In the play, The Pohutukawa Tree (Bruce Mason, 1960), an important idea that is shown in the text is that the narrow conformity of society cause cross-cultural misunderstandings. This idea is important to teenagers today because they need to learn to be respectful of other cultures to avoid conflict, especially as New Zealand has grown into a rather diverse country. The idea of cross-cultural misunderstanding is shown in the play between the different viewpoints of the Maori and Pakeha on land, native plants and modernisation.
The idea of cultural misunderstanding is shown prominently in the different levels of consideration that the Maori and Pakeha had in the significance of the land at Te Parenga. Aroha Mataira, a descendent of a Maori chief, is discussing whether she should sell her section of land with Clive Atkinson, a financially stable Pakeha man. Atkinson sees the land for only its physical value — as an asset; whereas, Aroha believes the land is eternally sacred, previously describing it as: “a holy place, now and forever.” The land was lived on by her ancestors, and she believes that the land must be kept to ensure peace between: “Whetumarama [Aroha’s grandfather, the deceased chief of her tribe]… and Jesus the Christ… It is a holy place, now and forever.”
As the two characters converse, it becomes increasingly more noticeable that Atkinson does not seem to comprehend how both culturally and historically significant the land is to Aroha, as Atkinson had been raised in a mostly Pakeha society. In Maori culture, land is a special taonga (treasure) and should always be treated with the utmost respect; in European culture, land is just a form of competition and individualism. Atkinson says: “Land must be used sometime, not just remembered. All things must come to an end, you know.” Presently, New Zealand still does have conflicts about land ownership, especially between Maori and Pakeha. Even cultures around the entire world have different ideas about land ownership, and so, it is incredibly important for younger generations to try their best to be open-minded and respect other culture’s beliefs and ideas.
In the Pohutukawa Tree, another common cultural misunderstanding shown in the text is through the different perspectives that cultures have about the value of items. After Atkinson accidentally injures himself, by hitting his head on a low-hanging branch from the Mataira’s pohutukawa tree, he gets annoyed and curses: “Damn that thing! I’ve told her time and again to cut it down. Ah, what does it matter anyway.” Aroha is very proud of her heritage, and does not want to trim the tree, nor cut it down, as it holds an important meaning to her. It was planted by her grandfather, Whetumarama, a Maori chief, after killing many Pakeha to protect his tribe so: “the red flowers might be a sign of blood between the Maori and Pakeha for ever.”
Atkinson is quite a superficial character and, at first, appreciates the beauty of the tree when it is bloom, but as the tree’s health starts to deteriorate with the weather, thinks the tree is quite unpleasant to look at. In European culture, society unintentionally influences people to be self-centred and superficial, to only look at the exterior of something before forming an opinion on it. Maoritanga, however, encourages people to work together to form a sense of unity in an iwi (a tribe), and to dig deep into something to find its significance and value. Nowadays, in a very multicultural society, it is important for teenagers to attempt to see situations from the other person’s cultural values, before passing judgement on others.
Cross-cultural misunderstanding can even occur between people of the same race — between Aroha and her children, Queenie and Johnny. The Pohutukawa Tree is set in the years following World War II, when New Zealand was slowly separating itself from Britain and forming its own unique culture. The idea of youth culture also started to develop in these years, as before the war, there was no clear division in behaviour and attitude between childhood and adulthood. In the play, Atkinson’s daughter, Sylvia, is having a wedding and during the time when toasts are made, Queenie starts singing a popular song: “I can’t give you anything but love, baby.” The Pakeha do not mind and are not particularly shaken by this, but Aroha is immediately ashamed, “her eyes flashing with anger,” and starts singing a Maori waiata instead. Johnny also becomes drunk and behaves rather crazily.
He is talking to Aroha when he suddenly announces, “Ma! I can fly! Watch! Watch me leave the ground!” Aroha, having most likely been raised in strict Maori culture, is unaccepting of the fact that her children are being influenced by western and teenage culture, even though she chose to not raise her children with tribe and instead in a relatively new Pakeha settlement — Atkinson’s father bought: “most of Te Parenga from an old Maori joker.” Because her children were raised in an increasingly European society, her children were almost entirely influenced by western culture their whole lives, so culturally speaking, they were unknowingly doing wrong in their mother’s eyes. Although it is good to hold onto traditions and cultural identity, in a fast-paced, interconnected world, it is essential for younger generations and older generations alike to be open-minded and accepting to other cultures, even if the beliefs of both cultures are contradictory.
In The Pohutukawa Tree, an idea that is shown is that cross-cultural misunderstandings are caused by the narrow conformity of society. The play sends an important message to teenagers that it is important have respect for other culture’s ideas, values and beliefs, even if there are disagreements, to avoid conflict in this growing, multicultural world.