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Monday, March 28, 2011

Can You Relate?

Can you Relate?
The NZ New Migrant Experience
Group from "Relating Well in NZ" class

I spent most of today in a room with three Germans, a Brit, a Latvian, a South African and a Kiwi. It sounds like the set-up to a joke. It's not - we were part of a class the New Zealand government sponsors called, "Relating Well in New Zealand." http://www.relate.org.nz/ It's designed to help migrants understand Kiwi culture and adapt to their new country. Even though I don't plan to make NZ my home, we're here now, and I want to learn as much as possible about this place while we're in-country. At the very least, I'd gather material for a blog entry.

Something happens when you start planting roots in paradise - it starts to lose its luster. A young British woman, Joybelle, said she'd backpacked around New Zealand on holiday before deciding to relocate. "What you see when you backpack is totally different than when you live here." She was surprised that the Kiwis who'd helped her when she was a tourist were unavailable or disinterested when she moved to NZ. Joybelle's been here six months, seeking a position as a primary school teacher. "I could leave," she said. "I either have to have a job or a man to keep me here. The beauty of the country is not enough to hold me."

Other newcomers said they had visited New Zealand and fallen in love with the place. A German woman, Waltraut, said, "We love New Zealand. We have a lot of friends already. We're very happy."

But like so many major life changes, repatriating is a process: First comes falling in love, and the honeymoon. Then, the crisis phase creeps in: Reality smacks your noggin like a two-by-four (only in NZ, it's called a "four-by-two." Maybe it's because we're upside down). You're here, and you have no job. Or people are cliquey – friendly, but not inclusive. You have nice chats and few dinner invitations. Or it's just not what you'd imagined. Then, comes the adjustment and reorientation phase – you recognize the differences, and change. Finally, comes acceptance. You're the one who decided to move to an island at the bottom of the world – you take the bad with the good. The cockroaches with the kiwi fruit. The monsoonal rains with the sunshine. The sausages with the snapper (I'm not too fond of sausages, and they're dispensed like Pez candies over here). The phases are similar to what you experience in a marriage, or after divorce or ...after death. I can relate.

Our instructors, a South African named Naudeen, who's lived in New Zealand 12 years, and a 5th generation Kiwi, Barbara, said the disillusionment phase often doesn't happen until a year or 2 after immigrating to a new country. That means my chances of continuing to bask in the honeymoon phase are high. This is comforting. I talked with a couple Germans at the class whose outlook remains positive: "What's the worst that can happen?" they said. "We return to our home country."

Meanwhile, migrants puzzle over why it's tough to wrangle a Kiwi dinner invitation. Is it because food's so expensive here? Naudeen offers a theory: "I think it's because people are time poor. It's easier to meet in a cafe." To be fair, the kids and I have been invited to locals' homes and have issued invitations ourselves. But we've experienced a disparity in the NZ invitation column compared with what happens among our Spokane circle. The fact our American friends have freezers full of ready-at-a-moment's-notice warehouse club (Costco) food makes entertaining practically mandatory. It's as if someone said, "You've got the Costco card - now go forth and feed the masses."

What else is different about New Zealand? We made a list.
Kiwis are:
Hard workers
Egalitarian (titles don't matter as much here as in our home countries)
Care taking (they have a strong social safety net (also called the "Nanny State" by locals): No one goes hungry
Boozy (they like their liquor)

Other Differences?
Dangerous roads/drivers (Kiwis will pass on anything)
Lack of central heating in homes
Children are prohibited by law from staying home alone until age 14
Goods and services are more expensive (ex: milk's around $6/gallon, U.S.)
Bi-cultural: Maori culture's intertwined with Pakeha (non-Maori) culture (according to the hand-out we received, Maoris comprise 16% of the population)
Spending time outdoors is very important
That Kiwi accent!
Geographic isolation
Two other differences I'd add: You drive on the left side (not the "wrong" side, but the left side), and take shelter from the sun's harsh rays due to lack of ozone layer. I buy sunscreen by the liter.

Barbara explained why Kiwis are pragmatic, stoic and egalitarian: New Zealand was settled by many second, third and fourth sons, who, unlike Number One sons in England, didn't inherit property. They journeyed to Aotearoa (the Maori name for NZ) in the 1840's believing it was more settled than it really was. After traveling 12,000 miles, they couldn't hop on Air New Zealand and jet back to the old country. So they sucked it up, built homes and towns, and convinced the natives (Maori) to sell their land. Hence, the Kiwi can-do attitude and distaste for bureaucracy (although I question that last part when I think of the painful visa application process cooked up by Immigration NZ. Maybe they save red tape for foreigners). Barbara said Kiwis are wary of anyone who blows their own horn:
"If someone becomes a 'tall poppy,' we chop them off, because we grew from humble beginnings."

The facilitators asked us to envision our own dreams by using markers and crayons on a large sheet of paper divided in three sections: 1): "Where am I?" 2): "Where do I want to be?" 3): What's stopping me from living my dream? Initially, it seemed like a kindergarten assignment, but it forced us to tap our brains in a different way. When you're a chronic list-maker, creating a drawing (even one that looks like your five-year-old's artwork) can be clarifying. I'll just post my picture here and let it speak for itself (I think it's saying, "Get thee to an art class!")
Note: the brown mounds aren't mountains, they're heads

Much of the discussion focused on networking. How do you get involved? Find a group. Naudeen said,, "For every interest you have, there's a group. Go join one." Or five. Between two running groups, church, a mum's group, singles group, widow's group, volunteering at school, and starting to date, my dance card is full 

Am I, as today's course was called, "Relating Well in New Zealand"? Sure, but I'm still on a quasi- holiday, because I'm not working (I am, however, responsible for two small kids, and they require heaps of effort). I'm a short-timer, which means the rose-colored glasses are likely to stay put. Is the strategy of joining groups to meet people working? Well, I ran with my Hash group tonight, got exercise, had fun and some nice conversations. One woman I hadn't seen for several weeks even invited the kids and me to her home for dinner Friday. That's something I can relate to.


  1. Excellent post, Dawn. I had a similar / different experience living in South Korea. It had similar delight at the beginning, honeymoon phase, and reality of life there if I chose to live long-term. A close friend of mine has been in Barcelona since the mid 90's and still talks about various aspects of society he can't get over (dinner's at 11 pm, group consensus required for all decisions). We're all born from our historic roots. We have our puritanical roots and drive to succeed that's based on our American dream ideal. As much as I'm annoyed by it at times (like at the "So,.. what do you do" moments at dinner parties, it's part of the fabric of our culture. It sounds like you're doing pretty well down there. Congratulations on your Relating Well in New Zealand Certificate.



  2. Thanks, Ed. We're all products of our history and culture, aren't we? You don't realize how American you are until you live abroad. Then, you realize Yank-ness is hard-wired!"