Learning Māori a cultural revolution for good

For a man who says he struggles speaking English, Chinese immigrant Lidu Gong confesses that learning te reo Māori came easily.

The 64-year-old has had a love affair with Te Reo for the past seven years, at an age where most people are planning on retiring.

"It's impossible to forget what has touched your heart. Te Reo has opened up a new world. I'm so indulged, absorbed into this world, and it's changed me as a person," Lidu says.

This has been much more than a language journey - for Lidu, it's changed his life.

Lidu grew up amidst the 1960s Cultural Revolution in China - a bloody, decade-long period of political and social upheaval created by Mao Zedong to strengthen his communist ideology.

Mao believed that children could learn more by working, and made drastic changes to education.

"All schools stopped for about two or three years, and even after the school resumed its normal function, we'd still spend most of the time working the countryside, in factories and do military training. I didn't start school until I was nine years old," says Lidu. 

Fluent in Mandarin, the first words of English Lidu ever uttered were political slogans.

"'Never forget the class struggle,' 'Carry the revolution through to the end,' 'Long live Chairman Mao.' I didn't learn 'Hello, how are you?' until about eight years later when I got to the university."

Despite the obstacles, Lidu became a language professor and moved to New Zealand in 1996 on a student visa.

Once deprived of educational opportunities in China, he's now surrounded by books, working as a librarian for Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.

"We have an Asian-Chinese saying 'everything good and beautiful can be found in books', and that's how I got inspired and got my knowledge from the books," he says.

But Lidu's daughter Debra Gong says it's not just another language that her Dad's picked up.

"Learning Te Reo changed his personality and his perspective of life and his health. I find him more calmer, more kind and loving towards us, so it's a really big change I can see through life, everyday life."

Lidu's currently in total immersion as part of his Rumaki course to get his conversational Reo up to speed.

"Although I know many whakatauki and I can tell over 30 stories all from memory in Te Reo, when it comes to face-to-face communication, I'm still at a very elementary level."

Lidu says his ability to memorise hundreds of whakatauki and karakia comes from learning from the heart.

He has even discovered the healing properties of whakatauki that has worked wonders for his mental health and helped in his battle with depression.

"When we are spiritually woken, when we are connected to our gods, then we have very positive attitude towards life, towards other people, towards our work," he says.

Lidu's connection with Te Reo has also highlighted the many similarities in Chinese traditional culture and in Māori culture.

"We have our version of Tane Mahuta separating Ranganui and Papatuanuku," he says.

While he's modest about his ability, Lidu's determined to improve.

"I do know that everyday I'm making progress, however little it is."

The Hui