So a Newfie goes to [New Zealand]…

On the ‘N-word’ a long way from the Rock

A few years ago, I was at an Atlantic Canada student conference in Fredericton, and we went out to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning by a chartered bus. There were half a dozen of us from Newfoundland and Labrador, and we ended up wandering through the aisles together – the next image I have is of the lot of us running back across the parking lot, bags getting twisted around our wrists as we raced to catch the bus that was pulling away. I remember feeling like Indiana Jones when the doors whooshed open for us, but there’s a good chance it was a lot less dramatic than that. What I am sure of, stepping onto the platform out of breath, is what I turned and said to one of my partners in crime:

“Friggin’ Newfies.”

I’m also sure of one other thing: to the best of my knowledge, that’s the only time I’ve used that word in a self-referential way.

Language has an amazing capacity to convey much more than the simple assemblage of letters suggests. Yes, Juliet, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but certain words are capable of making the kind of stench that no bouquet can overpower. “Newfie” has been called, by more than a few, the N-word of Newfoundland – perhaps a bit hyperbolic and even insulting when taken out of context, but the fact remains that it carries a certain history of degradation and insinuation. A Newfoundlander can go and get an education and become a contributing member of society, but a Newfie has an accent that most people can’t understand and a good-natured ignorance of the world outside the cove he inevitably lives (and fishes) in. Newfies are cute, quirky little oddities, but not to be taken seriously.

And yet, it’s a strange part of our lexicon because it’s not as simple as saying it’s a “bad word.” In fact, a lot of Newfoundlanders I know have an opinion of the word, but it’s not always that it should be avoided – many wear it as a badge of honour, seeing it as an embodiment of everything unique about this province. They roll their eyes at those who disavow it, typically arguing that the others need to lighten up. I’ve always occupied that ambivalent No Man’s Land, whereby I don’t love it, but I get it. I read Jimmy Flynn’s joke book cover-to-cover when I was probably too young to be reading it, and loved his Newfie jokes – but, by the same token, I was once asked by a Mainlander to tell “a stupid Newfie” joke, and I instantly felt unclean about the word, like I was the Jester and he was the King, and there was nothing I could do about it because I was born in Newfoundland.

That’s the kind of attitude I went to New Zealand with. And I think I’m even more confused now, but at least I know why.

Newfie in funny places

For me, “Newfie” is a representation of a power relationship. It’s an “us and them” thing, the kind of thing that exists all over the world, whether it’s USA-Canada, Canada-Newfoundland, or Australia-New Zealand. When you’re with a group from home, then it’s acceptable, but as soon as an outsider tries to use it to create a divide, then the armour comes up. When I first came to New Zealand and people asked me where I was from, I’d answer “Canada.” If they followed up the question with “what part of Canada?”, I’d say “Eastern Canada”, and usually only surrender the island’s name if they probed further, believing that most people didn’t have a clue Canada went east of Montreal.

This was the first time I’d encountered the dreaded word, and here was my chance to set him straight. Before I got a chance, he added, “Newfies are awesome!”

It turns out though that a lot of people do know we exist (and a lot of Kiwis have read Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News). I was in Turangi, a few weeks after I flew into Auckland, when I said I was from Newfoundland. “Oh!” said the long-haired fisherman. “You’re a Newfie!”

I opened my mouth. This was the first time I’d encountered the dreaded word, and here was my chance to set him straight. Before I got a chance, he added, “Newfies are awesome!”

Huh. What do you say to that? “Yeah, we’re pretty deadly. Friendly, always up for a laugh . . . just don’t use that #@*%ing word again.” Somehow, I don’t think that would work.

Similarly, I was staying with a family in Methven, months and months later, when the topic somehow came up. It might have been the night I cooked toutons and found a slab of processed meat that was a crude substitute for bologna. I remember the Dad getting a bit of a mischievous look in his eyes as he said, “So if we started calling you Newfie all the time, would that drive you nuts?” As if on cue, his four-year-old son got up from the table and tried to squeeze past my chair, saying, “Excuse me, Newfie!” I nearly spit my drink halfway across the room, I was laughing that hard – in that moment, I felt like I’d brought the best part of my culture to this household in New Zealand, and it was one of these moments of genuine connection that only came along a few times during my stint Down Under.

And yet . . .

. . . I’m of two minds. I was getting a surfing lesson in Kaikoura with a family from Hamilton, Ontario. We were getting along well – until the Mom in the group said to me, “Wow, you managed to lose your Newfie accent!”

From time to time since then, I’ve thought about what snide, snarky remark I should have rebuffed that backhanded compliment with. My favourite was, “Wow, you managed to travel all around the world and still stay completely ignorant!”

I had a couple problems with what she said. First off was the fact that it was completely wrong – I lost my accent? What, pray tell, accent did I have? Obviously what she meant was that I wasn’t dropping my H’s and I said that the day was nice rather than “friggingwickeddeadlyaltogether”– I couldn’t help but think that if the trip included a meal she would have leaned over my plate and been impressed that I knew how to use a fork and knife. The other thing that irked me was that she said it as if the way I spoke was commendable. Congratulations Ryan, you’ve evolved from the savage dialect of the Newfies and now speak like a human being.

Every reason I disliked the word “Newfie” in the past came bubbling up to the surface again. In an instant, I wasn’t a university graduate getting some experience of the cultural landscape of New Zealand before I went to law school – I was something in a cage for tourists to gawk at, take pictures of, and ridicule. She probably had no idea that a simple sentence like that could have that kind of effect, but there you go. And that was in February, and it still stings a bit.

Newfie comes home

I don’t love it, and I will probably never use it to describe myself. Still, in a world that’s becoming increasingly globalized, it’s important to have some smaller cultural identity to cling to – but it’s a double-edged sword. I’ve found that this world can be a very accommodating place, but that it is still very, very full of prejudices, so that behaviours, beliefs, and socio-economic fate are almost bestowed on individuals as soon as they’re born. More often than not, those prejudices become self-fulfilling prophecies, and we get caught in a cycle so that it ceases to matter whether the chicken or egg came first, all that is clear is that it is.

I’ve found that this world can be a very accommodating place, but that it is still very, very full of prejudices, so that behaviours, beliefs, and socio-economic fate are almost bestowed on individuals as soon as they’re born.

In my experience though, most people who are outside of that Canadian context, who don’t know that this island has historically been the brunt of jokes in our country, see the word as a positive. A reflection of the optimistic, carefree, life-of-the-party-and-if-there’s-no-party-we’ll-make-one attitude that we tend to carry with us, rather than any cultural or economic stereotypes – the model of a Newfie becomes something not only familiar, but something to aspire to. That the word could be interpreted any other way tends to come as a bit of a surprise, but perhaps that revelation is simply a reflection of the company I’ve kept, reinforcement of another power relationship: backpackers against a society of careers, mortgages, and stability. In that dynamic, even the most stereotypical Newfie is something of a demigod, not a loveable loser.

I love being from Newfoundland and Labrador. I like to imagine that, if I wasn’t born here, I would wish that I had been.  By the time this ends up going online, I will probably be back home, and I can’t wait to have some crab legs and turr, drink Quidi Vidi beer, and talk so fast that you might need a translator. But, does all that make me a Newfie?

I guess that depends on who you ask. Not if you ask me, but if you’re nice about it, I won’t correct you, either. On that front, I’ve certainly relaxed. If we can see each other eye-to-eye, beyond any labels, then I just might tell you one of my favourite jokes, and the next time you meet someone from this part of the world, you’ll be able to attest that Newfies are, indeed, awesome.

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