Thursday, September 25, 2008

back to my roots

At twenty, on the day I finished my BA, after a post-exam lunch at the pub I headed off to the hairdresser. After all, the very next day I had my first job interview. My hair was already short. The long, flaxen locks a mere childhood phase. There was not much room to go even shorter or spikier but I needed something to celebrate my coming of age. So the hairdresser decided that colour would be the best way to go and my inaugural brush with the dye pot left me with a fringe in three shades of red.

Strangely, teamed with my most conservative frock, it did not get me the first job I applied for. My academic record suggested I was conscientious but no doubt the discordance in my appearance told another story.

But back to the hair. After the first wash the tricolour bangs (don’t you just love that American term!) reverted to one uniform shade of ginger. Ginger! No lush red, no gold – just common or garden carrot top. I was devastated. The hairdresser looked knowingly and said “Ah, you must have some red strands in your hair – so you can’t hold red dye”. What? I was blondish, mouse-ish but never a redhead. On closer examination I found my hair told another story. Some strands were fair, others brown, strangely there had been the odd bit of grey since I was thirteen but now I saw red and even black. Black? Red? What was going on?

As I’ve got older I realise my hair has been belying my roots all along. Despite two brown haired parents, there was the uncle red-haired as a child and as for the black?

Just who is my great-grandmother? Any clues as to her heritage?

Her son, my mother’s father was “swarthy” and some of his offspring have a decidedly olive complexion. They joked that maybe there was a mafia connection, Italian blood perhaps? But not one of his children wanted to dig too closely to find out. My aunt, now with gloriously white hair, her face permanently “tanned” admitted recently to being asked quite often who her “people” are. Maori elders wanting to know her iwi. She brushes them off, not exactly offended but disquietened, “Oh no, all Anglo here”. But it gets me thinking.

One day, a number of years ago I heard compatriot Russell Crowe on the radio. It was the international year of Indigenous Peoples and he was proclaiming his newfound Maori heritage, going to a marae and meeting distant relatives. To be honest my first thought was “wanker”- having had the privileges of a pakeha upbringing, now it was considered almost trendy to claim indigenous roots, what rights did he have to call himself Maori when it suited him?

Which leads me to wonder. If Great Grandma’s ancestry really was deep in the roots of Aotearoa, not some distant shore – does that change who I am? Can I claim it with pride, not feel like a fraud?

As much as I love my partner, half Italian/half Anglo, would he be offended to know that as to my own DNA, I hope it lies closer to home?

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Blogger docwitch said...

ah ha! There's often a red-headed skeleton lurking in the family closet (or broom closet in my case - and that would be me).

My Grandma (the Legend) is Scottish through and through, with a big red-haired Highlander for a father; yet she is dark haired with olive skin like her grandma. This is also a Scottish thing apparently - a throw-back to Pictish roots perhaps? We don't have any Maori in the ancestry.

So you could have Pictish-Italian-Maori ancestry...hehe. Hurrah for genetic diversity!

12:33 pm  

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