What is culture? asked the Sikh in the back row. And if we were honest, we on the panel organised by Ethnic Affairs, would have said we sort of knew - just couldn't quite nail it. Like the elderly Sikh, Maori knew what it was and once, the rest of us did too. We were British when British was best. Radio announcers spoke in the Received Pronunciation of the English upper class; many Kiwis called England 'home' and made their pilgrimages there - we were children of Mother England. But one day Mum took off and joined the Common Market.
And down in the South Pacific, the unexpected happened - in books, films and media we began to hear our own accents and tell our own stories without cringing. They were the building blocks of a new New Zealand culture.
In the back row of the Ethnic Affairs forum, the elderly Sikh answered his own question. "Culture is a way of life" he said. But whose way of life? When Being British was best, Pakeha made up nearly 90% of the population and identity was readily found. Today Europeans represent 67% in our increasingly multi-racial country. Beyond the achievements of bi-culturalism, beyond the diverse new cultures, nationalities and religions, what is our national culture really?
Is it rugby? Our laidback lifestyle? The fusion of cultures and tastes in our food? All of these things and much more? In the end nobody but the old Sikh had any clear answer - but a way of life is not necessarily a shared way.
It seemed clear there was something else out there yet to be discovered and agreed upon; something distinctive which one day we could call our culture. It's still fluid, evolving and perhaps should never be prescribed. As they say, good things take time.