Āhua of calm: Maui Brennan

I te taha o tōku pāpā,
Ko Aoraki te maunga,
Ko Waimakariri te awa,
Ko Takitimu te waka,
Ko Ngāi Tahu rātou ko Te Arawa ko Tūwharetoa ngā iwi,
Ko Ngāi Tuahūriri rāua ko Ngāti Whakaue ngā hapū
Ko Tuahiwi rāua ko Tama-te-kapua ngā marae.
Nō Ōtautahi ahau.

Mia mamma ha vissuto in Italia,
E allora io sono Italiano,
Mia mamma e di Santa Margherita Ligure, nella regione di Liguria
Io sono mezzo Māori, e mezzo Italiano.

Ko Maui Uenuku Rakei Ora Panareo Brennan tōku ingoa.

My dad's Māori and my mum's Italian. My mum moved here straight after their wedding in 1995 and before then, they'd met in London and lived in Italy. They fell in love, moved to Christchurch and had my brother and I. So that’s how you would say, the prologue for my story.

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I was born in 1998 at Christchurch Women's Hospital and I guess if I was to describe my childhood in any way, it was a really really happy childhood. Because my mum worked part-time and was able to spend so much time with us, my brother and I grew up in a really happy space.

My taua, my grandmother, she was alive back then as well. She was the glue for our family and extended family — she'd be the one to organise all the family reunions and get-togethers with all of the aunties, uncles and millions of cousins. That was completely opposite from my mum's family where she has one brother and I have two cousins on that side. During those early years, we’d travel over to Italy and stay there for 3 to 5 months with our family and then come back and spend time with dad’s whānau. Those experiences connected me to both sides and I'm so thankful to have had an anchor in both worlds.

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Before I went to primary school, we were surrounded by both cultures — mum speaking Italian to us at home and dad performing or hosting concerts for his business, Ko Tāne. Those experiences as a kid of interacting with my Māori culture were a real privilege, a lot of kids don't get to experience those things when they live in the city, they only experience the western perspective. Seeing my dad perform, I think that's what inspired me towards that path and to become a musician.

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I went to Montessori Preschool and it was a good preschool, we got to do lots of things like building baking soda volcanoes, solving puzzles and mucking around with musical instruments. Ever since then I’d always loved to sing too, often singing in front of my taua, all the family and my parents. Nowadays it's a bit embarrassing with all the videos. 

My first experience of culture shock was my first day of primary at St Paul's Catholic school. It was very Pākehā. Having grown up speaking Italian with my mum and also my dad who had put effort into speaking it at home, I found it really hard to adjust. Suddenly everyone around me spoke English and everything was taught in English. In those earlier years I was always been a bit behind and needed to go to reading recovery, but slowly I improved. The teachers were good too. I do remember this one teacher — and there is always at least one teacher that doesn't understand who you are — who would always tell me off and put me on the office steps. Apparently I was a mischief maker but I can’t remember that now…

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Despite the language barrier, I didn't find it too hard making friends. When you’re a kid in primary school, you’re all just having fun, it’s not about someone’s skin colour or anything like that — or at least that wasn’t the case for me. There was a priest at the school who had lived in Italy and would always speak Italian to my mum and I. Sharing the same tongue, we related to each other on that cultural level and he was a nice person. 

One year I had this really horrible teacher who I despised, but then the year after I had my favourite teacher from primary. She was the kind of teacher that really appreciated different backgrounds and cultures; she knew where I came from and she was completely patient with me the whole time. That was one of my favourite years because I made friends with people that I'm still close with today. 

That year we had one of those cultural days where everyone talks about their different cultures to the class and I did an Italian prayer while wearing my Māori kākahu; it was a surreal experience. It was also cool to see how encouraging the school was about expressing your own culture. 

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When I was about 7 years old, I told my dad I really wanted to learn an instrument. Seeing him playing the guitar had always inspired me, but one day I saw someone on the TV playing the piano and I remember thinking it was the best instrument ever. 

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I ended up taking keyboard lessons, then joining the choir in year 5 and that year was where I had my first experience with Christchurch Schools' Music Festival; it was awesome. Seeing all of these people and primary students in orchestra and choirs, that really motivated me to keep going with music. A year or so later I heard about this special choir, auditioned and ended up getting in. That was another experience I had as a Māori because there weren't that many Māori people in that choir, only a couple. 

I was very insulated in my own bubble but I have good memories from that choir, it was my first experience of learning to connect with different people from different backgrounds. You start to learn people have different perspectives and different ways of being. There were a few others from different Catholic schools around Christchurch and a lot of them were nice, but I also interacted with plenty of different characters. It was a scary experience as well, you’re all in the same choir but you don't know anyone. Having to constantly step outside of my comfort zone was a challenge but it was awesome and I did it for 3 years. I also loved sports but I was more of an individual player with swimming and tennis; I dabbled in soccer and rugby but didn't really commit to team sports much. 

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The next two years were tough; I was in year 7 when the first Christchurch earthquake happened. Our school was damaged and we had to move to another location and share a site with another school. It made me realise that we have to appreciate the memories we have in those places because now they’re gone and it's just a bunch of grass there. Then we had the second earthquake where the cathedral came down and I remember crying my eyes out. 

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That was one of the most difficult times of my life; my uncle had been suffering from a severe injury and he’d gone into a coma before passing away. It was really difficult for my dad's family — especially my taua — and her health was deteriorating back then too. At the end of the year she passed away as well. I think that was partially from the grief of losing her son, but also from other health complications. While I’d been to tangi before, this was the first time it was for close family members and I felt really empty inside. 

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My taua used to come over every Sunday night and she would ask my brother and I to play our new pieces of music we’d learnt that week. She’d often tell me off for looking at the music sheet and tell me to practice more. Her passing was one of those tragedies you just somehow learn to go on with. Music became even more special after that, it helped me still feel connected with her even though she wasn’t here anymore. The pain didn't necessarily go away, but it did get a little easier as time went on. 

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I went to high school at St Bede’s College and while it was only 5 years, so much more happened in those years compared to my 8 in primary school. I remember being completely scared in the entrance interview, and then again in the entrance exam. I managed to pass with good marks though and got put in the streamed class. There were so many people at Bede’s — in year 9 alone there was about 200 or so and at my primary, that had been the size of the entire school. Year 9 was my best year and my worst year, you meet so many people with different egos and personalities. 

It was probably the first time I felt a little insecure about my Māori identity and a bit out of place; I was the only Māori in my class and one of the only two brown people — the other was my best friend from primary. I was a confident person though and didn't care about putting my hand up and asking questions in class, which tended to get me picked on a little. There were times when I got slurs like, "Oh, you're half Māori and half Italian? That must mean that you're half smart and half dumb.” I can’t remember all of them, but there were a few. Looking back, the slurs mostly came from people who were insecure about themselves and hid that by putting other people down.

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Because Bede’s was an all boys school, initially I was too afraid to do choir — it wasn't highly thought of and seemed a bit to far from the status quo. So I just did the saxophone quartet for my music. Academically I went fine; our Māori teacher was our RE (religious education) teacher and he didn't know much about Māori at all, he was a Pākehā guy. It was a shame there weren’t more boys from different backgrounds and cultures. 

At a First Variety concert I played in the saxophone quartet and I was so nervous. It was good though because I got to step out of my comfort zone by playing in front of everyone. The deputy head boy actually inspired me to try harder with my music — with the piano and choir and everything. Him being a year 13 and me being a year 9, it felt like he was so much further along than me but he was an amazing person, an incredible pianist and he was Dux for the school. I remember thinking, "I'm gonna try to be like him." 

At the end of year awards I got first in Spanish and Japanese, and distinction for all my subjects which I was pleased with — except for PE... or drama. 

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Year 10 was pretty standard. I studied harder and managed to get 4 first-in-class prizes, particularly in the languages which was really encouraging; it made me realise you can get what you want if you work hard for it. I also ended up joining the school choir and I stopped worrying about what people thought of me. I loved music, I loved singing and I was done apologising for that.

Year 11 we became pretty competitive with each other especially with the NCEA level one exams. Our music teacher wanted to start up the school’s Barbershop group again so a few of us joined in that year and went in the secondary school competitions; we ended up becoming the best in the South Island. That made my high school experience so much more exciting and it was a great way to have fun after being in classes all day. A few people would take a shot saying I wasn't an "actual" Māori because I did well in school. I didn't care. At the end of the day I loved what I did and what other people said didn’t matter.

While my family and I were overseas in Italy, I received my NCEA results back and I’d gotten 128 excellence credits for level one which was one of the most shocking things, but there was this one guy who’d bet me and gotten 140 excellence credits! I remember thinking, "argh, I have to beat him!" But I also celebrated that achievement because it proved to those who didn't think much of brown people that I wasn’t just, "half smart and half dumb” — it was because of all the work I put into doing well. Consistency is key.

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Year 12, I think that’s the year where you become less childish and groups begin to mingle. I started to do more as well like joining the local community service group, doing poetry competitions, playing in the jazz band. All of these things started to pile up but I loved it. I had one of the best experiences when a whole bunch of us from the different Marist schools — our brother and sister schools — came together to do community service for a community up North. 

At the last minute I was told by the director that she’d bought me a ticket to go up to Auckland to be a part of that community service group travelling up to Northland. I really didn't think I was the right person for it because I didn’t like the idea of having to meet people I didn't know and being in a place I didn't know for a whole week. I’m really close with my family too so the idea of leaving Christchurch without them was scary. Despite that, I knew I would regret it if I didn't go, so I bit the bullet and went. 

We helped out with the local primary school in Pawarenga, hanging out with the kids, organising game and helping out the teachers. We saw lots of kids from different backgrounds. A lot of them were Māori and many were troubled in different ways, whether with whānau, school or things like fetal alcohol syndrome. It was one of the most life-changing experiences ever because it got me out of my comfort zone and made me realise we have a responsibility to uplift those in the more isolated communities around New Zealand like Pawarenga.

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That was also the time I realised I needed to connect back with my Māori culture again. I hadn't really kept up with Te Reo because the teachers weren't always present, and I also felt a little insecure about myself back then. When we went to the marae in Pawarenga and I saw the kaumatua speaking on the pae though, that was when I knew I needed to touch base again and reconnect.

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That same year a few of us were running for Head Boy and prefects; the competition of it all definitely brought out characteristics in people we hadn’t seen in the last 4 years. I hadn't really thought much about it, I remember being in English when my name was read out for the shortlist and thinking, "wait are you sure? Did you count the votes properly?" 

I didn't manage to get head boy in the end, but during the interviews, I said that my goal as Head Boy would be to make everyone feel included and to create a more diverse place. Sports at Bede's was the central focus and often the only focus, there was never a Head Boy who represented the cultural side of the school. When I was made a prefect for my final year, I made it my job to organise concerts, international food days, and a proper Māori Language Week. It meant students could feel more included who usually weren't. Doing those things made me realise it doesn’t matter what title you’ve got or if you even have one — if you see a job that needs doing and you do it, you’re a leader. You can make change wherever you are and you don’t need to wait for someone else’s permission to do that.

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Realising I didn’t need to wait was what motivated me to compose a waiata for the school. It was embarrassing going up to the North Island for the school's leadership programme and all the other schools had their waiata and haka but we didn't. Again it one of those experiences where the title didn't matter, there was work to do so I did it. 

Year 13 went by very quickly. A had a few friends who ended up being prefects as well and we worked together in the community service spaces for a lot of the year doing different things and working with lots of interesting people and personalities. Then suddenly it was the end of year awards, and I hadn’t expected to win so many awards, I’d been so preoccupied with other things outside of academics. Before they announced runner up for Dux, I really thought I was out of the running — there was no way I was going to get it. Then they announced, "Maui Brennan,” and I was so shocked. There were definitely others more deserving than me, but I was proud to be Māori and smashing those stereotypes. All those things people had said about my culture over the years amounted to nothing and it felt really good to be breaking the stereotypes I’d been measured against since I got there; it was a good day.

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I managed to gain a few scholarships for university which covered a lot of my costs, which I am so grateful for. Then my iwi helped me cover the rest. I wanted to do a BCom because I saw the opportunities of being able to help out communities with finance and economics. 

At the start of 2017, a relative asked me if I wanted to go on this Māori Leadership kaupapa called TUIA for the year and that was such a big opportunity. I was nervous, but I got right into it because I didn't want to have any regrets. We stayed on different marae throughout the year which was pretty scary initially being around so many people I didn't know. But it was amazing, absolutely life-changing. It encouraged me to do te reo as a minor, it helped me reconnect with my Māori culture and it connected me with so many awesome people that I can call my friends now.

I don't know what kind of person I would have become without that kaupapa. Now I feel even more of an responsibility to help people, to not judge by appearance, to be empathetic, to be compassionate towards people with different struggles and to help them. I think more importantly, I realised that I judge people a lot from their appearances, and a lot of people do that, but hearing so many people's stories made me realise there are countless ways to make it in life, and we don’t have to leave our culture, or cultures, behind to do that.

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Reflecting back on the years of my life, I’ve become far more unapologetic about my identity, someone who’s more self aware of other people, and most importantly, someone who’s learnt to embrace the gift of making new connections. These people I've talked about from different places and spaces completely and totally changed the kind of person I've become and it’s also given me a sense of drive moving forward. Hearing the stories of Māori who want to change the education system or media space, who want to become the best in their field or who already have and are now reaching for a new height, all of them have inspired me to do that too, ultimately leading me to reevaluate my future and my degree. 

I don't want to do a BCom just to make money. I want to change and restructure the economy of our society itself so that smaller communities can live an economy that’s for them and empowers them to thrive where they are — that they don’t have to uproot their lives, spend ridiculous hours commuting, or have to go overseas to provide for their family. They can live a good, happy, full life right where they are.

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Although growing up in New Zealand and in a primarily Italian family, I don't really consider myself to be in Te Ao Pākehā. It's a bit of a different dynamic with three cultures and there are a lot of similarities between Maori and Italians, the importance of family being the biggest one. I’m really close with my grandparents, everyone eats together, my grandparents cook the meals, those things. It’s really hard to explain, but I think the main thing in Te Ao Pākehā, the Te Ao Pākehā I know, is that it's very standardised. In Christchurch it's not as diverse and open as it could be and a lot of the time I feel like I’m walking between three worlds — my Italian side, Te Ao Māori and Te Ao Pākehā. 

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While I’m confident in both my Māori and Italian sides, I do think I’m a bit more at home in my Italian side, not just because I grew up with it, but because it is more adaptable to Te Ao Pākehā. My Māori side was usually the thing that got put away into the corner because it didn't really fit into the things I was surrounded by.

How do I live in peace and be at peace with both sides of my identity? That’s a big question for me at the moment. In primary school it was a little easier to be both because I was a kid and it was easier to just do me but in high school I really felt the pressure to be either one or the other. Now that’s something I’m trying to unlearn, to not just be one or the other, but to look at myself as an individual woven together from different worlds. It also makes it easier to interact wth others because you know the feeling of transitioning from one culture to another in daily life. I think it's awesome, but it is scary too. 

The common ground between both of my cultures through everything has been my faith — my grandad on my dad’s side with the Catholic Māori mission and most of my mum’s family is Catholic. 

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I think Mana Tāne represents all the characteristics of being a man — bravery, strength and the idea of teamwork and community — but not in the mainstream sense. Mana Tāne isn’t a narrow definition to ‘fit’ into, it’s multi-dimensional and there are a lot of different facets to it. 

Bravery for example, it can mean going out and fighting or doing high-adrenaline things, but it’s also a daily and personal thing; it’s being proud of who you are, it’s trying new things. Bravery is following your convictions and standing strong in your own values, I think that’s a really fundamental part. 

Strength can mean physical strength, but it also means mental strength, facing the obstacles in front of you, being the person others can rely on, not compromising yourself or what you believe in, and having the strength to be sensitive if you want to be; not putting up a facade and saying, “I don’t cry, men don’t cry.” It’s normal to cry, if we keep our emotions bottled up, we’re not living, we’re existing. That’s what it was like in high school, everyone putting up a face and saying, “I’m strong, I go to the gym everyday”, but that ends up creating a lot of problems. There are so many boys and young men going through agony every hour of school dealing with depression, anxiety, insecurities about themselves, or a mental illness and they’re putting up a front because that’s the way society tells them to be. We need to change our perspective that men need to be ‘alpha males’ or only physically strong — I don’t think Mana Tāne needs that to be embodied and carried well. 

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It’s really really interesting because in Italy, the ideas around masculinity and what being a man looks like is pretty opposite to New Zealand — you can like dressing up, being tidy and taking pride in your appearance, playing soccer instead of rugby, being open, emotional, passionate, caring, all of those things. Men in Italy live life with a different understanding of what being a man is and I think they’re healthier, happier and more emotionally stable people because of it. That being said, they still have their own problems too.

From what I’ve experienced of Māori culture — and I may not have this totally right — it’s also got that pressure to be the ‘strong man.’ I don’t know whether that’s from colonisation, or from Western ideas railroading how Māori men view themselves, but I think that probably has something to do with it.

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I think that's why I got through high school a bit easier — I had a different, more positive understanding of what being a man looked like that I could take on for myself. Even though I was surrounded by a far more constricting, narrow definition of masculinity, I just thought, ‘this is just New Zealand, there are places where you don’t have to act like this.’ So I didn’t.

The way that I was brought up — that it’s completely normal to cry and be emotional — has been one of the biggest blessings of my life, even though I felt the pressure to conform at times. I think it’s why I’m more emotionally stable now compared to a lot of people from my high school; I let myself use my emotions rather than just bottling them up. It’s gutting to see there are so many boys and young men in high school who can’t actually identify whether they have depression, anxiety or a mental illness because of the lack of exposure they've had to emotionally stable men and healthy masculinity. I hope my story can help some young people out there to feel more at peace within themselves and within their own emotional wellbeing.

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Looking after your own personal health is definitely a lot more important than what people think about you. Parents make such a huge difference too, not everyone has parents who are open-minded and supportive about being emotional. I think the biggest thing we can do for each other as men is let those around us know that they’re not alone in their struggles, that we’re here for them and that we’re a safe place for them to be open. Having a community of people who love you and back you no matter what makes all the difference in the world.

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Ngā mihi,
Maui