Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Foreigners at Our Borders

It is obvious that there is a great deal of difference between being international and being cosmopolitan. All good men are international. Nearly all bad men are cosmopolitan. G.K. Chesterton

Last Friday I walked into Borders, a giant chain bookstore in downtown Auckland. That’s because Friday is the day that I buy a copy of the Guardian Weekly for some weekend reading.

The Guardian Weekly is a wonderful thing; it has that strange post-empire concern for the global, for stories from all the other countries and continents that we never seem to hear about unless they are the object of military actions from the United States.

And living in New Zealand, with its not-yet-post-colonial cultural imagination, there is something rather quaint about buying and reading a U.K. paper. Buying a cultural product from overseas makes me feel as though I am finally “fitting in.”

Walking to the back of the store, I discovered that the shelf of international papers had been moved. I asked a passing employee for help.

“Excuse me,” I said, “can you tell me where The Guardian is?”

In that great tradition of Kiwi retail performance, he wordlessly conducted me down a flight of stairs, along a hallway, down another flight of stairs and around a corner where he suddenly stopped.

“All along these shelves,” he said. I knew somewhere he was trying to be friendly. I looked at the books. I couldn’t see what I was looking for. I told him so.

“The Guardian,” he said, “I thought you said Gardening. Is that a foreign paper?”

“I guess so,” I said, disturbed by his use of the word foreign. “There used to be a whole shelf of international papers…”

“We don’t sell foreign papers any more,” he said, looking bored.

“Why?” I blurted. “Don’t you like foreigners any more?”

“They don’t sell enough, I guess. All I know is that we just stopped selling all the foreign papers.” And with that he moved silently away.

In Canada, “Foreign” is not a word in frequent circulation. There’s something definitely pejorative about it, something suspicious. In a country that is self-consciously multicultural, it carries significances of intolerance and prejudice.

In New Zealand, you hear “foreign” all the time. And I am convinced that underneath, and linked to its meaning of “not New Zealand” are other, intended and unintended meanings: bad, not-us, them…something to be feared. But there are things which are not from here and which are not foreign, and therefore good.

Anything British, for example.

So why would Borders stop selling The Guardian? My guess is that there is another definition of the bad in this country.

Anything that doesn’t sell enough.