Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Trip Around the Sun: Kiwi style


Good thing I put, out of pure laziness, this blog post on hold for a bit. Originally, I was heading down the literary path of explaining that “living the dream” is never quite what it seems. I drew a parallel with the cruising lifestyle where the landlubbers believe it’s all Piña Coladas on the beach: far, sometimes very far, from reality. Now that summer is in full force and the rain has stopped, our lives are indeed damn close to Piña Coladas, or at least Margaritas, on the beach. (I mean this quite literally: read on.) To our dear friends and family, we’re just really, really sorry that you can’t all be here with us to share the experience! We are importing you as fast as we can for visits!

Compared to vacationing, living, as in working for a living, in a foreign country provides a different perspective, a different take on the land and the people. It also provides a different take on ourselves. With this post, I’ll share both: a bit about what we have done and our lives here and a bit more about our take on New Zealand and New Zealanders. It’s been quite a ride!

Rewind

It has been awhile (13 months exactly), so perhaps a quick review of how we made it into NZed (not NZee) would be in order? We rode into town on a “skilled migrant” visa, which gives us two years of residency and the right to work in NZ. We’re not allowed to travel much out of the country for that period of time, but, assuming good behavior, we may petition to convert to permanent residents after two years, lifting the travel restrictions. We’re past the age limit to ever become NZ citizens, but residents have most of the benefits afforded to citizens, including health care and the right to vote and work. For my yearly physical blood test, I just walked into a lab around the corner, sat in the waiting room about 30 seconds, had the leeches applied. Just kidding, had the usual poke, and off I went without paying a dime or showing any proof of insurance. Cath had her mammogram (the squeeze was a bit strong, but in NZ you have to man-up even for a mammogram) at no cost as well.

If all that sounds pretty cool, here’s the catch. You get a skilled migrant visa by having enough points. You win points for having years of experience in a skill on an official skill shortage list. Senior software engineers win lotsa points. Advanced degrees from recognized institutions win you points as well. You also need to be under 56: I was 55 then; that was close. Oh yeah, you’d better have a job offer in hand. Then there’s being in good health and of good character. Before you fall off your chair laughing about that one, realize that Australia is next door. The bar is just not that high. The skill of zinging Australians is something you learn after you move here.

A day in the life ...


In most ways, now that we’ve settled in, our lives are not that different than anyone else’s in a first world country working in the technology sector. We live across the harbor from Auckland, a big city, and commute by bus in world class traffic. We almost always cook dinner at home, fairly late, chill, crash, and repeat. There’s definitely a Kiwi tint to it all, which I’ll get into later, but the daily grind is familiar to most.

The highlights of our existence here are weekends, vacation time, and, occasionally, an evening out of the ordinary. Take Tuesday evenings. Staying fit while living in a city is challenging. Aucklanders flood a plethora of gyms after work or over lunch. Cath is sorta OK with them, but I hate gyms. I’d rather be in the nature for my exercise. To that end, I took up distance ocean swimming (quite popular here) and dragged Cath into it. We live within a few minutes walk of Takapuna beach and every Tuesday evening there’s the Beach Series run and swim. It’s a family affair with shorter runs and swims for the kids and longer swims and runs for the adults with a stand up paddle board event to boot. We kick off work early on Tuesdays to catch the 4:50 bus, stuff a banana down (bananas are to cramps what garlic is to vampires: keeps them away), stuff our bodies into wet suits (the standing joke is that we’re ferocious leopard seals), and walk down the beach to the start area. The flag goes down and I’m off for the 2km swim followed two minutes later by Cath for the 1km swim. Swim, swim, swim we go. Out and back again a swimmer’s tale. After finishing, we strip off our seal skins, throw on some beach clothes, and head to Mexico on the beach for margaritas and NZ-style mexican food. Sated, we try to remember our swim gear and toddle back down the beach to the house, rinse, and crash. I love Tuesdays!

On the weekends, we often go out for a leisurely ocean swim in the morning(s). In fact, we did so today. Swimmers typically swim along the chain of no-wake buoys about 250m offshore, so it’s not unusual to see others while you’re out there. Today we met another couple, at buoy number 2, who was waiting for the rest of their group to catch up. Or maybe they got behind. Who knows. It was pretty rough water and about the only thing you could spot from water level was the Rangitoto volcano to the East and the Takapuna apartment building to the West. So here we are bobbing around in the middle of the ocean chatting it up. The waves were significant, so whoever you’re talking to would disappear from time-to-time, but you carry on. Very Kiwi. Eventually we swam back to shower and headed out for a hike.

And hike we do. We hit the trail just about every weekend: someplace within an hour drive. In over a year, we’ve never hiked the same trail twice! We especially love the trails around the west coast beaches such as Karekare and Piha. They are special places and rarely crowded outside of tourist season. Today was our first hike this year that we weren’t up to our ankles in mud. Yeah, NZ is muddy. Way muddy. Watch “The Piano” (filmed and takes place in NZ) to understand muddy. If the Inuits have 50 words for “snow”, I’ll bet the Maori have 50 words for “mud”. It’s no wonder the entire country is continually sliding off into the ocean.

I always struggle to talk about our life here because it comes off boasting. It would be if we deserved it, but we don’t. The reality is that we lucked out and have a naive tendency to jump blindly at opportunities. Having a job offer was almost an accident. The Visas landed in our laps some months before I would be too old to qualify. One of our favorite phrases is “Oh why not!” and it has served us well. It also feels like I should balance the scales with a dose of negativity. We have had our struggles here. There have been tears. We’ve had moments of depression, though never regret. We miss our friends and family. I wanted to be there with our son Spencer to help set up his lathe. I would have liked to hang with our daughter Shelby and hubby David to help paint their new house. Still, when looking back the negatives fade out: not a bad way to be.

In a galaxy far, far away

Much of NZ’s character stems from the simple fact that it is a small country on geographically isolated islands. In the past, this isolation had a profound effect on the culture and cultures carry forward long after the original determinants have passed. The legendary Kiwi resourcefulness and self reliance has its roots here. The flip side number-8-wire-do-it-yourself mentality is that sometimes it comes out as not-invented-here or on-the-cheap. Capital, whether to run a business or to buy a home is hard to come by. (The standard home loan is 20% down, almost 5%, fixed for only one year, and the interest is not tax deductible.) The lack of capital shifts the focus to the short term vs. the long term, to cost rather than value. Cath sees this everyday dealing with the contractor mentality. Businesses are reluctant to commit to long term employment and, thus, to building stable teams. Rather they hire contractors to write the software, let the contractors go, and toss the code to a maintenance team. If you’re in the software business, you know the result. The best known counter example is Xero (the “Apple of Accounting”? Seems an oxymoron to me, but ok...). Xero has taken the best of the Kiwi culture, combined with the best of software development practice from around the world, including a focus on value. Still, there aren’t a whole lot of Xeros ...

The same goes for the importation of labor. We are here because NZ has to import skilled labor. Higher education isn’t great and there’s an emphasis on going straight into the trades because of the building (rebuilding) boom. A longer term view would be to invest in education and grow the skills locally, but that doesn’t seem to bubble up as a priority.

Today, the distance limits tourism (whether you believe that to be good or bad, tourism has surpassed dairy in revenue) and the price/availability of goods. Obviously if you want wool, cherries, or a nice Pinot you’re in luck. Great luck. On the other hand, if you want limes or a high end computer, you’re going to have a bad time. There are funny things going on as well. For example, it was cheaper to buy our swim wetsuits, a NZ brand (Blueseventy), at a discount in the US and ship them here than it was to buy them here. Something’s not right in that story. I really miss Zappos and Amazon Prime. Shipping anything is two weeks and expensive versus two days and free.

Speaking of Amazon, there’s a worried buzz about Amazon coming to Australia/NZ. How will all the brick-and-mortar stores survive? Australians like to joke that when you land in NZ, you set your watch back 20 years. In today’s connected world that really isn’t fair. Kiwis are quite aware of what’s going on in the larger world and active participants. Sometimes though, like the Amazon rumblings, there is a feeling of déjà vu that catches you by surprise.

On a personal note, video chatting makes all the difference for us across the distance and we very much appreciate that the kiddos, friends, and family cut some time to connect with us. A hassle for them no doubt, but a lifeline for us. It helps that while NZ is a loooooong ways away from our kiddos, the time difference (summer) is a reasonable 3-4 hours. (It caught us off guard that we change 2 hours further apart in the winter because the southern hemisphere falls back when the northern hemisphere springs forward.)

Kiwis

From our first days we began building a Kiwi stereotype in our minds. I guess that’s what humans do to understand, literally and figuratively, a new people. As we became more in tune with the diversity, the stereotypes crumbled. There are so many ways to slice the demographics. Maori and Pakeha (of European descent). Northland and Southland. Auckland in particular has a significant Asian component. Even within the Asian component some come from a long line of New Zealanders (Chinese were aggressively imported for cheap labor in the mid-late 1800s), others are students, still others belong to the much maligned wealthy speculators blamed for throwing the real estate market out of whack. The push to import skilled labor has brought in people from all over the globe. In short, it’s a complicated social mix.

That said, there are well worn preconceptions about Kiwis that ring true, in our experience, for those born and raised on the Shaky Isles. (Actually, only the southern island is shaky. The northern island is more about volcanoes.) Let’s take a common list.

  • Friendly. Absolutely. The Kiwis we’ve met would, without exception, bend over backwards to help you out with a ride, advice, whatever. The other side is that while they are super friendly, they are not terribly friend making. New Zealanders are reserved and private: hard to get to know. To us, they sometimes seem lonely. On the really dark side, the high middle age suicide rate is often attributed to loneliness.
  • Humor. I threw this one in on my own. I haven’t seen Kiwi humor ever called out, but we’ve seen plain evidence of a witty undertone. It’s been puzzling for us because most individuals have no sense of humor of which they are aware, yet some, and particularly collectively, have the sharpest, driest wit you can imagine. Seriously, specifically Kiwi, funny.
  • Sunnies and such. Maybe not humor, but funny, almost childish silly. Sunglasses are “sunnies”, an umbrella a “brellie”, best friend a “bestie”, breakfast is “brekkie”, ad infinitum. Probably explains why they call pants “trousers”.
  • Chill. Oh yeah, totally. In terms of attire, more men than women (we are Auckland biased). The city women do dress up. Cath is continually perplexed that the women are so dressy and the guys don’t seem to notice. We’re not in Paris anymore! In terms of mannerisms, Kiwis are easy going, though conflict averse. They work hard not to offend, sometimes so hard they are speechless and leave you scratching your head. We’re not in Paris anymore again!
  • Work/life balance. This is the chill follow on. Coming from the US, we were looking for a better work/life balance. For the most part it’s been great, but it can be a challenge getting work done when primary goal in life becomes bach (a spartan beach house), beer, and barbecue: BBB.
  • Number 8 wire. Whew, this one is a huge topic in and of itself. From their deepest roots, and by necessity, Kiwis have grown to be independent and self reliant. Kiwi ingenuity. Kiwi resourcefulness. All a big part of Kiwi pride. Number 8 wire was fencing wire, often the only thing on hand to fix whatever was broken. The number 8 wire mentality not only rings true, it rings loudly. Occasionally it can go too far and become not-invented-here or short sighted. Kiwis can fix anything with number 8 wire. Problem is that they tend to fix everything with number 8 wire.
  • Tough. Tough as nails with a strong sense of self responsibility: legendary in that regard. The only reason some may think Australians as tougher than Kiwis is because Australians are loud and Kiwis reserved. (Search up some America’s Cup interviews with Peter Burling (NZ) and Jimmy Spithill (AU) and observe the obvious.) Whatever they may be, Kiwis are never, ever wimps. To digress significantly to make the point, my first ocean swim race (2km) was a fitting, first person introduction to Kiwi tough and, perhaps more so, Kiwi personal responsibility. The ocean was angry and we were under a gale warning. The wind and waves were moving the race course markers as we swam, the course crew battling to drag them back into position. Conditions were deteriorating. I reckoned I wouldn’t drown, but swimming did not seem plausible in the least. Nevertheless, swim we did. A few made the personal decision to sit this one out, but 70 started and 60 finished, including some in their teens and a few in their 70s. Even those that couldn’t quite make the distance came out with a smile for the effort. Without a doubt, Kiwi tough one and all. Thing of it was, if anyone was game, the race was on. No one would think of suing the organizers for racing in dangerous conditions. If it was too much, you stood down and didn’t blame someone else: personal responsibility. Kiwis get that.
  • Humble. Understated. Taciturn even. And completely turned off by the opposite: as in loud and obnoxious Americans, Germans, and Australians. Kiwis outside of the city tend to live simple, but full lives taking immense pleasure in what this land has to offer. Kiwis in the city are less so, but the roots show through if you get them out fishing or tramping.
  • Socially progressive. Hmmm, tough one. Kiwis are quick to point out NZ treats the vanquished indigenous (Maori in this case) better than other European conquests such as Australia or the US. From what I can tell, that is certainly true, but that does not mean the Maori were treated well, just better than the tragic stories of the Native American and Aboriginal peoples. The relationship and history between Pakeha (European New Zealanders) and Maori is fascinating and complex. I wouldn’t even begin to go into here, but you might find it quite interesting to read up on and compare with other countries.

    Likewise, NZ claims the earliest women's suffrage. True, yet abortion is, strictly speaking, illegal, requiring the consent of two doctors agreeing that it is medically necessary for reasons or life or sanity. Medical care is socialized, including accident insurance (ACC) that covers even tourists, but funding is tight and there are gaps, most notably in mental health: a big topic in that last election and possibly a key contributor to the high NZ suicide rate.
  • Agriculture. Tourism has exceeded agriculture as the number one economic driver in NZ, but tourists stick to well worn hot spots. Out and about around most of NZ agriculture still rules. For us, this means totally yummy, fresh produce. If you’re into slaughtering young mammals, the lamb and beef are first class. Sushi grade yellowfin tuna sometimes costs less than chicken. Dairy is a huge industry, though mostly for export to China. Food stuff not grown in NZ is harder to come by. Limes are only occasionally available, from the US. Albacore canned tuna we’ve never seen. Trout is protected. Golden kiwi fruit, cherries, custard apples: mmmm!
  • Grammar. Alright, we’re all speaking English here, but ... Kiwis have two basic sentence structures. The first goes “I reckon, <insert-something-here>, eh.” There’s more reckoning going on in NZ than in all the spaghetti westerns combined. Is the “eh” evidence of some distance connection with Canadians? Dunno. The second sentence structure is a response to a yes/no question: “<random-stream-of-conscience>, yah-nah.” The stream is the vocal expression of a real time decision process tortured by your Kiwi’s innate desire to never say “no”. You can safely ignore it; the important part comes at the end. Pay close attention. You will hear one or more yahs, nahs, sounds good, etc. Only the very last syllable of the entire monologue will answer your question. If it’s a “nah”, it means “No, but I’m really uncomfortable saying no.” That one tripped us up on several occasions.
  • Driving. What do Kiwis do when it rains? They wreck. Kiwis have a reputation as poor drivers, but we’re not buying it. There was a news story running recently that the accident rate is up and completely out of hand. Looking in the WHO accident database, Kiwis do about as well as any lower European country (as in not Sweden, ...) or the US. Some of the roads here are kinda tricky: narrow and twisty with ridiculously high speed limits. Given that, it’s rather amazing that the accident rate isn’t higher than it is! Furthermore, Kiwis are usually courteous, rarely honk, and good about leaving room for cross traffic at intersections and such. You can’t ding kiwis from a pedestrian perspective either. Culturally, pedestrians are expected to keep clear and you will get your ass run over pronto if you walk in front of a car. They aren’t trying to run you down, being mean, or bad drivers. They just never even notice you because that’s the way it is here. Best not to walk around with your face in your phone.

  • Politics. Wow. Coming from the US, politics are tame in comparison, perhaps even quaint. Yeah, they are still politicians, but predictable and it isn’t too hard to read the game. You have a few months, not years of campaigning to endure. It is also cool that the rhetoric is free of extremist groups (like the religious right in the US) and lobbies (like the gun lobby) that paralyze change in the US. Change can and does happen here, when it makes sense. The two things that Kiwis cannot understand about US politics is the price of medical care (or insurance) and why there is no effort to stem gun violence. It’s painfully hard, and embarrassing, to explain those away.
An unfortunate and sad trend, driven by (or at least blamed on) foreign speculators, is that NZ is becoming too expensive for Kiwis to live here. Housing, whether to buy or rent, in and around Auckland (and to a lesser extent the other metro areas like Wellington) is frightfully expensive and beyond the average wage earner. It is challenging to find a nice two bedroom apartment for less than $700 US a week! Given that a high tech wage is on the order of $70-85k US a year, you can see the problem. Fixing the housing crisis was a major agenda item for all the political parties for this last election. We’ll see. A couple of months ago they did shut off the real estate market to non-residents. (As an aside, Matt Lauer might lose his prime property here because he testified as being of good character as a purchase condition. Apparently he is in violation of the purchase agreement on those grounds. I hope they seize the land and turn it into a park. Asshole.)

Another struggle with a more hopeful outcome is the effort to restore and preserve the native wildlife, plant and animal. The NZ land mass has been separated from the rest of the world for some time now (that’s an understatement in case you missed it) and has many unique birds and plants that have evolved independently and not found elsewhere. The bird life, much of it ground dwelling, in NZ was never threatened by land animals because there weren’t any around. No snakes, no foxes, no coyotes, no bears, no mountain lions, no nothing. All of a sudden man comes and starts mucking everything up, as usual, by bringing rats, dogs, hogs, rabbits, wasps, ... into the picture. It didn’t take long to hunt the Moa into extinction and the Haas eagle, dependent on the Moa, followed shortly thereafter. The mighty and culturally significant Kauri tree, only found in the north of New Zealand’s north island, was threatened first by logging and now by Kauri dieback disease, brought in by man. This fungus is why you’ll get your boots cleaned at the airport. NZ is working hard to right these wrongs against the environment and has made significant progress on many fronts.



Images of New Zealand

I reckon (see) that most foreigners know NZ from images in film, a significant industry here. LOTR and the Hobbit of course, but also others, like The Piano, that take place in NZ. Some (The Worlds Fastest Indian) are obviously New Zealand, others (The Last Samurai) not so obviously. These images are no exaggeration. This land thrust up through the ocean, formed of earthquakes and volcanoes, is nothing if not dramatic. Our neighborhood volcano (Rangitoto) is 2km off our beach, an imposing sight in the middle of the harbor. The black sands (ironsand) of the west coast beaches come from Taranaki area volcanoes. Some of the harbors, like Akaroa, are ancient volcano craters breached by the sea. Auckland sits on some nineteen long quiet volcanoes. (No wonder they like electric bikes; it is hilly here to say the least.) In the grand scheme of things, California is going to slide into the ocean and the north island of NZ is just going to blow up.

There are other images of New Zealand that don’t quite hold water. One of them is being “green”. The only reason the air is clean here is because, being islands, the wind blows all the pollution elsewhere. There are no emission standards for cars. Trucks still use old school dirty diesels. People still run (and can buy!) two stroke outboards and personal watercraft. Agriculture runoff has rendered many rivers unswimmable (think the Neuse River in the US). Power is still primarily hydroelectric (followed by coal), but the dams have destroyed entire ecosystems. It will be important to both the local people and to tourism to get this mess under control. When NZ criticizes the US on environmental issues, they are right, but glass houses ...

Wish you were here

We miss you all and hope that someday you can visit New Zealand (if not us). We also hope that we have given you a peek at life here as a resident foreigner, different than either a citizen or a tourist. Finally, we wish you an outstanding 2018 of your own! Cheers!

1 comment:

  1. Hi

    I came across your blog after Googling your name, having just read the article about you in Wooden Boat.

    Very interesting to read your frank appraisal of New Zealanders. I tend to view we New zealanders quite negatively, but after reading your blog, I realise that perhaps we do have a few redeeming qualities mixed in there as well!

    Looking forward to your next installment.

    All the best.

    Mark

    ReplyDelete