Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cultural Quirks and Things I Miss

Monday, 28th March, 2011
Nelson, New Zealand

With April looming up in the headlights and just under two months left in New Zealand, I think it is time once again to reflect on some of the cultural differences we've experienced/are experiencing over here, and to take note of some things we distinctly miss about home. From the profound to the random, we have made note of a variety of distinctions in culture and way of life, and I'd like to share them with you all here.

**Before I begin, let me give a disclaimer here. The things I'm going to talk about are based purely on my own and Matt's observations and experiences in New Zealand, and may not necessarily be representative of the entire country or culture. Our observations may also be intertwined with our opinions, and in comparison to how we have experienced things back home in the states, which may also not be entirely representative of American culture. Some of these issues are quite sensitive, and I don't want anyone to think that we have an ill opinion of either New Zealand or America because of them; these are just differences we've noticed, that seem worth sharing and reflecting on. We have had an amazing experience here in this country, and we also love and miss our home; we are not trying to say that one is any better than the other; there are good and bad aspects to both cultures, so please just keep that in mind.

So here we go:
  • I'll dive into one of the heavier issues first: parenting style. In general, we have noticed a difference in Kiwi attitudes towards parenting, versus what we are accustomed to in the U.S. In New Zealand, we notice that parents tend to give children more responsibility at a younger age, that they become more self sufficient and are not catered to as much as most American children we know. While I think there is a bit of a protective attitude in the U.S. of constantly checking up on your child and making sure they never do anything that might get them hurt (which is a good thing), what we've seen in NZ is that children are brought up to entertain themselves, get what they need for themselves (within reason), and learn by getting themselves into sticky situations and learning the consequences for themselves (which is also a good thing). We have also noticed a lack of discipline/consequences when watching parenting just in stores, in parks, on the beaches, etc, compared to what I have observed back home. Again this is purely our observations, but we've seen far more of parents here giving in to their children to keep them quiet, rather than setting boundaries and expectations and following up on them, or else just letting a child cry or tantrum until they get over it, and not really address the issue at all. I don't want to express an opinion on this, because I'm not totally sure how I feel about it, and also because it seems to go hand-in-hand with the cruizy, laidback culture in general, and the vast majority of Kiwi children still grow up quite well-adjusted, healthy, and well loved. 
(Click on Photos to Enlarge)
 Wharenui on a Marae in Rotorua
  • The attribute of not setting expectations is something we have experienced several times ourselves while in New Zealand, which is what makes me think it's just a part of the culture. I'm such a planner and scheduler that it's something I have a hard time with, but I do appreciate the easygoingness of it as well. From our Workaway experience on the Coromandel to goat-hunting in Taranaki, we have had the experience of being invited to do something, and having the actual activity be entirely different from what was suggested in the first place. "A few beers on the beach" turns into an all-night party, with no warning that you might need warm clothes, something to sleep in, and a sober ride home. "Come to our house and then we'll go to a friend's place up the road" can mean a 45-minute drive and then backtracking half an hour back to the friend's house, when you could have just met there in the first place. We've also run into this type of phenomenon while job-searching, countless times. "Yes, we're hiring, leave us your c.v. and we'll call you next week" has, almost exclusively, turned out to mean "We think we'll hire someone this summer, but we don't know when and for what hours, and by the time we've figured it out two months from now, you'll be leaving town anyway."  I know that sounds harsh, but it's been an incredibly frustrating aspect of the culture for us. Laidback is awesome, but especially when it comes to job searching, and also our own safety, it gets old pretty quickly. Given more time, I'm sure we could get used to it, but in such a short amount of time it's been very hard to secure work. There's a very straightforward method and set of expectations to job searching in the states, and it's been difficult to cope with the differences here, and so many times we have been told that we will have work or be contacted soon, only to be let down. Kiwis in general seem to have a hard time naming a distinct time, place, and expectations for anything. The answer to "What time should we get up tomorrow?" is usually "Oh, I'll just knock on your door," and "Just come over later" seems to be the name of the game for everything else. 
 A typical New Zealand Villa/Victorian style house, New Plymouth.
  • Racism. Believe me, I know there is racism in the U.S., clearly we have a massive history of it, and I am not usually directly exposed to what is left of it nowadays. But I have to say, in the U.S., it is widely culturally unacceptable to do or say anything remotely racist. I don't mean to say it doesn't happen; I am very aware that it does occur through many areas of our culture, but in general if you were to say something racist or culturally derogatory in a public place or social gathering in the states, especially to a stranger, there would be a massive uproar immediately. That said, while racism is clearly discouraged in New Zealand, and this country is, generally, doing a far better job than the U.S. of integrating cultures while preserving and protecting important cultural differences, we see and hear derogatory comments all the time, without comment or reaction from bystanders. I can't tell you how many times we've heard about "those f*&%ing Maoris" from people we've just met, and Matt observed a customer at a petrol station comment to her children about "those stupid f&%#ing Indians" in front of the Indian station attendant. That said, comments in the reverse direction occur as well; Lyn told us about Maori students at her school calling their white teachers "f&**ing Pakeha" to their faces. While it's painful and awful that there is still racism in the U.S., I suppose we are somewhat protected from seeing it, which may be a bad thing, as it makes it easier to ignore. Here in New Zealand, we see expressions of it all the time, so we are all too aware that it is occurring. What is bizarre to us is that it seems so much more...I don't want to say acceptable, because it's not, and condoned isn't really the right word either, but that's the best I can come up with. All of that aside, it has been amazing to see, for the most part, two distinctly different cultures existing side by side, while mingling and, mostly, being very accepting of the other. 
 Mural in Kaitaia
  • Patriarchy. Another sensitive subject, and another cultural aspect which, while not expressed overtly, persists nonetheless. New Zealand, while having some of the most progressive policies in the world and being the first country to give women the right to vote (in 1893), still suffers from a fairly heavy degree of male-dominated culture. Keep in mind, this is just our observations, but I'll give you some examples. We've been to several places advertising items that come in "Small" and "Man-sized" versions. Multiple ads on TV show women unable to do some task, and needing a man's help. A particularly good case of this was a commercial for a bicycle tow-line, advertised along the lines of this: "Is she having trouble getting up that hill? Use your muscle power to help her out!" Every ad for beer, barbecues, or a building supply store has some allusion to the fact that things are only for men, and always show the men being in control and the women in the background taking care of the kids or cleaning the house. Lovely. I know these kind of things are present in the states as well, but I've never seen such a massive barrage of this kind of propaganda, all trying to prove that certain things are just for men to do, and certain things are just for women to do. I've also never heard or seen so much support for "Blue is a boy's color, and pink is a girl's color." At work, I have had several parents tell me that they can't buy a red jacket for their boy, because it's too much like pink, and they don't want their boy wearing pink. I can't say anything at work, but I can't help but express an opinion here: First of all, get over it already, and take the chance to educate your children that any color they like is fine, and that pink can be a boy's color if that boy likes pink. And second of all, red is too close to pink? I'm sorry, but it's an entirely different color. Seriously.
 Haka at Waitangi

Ok, enough of the big stuff. Now we're down to the random, fun differences. 
  • Postcodes. I find this one kind of funny, but it really is an interesting difference. This came up because we ask every customer at the store for their postcode, to find out where our customers are coming from. I was flabbergasted to find out that the vast majority of our customers, and, apparently, Kiwis in general, don't know their own postcode! I finally asked about it, and it turns out that until just a couple years ago, postcodes weren't even used in most of New Zealand. Nelson only had one postcode until about two years ago, so you just wrote the street address, and "Nelson," and maybe the suburb if you wanted to get fancy. Most people still don't even use their postcode except for official business, and because there are so few people in the country and so few large cities, mail will get to you without the postcode. I think it's kind of awesome, but it's a completely foreign concept to me, because in the states the postcode (we call it a Zip Code, and it's five digits, as opposed to NZ's four) is an integral part of your address, and often mail will be returned if it doesn't have a zip code on it. In cities, the Zip Code narrows you down to about a 30-block area of town, if not smaller. In rural communities, there is one zip code for every town with a post office, which includes the surrounding area. The zip codes go basically in order of settlement, meaning that the east coast, and New England in particular, have the first postcodes, starting with 0, and most of the west coast has zip codes starting with 9. In New Zealand, the codes start in the north, with Auckland having the codes in the 1000s, working south- Nelson's are in the 7000s. 
  • Vanity Plates. Personalized car license/registration plates are very popular in New Zealand. I swear sometimes that every other car we see on the highway has a vanity plate. I don't know why they are so popular, but they are certainly easier to come by and are way way more common than in that states.  
 Our Kiwi Christmas lunch.
  • Some observations on food. New Zealand food is, in a nutshell, awesome. New Zealand is renowned for being very modern and innovative with food, while at the same time paying tribute to all the cultures that exist here, and to their membership in the commonwealth, i.e. lots of British influences. New Zealand gave the world chef Peter Gordon, as well as Simon Gault and the guys from Masterchef, and the fusion of cultures that goes on in New Zealand cuisine is evident everywhere we go. Seafood is a constant denominator here, with fish and chips topping the list of iconic Kiwi food. In an interesting twist, at least 80% of fish & chips shops also sell Chinese food. "Fish & Chips Chinese Takeaways" is probably the most common shopfront on any New Zealand street. Additionally, pretty much any restaurant you may go to, from Indian to Thai to Italian food, will also have Fish & Chips on the menu! Everyone here fishes, as you don't need a license to fish or collect shellfish on most coastal areas (this goes hand in hand with the hunting/gathering that is so common through all levels of society here). Prawns, scallops, whitebait, paua, mussels, pipi (tiny clams), oysters, snapper, tarakihi, hoki, gurnard, snapper, crayfish, and so many others, are fundamentals here, cooked by themselves, in stews, or as fritters. The famous Kiwi "barbie" or barbecue, is another wonderful thing- sausages, grilled courgette (zucchini), prawns, veggies, mushrooms, bacon (ham), streaky bacon (American bacon), everything can be cooked on the barbie. The traditional roast dinner is a step up from the British one, I would have to say- similar ingredients, but lighter, somehow. Roasted chicken or pork or lamb, mashed potatoes or kumara, peas, sausages, gravy, and usually a salad or fresh veg of some kind too. Some other distinctly Kiwi foods include pies (small, single-serving ones, in every flavor and ingredient combination imaginable), chutneys and relishes of all kinds, sweet chilli sauce (to which I am addicted), the famous Pavlova, the flat white (like a latte, but with more steamed milk), ice cream, tea biscuits (light, wafery or shortbready dunking cookies) and of course tea. Kiwis, from tough burly hunters to farmers to housewives to businessmen, are tea drinkers, making a cuppa numerous times each day. We have completely adopted this, and are also sold on the fact that not a single Kiwi establishment or home we have stayed in has used a stovetop tea kettle. Plug-in kettles (or jugs, as pitchers are called here) are the norm, and are far more speedy at heating the tea water than anything else. 
 Carved gateway at Ahipara School, Far North. 

That's all for the observations, but Matt and I have also slowly been compiling a list of things we regularly miss about home, most of which fall into the category of Random Items. Besides of course our family and friends and beautiful Portland generally, we miss:
  • Mexican food. What I wouldn't give for a carne asada taco from a dive-y Portland taco truck!
  • Cooking in cast iron. 
  • A very general thing: having our own space and ownership of it, besides the van. 
Matt misses:
  • Portland Beer! It's worth noting here that NZ beer is weaker than US beer, by a couple alcohol percentage points. 
  • Woodworking
I miss:
  • My oldest, most beat-up hooded sweatshirt. 
  • My black leggings
  • My garlic press
  • Owning a teapot (not to be confused with a teakettle)
  • My bike! Oh my bike. 
  • Country music. Real American heartland country music. Not something I normally care too much about, but one of those things you miss after being totally deprived of it for over half a year. 
  • Being able to just call up my family or friends when I feel like talking. Skype is wonderful, and email is nice, but top-ups and calling cards make it too expensive to do more than talk to my folks and brother once a month and call friends for a few minutes on important occasions.
Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula

So that's the list for now, as we look at what we'll miss and what we look forward to upon our homecoming. The more Matt and I have been thinking about going home, as that time approaches, the more I keep trying to remember what all we have in storage back in Portland, and failing. I know some general things- bike, clothes, kitchen stuff, but it's been long since I've seen any of it, and I've gotten so used to living off of so little, that it has all slipped my brain. It will be like opening one big Christmas present, as Matt said, when we empty our little storage unit sometime this summer. As it is, since September we've each lived off of a Rubbermaid bin's worth of clothes, and haven't allowed ourselves to buy anything that won't fit in the bin. We've each bought a few things since we got here, but ultimately we've each got about three pairs of pants/trousers, a couple pairs of shorts (or skirts, in my case), a few sets of long sleeves, 6 or 8 t-shirts/tank tops, a weeks' worth of underwear and socks, one dressy outfit, bathing suits, a pair of hiking boots, a pair of dress shoes, a pair of walking shoes, jandals, raincoats, long underwear, a warm hat and gloves, and a sunhat. There's a few other bits and bobs, to be sure, but that's pretty much it. I've definitely started to notice that the clothes I have are getting a bit baggy and worn out because they've been worn so much, but we're both really pleased with how well we packed, as we've used everything we brought and barely needed anything more.

That's enough reflections for now, it's time for me to make lunch and get to the rest of my day off!


Heather said...

Amazing how many of your observations are accurate for our experience in Scotland too. The Commonwealth has much in common!

Heather said...

Amazing how many of your observations are accurate for our experience in Scotland too. The Commonwealth has much in common!

Simply Authentic said...

Great observations--it's always interesting looking at and participating in other cultures. You'll definitely miss some things about it once you're back here again too. It's funny the things I STILL miss from my year in Argentina and that was 10 years ago now! Can feel your pain on the missing of PDX---we just got back to the area after being gone for two years, the availability of resources, the PNW microbrews, having a gardenburger on the menu again---it's AMAZING! Know you'll love it when you're back!