I spent this morning in the company of my mother and a lovely teenage Japanese girl called Rea, who we were meant to be looking after/teaching English to. We decided to take her over the hill to Lyttelton, and stopped at the lookout point, where Mum ran into a bus driver she knew and left me alone with Rea.
Rea and I walk up to the lookout point, which is called, cryptically*, the "Sign of the Takahe."
Rea reads the "Sign of the Takahe" sign. "What," she asks after a slight hesitation, "is Takahe?"
"New Zealand bird," I say, "like...like a big pukeko."
"Pukeko?" Oh, right.
"A, um, another New Zealand bird. It is fat." (The other features of the pukeko have temporarily escaped me.)
"Does it fly?"
"No," I say, with more confidence than I feel, "it doesn't."
Rea looks unimpressed. "Our birds are not very good," I say, apologetically.
A pause while this sinks in.
I attempt to restart the conversation, sticking with the bird topic, which seems to be going OK.
"Are there many birds in Japan?""
Rea thinks about this for a long time. I am giving up hope of an answer when she says, with the air of one who has just come to an important conclusion,
"About one million."
When Rea imparts her new wisdom to my mother it turns out that in fact the Pukeko and the Takahe can in fact fly, and that our birds are perfectly all right and not 'bad birds' at all. I am reprimanded for providing false information ("Alice!") and my comment about loose lips sinking ships is not appreciated either ("Alice!")
Mum moves smoothly on from this by enquiring if Rea has seen any kiwi. (Mum teaches ESOL for a living and knows the right questions to ask.)
"Yes," Rea says, "but hidden." Presumably like the time I thought I saw a kiwi but it was actually a rock (kiwi enclosures are dark because kiwi are nocturnal (I think.)) "Was it a rock?" I ask. Rea looks at me with kind indulgence and Mother looks at me like I have gone completely off my gourd. I try to explain to Rea that 'kiwi' is Maori for 'secret bird', which it isn't, but this attempt at livening up New Zealand culture is unappreciated ("Alice!")
Eventually I had a cup of coffee and settled down, but I like to think that Rea had a morning both entertaining and educational.
This all reminded me of my favourite cross-cultural misunderstanding to date, which was a couple of years ago. I was at home for the holidays and was chatting to the family's Japanese homestay student, Shu, in a rather desultory fashion. Having exhausted the standard 'do you have brothers and sisters,' 'what do you find most different about New Zealand' and 'have you seen a kiwi' range of questioning, I decided to steer the conversation in a more meaningful direction. "What," I said to him, "are you going to do for a career?"
He spun around, eyes ablaze, and shouted, "I not Korea! I Japan!"
I tried to explain that I meant 'career' as in 'job' not Korea as in 'apparently the ancient enemy of your race' before he got his katana out** but somehow this translated as me explaining that Koreans were more employable than Japanese, which wasn't what I meant at all, and at the end of the conversation he thought I was a big fat racist which I'm really not (if you ignore that katana crack), and I felt simply terrible.
No more multicultural experiences for me.
*it probably wouldn't be so cryptic if I looked it up but fuck that
**not a euphemism