Nicole Perry: my cultural adventure that began with learning another language
1 June 2022
Opinion: Dr Nicole Perry says learning another language opened her eyes and also took her from the backwaters of British Colombia to a German studies position at the University of Auckland.
The most common question I had to field while completing my PhD in German Studies at the University of Toronto was, “What are you going to do with that?”
While I was able to stave off that line of interrogation while in Toronto, when I moved to a new home in Vienna, ahead of taking up my role at the University of Auckland, the question seemed to be one bordering on wonderment: “How did a woman from the backwaters of British Columbia come to study a German-American topic in Austria and then get a German Studies position in New Zealand?”
My answer is always this: by learning another language.
My academic adventure began aged 17 as a Rotary exchange student in Altena, Germany. This is in a region called Sauerland, which means ‘sour land’ largely because, as my host father explained to me, it rains so much there. It was there, in the midst of all that rain, that my life would change.
Living abroad and negotiating teenage friendships and experiences in another language was daunting, as was having “the talk” about national socialism and the post-war era in Germany with my host mother, Monika. It was a year of ups and downs, but I returned to Canada, in love with another culture and language, continually exploring the similarities while appreciating the differences.
That year, my host parents apparently thought I was homesick so they sent me and another Canadian exchange student to an open-air theatre featuring Germany’s most famous Blood Brothers: the Apache Chief Winnetou and his German immigrant friend Old Shatterhand. The blatant clichés of the wild west and overt racism, even when positively construed, were hard to take. The better my German became, the more I started to ask questions and discover that Karl May’s 1893 Winnetou series was more widely published than anything else short of the Bible and that there were even film genres known as Sauerkraut and Red (East German) westerns.
With my intellectual curiosity piqued, I analysed these novels in my MA, and my PhD examined the German representation of North American Indigenous peoples from 1798-1910. The epilogue of my dissertation, which focused on how Indigenous artists reclaim and reappropriate this image, earned me a Lise Meitner Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Vienna.
The blatant clichés of the wild west and overt racism, even when positively construed, were hard to take.
When I returned to my hometown, Penticton, I would often meet with Jeannette Armstrong, an Okanagan woman who was at that time executive director of the En’owkin Centre and is now an associate professor at University of British Columbia Okanagan. Her 1984 work Slash is widely considered the first novel by an Indigenous woman from Turtle Island and she is also a Canada Research Chair in Okanagan Indigenous Knowledge and Philosophy, after finishing her PhD at the University of Greifswald, Germany.
Jeannette showed me how to listen, appreciate differences in opinions, and work together towards a common goal. It was often the unspoken between us that was of more importance than our exchange of words. She also exposed me to what here in Aotearoa New Zealand is called kōrero or talanoa.
That Indigenous artists and authors, such as Kent Monkman (Cree) and Drew Hayden Taylor (Anishinaabe) are aware of Winnetou and its legacies, and actively seek to deconstruct an imagined image, is essential.
While Monkman’s paintings and performance art are often indictments of colonial desires and practices, Taylor’s documentary Searching for Winnetou, which has been shown on Māori TV, advocates more for “breaking bannock” and listening to each other to try on some level to understand this strange fascination.
In a way, both Monkman and Taylor’s works are at the heart of intercultural understanding and demonstrate both the power and danger of mythmaking. Similarly to ‘Manifest destiny’ being considered one of the founding myths of America, Winnetou, and the imagery of settling of the West at a time when Germany was pursuing its own imperialist agenda, goes hand-in-hand with Germany’s colonial experiences both at home, through such things as the Völkerschauen (colonial exhibitions), and abroad, for instance through Germany in Samoa. Representation matters.
Living abroad and negotiating teenage friendships and experiences in another language was daunting, as was having ‘the talk’ about national socialism and the post-war era in Germany with my host mother.
One of the main reasons I love being an academic is working with our students. I learn from them as much as they learn from me; they constantly expose me to new ways of thinking about the world.
In the Faculty of Arts, I am part of a group of academics and professional staff actively working and contributing towards our Arts Gen 103 ‘Ko Wai Tātou? Who are we?’ course, an initiative built on the concept of whanaungatanga. The course seeks to expose students to the diversity of disciplines in our faculty, centred around big themes while upholding our faculty values, most importantly kia whakamana I te tangata. I’m looking forward to exploring and working together with both colleagues and students to contemplate who we are as a faculty and what our relationship is to where we find ourselves – in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa – and globally.
Of late, I find a new question is often posed to me: “Why are you here?” And to that, I respond: “I am exactly where I am meant to be.”
Dr Nicole Perry is a senior lecturer in German and Comparative Literature in the School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics in the Faculty of Arts.
The views in this article reflect personal opinion and are not necessarily those of the University of Auckland.
This piece first appeared as the regular Māramatanga column in the June 2022 edition of UniNews.