Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Earning My Assimilation Merit Badge

A few things tell me that I am fitting into the Kiwi lifestyle pretty well:

  • The other day I actually used the word "heaps" without realising it. An American friend called me out on it.

  • I listen to Maori radio in the car (mostly because my radio is set to Japanese tuning and I can't get any FM stations above 89.0), and can actually understand a lot of the stuff they're talking about. Not when they speak fluent Maori, but when they throw Maori words into the English conversations, I can follow reasonably well.

  • The one I'm most proud of: the other day a Kiwi friend of mine called me "bro". It's a term of endearment here, more or less, kind of like "dude" or "buddy" in the US. I could tell my friend didn't mean to do it because it sounds kind of weird to me, but there she was ending a sentence with "Eh, bro?" I have been accepted.

But some things remind me I am still an American:

  • I cannot for the life of me understand cricket. I am trying, I really am. I watch it with my flatmates, but I completely zone out. I can watch for, like, half an hour and all of a sudden realise that I don't even know what teams are playing (although I can recognise the Black Caps uniform now. On the other hand it's not that much of an accomplishment to be able to spot players wearing all black)

  • I am still wearing shoes. I went to Piha, a black sand beach, on Sunday and could not bear the scorching heat of the sand for more than a few steps. The soles of my feet will really have to toughen up before I can consider myself a true Kiwi.

I talked to one of my friends back in the States yesterday and he said I don't have an accent yet, but who knows. By the time I come back, I may be babbling about "fush and chups" and saying "yees" to all "youse fullas". We'll see.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Woo hoo! I am no longer shackled by the restraints of public transportation! I am now the proud owner of a 1993 Mazda MS-8.

I have been wanting to buy a car for awhile because (1) Auckland public transportation is pretty limited and poorly designed and (2) intercity travel in New Zealand is not exactly convenient, so when I am off travelling around, it will be much more convenient to have a car. Fortunately, cars here are ridiculously inexpensive, and there is quite the surplus. Part of it is that Japan exports heaps of used cars, and New Zealand offers a geographically close repository for cars with right-side steering wheels. Also, New Zealanders don't salt their roads, so cars last a lot longer. So while I would never consider buying a '93 in Michigan, here it's a relatively good car.

Unfortunately, sifting through all that surplus was not something I was looking forward to. Even though I grew up surrounded by the car industry, I know approximately nothing about cars. I'm not too bad at sounding like I know what I'm talking about when it comes to discussing industry trends and things, but when it comes to actually putting any automotive knowledge into practice, I'm useless. Peter agreed to accompany me on my trip to the Ellerslie car fair and even though he says he knows little about cars either, I was SO thankful that he was there. Together, we were able to stare at engines and poke tires enough to look like we might actually know what the sounds and tire pressures meant. Don't worry, I also got a pre-purchase inspection and the mechanic gave it a thumbs up.

I haven't taken any pictures of the car yet, and unfortunately I don't know if there is an American equivalent to the MS-8 to give you some sort of frame of reference for what I'm driving. The best I can do is give you these links:

  • This is the Wikipedia entry about my car model. I'm not sure if this is actually about my car, since I don't know if I'd consider it a luxury car. Then again, I just admitted that I know absolutely nothing about cars, so my classification might not be too accurate.
  • Here are some pictures of the car (sorry, it's all in Russian). Mine is actually the same colour blue as the one in the pictures. But mine has suffered from living under the hole in the ozone layer and has ended up with almost as much sun damage as George Hamilton. I will probably be purchasing some magic turtle wax soon.
I'm sure that some good stories about driving on the other side of the road will soon ensue. But hopefully not.

Friday, January 19, 2007

If You're from America, Why are You Brown?

After my last post, I thought I'd add a little more about race stuff because it’s weird to me how I feel about race here (my race in particular). At home, race is the characteristic that makes me stand out in most situations, but here, I assume it’s my nationality. However, that’s not necessarily the case. Until I open my mouth, people have little, if any indication that I’m American. But since I am a racial minority here, not to mention the fact that I’m racially ambiguous, it is still my race that initially makes me stand out. I've been told more than a few times that people just assumed I was Maori because I am brown and work in Maori Health. Like in America, people are confused, so they make an assumption to make themselves feel better.

However, hearing my foreign accent adds a new dimension to the situation. Instead of explaining why I look different, it ends up magnifying curiosity about my racial ambiguity. I don’t look like what they envision an American to be, so they need to know what how my brown skin made it to New Zealand by way of a white country.

I assume that white Americans who travel over here don’t get questions about their ethnic background, so why should I? I know the answer—it’s the same reason I get the question back in the States, but it still frustrates me. What’s weird, though, is that I am more than happy to talk about my nationality, the characteristic that I think makes me stand out (in fact, I actively enjoy it), while I don’t like answering questions about my race, the characteristic that actually makes me stand out. Part of this could be that it’s a lot less fun explaining an oppressed identity than it is a privileged one, but by contrast, it’s not like I’m all excited to talk about my heterosexuality. And part of it is probably that I never get a chance to talk about my American-ness at home (especially with non-Americans), while I am sick to death of explaining my ethnicity.

But I think in the end the difference is that I chose to “other” myself with regards to my nationality. I came overseas specifically to experience life as an American in Australia/New Zealand. I prepared for the experience, and I can quit whenever I want. So of course I’m excited to talk about how I'm dealing with this change that I purposefully made. On the other hand, I have never chosen to be a racial minority (although that’s not to say that I wouldn't), I certainly never had an opportunity to prepare myself for the experience, and I obviously can’t quit my race.

I don’t dislike talking about race per se, but I’m also past talking about it at the superficial level that I currently talk about my American-ness. It’s still interesting to me to talk about American versus Kiwi fast food portion sizes or to explain what a fraternity is, but I'm done being shocked by the correlation between race and SAT scores or explaining why the model minority stereotype does more harm than good. I've had those conversations about race, and while they were interesting the first few times, I need to go a little bit deeper. The foreigner stuff is still pretty new to me, so even the basics are fascinating. I guess that's all part of the process of understanding an identity, and the race thing is one that I've been actively working on for a long time.

Fortunately or not, there is no way to separate the experiences of being an American in New Zealand and being a person of color in New Zealand. Just as I'm sure my experiences would be different if I were male or something. But sometimes I wish I could separate them out, just to know what it was like to have people see me strictly as an American and not as a hyphenated American. On the other hand, then they wouldn't really be seeing me for who I am.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Say It to My Face? No Thanks

Prompted by a long expedition to find mozzarella cheese ($8.00 for a 500g bag? Seriously?), last week Peter, Roni, and I were talking about some of the things that have surprised and disappointed us over here in NZ. Peter noted how shocked he was to discover that contrary to his impression that Kiwis are liberal and progressive, his (white) coworkers in Wellington were actually pretty racist. He was horrified by a lot of the comments they would make, and his foreign coworkers (Brits, Canadians, etc.) were horrified as well.

I haven’t really had that experience. The people I’ve met, for the most part, seem pretty open-minded. The most I have encountered is some people who throw around the N-word more than I am used to (never in describing an individual, but just in general conversation). Not that this is acceptable by any means, but I suspect that this comes from a lack of understanding about the word’s actual implications. I have little concept of how serious racial slurs against Maori are, so it makes sense that someone who didn’t grow up surrounded by the legacy of black slavery wouldn’t comprehend the full implications of that word, especially when most of their exposure to it is through American pop culture. I don't feel comfortable singing along with a song that uses the word, but I can see how if you grew up here, you wouldn't have that same discomfort. Still doesn't make it okay, but it's easier to explain my discomfort when I know where the other people are coming from.

So where did Peter find these racists when I definitely didn’t? Part of it, I assume, is that I work in the Maori Health Directorate and most of my coworkers are Maori. Of course they’re going to be different than a mostly white environment. But I still spend a lot of time around white people here—flatmates, other Ministry of Health coworkers, etc. Was Peter’s experience just an anomaly? Is the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry just a magnet for budding KKK members?

I doubt it. I forget that Peter and I, despite our many similarities (we are cousins), are going to have very, very different experiences over here simply because he is white and I’m not. He’s part of that ingroup, so his white coworkers are going to feel comfortable saying things around him that they probably wouldn’t dare to say in front of me. Which puts us in very different positions to interpret the level of racism we perceive here. On the one hand, he will get a glimpse of the ugly things people say and think behind closed doors while I get the polite fa├žade. On the other hand, Peter gets the white privilege that comes with being a part of an institutionally racist society, while I will get the oppression. Just like in America.

Do I see racism here? Definitely. The mere existence of my job is proof that there is a history of racism toward Maori that needs special attention to remedy. I see the stereotypes play out in media. I read the newspaper editorials rebuking Maori and Pacific cultures and lifestyles. I also read the anti-immigration editorials that are clearly targeted at Asian immigrants. And I know that people are treating me differently than they would if I were white.

But I haven't been a part of many conversations that include racist comments. So maybe I am getting a distorted picture of just how racist New Zealanders really are, and maybe I'm not. But even though maybe hearing those comments would unveil the truth about what people are really thinking about me, I'd rather they just smile politely so I can maintain my overall positive image of New Zealand. There's a reason why they say ignorance is bliss.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem

I don’t know what it is, but McDonald’s has some seriously good marketing over here (although I guess it doesn’t take that much creativity to top “I’m Lovin’ It”). There is one commercial in particular that actually makes me want to got to McDonald’s and specifically request that the profit go to the person who wrote the ad. Okay, in reality the commercial is not really that amazing (still infinitely better than “I’m lovin’ it,” though), but there is one line that makes me laugh out loud every time: the narrator is describing how the new “Big Ocean Burger” is made with hoki, “because Kiwis love hoki almost as much as they love not wearing shoes.” To me, that line captures the essence of Kiwi culture in two key ways:

1. The ability of (and affinity for) Kiwis to make fun of themselves
2. The observation about Kiwis’ lack of footwear

While it would easy for me to go on and on about the comedic self-deprecation aspect of New Zealand life (which I absolutely love), I’d like to focus this entry on the other, significantly less desirable quality. Seriously people, where are your shoes?

This is an issue I first noticed in Australia. It was obviously fine to see bare feet around beach areas, and—although it was not a choice I’d make—I wasn’t too bothered that people would venture a few blocks from the beach without slipping on a pair of thongs (aka flip flops if you’re American, jandals if you’re Kiwi). But the first time I saw a shoeless person wandering around the supermarket, I was horrified.

I don’t consider myself to be particularly germ-phobic. I share water bottles and chapstick, I’ve used frat house bathrooms, and I sometimes apply the five-second rule a bit more liberally than I probably should. But I was also raised in a Purell-obsessed culture that loves to instil fear of all sorts. If the terrorists don’t kill me, E. Coli definitely will. So the nausea I get when I see bare feet in a restaurant is a purely involuntary reaction, conditioned by a lifetime of Lysol commercials and 20/20 special reports.

A Kiwi friend swears that the shoeless trend is only common among people in rural areas and rich city-dwelling teenagers who are trying to be cool. Really, that’s what makes you cool? Maybe it’s the whole thrill-seeking aspect of Kiwi culture that motivates them. Stepping on a rusty nail is not only more dangerous than bungee jumping, it’s also a lot cheaper (especially if you can write it off under ACC). Despite what my friend says, I get the impression that pretty much everyone goes without shoes whenever the opportunity arises. People walk around my office barefoot, my flatmates often don’t bother to don shoes between the house and the car, and there was very little footwear to be seen in the resort towns I’ve passed through.

Travelling has definitely opened my mind to a lot of new ideas and ways of living, many of which I would like to adopt, both for myself and for my country/culture. However, going barefoot in public places (especially places that sell food) is definitely not one of those things. Sorry, it just grosses me out. I guess it’s just another reminder that deep down, I am an American. An American who likes to wear shoes.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For

Ever since I first found out that Gisborne is the first city in the world to see the sun, I knew I had to spend New Year's Eve there. Besides the novelty factor and bragging rights, Gisborne would be an ideal spot because thousands (supposedly) of young people flock there each 31 December for a giant party on the beach. What's not awesome about that? Check out the picture below--that's the campsite (I believe it's usually just a big sports field) near the beach. There was another huge campsite just outside town too.

Strike one. About a week before we left, we started calling around to hostels. Granted, this was probably a bit late, and we were told that we didn't have any chance of finding a place to stay. No problem, we figured. We were planning to be up late partying anyway, and would probably even stay up to watch the sunrise. If/when we finally decided to sleep, we could camp out on the beach or in the car. All part of the experience, right? The pictures below are of the beach where all the magic happens (obviously, these were taken when the magic was not in progress).

Strike two. A few days before we left, Sarah pointed out that the weather forecast called for rain in Gisborne. Hmm... that's not really ideal for an outdoor party, but whatever. As we were leaving Auckland the rain was pretty strong, but as we got closer to Gisborne, it let up and we even got some sunny skies as we drove along the Bay of Plenty. By the time we arrived, it was not exactly the warm beach party weather we were hoping for, but the rain had stopped. We were all set for a great night. We walked around the town for a little while, met some people who invited us to hang out at their campsite, and had a lovely dinner.
Strike three. Just as we were headed over to the beach, Sarah pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car. "I don't feel very well," she said. "Just give me a minute, and I'll be fine." But after a few minutes of fresh air, she was not fine and needed to find a bathroom. Of course the only bathrooms available were porta-potties, which don't really do much to aid nausea, so we drove over to one of the hostels. Just after we got out of the bathroom, a woman who was probably the manager came and asked who we were, what we were doing there, etc. We explained the situation to her, but she was clearly not in the New Year's spirit and made us leave. By now it was pouring down rain, and poor Sarah was still very nauseous. we tried another hostel, where this time the people were much nicer. Sarah ran to the bathroom while I waited in the lounge.
And we're out. That's where we spent the next three hours or so. Sarah in the bathroom puking up Thai food; me in the lounge watching the Crowded House farewell concert from 1996. And that's how we welcomed in 2007.
(As a side note, I was really surprised by the low quality of New Year's Eve TV. At home I am always in front of a TV at midnight. Even though most people only tune in for that last minute, there are all kinds of countdowns leading up to midnight. In New Zealand, nothing. I was at least hoping that C4 (the NZ equivalent of MTV) would have the 100 greatest videos of the year or something with the DJs live at midnight. But no, after Crowded House finished, it switched to Robbie Williams Live in Berlin (from who knows when), leaving Dr. 90120 to take over as the best thing on TV. I guess that's what happens when people spend New Year's outdoors.)
Anyway, Sarah finally felt okay enough to leave the hostel, and we slept for about three hours in the car. We were hoping to catch the sunrise as some sort of consolation prize, but it was still pouring in the morning. The good news was that Sarah was no longer ill. Still, after brushing our teeth in McDonald's and about 20 minutes of sightseeing, we were more than ready to leave.
At least we can say we were some of the first people in the world to welcome in the new year. We'll just leave out the part about how we did the welcoming.