At first glance New Zealand seems to have it all together. It drew me here because it is possible to decompress from the US media/political/toxic stew that is our culture right now. Plus redesigning one’s life is easier if you start from scratch.
The reason I wanted to live here, as opposed to a long visit, is that you get to know another culture in a much deeper way. I have only begun that journey, and my data set is very small. Here are some of the questions that have come up for me so far:
What is with the tolerance of excessive drinking, even binge drinking?
They are not serious about limiting drunk driving and it appears to be quite common for people to drink waaay too much and everyone just winks and shrugs it off. This really became apparent in the media reaction to an All Black who played badly in the final rugby match against Australia in the Tri-Nations tournament (sounds very Harry Potter-esque, doesn’t it?) and then drank himself into oblivion afterward. He did the American-style press conference with the mea culpa that he has a drinking problem and apologized (without the American obligatory visit to rehab). The media was not consistent in their reports about whether or not the All Blacks had a team agreement about refraining from alcohol or not. Most commentators seemed to take the line that we should not expect better from rugby players, and that if he should be gated for anything it should be for “playing like shit”. Hmmm.
I was disappointed in the response on several grounds. One of the reasons New Zealand has a great community spirit is because in many ways they embody what I think of as the Brotherhood of Rugby. Rugby is very much about upholding certain codes of conduct. And even if some shenanigans happen in the ruck or scrum, there is a strong culture of respect within the team with the team captain selected because he is a leader among the players. So if the team had some agreements and this player violated them, then there should be consequences (according to the Brotherhood playbook).
Then I heard from a reliable source the real reason this player was called out and I thought what a missed opportunity–what one might call a teachable moment. Apparently this player not only drank excessively in his room after the game, he went out on the town and drank some more and brought two young women back to the hotel hot tub. Reportedly, he and the women were being rowdy and the All Blacks captain Richie McCaw went down and asked him to call it a night. The player allegedly told him to “fuck off”. And that is the real reason he got in trouble. But that wasn’t reported in the media. The official story was the drinking. What might the public reaction have been if this other story had been told? We will never know. These moments are important because the public dialogue that happens around them helps to reinforce or create new community values.
What’s up with the faith community in New Zealand?
If you ask anyone about the church or faith community in New Zealand, there is inevitably a joke about rugby being the national religion. From what I have gleaned so far, there is definitely the same challenges in NZ as the US with the main denominations aging and the baby-boomers departing some years ago. At the same time, there is a counter trend of evangelical non-denomination churches growing along the lines of some of the mega churches (although no single church as large). I do not sense the hostility towards Christianity as some people in Europe have shared with me, and yet most people seem to have nothing to do with a faith practice. So, on the upside, you do not have Kiwis telling others how God votes, as you do in the US. Instead it appears to be massive indifference. Hmmm.
How do I begin to understand the Maori (iwi) culture?
I am physically separated from easily meeting Maori by living in St Heliers as most people here are European or Pakeha. My attempts to see if there are classes at a nearby marae (meeting house) have been fruitless so far. I just signed up for classes at Selwyn College for Maori 101 that will start later in the month. What I find interesting is that among transplants (UK and USA), there is generally an openness to the multi-cultural aspect of living in NZ and the need to understand Maori culture. However, a couple of times when I have been talking at a coffee shop with someone about it, a Pakeha Kiwi has butted in and become angry about “the Maori situation.” They seem to resent our interest and resent NZ’s culture being strongly identified with anything “Polynesian.” Hmmm.
I cannot begin to pretend I understand the origins or depth of feeling on either side. So I will remain curious and do my best to stay open. I realize that it is a bit like explaining the influence of Mexico on California’s culture and the way some people really resent it and others embrace it. Then again, that is not a good metaphor because Mexico is not suing the US government to get California back.
How can the coffee be so good and the desserts so bad?
No, really. Even the slice of carrot cake that tempted me to break my sugar fast was really good cake but pathetic frosting. Tastes differ, I know. How can they differ so much? Hmmm.
I did meet the Martha Stewart of New Zealand after church on Sunday and she made a delicious cherry cake that she admitted would have been even more delicious with cream. I have to give Susan Elias props for one of the most delicious meals I have enjoyed in NZ so far.
Coming soon, a post on my prospects for a job and my ability to stay in NZ…