Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Some Notes on Kiwi Culture

Written 2:35 PM, Wednesday, 17th November

Posted 3:35 PM, 18th November

For the last month, I have been scribbling down various notes about cultural differences to blog about, and am only now getting around to actually writing about them! It seems like a good time though- we are just living day-to-day life here in Oakura, not traveling constantly and seeing new things every day, so it seems appropriate to take the time to note some differences in everyday culture. Here are a few things we’ve come across so far that really stand out:

  • New Zealand currency does not include any denomination below 10 cents. 1c and 5c pieces were phased out a number of years ago. As such, oftentimes exact change is not given. For example, if an item costs $12.95 and you pay for it with $13 cash, you get no change because there is no such thing as a 5 cent piece. If you pay for the same item by EFTPOS (aka debit card- the acronym stands for “electronic financial transaction at point of sale” – pronounced “IFT-pohss), you pay $12.95. It has taken some time to get used to the fact that things are often priced in a way that you can’t pay exactly with cash, and that you can save a few cents by paying by EFTPOS instead. Personally, I think the United States could take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book and phase out the penny and actually make an effort to phase in dollar coins (in NZ, like many countries, there are no $1 notes, but $1 and $2 coins).

  •   I’ve already mentioned to some extent the difference in business hours. In New Zealand, most businesses are open only 9 AM-5 PM or even less hours. Almost no business is open on Sunday, and we’ve discovered that at least in New Plymouth, many are closed on Monday as well. In smaller towns, many businesses close at noon on Saturdays. The majority of restaurants seem to open only for dinner, and those that are open for lunch close during the afternoon and re-open around 5 PM for dinner. If you walk down Devon Street, the main street in New Plymouth, after 6 PM, the only things you will find open are the fancier restaurants.

  • We found ourselves surprised to hear on the news about a month ago that there is a lot of controversy going on about a decision to provide firearms to an expanding number of New Zealand police officers; almost no officers are allowed to wear a holster or carry a firearm on their person, but a larger number of police cars will carry guns in secure lockers in their trunk (boot). While I am very much in favor of gun control, I was a little astounded to think about a police force operating without firearms! I don’t know of a single jurisdiction in the United States where any police officer is not armed or given immediate access to arms at all times. There have been a rising number of NZ police officers dying in action that has led to the increase in advocacy for the force to have access to firearms (to my understanding, officers here almost always are armed with tasers, bean-bag guns, etc. but these things only allow them to defend themselves to a certain extent). While I come from a place where the sheer number of shooting deaths in the general populous demands some kind of major action to control who can carry a firearm (in my view), the idea of a police force operating without access to guns was rather astonishing. I’m really not sure what to think about it all.

  • We have also been very surprised to discover that New Zealand (and, we’re told, a number of other countries) has no “open container” law. In the United States (at least in most areas of it) it is illegal to have an open alcohol container in the passenger section of a vehicle. If you have empty beer bottles or half a bottle of wine in the car, they have to be in the trunk. In New Zealand, no such law exists, and, apparently, as long as the driver is not over the legal blood alcohol limit, everyone in the car can be actively drinking without breaking the law! I guess it makes sense as long as the driver is sober, but it just goes to show you how we get so used to the laws and ways of our home countries that to see such a vast change like this throws us for a loop!

  • Holiday Parks: I’ve mentioned them a couple times, but realized I should probably give a bit of description since they don’t exist anywhere besides New Zealand, that I’m aware of. We don’t really have anything that compares to holiday parks in the U.S. I guess the best way to describe them would be to say that they’re part campground, part low-scale resort, and that there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of them, across NZ. Your average holiday park includes tent sites, powered sites (for campervans and caravans—what Americans would call RVs or camper trailers), cabins, rental caravans onsite, or small lodges of some type, and usually also include a backpackers (a hostel, or at least a hostel-type dorm). Amenities generally include toilets and ablution blocks (sinks and washing stations), showers, laundry, a kitchen (with cookware and dishes provided), internet, and often a playground, pool and things like kayaks or water toys for customers’ use. All holiday parks are private and generally family-owned, and are pretty affordable- the ones we’ve stayed at were about $16 per person per night, with things like internet and laundry and showers costing extra.

  •    Almost all New Zealand students below university level wear uniforms, which is not particularly surprising, but we’ve been a little surprised, and also gratified, to see that many kindergarten and primary schools require the wearing of sunhats as part of the uniform when outdoors! It makes sense considering the harshness of the sun here (as I’ve noted before, the hole in the ozone layer is right over NZ and Australia, making sunburns easy to come by and very painful as well as dangerous- these two countries have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world), and in addition, it’s really cute to see a hundred primary school students at recess wearing broad-brimmed cloth hats (color-coordinated with the rest of their uniforms, of course!) strapped below their chins! I haven’t seen any college (secondary or high school) students wearing them, probably because that’s the age when self-consciousness is a factor and students are considered old enough to make their own decision as to whether or not they want skin cancer J Also, at least here in New Plymouth, the male students wear black greek-style sandals with their uniforms! (The girls wear ballet flats or Mary Janes).

  • We learned a fun local phrase the other day: one of the constants of life in this area is the daily search for good surf, which involves driving up and down the coast to various breaks to see what is working. If you look at a map of the Taranaki region, you’ll see that Surf Highway 45 skirts the coast all the way around the Taranaki Bight, with little roads spider-webbing off of it every few kilometers. Almost every single one of these roads leads to a surf break, and so the inevitable drive down one of these roads, the discovery that there is no surf there that day, then turning around and driving down the highway to the next break, is known as the “Taranaki Shuffle.” We dance the shuffle almost every day:)
  • Matt points out that I should mention the pro-breastfeeding campaigns that we see everywhere. These include ads on tv, signs in businesses that say "This is a breastfeeding friendly area" and nicely furnished quiet parent areas in most pubic venues. This is catching on somewhat in the U.S., but there is still a lot of resistance there to breastfeeding in public (ahem. It's natural, more healthy for mom and baby than any milk substitute, and if boobs scare you, may I remind you that they're there for a reason? Sorry, but I can't let that go without voicing my opinion). I'm happy to see that New Zealand has kicked into high gear with making breastfeeding acceptable on a much more visible level.
Those are the main things I have for now. I’m amazed at how quickly we get used to the differences, though- we’ve been here just under two months and already I do things like watch an American movie and spend five minutes trying to figure out what the characters are doing that makes me feel like something is wrong, only to realize it’s that they’re driving on the righthand side of the road! Despite the fact that Matt and I have American accents, whenever there is an American reporter on the news I always think how blunt and weird their voice sounds, before I check myself. We haven’t met a single other American since we’ve been in New Plymouth, so we’ve been surrounded by only Kiwi, British, Austrian, and Irish accents for the last two weeks. No real complaints here, but every time we’ve met another American in New Zealand, it feels a bit like running into an old friend. I guess that’s what being so many thousands of miles from home can do.

I’ll end with a little Q & A derived from something I experienced last night:

Q: How to you really know you’re not in Oregon anymore?
A: When you go to the bathroom to brush your teeth and find a stick insect in the sink.

No comments: