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Deserved . . . Accompanied by deputy principal Margaret Williams (left), Dr Mike Beard presents the Violet Monteath-Walker prize to Hinako Macmaster. Principal Tracy Walker describes Hinako as "a formidable storyteller". PHOTO: SUPPLIED

A new prize awarded at Waitaki Girls’ High School this year was won by Hinako Macmaster.

The Violet Monteath-Walker Essay Competition was set up in honour of the former pupil and teacher of that name, awarding $1000 towards further education to a year 13 pupil.

The award was created and presented by Mrs Monteath-Walker’s son-in-law Mike Beard, who raised the scholarship funds by selling books of her writings, North Otago – Stories of People and Places

The school invited its year 13 pupils to submit an essay on the the theme of the book’s title. The judges described Hinako’s winning work as a mature piece of well-crafted writing.

“She established a great discussion on the concept of culture and yet, a very personal story about the growth of her understanding of herself,” Ms Walker said.

“Her essay had a great flow of ideas and sense of unity.”

Hinako also won the Otago Polytechnic Principal’s Choice award and plans to study communication design there.

Culture in Oamaru – Waitaki Girls’ High School dux Hina Macmaster’s award-winning essay: 

My father is a European New Zealander and my mother is Japanese. I have lived in Oamaru all my life, surrounded by Kiwi culture and the English language wherever I go, and it is when I return to my home, yelling “Tadaima!”* as I walk through the door, that the little bit of my mother’s culture creeps back into my life. In the past, I have been asked about “my culture” or any variation of the question which expects me to talk about Japan. I’m sorry to say that culture is much more complicated than that.

We think of culture as an object. Everyone belongs to different groups and within that group, we each share a variant of this object and display it in the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the languages we speak. To an extent, our culture can be a defining part of our identity. However, I believe culture carves a mark much deeper than we think. It is a fundamental fragment of human nature which reflects the lives of our ancestors and of people today, by connecting our thoughts, our ideas and our values into a constellation representing who we are. People make culture. Our individual voices define it and over time we see it bend and shift – perhaps into something entirely new – as people with different ideas flicker into the world. Culture marks history, as we preserve or tear apart tradition, and our ancestors’ footprints can still be found if we trace back tradition and hear their whispers in a world without them. So I don’t believe culture is unimportant to anyone. If we can inspect it closely we will find how vibrant it can be with the beautiful combination of voices from past and present who shape each culture.

However, I only discovered this recently. When I was younger, culture was simply a word without meaning. I never questioned growing up speaking two languages or celebrating holidays no-one else here knew about, and I suppose I took for granted the traditions and histories that came with having parents from two different countries. Despite the freedom my parents gave me with my cultural identity, I thought I had to choose a side. Everything was black and white; one or the other. I was set on severing my ties to Japan – a country I had only visited a few times and a culture I was not entirely familiar with. Perhaps it was because I never saw many people display their culture or show that they were different from the masses. My mother admits she also felt a little shy and even some shame in sharing her culture when she first arrived here, almost 18 years ago. She was different to the majority and didn’t feel as if New Zealand was her home. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” she told me.

But Oamaru is changing. The culture here is shifting with the winds that draw more people here, from across the country and the globe. The respect and acceptance of people from all walks of life is steadily growing, and I hope it continues to bloom for the even more diverse younger generations to come. There is more cultural appreciation than I have ever seen before and the recent celebration of diversity at school moved something in me. I had never really noticed how vibrant culture could be, and it made me ask myself: “How did I miss this?” It inspired me to speak with my mother about culture and listen to her experiences with it, as she told me what it was like moving to Oamaru. She told me that at first, Oamaru was not her home, but being part of the Japanese community helped her feel more welcome and the accepting nature here has only improved. I have grown to realise that my blood may not belong to Japan, but it is a thread connecting me to my mother and her family’s history. My family’s history. Her heritage is just as important as my father’s. Perhaps my connection with the cultures in my life may change but that is what culture is.

To me, culture is what connects us as humans. It can bring us together through our similarities and connect us through our differences. As individuals, even people who belong to the same group may hold a different culture. We are each complex beings, and to lock ourselves in boxes would be to disregard the individual. Oamaru is home to approximately 13,950 individuals who each have their own lives, their own history, their own culture. Like stars in a constellation, we are meant to be connected. We can not let culture be a defining object, when truly it is us who define culture – our identity and our individuality.

* “I’m home.”