an NZ story.
dairy = convenience store
kumera = sweet potato
kai = food
hangi = ground oven
whanau = family
boil-up - pork bones and puha boiled for long time.
puha - a common spinach-like weed.
I was home for a family dinner, back in the old hood. It had changed a bit. The big Pak’n’Sav supermarket had never been here when I was growing up. It sits where the fish’n’chip shop was that gave me my first after school job. There was a dairy here as well, and a stationer. Those and a whole bunch of houses had gone for a fancy ‘commercial estate. The Warehouse, Briscoes, a Noel Leeming, and a few other big names. The Pak’n’Sav is a big ugly yellow supermarket with none of the magic of the old ‘corner shops’ where we used to hang, but it is a great place to stock up on kai. I was in the vege section, loading up with kumera, cabbage, some cauli and a pumpkin. I was thinking I would put a hangi down for the whanau. I was adding some onions when I heard a sentence that froze me, that sent me rocketing back in time.
“Too many bloody Horis in here.”
An older overweight white male in front of me was muttering several racist expletives, looking at a family who seemed to have heard him. I reckon he intended them to hear. The woman pulled a confused looking boy closer to her.
I had stopped my trolley on an awkward angle in the fruit aisle, oblivious to the grumpy comments of shoppers navigating around me.
I was six years old walking into the dairy with Mum, my small hand clasped in hers. An older woman was leaving. I thought she looked real smart. Her blond hair was cut in a neat style, one wave in point over her cheek. She had some smart looking spectacles on and lots of makeup. She definitely was not a local. I also saw a look of disgust flash across her face. She clutched her fine leather handbag tightly to her side and muttered ‘Horis.’
Just like I did, back then, that child would be asking his mother what ‘Hori’ meant.
I wondered what his mother would say. My mother told me it was nothing, ‘the lady was just in a bad mood.’
The word had rolled in my mind with its connotations of disapproval, of dislike; along with the woman’s sour expression and the way she clutched her handbag. I asked my brother later. Wirimu told me.
“A filthy word white people call Maori because they think we are shit, they think anyone with brown skin is kaka. Probably thought you were going to steal her handbag.”
That one word changed my world. I had always been just ‘Hemi.’ At six years old in my head I became ‘Hemi the Hori’. Something less. Something smart people would look at with disgust. I could not get that smart lady's face out of my mind. I was an object of derision. My whole family was. Everyone like me was.
Ideas about the colour of my skin had not entered my head at that age. At school there were a lot of Maori kids, and kids from India, Samoa, Fiji – and a few white kids. But I had never noticed what ‘colour’ the kids I played with were. That changed, I found myself wondering if all the white kids thought of me as a Hori.
I started to pay attention to the ads on TV. All those ads with people using magical cleaning products in beautiful houses with shiny benches and matching glassware and big colourful jars of flowers were all white.
My home had green benches with white swirls and chips on the corners. I remembered how I used to like following those swirls with a finger, finding animals and faces, but suddenly all I saw was the chipped edges.
None of our glasses matched. That was cool, me and Wirimu each had our favourite glass. Mine was one of those Coca Cola ones that came free with a tank of petrol and still wasn’t broken. I loved its curves and indents. I knew Wirimu liked that one too, but Wirimu let me have it. Now my glass looked sad cos no others matched it. Just a cheap glass.
My mum was surprised when I stopped demanding my special glass, but did not ask why.
At school when George asked me to play I turned away to play with Te Kare instead. I saw George years later, funny, he did not forget me doing that. He was hurt, we had been good friends. When I finally got that chance to explain he understood. Friends again twenty years later. It took a long time to learn that not all white people looked at us like that lady did.
I was okay at school when I started. I liked learning numbers and writing. I had not noticed until I became ‘Hemi the Hori’ that there were special programs for Maori kids. Why? Because we are ‘Horis’? My grades went down, so I soon joined them. The work in those programs was easy.
Getting lined up to have our heads checked for nits had been funny. We would scratch our heads, shoving each other and laughing about who had ‘cooties.’ As ‘Hemi the Hori’, I noticed it was only the ‘Hori’s’ who got lined up. Did white kids not get nits? It sure looked like Tom did, the way he scratched his head.
When I started year three my teacher asked me if my name was short for ‘Hemingway,’ and laughed really loud. I had no idea who Hemingway was, or why he was laughing. Next he asked if I had a dad at home. Mr Wills didn’t ask any of the white kids that question.
No, I did not have a dad at home. My Dad had died working in forestry soon after I was born. I became aware that it was more common for ‘Hori’s to not have dads at home. I was a bit older when I learned Janaya’s Dad was in prison, and Te Kare’s Dad had been violent and drunk a lot, and one day just left. It was true, lots of ‘Hori’s’ had absent fathers. It made me feel both sad and angry and I could not work out why.
A trolley banged into mine, another ‘Hori’ saying “hey mate, can you move?” He bumped me back to the present. Meat for the hangi next, a few chickens and a leg of lamb, a big fat lump of pork. And of course pork bones, I would do a boil-up with the hangi. Boil-up had to have puha. I grabbed a bundle before I headed for the meat. Pork bones and puha could always be found in supermarkets in neighbourhoods like our one. I saw that family ahead, the one that old guy had muttered ‘hori’s too. I would get them a ticket to the game next week. My thoughts soon drifted back to my past.
By high school I knew where I belonged, and it was not with the white kids. I knew what was expected of me. Sneaking a smoke down the treeline at breaks; skipping English, even though I liked it, but it was what my mates did. Hori’s were not good at English anyway. No point.
Wirimu gave me a hiding when I got stood down. I can’t recall what I got stood down for now, either wagging or fighting. My mum had a cry. I felt bad and I knew I should do better but I was too full of anger I did not understand and could not see the point.
I had been angry at everyone back then. I owe a lot to my brother.
Wirimu dragged me to his rugby practice after school to keep me out of trouble cos Mum had to work. I was angry with Wirimu, I wanted to hang with my mates. The first time I sat on the sideline scowling for as long as I could, but the game got me. I was following that ball with a sense of excitement like nothing I had ever experienced growing in my gut. I had a ton of questions for Wirimu later that night. He explained all the rules and I soaked them up. After that Wirimu did not have to force me to go. My heart raced watching the running and the tackles and tries and the big kicks. My eyes would be riveted to the ball on its arc toward the goal, holding my breath to see if it went over.
One day the ball came my way and I ran with it. I did not hear my brother or the coach yelling at me, I tucked that ball down like I had seen Wirimu do and ran. Coach had me enrolled in the juniors the next day.
I found myself chuckling. “I may be a bloody Hori, but I can run with a ball!” My mutter was louder than I thought, shoppers were staring at me. I hadn’t been here for a while, but I was seeing flickers of recognition. I moved on fast.
‘Hori.’ That word, that man, it had taken me back down my road. From then to now. This trip to the old hood was special. Wirimu had dreamed of being an architect growing up, but our family never had the money for that sort of education, so Wirimu became a builder. He was good at it. I worked with him whenever I was home, I loved the outdoor physical work. It kept me fit.
Yeah, Wirimu was good, but he wanted more. He had set me on my path to my dream, now I was ready to set him on his path to his dream. A full scholarship to study to be an architect. I planned to do more after that for other Hori’s like us, in Wirimu’s name.
Rolling my trolley to my SUV I heard someone yell out.
“Hemi! Hemi Nichols!!!”
I looked over to see the older white man from earlier. The man who had been muttering ‘Horis’ and sent me down memory lane.
“Man, you are the best! That try last week was record busting.” The man scrabelled through his pockets, producing a pen, and then offering his cap. “Can I have your autograph?”
I took the cap and scribbled on it.