Ex-Pat in New Zealand: Appreciating This Quirky Country

Ex-Pat in New Zealand: Appreciating This Quirky Country

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable.  It is designed to make its own people comfortable” -Clifton Fadmiman

It seemed that my last post made people conclude that I’d be happier with ex-pat life here if New Zealand had more issues.  Not exactly, I don’t wish more pain and suffering on this world and that’s not what I was trying to say. But I followed their advice anyway, started reading books and asking around even though I was skeptical. Weirdly, it was a productive exercise.

Other worldly landscapes at Tongariro National Park

Other worldly landscapes at Tongariro National Park

I came here with high expectations, because everyone loves New Zealand, and that usually sets the stage for disappointment. Also, when you know you’re going to a developing country, you’re prepared for discomfort, chaos and that’s part of that fun.  Coming to New Zealand, you don’t expect it to be much different than America and at first glance, it isn’t.  For example, I asked one of my American friends who moved here three years ago what was hard for her to adjust to. She laughed, “there’s no culture shock. Well, maybe the ketchup. It’s sweet and tastes weird here.”  Because it didn’t seem different, my first conclusion was that New Zealand was a lame, lazy version of America (a very arrogant American thing to conclude).  This is a different country and does NOT want to be like America.  I needed to rid myself of this ridiculous notion before I could start appreciating what makes this place special.  It’s easy to do when you travel to a country that looks visibly different, but it’s much harder in a country that seems so similar.

So on the surface, New Zealand appears like any mostly white, developed country but, while not so obvious upfront, it has a whole different set of values and priorities.  It felt so familiar that I thought I’d have nothing to learn by being here and I’d get frustrated when things didn’t work the way I expected them to.  But the differences run way deeper than just a funny accent.  Compared to Europe, America’s idea of “history” is almost laughable, but New Zealand is one of the last places on the planet to be settled by humans. Similarly, New Zealand is a rural, island nation at the bottom of the world so you can’t expect people to be as worldly as those in countries that can drive to another nation. Unlike competitive countries, New Zealand prioritizes quality of life over being the “best” at anything and seems quite content flying under the radar. For example, I think recently New Zealand signed a free trade agreement with the US, Canada, Mexico, parts of South America, Southeast Asia and Australia but it a lot of people were against it because they want to maintain a less capitalistic, competitive nation where maximizing money isn’t the first priority.  Honestly, at times, money doesn’t seem to be a main motivator at all.  According to the ladies at the science craft lunch session today, it’s a place you go to a rural craft shop (in someone’s house) to buy some wool, and its “in the sticks” and the internet doesn’t work so she gives you the wool and tells you she’ll send her bank information so you can pay her later.  Then you have to aggressively remind her to give you bank information so you can pay her.

Anyway, since identifying some of the problems here helped me realign my expectations for this country (and made me appreciate how quirky this place is), I’ll share a few then discuss how I’m growing to appreciate Kiwi living.

Sharing Cape Reigna with people who looked like a motorcycle gang but were actually ex-Navy starting a tradition to honor their deceased friends.

Sharing Cape Reigna with people who looked like a motorcycle gang but were actually ex-Navy starting a tradition to honor their deceased friends.

  • Gangs.  Prior to my arrival here, I was talking to someone about choosing between Auckland and Johannesburg.  They replied with fear in their eyes, “Auckland?  Have you heard about the gangs?!?!”.  I almost laughed because how could anything in sheep country be more dangerous than infamous Joburg?  I never figured out what movie alerted them to the issue but when traveling the country in November for my interview, I did see one computer printed sign taped on the door of a sketchy looking Wellington bar; “Those displaying gang colors and insignias will be denied entry”.  Once again, it seemed almost laughable to see the suburban surroundings.  After finally joining the local library, the first book I checked out was Patched: A History of Gangs in New Zealand.  Yes, the book contains tales of group rape, murder and other debauchery but it still seemed like the gangs here seem to be more bark than bite.  While the book Gangs by Ross Kemp claims New Zealand has more gangs per head than any other country in the world (seventy major gangs and over 4,000 patched member in a population of 4 million people), gangs vary dramatically in their criminality, ethnicity and organization.   A Mexican friend who worked in a bar frequented by the Hell Angels confirmed this impression.  He said they’d roll up to the bar on their bikes, in their leathers, approach the bar and grunt, “the usual”.  Which apparently was a pitcher of pink lemonade so they could bike home.  Understandably, the New Zealand branch of Hells Angels regularly embarrass their American and Australian counterparts.  Does gang activity affect the daily life of an average New Zealander?  Not that I’ve noticed during my month here.
Happy horse in Northlands, New Zealand

Happy horse in Northlands, New Zealand

  • Drugs/Alcohol.  Heavy drinking was obvious on my first visit to New Zealand… both of my Kiwi couch surfing hosts were borderline alcoholics.  I elected not to stay with one who admitted to getting 5 DUIs within the last month and showed up at 11 AM still drunk from the night before.  There is a noticeable drinking culture here, with the objective being to get wasted, not just enjoy a few drinks with dinner.  Apparently, “New Zealanders as a population have some of the higher drug-use rates in the developed world, evidenced in the 2007/2008 New Zealand Alcohol and Drug Use Survey, which reports that one in six (16.6%) New Zealanders aged 16–64 years had used drugs recreationally in the past year”.  I heard the government aspires to make New Zealand “the first smoke-free nation” by raising tobacco prices but it has a long way to go. Every day at the university, there’s dozens of people lighting up in front of “smoke-free campus” signs.  However, rural places in any country tend to struggle with alcoholism and other sources of “alternate entertainment”, and New Zealand is largely a rural country. My office mate just told me that growing up in Taupo, before outdoor activities, her one option for entertainment was the town’s one movie theater, with precisely one screen.  So it’s not surprising that some people hit the pubs.
Waves. Near Cape Reigna, New Zealand.

Waves. Near Cape Reigna, New Zealand.

  • Body Image.  I don’t have any statistics for this one but just walking around, it seems like this is a major issue.  Kiwi guys want to fulfill the rough, tough, strong handy man image and turn into gym rats, with borderline extreme muscles.  Guys around here claim girls shop for husbands based on three criteria: height (which Kiwis aren’t naturally blessed with an abundance of), muscle (which probably leads to some steroid use) and income (bonus points for firefighters, which seem to be the golden ticket here).  According to these guys, if they don’t satisfy minimum requirements, girls close door before there’s an opportunity for conversation.   On the flip side, it looks like a lot of girls suffer from eating disorders.  Even though this country is very informal (my boss, the department head walks around the office in flip flops, erm, “jandals”), maintaining appearances is quite important. There seems to be the idea here, “you’re working if you’re sitting at a desk”. Employers are very literal and want to hire you based on the degree listed on your diploma. It seems a bit superficial and old-fashioned to me, but most places are silly and superficial so New Zealand is hardly alone with that.
  • Pavlova.  In a land with very few unique culinary traditions, Kiwis are pretty proud of one dessert that they might have invited.  Pavlova is a meringue cake covered in fruit and whipped cream served around Christmas, inspired by the Russian ballerinas visit to Oceania in the 1920s.  Where the problem lies, is both Australia and New Zealand claim to have created this dish and argue regularly over who invented it and who makes it better.  Since this sweet treat is part of both countries’ national identity, it can be pretty controversial but I think New Zealand currently holds the title for the biggest cake baked.  (Haha, while this is true, I just added it in there to lighten things up)
  • Other issues. There is petty crime here, like everywhere else: an Italian friend had four bicycles stolen, the librarians warned me that people steal things from library patrons, cars get broken into… According to my Kiwi doctor friend, “New Zealand is far from perfect.  We are consistently near to or leading with Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development with maternal mortality, domestic abuse, children living in (relative) poverty, and the Maori and Pacific Islander groups have 3rd world rates of Rheumatic fever. A lot of this arises from historical issues and institutionalized racism.  People living in the CBD of Auckland are far removed from much of this but it does exist (10 km south in fact)”. According to Garth Cartwright in Sweet As: Journeys in a New Zealand Summer,

“I used to consider New Zealand an easy place to live. The climate. The laidback locals. The land the beaches. And, hey, those pies! Even as a youth, desperate to get out of Mount Roskill, I believed deep down, I lived in a paradise of sorts: Godzone… Yet, the New Zealand I explored on this trip has proved a tougher place to live: the rising cost of everything, the continued Americanization of society invetitably leading to more congestion and tension between rich or poor and gangs and drugs. I doubt living here in the 21st century is quite as blissful as I remember or expected it to be”. (It’s interesting how this Kiwi author blames problems on “Americanization”, ay?)   I could continue listing problems (terrible public transportation, working in education, I know there’s a lot of room for improvement…) but I think you get the idea…

Despite the somewhat depressing start to this entry, learning about this country’s shortcomings did help me connect to this place, analogous to learning someone’s faults and appreciating them anyway is what turns infatuation into a relationship, a crush into love. It’s not a perfect place, but it’s doing the best it can, for a new nation in the middle of nowhere.  And it many ways, it is refreshingly different. Thinking about New Zealand for what it is (good, bad and ugly) instead of what it isn’t, is starting to change the way I approach living here.

Rainbow in front of Mt. Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park

Rainbow in front of Mt. Ngauruhoe, Tongariro National Park

Appreciating New Zealand For What it Is

I came to New Zealand under the conception that it was a developed nation, and this means usually people are well-educated and worldly (which is my primary complaint). But I need to remember it’s a small island in the South Pacific at the bottom of the world. Obviously, people aren’t going to be as culturally aware as residents of countries where another language, cuisine and traditions is a short train ride away.  There doesn’t even seem to be a lot of international news that reaches this country but at least you aren’t bombarded with images of terrorism, hate and war that leaves you depressed before you finish your bowl of cereal.

Kiwis may not be the most bookishly brilliant people in the universe but they are resourceful.  Apparently, it was hot and Aucklanders wanted to swim so they actually built themselves a pool in 30 minutes with plastic wrap and 2x4s.  Yes, Kiwis aren’t the most efficient people in the world and even fire alarms don’t seem motivate them to move faster than a snail’s pace. So even though I might die if there’s a real fire in the science building, aspects of slowing down is a nice change.

Specifically, New Zealand focuses on personal connections instead of being highly impacted by the global disease of technology isolating people from those standing next to them (one benefit of the bad internet in this country!). In New Zealand, people make a real effort to connect on a personal level, preferring telephone calls over e-mails and devoting meeting time for small talk. The University of Auckland is approximately the same size of North Carolina State University (~35,000 students) but I’ve already personally met UoA’s Vice Chancellor twice, which is essentially unthinkable in America. Following Maori tradition, they also invited new staff to a Powhiri welcome ceremony. We all went down a welcoming line where I literally shook the hand, touch noses and looked into the eyes of the Vice Chancellor and other university administrators.

In general, it’s a small country (population 4 million) and people go out of their way to get to know, and act civilly toward each other, because chances are, you’ll see them again. People aren’t suing each other all the time.  My Filipino friend gave the example of the NZ Economic Development Minister who was hit in the face with a dildo by a protester during a media conference. While the police escorted the protester away, the politician didn’t press charges and instead commented, “Fair to say I don’t think those sorts of things happen everyday. We actually thought it was a bit humorous at the end of it all… new experiences in politics everyday, it’s the privilege of serving”. With all the depressing, serious stuff that happens in the world each day, it’s refreshing to live in a nation where people don’t take themselves too seriously. This sense of humor is obvious as soon as you step on board New Zealand Airlines, with flight attendants dressed in quirky purple uniforms and regularly changing comical safety videos.

Auckland city skyline from Silo Park

Auckland city skyline from Silo Park

Liveable Cities versus Exciting Ones

This morning, I read Jason Wilson’s article, Vienna is cited as the world’s most livable city. Most exciting? Not so much. He’s an American who moved to Vienna from Philadelphia and seemed to struggle with some of the same issues as myself as he adjusts to life in the “liveable city” of Vienna. The Mercer survey that identified Vienna as the world’s most liveable city identified Auckland as the world’s third most liveable city so there’s a lot of parallels, even though New Zealand doesn’t really have its exotic cultural dishes, famous architecture or historical traditions. He writes,

“Could I truly imagine myself living here? It’s safe and clean and efficient and cozy and lovely. But truth be told, I’ve also greatly enjoyed many edgy cities that are chaotic and crazy and politically unstable and potentially violent and insanely alive…”

He catches up with a journalist who a controversial article in response to Vienna’s annual ranking as the world’s most livable city. This controversial article called Vienna “the most miserable city in the world,” and complained about the city’s large aging population, its bureaucracy, rude bicyclists, shops that close too early and lack of good sandwiches. When asked about more major issues like crime, the Vienna-based journalist admits that there’s barely even any homicides to discuss. In the end, the skeptical journalist concludes, despite being boring, it’s not terrible.

Blue lake at Tongariro National Park

Blue lake at Tongariro National Park

While this is a month overdue, I’m trying to appreciate what Auckland is, instead of complaining about what it isn’t. This city isn’t going to change anytime soon so I’ve got to accept it and make the most of my time here.  It’s not going to be the most exotic place I’ve ever been, but there are still things to learn.  Cafes are still going to be closed when I want an early morning coffee, then closed again before you want to meet a friend after work.  During the week, basically everything shuts down around 9 PM.  On the other hand, this weekend, I got to hike (tramp) across bizarre lunar landscapes with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, swim in Keri Keri waterfalls and spend a night search the city’s bays for bioluminescence.   How can I complain?!?

Song of the Moment: How Bizarre– OMC (Kiwi classic) & Here Tonight- Sam Burchfield

Book of the Moment: Changing Gears: A Pedal Powered Detour From the Rat Race by Greg Foyster

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