Tuesday, June 20, 2006

In Other News

I was reading Saturday's Dominion Post, Wellington's local newspaper, and guess what I came across in the world section? Lo and behold, it was a short article from the AP wire about where else but Ann Arbor, Michigan. I shouted to my roommates that my hometown had appeared in their newspaper halfyway around the world.

Stupidly, I didn't think to see what the article was actually about before reading it to them out loud and showing them how my home is represented in the international press. I had actually read the same story in the Ann Arbor News a few days before:


My roommates' first question was "Why would anyone be carrying a gun around like that?" Good question. Honestly, that didn't even really occur to me. I didn't realize just how prevalent gun violence is in the US until I came overseas. There are almost never stories about shootings, and if there are, they're big news. Just when trying to find the link to this article, I found three gun stories on the AA News 14-day archive. It makes me sad that I have grown up seeing these stories on a regular basis and thinking that it's the norm. Not to say that there is not violence here, but there is definitely a lot less, or at the very least, a lot less reporting on it.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Wanted: Items for Cultural Exchange

There are a lot of things that I like about my flat and my flatmates, but by far one of my favorites is the way food is shared. At home, it's pretty much the norm for roommates all to buy their own food and if they share anything at all, it's only stuff like condiments or milk (although I have known many houses/apartments that have five separate bottles of mustard in the fridge). Here the norm is that everyone puts money into a flat bank account each week, shopping is done together, and people rotate cooking for the whole group.

At first it was pretty weird to me to do things this way, and I always felt like I was eating someone else's food. It also felt strange to eat real dinners instead of quick stuff that can be made in single portions. And even more strange to actually have all five people eating together almost every night. Back home, even when everyone would be home eating together at the same time, it still seemed very individual because you were eating food that you'd cooked by yourself and for yourself. As cheesy as it sounds, my flat now feels more like a family.

Also fun is that I am definitely getting a taste of Kiwi culture (pun only partially intended). The foods are not that much different from what we eat, but there have been a couple things that have confused and/or surprised me:

  • "Caster sugar" (what we would call white sugar)
  • Hundreds and Thousands (sprinkles, like you'd use for cakes or cookies)
  • Golden syrup (still not sure what the American equivalent is, but I think it's corn syrup)
  • Crayfish (much bigger than our crayfish at home--no wonder it was so expensive in Australia!)
  • Creme fraiche vs. double creamed vs. thickenend cream vs. sour cream (I am still not sure what the difference between all these things are, but I just buy whatever it says on the package)
  • Chicken flavored potato chips (not as bad as you might expect)
  • Kumara. It was described to me as a "Maori potato," and to me it seemed to be about halfway between a sweet potato and a regular potato in terms of taste. Delicious.
Of course they have been interested in what I eat as well. Here are some things that have confused my flatmates:
  • Peanut butter and jelly. This was confusing for two reasons: first, what they call "jelly" is what we call "jello," so the combination sounds pretty gross. Second, they never put the two together. They put peanut butter by itself on toast (same with jelly/jam), but they never put the two together
  • Pretty much all Mexican food. They did not know what tortilla chips were (they call them corn chips), and not only had they never heard of quesadillas, there is no equivalent! A sad life they are leading in this country...
  • S'mores. This did not surprise me after talking to people in Australia about it, but the real surprise came when I tried to explain them and they didn't know what a graham cracker was. That was harder to explain.
  • Twinkies, ding dongs, ho-hos etc. They have heard about these on TV, but didn't know what they were. These were also hard to explain because you just can't put into words how over-processed they are. I think I'll just have to go have some shipped over or bring some back when I go home.
  • Corndogs. Another of America's treasures that you just have to taste to understand.
  • TurDuckIn and deep fried turkey. This wasn't so much confusing to them, but it was the first thing they thought of as being "American" food and were disappointed to know that I have never eaten either.
As you can see, my flatmates have a pretty sad impression of what Americans eat, but I couldn't really think of any truly American dishes. With 4th of July coming up, I'd like to cook them something that is uniquely American. Any ideas?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"I've never met anyone who doesn't speak two languages"

A few days ago I went out for coffee with some of my coworkers and not surprisingly, I was the topic of conversation. They asked the usual questions like where I'm from in the US, what I did back home, etc. Like many people, they were curious as to why I'd chosen to come to New Zealand and I explained that it was one of the easiest places for me to get a work permit. I also added that my travel choices are somewhat limited by the fact that I only speak one language.

And that's where the conversation came to a screeching halt.

"You only speak one language?" they asked incredulously. "You must speak something else!" No, not really... I took French in high school and can understand very basic Spanish, but that's about as far as it goes.

"But you're Indian," one said. "Don't you speak an Indian language?" I explained that only my father is Indian, and since my mother doesn't speak Tamil (my dad's first language) I didn't grow up around it. My coworkers were stunned. I mentioned that a lot of immigrant parents in the US really stress English, and soon the conversation quickly broadened from language to culture as a whole. "Culture is very important to us here in New Zealand," they told me. "I can't imagine not learning about your culture and your ancestors and everything they went through to give you the life you have today."

An interesting similarity between the US and New Zealand is that both strongly identify as nations of immigrants. However, the way that this plays out is very different. The US sees itself as a melting pot (and happily throws that term around), while Kiwis definitely appear to be more of a "tossed salad" (I don't know if they use that term). To me the main difference between these is that in the US, becoming an American pretty much means renouncing whatever nationality/culture/identity you had before. We become hyphenated Americans--Asian Americans, African Americans, etc. (whether or not you actually use a hyphen is a whole other blog entry in itself)--and these identities are distinct from the cultures of our ancestries. I identify as "Indian American" but not as "Indian." That's not the case with New Zealanders. You can be an Indian and a Kiwi at the same time, and it doesn't seem like they question that concept. As the generations continue, people are still able to maintain their ancestral identities while also being Kiwis. Because of their different perspective, they think that I, and other Americans, have lost my culture.

So because I don't identify as Indian, am I devoid of culture as way my coworkers seem to think? To me, the answer is both yes and no. I definitely don't know as much about my Indian ancestry (or my European ancestry, for that matter) as I wish I did, and I could definitely devote more time to learning about it and involving myself with it. But on the other hand, lacking Indian culture does not leave me without any culture at all. There is quite a bit of culture that is uniquely American (and I should know; it was my major in college, after all), and the longer I spend overseas the more I realize how closely I identify with many of those uniquely American things. Though I like the idea of being able to identify as Indian and American at the same time, I also like the acknowledgment that it is a different experience to be an American (or a Kiwi) with an Indian ancestry. Americans could definitely learn a lot from Kiwis in the way that they see ancestry and multiculturalism, but I think that the American interpretation cannot be written off completely.

On a side note, I have a question for you, the reader. As you were reading this blog entry, how did you picture my coworkers? Specifically, what race/ethnicity did you picture them to be? They all happen to be Maori, and I definitely wonder if I will have any similar conversations with Kiwis who are white. And I also can't help but wonder if this conversation would have happened if I were white. Not that it should/shouldn't have happened no matter what the racial breakdown of the group, but it's just something to think about.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Thank You, New York Times

. . . for continuing to print stories that support my life choices.


(and thanks to esl for continuing to send the stories to me)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Happily Alone

Last night marked a momentus event for this trip. It was the first night since I left in February that I spent the night in a room by myself. That's right, I have found a flat where I now have my own room. No more hostel dorms, no more three-person rooms in a share house, no more worrying about when to turn out the lights or if it's acceptable to kick the person who's snoring. Finally I can unpack my stuff in a space of my own.


Here's the view from my bedroom window. Yes, the rainbow is always there.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Gainful Employment

Hooray! Finally there will be money coming into my bank account instead of just leaving it!

I had my first day of work today. Not too bad considering that I just started my job search on Monday. Although it's only a temp job doing lots of admin work, I'm pretty excited about it. The temp agency actually took my interests into consideration (or at least it seems like they did) and found me a placement at the Ministry of Health in the Maori Health department. While health is not a huge interest of mine (although I have nothing against it, of course) I am quite interested in Maori culture, particularly contemporary Maori issues and how they compare to our indigenous people back home. So this works out pretty well for me considering that I was just looking for any job I could get.

The actual work will be doing administration for different grants that the office gives out, such as scholarships for Maori students in the health sciences and funding for Maori health providers. It's going to be a lot of filing and tracking applications and boring stuff like that, but it is an interesting shift from working on the grantseeker side of things. We'll see if it's better to be on the side that gives out the money instead of the side that's asking for it.

What I think will be most interesting is that I am definitely going to be learning a good deal about the Maori language and culture. I've already noticed that people use Te Reo (the Maori language) phrases in their emails, and even Microsoft Word is set to a font called "Arial - Maori" so you can use the appropriate punctuation. A good percentage of the employees are Maori themselves (not surprising, but nice), and they start every morning with singing/praying in Te Reo. I was invited to join, but I think I will hold back for now. Don't want to make a cultural faux pas this early on.

The final bonus to this job: I work across the street from Parliament and "the Beehive" (where all the members of Parliament and the Prime Minister have their offices). You can just feel the political power in the air. Not really, but it's a nice thought.