Well, Are We?

Are we still friends?

The questionee?  Me, a lifelong Prairie girl living in Saskatoon.

The questioner?  A dual-citizenship classmate from various points in the USA and Canada, all of them more cosmopolitan than anywhere I’ve lived.

The question provocation?  My introduction to kiwi in the early 1980s. 

As I roll the tart, seedy, mushy bite of fruit around in my mouth, I think it’s a question that likely captures the look on my face.  Are we?

No!

We’ve fast forwarded more than 30 years. I’m listening to an accomplished storyteller and tour guide describe his reaction to a standard question from the North American tourists to whom he routinely introduces New Zealand.  But it’s hard to capture on the page the horror and revulsion in his tone. What the heck was the question?

Is there kiwi in this?

As he recounts the typical interaction, I can see it in my mind’s eye, too.  A cheery but hesitant tourist approaches him, uncertainly holding out a bowl of fruit salad from the breakfast buffet.

Is there kiwi in this?

Even as a bystander in someone else’s memory, two things are clear to me.  First, the questioner hopes for an affirmative: After all, they’re in New Zealand, Land of Kiwis, no?  Second, the questioner is just as provincial as I was, back in Saskatoon: After all, they don’t know what a kiwi looks like.

So what’s the guide’s problem?

Just this. To a New Zealander, a kiwi is one of two things:

  • A charming but endangered bird found only in New Zealand
  • A New Zealander human

So this innocent tourist’s question provokes a swift, visceral response related to two taboos: eating the flesh of a bird that’s protected under law for good reason, and, well, eating human flesh.

No!
There’s no “kiwi” in that!

As the guide goes on to explain to us, in New Zealand that small, tart, seedy, mushy ovoid is, without exception, a kiwifruit.  “And don’t you forget it,” is the not-too-sub(tle) subtext, half in fun but full in earnest.

As it turns out, I haven’t forgotten.  I don’t ever buy those small, tart, seedy, mushy ovoids, but I do occasionally see the peeled flesh of one on a fruit tray.  Occasionally, I even eat some: They’re OK.  But I always remember the guide’s admonition.  Kiwifruit.  Got it.

Tub of kiwifruit in produce section
Kiwifruit. Got it.

And I sometimes think how easy it is to offend, cross-culturally, even in a place as similar to Canada as New Zealand.  As tourists fan out around the world in an unprecedented wave, my classmate’s question sticks in my mind too.

Are we still friends?

 

12 Comments

  1. Tom Watson

    Isabel
    Well, there’s a question I have never, ever, contemplated: “Is there kiwi in this?”
    Just shows what a sheltered existence I’ve led.
    Tom

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Cough. You love kiwifruit, madam. At least, I assume that’s your intended communication. 🙂 Too bad about the teeth – they weren’t designed for our lifespan, turns out.

  2. Judith Umbach

    To me, the question “Are we still friends?” holds more psychological TNT than language offences with professional guides. Of course, even professional guides are human.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Judith – That’s fair. And I suspect he wasn’t seriously offended – just making a point. I was sorta amused to see the kiwifruit at the Costco: the package did use the full name, but the attention-grabbing part of the label used the short form that is our default.

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