Thursday, September 28, 2006

Phoning the Home of the Moriori

Here is why my life is awesome: on a regular basis, I get to send packages and make phone calls to the Chatham Islands.

The Chathams (pop. 717) are a little group of islands way far away from pretty much everything else. New Zealand is already one of the most isolated places in the world, and the Chathams are 800 kilometers east of Christchurch. That's about the same distance from Ann Arbor to St. Louis--but with nothing but ocean in between. They're no Pitcairns or Easter Island, but they're a bit more than a hop, skip and a jump away.

Anyway, here is a fairly typical interaction with the health provider we work with out there:
-It all starts because I need to send some documents to them by courier (they're contracts, so I need to make sure they get there)
-But the people at the courier company don't have the Chatham Islands in their computer, so they can't ship there. (I should note that it was NOT typical that the woman working at the courier company had never even heard of Chatham Islands)
-So I call the provider to ask what they think would be the best way to get the contracts to them
-Well, they tell me, you can't actually courier stuff out there. The best you can do is courier the contracts to the Wellington airport addressed to Air Chathams, and then Air Chathams will take them out there.
-Another option is to just send them by regular mail. Let's see, there's a mail plane going out in a few days, so the contracts can get there by mid next week. They'll sign them right away and stick them on the next plane back, so it should be about a week and a half total turn-around time? That'll probably be the fastest way.

Sometimes I forget I'm on the other side of the world. For the most part things aren't that different here. It's mostly the same cultural norms, same standard of living, same technology, same food, etc. But then I'm making phone calls to remote islands, sending emails in an indigenous language most Americans have probably never heard of, and walking past stands of pine and palm trees. It's a little like living in an alternate universe, but much cooler. At least compared to all the other alternate universes I've l lived in.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Random Wellington

All the guidebooks will tell you that Kiwis are adrenaline junkies. Bungee jumping was invented here, and it's only one of the many ways that they like to fall from tall heights in dangerous ways. What the guidebooks did not tell me was that they indoctinate their kids the extreme lifestyle starting at a very young age.

There are three official languages in New Zealand: Maori, English, and Sign Language. The Wellington city council also speaks canine.

And here is a sign you just don't see in the United States (or many other places, for that matter)

Random Auckland

There are so many things that Lonely Planet doesn't tell you about.

See the bird on the left? It looks like a seagull, walks like a seagull, and talks like a seagull. But it's also gigantic, so really it's like a big mutant seagull. The other white bird in this picture is a normal seagull and, as you can tell, is much smaller. Fortunately, a trip to the wildlife exhibit at Te Papa eased my fears that there is something gene-altering substance in the NZ water systems, and I learned that the gigantic seagull is actually a skua. The regular-sized seagull is just a regular seagull.

I walked into one of these mushrooms assuming it would make me double in size. When it didn't, I gave up on saving the princess.

Another ginormous bird, this time in the botanic gardens. From a distance it just looked like a duck, but upon closer inspection I think it was actually a small horse in a duck costume. That is my foot in the picture to give you some perspective on just how large this bird is. I think that the fact that I was able to get so close is a pretty good indication that this bird is aware of its size and knows that it could kill me with little effort.

Friday, September 22, 2006


I don't think it's news to anyone that I love TV. I mean really love TV. TV shows are kind of like sports to me--not only do I watch intensely, I analzye what happens, I discuss nuances with friends, I have my favorite and not-so-favorite teams and platers, and I read articles by "experts" and people who just think they're experts. Sweeps month is like playoff season. So needless to say, I've had gone through some withdrawl during the past seven months of travel. Not that I don't get to watch TV here, but it's different TV, and it's definitely not the most recent episodes.

There are some upsides, however. Although it's a huge pain being months behind in what's being shown, it means we actually get a better selection of show. There are only about five main channels over here (TV1-TV3, C4 the music channel, and Prime), but they pack in shows from the five/six main US networks, plus HBO, Showtime, and other cable channels, and the best from the UK, Canada, and Australia. So I get to watch things like The Office and Trailer Park Boys without illegally downloading anything. It seems like the networks here just figure out what shows have been good in other English-speaking countries, and then only bring those here. There are some mishaps, of course (for some reason we get "The War at Home"), but we don't have to sit through any of those shows that get canned after three episodes. Furthermore, because they are so far behind, there is no off season like the summer is in the States. We just finished a bunch of finales here (like Grey's Anatomy, House, and Boston Legal), but there's still a whole crop of new-to-NZ shows to replace them (like Scrubs, Family Guy, and SVU). The biggest downfall is having to keep myself away from the headlines and articles on the US websites I read. Please, please, please don't tell me what's happened on Season 3 of Project Runway because I want to be surprised.

Also pretty cool is that not only do I get to see my favorite shows from home (except for the US-focused ones like the Daily Show or Best Week Ever of course), I also have discovered some New Zealand shows that I'm a big fan of. And no, I'm not talking about Shortland Street, the national soap opera.

My first new favorite is "Bro'Town," which my flatmates introduced me to almost immediately after I moved in (they have it on DVD). It's a primetime cartoon, somewhat in the satirical vein of The Simpsons or South Park. But it's set in South Auckland and is more or less a half-hour block of New Zealand inside jokes. It's a pretty prime example of how Kiwis like to "take the piss out of" (read: mock) anything and everything, including themselves. And everyone is in on the joke--they get heaps of famous New Zealanders (Lucy Lawless, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Prime Minster Helen Clark, All Blacks captain Tana Umanga, to name a few) to guest star. I've already bought one of the DVDs, and am very excited that new episodes are starting soon.

Then there is my newest discovery, "Pulp Sport." Think Jackass, Punk'd or the Tom Green Show, but funnier, and very specific to New Zealand. Most of the pranks and spoofs are on New Zealand celebrities or institutions. I am especially a fan of the "McKay-Ver" (the correct pronunciation rhymes with "MacGuyver") segments, where they play pranks on sportscaster Hamish McKay.

Part of what I especially love about Pulp Sport is their awesome product placement, which there is a LOT of. It's almost all local products, which makes it a little more fun for me, but really it's just a fine example of how Kiwis don't take themselves too seriously.

I've decided that I'll really be able to call myself a Kiwi when I can watch an episode of one of these NZ shows and actually get all the jokes. I'm not sure whether my flatmates get annoyed or think it's fun that every few minutes they have to be like "He's one of the greatest All Blacks ever" or "That's referring to the 1987 World Cup when we played South Africa". As you can tell, about 90% of the jokes are rugby or other sports references. So considering that I know barely anything about American sports, I think it might be a lofty goal to learn the sport history of another country just to get their jokes on TV. But I'm working on it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Pictures Added

If you're wondering why this page is taking longer to load today, it's because I've added some pictures (it's about time, I know). So check out the following posts:

Well in Wellington
Happily Alone
Bush with Fame
Old Man Winter Vacations in NZ
It was Wellington's Fault

More to come...

Sunday, September 17, 2006

House Party

Peter and Roni are making their first trip back to the States, which is pretty exciting for two reasons. First, it's pretty convenient that they're going about a month before I do the same thing--I'm looking forward to hearing what kind of culture shock they experience, what it's like being back, etc.

Maybe more exciting is that they needed someone to look after their flat while they're gone. And who better than their cousin? It's a pretty good deal for everyone. They get me to look after the place, and I get to use their broadband connection. So I will be doing a lot of internet catch-up over the next two weeks. In between watching every back episode of the Daily Show, I'll be available for chatting (if you Americans are awake around 4am). Also, expect some pictures to show up on the blog.

God I love broadband. Even more than I love quesadillas.

Monday, September 11, 2006

But Wait, There's More

Upon further review of my last post, I realize that, caught up on the moment of feeling offended and hurt, I maybe didn’t do the best job explaining myself. The post was pretty whiny and self-centred—“Oh, poor me, I’m over here in a place where people say mean things about my country and it hurts my feelings. Nobody understands me when I’m out of my comfort zone. My life is hard.” I’ve been thinking about this whole American identity thing quite a bit since moving overseas, and I don’t want it to appear that I’m approaching it thinking I’m some kind of victim.
In “social justice speak,” we refer to “target” and “agent” identities—you’re either the target or the agent of oppression. For example, my race and gender are target identities, while my sexuality and socioeconomic status are agent identities. Looking at yourself in these terms is an important step toward figuring out how you can dismantle the oppression. It’s not about labelling your actions or beliefs (being heterosexual doesn’t mean I go around spewing anti-gay epithets), but about looking at how you fit into institutionalized power structures (being heterosexual does give me privileges like being able to legally marry the person I fall in love with). Unfortunately, it can be difficult acknowledging your place in the power structure, especially when it means admitting that you have power or privileges you didn’t earn and don’t necessarily deserve.

I have done a decent amount of looking at my sexuality and socioeconomic status as agent identities, but have never really thought much about my nationality. Being an American definitely places me in “agent” role and definitely gives me power and privileges I would not otherwise have. So in approaching situations where my nationality plays a part—meaning pretty much all situations when travelling abroad—I need to remember to filter my feelings as an individual through the context of the institutionalized oppression I’m a part of. It’s hard not to take it personally when I hear mean things being said about my home (jokingly or not), but it’s too simplistic to assume it has the same implications and effect as if it were to occur the other way around. Even if the attack is directed specifically me, the power imbalance still affects the interaction. It’s the same way that you can’t equate a black person saying “honky” with a white person saying the N-word. Even though I’m a unique and complex individual (or so I like to think), my actions and reactions cannot be separated from the privileges I’m allotted by my nationality, especially in the context of living abroad.

Unfortunately, the power differential makes it that much more difficult for meaningful, honest cultural exchange to take place, especially when nobody will actually name the proverbial elephant who follows me into every room. I know my friends and co-workers are monitoring themselves because on an almost daily basis I’m told, “No offence, but…” or “I know you’re not like this, but…” And I censor myself because I know that saying I’m proud of my country could easily come across as being proud of the oppression inflicted by my country.

So how does meaningful, honest interaction take place? I think that to answer this I need to look at the larger goals of my interactions. It would be easy to say that my hope is to show some Kiwis that not all Americans are gun-toting, Bible-thumping, self-righteous cowboys, or even just that not all Americans support our current government. But changing one person’s impressions of America (or, more realistically, their impressions of one American) does not change America’s role in the oppressive power structure. Dismantling that power structure should be the end goal.

So of course the question now is how to reach this goal and what my role can be in getting there. And at this point I definitely don’t have any answers.

Friday, September 08, 2006


The other day I was having a conversation with some people about “Snakes on a Plane” (what else?). Not really a notable conversation until one woman mentioned that she had seen SoaP in the same weekend that she saw “United 93,” and that it had obviosuly been a wierd contrast. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if those two movies were combined?” someone piped up.

Woah. Seriously?

Now I think we all know that my sense of humor is by no means politically correct, and I regularly laugh at jokes that cross the proverbial line, but I definitely do draw the line somewhere. “Um, no,” I replied. “That really wouldn’t be awesome.” “Oh, come on,” another person laughed, “not even if there were just a couple snakes on the United 93 plane?” “No, still not awesome,” I said, more blatantly aware than usual that I was the only American in the room. “Actually, kinda offensive.”

The conversation moved on, but I remained uneasy about what had happened. On one level, I was disturbed that the joke was even made. Not that anyone needs to be reminded, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks were unquestionably horrific, and referencing them with the same flippancy as a crappy action flick comes across as just plain disrespectful. Maybe it’s just “too soon” to make 9/11 jokes, but I doubt that’s going to change any time soon. Holocaust jokes still aren’t funny, and I hope they never are.

On another level, I was sort of surprised by my reaction to the joke and how offended I was. Not because it was acceptable joke, but because, I have not been triggered so strongly by other anti-American jokes since I've been here (and there have been more than a few). I guess it makes me realize how ambivalent I still am about 9/11 in general. Of course, I absolutely condemn the actions of the terrorists and I mourn the lives that were lost that day. But I also condemn many of the American reactions to 9/11, both by individuals and by institutions (certainly including the US government) and I mourn those who have been killed by those reactions. It’s likely that the latter sentiment is what I’ve been most vocal about while travelling, especially because I feel the former should go without saying. Perhaps the person who made the joke doesn’t quite understand my position; despite what Bush would have the world believe, it’s not a “with us or against us” choice. Yes, I am “against” many of the actions that the US government has taken in the War on Terror, but I am also “with” them in my belief that terrorism is unacceptable.

Of course this is all further complicated by my identity as American, something I have never struggled with more until I moved overseas. I assume that the person who made the joke also condemns the 9/11 terrorist attacks because this person is an intelligent, rational human being. But this person’s feelings are coming, I assume, from general human compassion that understands that terrorism, no matter the perpetrator or the target, is wrong. Yes, my feelings are coming from the same compassion, but they are also coming from the fact that the attacks were against America, and I am an American. My nationality is a deep-seeded, fundamental part of who I am, so the fact that someone would want to kill me and others solely because of that identity is not an easy thing to come to terms with. A non-American doesn’t have to—and can’t—approach the situation from this perspective.

It was this added layer that made it so difficult to hear a joke about something so intensely personal. It’s the same way that you can make fun of or complain about your own family/friends, but will unconditionally defend those same people if someone else says something. It just happens that in this case my family includes 300 million other people. Not to mention that I tend to find myself on the margins of American society with respect to many other fundamental aspects of my identity, so I'm not used to identifying myself with the other 300 million of us. All of a sudden I have to remind myself that it's my identity as an American that's most salient and anything I say about the US—positive or negative—is interepreted by through this filter. Yes, I am quite critical of the US government and of many of my fellow citizens, but ctiricism doew not equate with rejection. In the end, despite my country’s many, many faults, I am proud to be an American.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Like Seeing Hamlet at the Globe

Over the weekend I went to the Paramount Theatre, the big fancy movie theatre here where Lord of the Rings premiered. It's pretty "flash" (a good Kiwi word for you), in large part because Peter Jackson paid for a complete rennovation. In return they are still playing Return of the King on the big screen.

All the seats, which are huge and super-comfortable, have little plaques naming the donor that paid for them. Down in the front are plaques with the names of the LOTR stars--it's pretty cool knowing that Elijah Wood and Orlando BLoom sat here and there.

So what powerful masterpiece did I see in this historic theatre? None other than Snakes on a Plane, of course. And it was awesome.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Price Check

I have started studying for the GRE. My Princeton Review book (which cost me more in shipping than it did for the actual book) has given me a list of approximately 5 billion words that I need to learn for the verbal section. I would really like a high score, so I plan to be able to recite the dictionary definitions of all 5 billion words by the time I take the test in October. Flash cards have always been an effective study method for me, so when as soon as I got to the vocab section of my studying, I set out to find some index cards. Should be simple, right?

I figured that if New Zealand is anything like the US, I would be able to pick them up from the supermarket on our weekly grocery shopping expedition. New World supermarket is pretty much like any supermarket in the US, so they have an office supply section with notebooks, pencils, envelopes, etc, but, as I discovered, no index cards. As I was looking around the shelves, I asked my flatmate if she saw any, but she didn’t know what an index card was. “Um, what else do we call them? A 3 by 5 card… no, I guess you wouldn’t call it that either. Well, it’s basically a little blank card that I can use to make flash cards.” Man, I am bad at describing things (this morning I tried to explain molasses to my coworker and failed at that too. This does not bode well for my success on the writing section of the GRE).

It wasn’t really surprising that a supermarket had a small selection of office supplies, so I figured I would check out the $2 Shop (they have $2 shops/fast food menus/etc the same way we have $1 stuff at home. $1 would be too cheap—based on the exchange rate, it would be like having a 65 cent store in the US). They had a much bigger office supply selection, but still no index cards. And there was nothing even close—no recipe cards, rolodex cards, etc. What do Kiwis have against indexing things?

My next stop was Whitcoull’s, a bookstore with a large office supply section. It took a lot of hunting, but finally I found what I was looking for. And that’s when I realized why I hadn’t found them at the $2 shop: they were seriously expensive! Not that I go around comparing index card pricing, but I do know that $8.99 for a pack of 100 cards is a little ridiculous. Again I thought I could save some money by going for something similar like rolodex or recipe cards, but those were even worse: $24.99 for 50 rolodex cards? It costs that much extra to punch out the little holes at the bottom?

Just last week Roni and I were discussing how strange the pricing is on some things over here. Stuff like toothpaste and shampoo is relatively cheap, especially when you convert to American dollars (which I try not to do, seeing as I am earning New Zealand dollars). Some clothes—t-shirts and other casual stuff—is not too bad either. But then shoes are really, really expensive. A pair of cheap shoes that I would maybe pay US$20 for at Target will cost NZ$100+ over here! It’s all very random and confusing, but in the end I think it is just another indication that I should be saving money for travel and souvenirs instead of developing a shoe (or index card) collection that I will just have to leave behind when I come home.


Out of curiosity I just did a quick search on for index cards, and found that a pack of 500 costs US$2.99. Let’s do some math: NZ$8.99 for a pack of 100, means that a pack of 500 would cost NZ$44.95! Even if I convert using today's exchange rate of NZ$1=US$0.65, that is still US$29.23 for a pack of 500, which is clearly out of control. That's a 978% markup!

The good news is that I am going to do awesome on the math section of the GRE.