Like many people in love, the thirteen American students and I immediately started to make plans for changing our new love, New Zealand. Most of these plans involved making money; we saw deficiencies that only good old American marketing might fix. What our schemes say about us might shed light on some of the massive differences between American and New Zealand culture, but it also highlights the values of Kiwis that need to be energized to bring about positive change to protect its citizens and the environment.
New Zealanders rarely have screens in their windows. The day the students arrived in Hamilton, we tried to jump start their recovery from jet lag by forcing them to stay awake until sundown. The reward was a big home-cooked meal at our house, lots of face time with my kids, who couldn’t believe these college students were all theirs for a semester, and the bright late summer sun.
By the time the food was prepared and the party had begun, sleepy students everywhere were massively outnumbered and out-energized by an entire collective of flies. I’m usually in favor of bug escort services (in which I either shoo the offenders out or gingerly trap and release), but even I was on magazine swat patrol. And the students noticed.
“Why aren’t there screens on your windows?” they asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, and made a note to call up to the residency office in charge of visiting professor housing to ask about them.
By the time we all had been to friends’ flats, multiple hostels and hotels, and by the time I got a queer look by the patient receptionist at university housing, we decided that Kiwis simply didn’t know the luxury of screens because no one had told them about them.
At our weekly journal-writing class, when I’d served them better food than they got in the cafeteria and in greater quantities, we began to plan.
“They save money by not having screens,” one student pointed out. (Once on the South Island, my family stayed at a motel that indeed had screens on the windows. It was pricier than most of the places we’d stayed as we enjoyed farmstays and hostels, and I reported back to the students when we returned to Hamilton.)
“But if everyone assumed you needed them, it would just be another standard expenditure,” another said. We had two business majors in our group, and we took their knowledge of capitalism as textbook valid.
“Here’s what we do.”
And the scheme began—contact prominent Kiwis, leaders in many different communities, give them screens for free, and start a marketing campaign disguised as a public health campaign—“Do you realize how many diseases are transmitted by the common housefly?” Of course we would work out the manufacture and procurement details of the objects themselves later, but the point was to 1) make NZ more like home and 2) cash in.
To mitigate making myself and my students seem crass, our championing of screens went beyond insect control. Screens keep indoor pets and children in the house on temperate days when you just can’t bear to leave the windows closed. In the case of higher-story windows, screens undoubtedly prevent serious injuries and deaths to small creatures who crowd and peer out windows. They also keep other small animals, squirrels and birds, from entering the house. We considered expanding our public service campaign.
And yet our marketing plan flew in the face of one undeniable fact: an entire subpopulation of intelligent, productive, and house-proud people had no need for screens. None whatsoever. I went to the store and bought sticky poisonous decals of flowers and attached them to the windows. Within hours our house was littered with silent little fly bodies.
I decided I still preferred screens, but I vacuumed up the flies and relaxed my bewilderment. In the meantime, I thought back to the young American woman in line with us at the airport in Philadelphia who was moving to New Zealand to be with her boyfriend. We asked her what she liked about the country, and she immediately said, “Kiwis are less materialistic than Americans.” At the time, I thought, “Well, who isn’t?”
A professor’s salary in the U.S. doesn’t show up well against the salaries of other professionals, but I realized many years ago that my husband and I, professors at a small college (tertiary institutions in the U.S. are either colleges or universities), were paid in time as well as money. When we arrived in New Zealand with only a few changes of clothing, our computers, and some books, admittedly to live in a well-stocked university-owned house, we scaled back our purchasing and expectations—to wonderful result.
We quickly decided that only an idiot would buy something common new and bought a camera we saw listed on Trade Me from a fellow in Auckland after Conor broke his. The purchase, we reasoned, was in pursuit of photo memories. We bought an inexpensive 15-year-old Subaru at auction and sold it at a more-than-acceptable loss when we left. We didn’t buy books until just before we left the country, mostly photo souvenir and children’s books, relying instead on the local library and the university’s Te Whare Pukapuka. We didn’t buy clothes, either, unless we needed them, as on the day the kids became cold on the hills above Christchurch and we bought them fleeces at the store at the top of the Christchurch Gondola (in early 2010). We bought hiking boots at The Warehouse and pretty much every incidental like shampoo and dish soap. We discovered that the vegetables at the Asian market were vastly cheaper than the same at the grocery stores, and we stayed away from Countdown and New World, preferring Pak’nSave (I just Googled it for the punctuation and the page told me “It looks like you’re in the upper North Island.” How I wish!). We bought something new and expensive only twice: a coffee maker when we realized a French press wasn’t going to be practical for our daily outsized coffee consumption and a pair of glasses for Mira, who, at three, was good enough of a letter and word reader to reveal to us that she couldn’t make out a sign right in front of her on the street.
Remember, though, we’re Americans, so we must have consumed excessively at some point. And we did—spending our money on experiences. We visited museums, took rides on gondolas, treated the kids to the luge at two places, saw shows, took the kids to carnivals, attended cultural events, and paid for lodging all over both islands as we explored. We brought home only the books I mentioned, seashells and pebbles, gifts for family and friends, and an antique reproduction compass I bought for Ken on his birthday at the shop on top of Mt. John and a harakeke art piece Ken and the kids bought for me in Hamilton for Mother’s Day. I treated myself to a day at a jade carving studio in Hokitika, and came away with bloody fingers, a pendant, and a memory I’ll always treasure. Sadly, we had to leave behind the magnificent piece of driftwood Conor found on a South Island beach that looked like Gandalf the Grey’s staff (and that Jetstar kindly flew back to the North Island with us at no extra charge) because Quantas wanted an extra $150 NZ for us to take it home.
Free stuff, bought stuff with love attached—and massive numbers of digital photos, lists of books to buy from home, and memories we still treasure today flew home with us, minding the 50 pound per-person limit. When we got home, our house looked too full, too unnecessarily cluttered. What mattered were the stories we carried: our collective, interwoven tales of shared experiences, the kids’ memories from kindy and elementary school, what we’d learned from the newspapers, radio talk shows, books we’d read and returned to the library, and the people, the wonderful people we met everywhere.
Now I’m not going to make up a fiction that New Zealanders are made up of hardy indigenous and settler stock, roughing it way at the bottom of the world, far away from the corruption of the West and its international and economic sins. Even typing that makes me shudder: colonial eyes at their worst! But what’s changed me is that New Zealand forced my family to interrogate just where value lies. I have a close friend who is an economist; he’s passionate about his area of study, and I know as well as any undergraduate in a macroeconomics class that cost is a heavily nuanced concept, value a heavily subjective one. I value the days we visited Hamilton’s Botanic Gardens, Christchurch’s too; our climb up the staircase at the now-destroyed Christ Church Cathedral to the then-exhilarating view of Cathedral Square and beyond; our slow but wondrous passage to the foot of Mt. Nguaruhoe with a tired but stalwart three-year-old, marveling with us over lava chunks and the view of a distant volcano, Mt. Taranaki, to the west; the sound of tui songs in bushes all over the islands; the march of little blue penguins in Omaru and yellow-eyed penguins near Dunedin; the stories we accumulated in some of the country’s best museums; the understandings I received while attending my students’ course on Māori culture; the carving workshop we visited in Rotorua; and simple runs through Hamilton neighborhoods, collecting memories of resident cats sunning themselves on window ledges. All of these experiences, some of which cost money, made my trip to New Zealand, not marveling at its mining wealth or international power.
I don’t need to be reminded that many children in New Zealand, mostly Māori and Pacific Islanders, don’t get enough to eat. Money buys necessities, and the NZ government independent of any political party has a structure in place to try to meet its citizens’ needs; as an American, I’m quite humbled by the health care options and cost in NZ. And yet this structure falls short and people are left behind. Meanwhile, people who ought to know better open up national parks to mining exploration and people who ought to be in charge of preserving the beauty of a country many people only visit for that beauty instead propose digging up minerals in the Coromandel. People who ought to behave better feed talking points and personal attacks to bloggers and watch their enemies squirm instead of working together to address national problems and come up with solutions to benefit all Kiwis.
You might say I’m just an American who doesn’t understand, but I’ve been following the varieties of New Zealand media for more than four years, have learned a great deal from bloggers (no, not Whale Oil), and have treasured my ongoing friendship with an amazing Māori woman who has worked in the not-for-profit mental health sector and led Treaty of Waitangi training. I admire numerous artists of Aotearoa, certain witty and honest columnists, and follow insightful Kiwis on Twitter. I’ve read extensively about The Treaty, the Land Wars, the country’s history, and integrated my background in Old English poetry with academic insights into oral narrative tradition in Polynesian culture. In short, I’ve been a sponge for the stories of the past and present of Aotearoa and will continue forever.
All of this because, you see, as a consequence of living there for nearly six months, I fell in love with New Zealand and, like most lovers, want it to change. Forget the screens, though; the world’s newest land is a microcosm of hundreds of years of colonial expansion, but it’s also a testing ground for big ideas. And big ideas change lives. I first paid attention to New Zealand in 1981 as controversy arose over the Springbok South African Rugby team visit, and was led to learn about apartheid through New Zealander’s protests. Three years later, I was an earnest anti-nuclear supporter who applauded New Zealand’s decision to ban nuclear-powered ships and submarines from its waters and ports. The country’s daring history on the international scene and everything I know about its inhabitants tell me there’s something innovative, creative, and unconventional about Kiwi problem-solving that absolutely must be cultivated and applied to the challenges New Zealand faces today. You can’t buy big ideas for any price, but you can insist they become reality. The country in the 1980s showed it can do this, and I’m optimistic enough to suggest that the happy bi-cultural harmony its tourist brochures depict is also within the country’s grasp—but not if it waits too long.
Living in New Zealand made me question assumptions about value I’d never questioned before. And it brought me back to nature; I’d camped as a child and teenager, but the minute my parents were no longer in charge of my travel plans, I stopped voluntarily. Since we returned from New Zealand, I’ve been camping and hiking all over my state; I can’t believe I wasted so many years ignoring the Appalachian Trial trailheads practically in my own back yard. Before, when I heard birds singing, it never occurred to me to look up; even if I had, I wouldn’t have been able to spot them in the trees. I know this because once I was in New Zealand, I started looking, really looking, for the sources of birdsong, hoping to catch glimpses of tui and bellbirds and fantails amidst the leaves. Today I search for and find the birds I once assumed were there and uninteresting.
What matters in life? I know now that when I die, I won’t leave wishing I’d spent more money on useless things. Airplane tickets are expensive, and I’m mindful of how my love for and commitment to Aotearoa might smack of cultural appropriation—and yet, I will choose to return and will choose to view the world through the lens that only living there offered me. It wasn’t too late for me, thank goodness. I hope and pray it won’t be too late for Aotearoa to look deep within itself and create innovative ways to treasure the people, places, and experiences they value.