Archive for June, 2009

Can You Spell That, Please?: Speaking the Kiwi’s English


A woman walks into a bookstore in Wellington.  She is well dressed and well mannered, probably an executive assistant for the CEO of a dairy company, or some such profession.  She approaches the information desk and asks the salesgirl, an American, for help finding a particular title. The salesgirl begins to enter the customer’s request into the computer’s search engine, but hesitates:

“I’m sorry ma’am, but can you please repeat the title of the book?”
Sick and Violent,” says the woman, a hint of annoyance in her voice. Trying not to judge, the salesgirl assumes her position at the keyboard.
“S-I-C…” She stops, and again asks, “Um, can you repeat that one more time?”
Sick and Violent,” snaps the customer.
“Yea, ok, can you spell that for me, please?”
“Oh, second!” exclaims the salesgirl with a sigh of relief. She pauses. “And the last word?”
Second Violin! I thought you said ‘Sick and Violent.’”  As the woman looks mortified, the salesgirl tries to alleviate the tension with a joke, “I swear we speak the same language.”
“It must be my accent.  I’ll go home and practice my English,” replies the customer, with not a hint of a sense of humor. Sadly, this type of misunderstanding happens all the time.

I understand how pathetic this is; but one of the reasons why I finally decided to leave Argentina was that I missed English.  Or maybe it was that my English had gone missing.  I had already been living in Buenos Aires for nearly two years when my friend came to visit.  After a few minutes of conversation, she remarked, “I’m so happy that you don’t sound like a Neanderthal.” She was right: thanks to my job as a customer service manager for a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, as well as my American friends and co-workers, my English was still standing; but it was also starting to deteriorate.

Between living in Spanish and studying French, my total vocabulary had no doubt increased considerably.  However, the quantity of English words under my command had decreased markedly (a fact which I successfully disguised with the help of  I no longer noticed when I Espanglishized my speech: “Sure, I’d love to meet you there.  What’s the direction?” (Dirección being the Spanish word for address.)  And don’t get me started on prepositions – do you arrive at, in, or to a city? Honestly, I’m still not sure.  Yet, it wasn’t until the following conversation with my mother about her upcoming dinner party that I realized just how bad things had gotten:

“So, what time are people going to your house for dinner?” I asked.  My mother giggled, somewhat condescendingly, like she was watching an episode of Kids Say The Darndest Things.
“Oh, Amy.  In English, we say what time are people coming to your house for dinner.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” I protested, “I’m not at your house and neither are the guests.  Logically, it should be going not coming.”
“I appreciate your argument, but it’s still coming.”
En serio?
“Yes, Amy, en serio.”

With the decision to dedicate myself to becoming a writer, I concluded that it would be beneficial to immerse myself once again in English.  My father was quick to point out, repeatedly, that in New Zealand, I would have to learn a whole new dialect.  As much as I hate to admit it, he was right.  Differences in punctuation, pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary abound.  For example, Kiwis seem to have an adverse reaction to the Oxford Comma (such as the one used before “and vocabulary” in the previous sentence), apostrophes, and periods at the end of abbreviations (as in Mr).  Harbor becomes harbour, theater becomes theatre, organize becomes organise, and so on.  I am often accused of being Irish because, as it turns out, only Irish and Americans pronounce their “R’s”. Just what are togs, jandals and singlets, you ask?  You’ll just have to go clothes shopping in NZed to find out.

Perhaps my favorite part of Kiwi speak is its “as” (not ass, as).  “Sweet as” is probably one of the most common phrases you will hear in New Zealand (and see printed on t-shirts in tourist shops).  Basically, it’s just the first half of a simile, and means “cool” or “awesome.”  The “as” format can be used with just about any adjective –  “It’s cold as outside”, “I’m tired as” – and saves you from having to come up with a clever comparison to describe the situation.  Sure, it sounds like people are speaking in incomplete Mad Libs; but while some may call this lazy, I call it genius.

My least favorite part, in case you were wondering, is how excessively polite people are:
“Your total comes to $100.”
“That’s lovely.  Eftpos [debit card], please.”
“Your card was declined.”
“Cheers.  I’ll use a different card.”
“You entered the wrong pin.”
“That’s lovely.”
“Is that your baby?  I ask only because it’s hideous.  Seriously, get it out of my face.”
“Thanks. You have a wonderful day. Taa.”

They also have a penchant for shortening words and adding a “y” or “ie” to the end of them – brekkie for breakfast, cardy for cardigan – making it sound like the language was invented by two ten-year old girls named Tiffany and Brittany while playing with their Barbies.  Then again, if you’ve ever heard a rugby player ask if you’ve seen his sunnies, you might find the practice more charming than juvenile.

What really gets me into trouble is Maori, especially in place names.  When a customer returns an item, we have to ask for their address, which often goes something like this:
“Can I ask for your city/suburb?”
“Sure, it’s Paraparaumu.”
“Your papa raises emus?”
“Para-para-umu.  How could you miss that?”  At least most cities are spelled exactly how they sound.

The other day, one of my coworkers came up to me with a giant grin on her face,
“When it’s time for your break, there are Shrewsburies, Squiggles, and Tim Tams in the staff room!”
“I want you to know you just sounded like a passage from Harry Potter to me.  What are all those things?”
“You’re so cute,” she laughed.

Most people find such barriers to communication amusing, and are eager to explain to me the meaning of Kiwi words, phrases, and product names.  Unfortunately, when I can’t understand their accent, most people seem to find that offensive.  When we learn a different language, we tend to ignore the accent, concentrating on memorizing vocabulary and mastering grammar (this is likely due to embarrassment, as no one wants to speak French like the chef from The Little Mermaid).  However, this is a huge mistake.  It doesn’t matter how complex are your sentence structures if people can’t understand a damn word you say.
Trust me, there is nothing more frustrating than asking the cashier at the supermarket if you can pay with a tarjeta de crédito while waving your credit card in front of her face, and having her spit at you, “no te entiendo.”  On more than one occasion while living in Argentina, I had someone stop me mid-conversation to ask, “what language are you speaking – English or Spanish?”  And then there were the infamous “I don’t hear the difference” exchanges:
Dónde está el libro?
El qué?
El libro.
El qué?
El libro.”
Ah, el liiiiibro!”
“I don’t hear the difference.”
Eventually, I resigned myself to the importance of the accent, and set about relearning how to pronounce Spanish words.  By that point, it was too late for perfection, but at least I wasn’t humiliated every time I spoke.

Just as Argentine Spanish (Castellano) sounds radically different from Spanish, Mexican, or Chilean Spanish, Kiwi English sounds radically different from English, American, and yes, even Australian English.  In “Eh?”, a recent article featured in Your Weekend (the Saturday supplement of Wellington’s Dominion Post), David Killick explains, “Want to talk like a Kiwi?  Easy.  Put a peg on your nose. Now, change the vowel sounds: A to E; E to I; I to U. Talk in a monotone, and finish each sentence with an upward inflexion, like a question.”  So, for all you Flight of the Conchords fans out there, the answer is yis! Kiwis really do talk like that, sort of.  According to the article, many New Zealanders themselves struggle with New Zealand English, deeming it ugly and incomprehensible.  Even Prime Minister John Key has come under attack for his strong Kiwi accent; although the article is careful to emphasize that clarity, not accent, is the real problem.

In fact, the New Zealand accent may be a solution.  I have read elsewhere that New Zealand’s departure from the Queen’s English mimics the country’s attempt to distance itself culturally and politically from its former colonial ruler.  Following this line of argument, New Zealand, a young country just now entering its rebellious teenage years, is using speech to establish and assert its unique identity.   Personally, I support and empathize with New Zealand’s attempt to create (or find, whichever you prefer) itself, even if I can’t always understand what its saying.

I’ve long since believed that the way you speak says as much about you as your actual words.  I finally came to embrace my accent in Spanish because it perfectly expressed my experience in Argentina: I lived there long enough to insert myself into the local community and adopt many local customs and colloquialisms, but not long enough to abandon my native tongue or disassociate from country of origin.   Already, I have versions of my CV and cover letter in Kiwi English, and the words “reckon” and “meant to” have been sneaking into my speech more than I would care for them to (as in “What do you reckon the Prime Minister meant to say?”) There’s no telling how much worse it will get.  Just do me a favor: if you ever hear me say “cheers” in place of “thanks”, smack me. Taa.


There’s a Good Chance That Today Will Suck: Dealing With Depression Abroad

In the Doldrums, Wellington, New ZealandInstallation Piece in Downtown Wellingotn

You know how I know I’m depressed?  It’s 9:30pm on Saturday night and I’m lying in bed, lights on, fully clothed, listening to Radiohead.  Given that my musical tastes tend to be more bubblegum than bittersweet, when my personal soundtrack features angst-filled alt-rock, you know things are bad.  The only thing missing was a rain-streaked bay window for me to look out while running my fingers through my tousled hair.

In my defense, I was nursing a wicked hangover and had just returned home from a day of arguing with customers over the injustice of being charged 10 cents for a plastic bag (‘all proceeds go to charity’) and helping middle-aged women locate science fiction-romance novels written by # 1 New York Times bestselling authors (a distinction I used to cling to like the ‘verified’ status on Internet auction sites, until I realized that earning that title is a lot like being crowned Prom Queen: some writers are better than others at printing buttons and baking muffins).  Although, I must confess that when the store is exceptionally ‘quiet’, I pass the time reading summaries of these books in our catalog:

When Luci, a beautiful archeology student, decided to spend her Spring Break in the Arabian Desert, she had no idea of the      treasure awaiting her.   Trapped in a terrible sandstorm, Luci is rescued by a mysterious stranger on horseback.  Who is this handsome but guarded to whom she owes her life?  Slowly, Luci digs away at his layers, and uncovers two shocking secrets: he is a Sheikh, and a werewolf.  The next full moon is fast approaching.  Will their undeniable sexual chemistry be strong enough to overcome their differences in class and biology?

To make matters worse, the owners of the house were I had been staying were due back the following morning; the place was a mess and my personal belongings were everywhere.  Still, on the eve of the big move into my new flat I should have been elated, not stewing in a pot of my own purple funk.

There is a widespread misconception that when you go abroad, it’s all sunshine and roses.  Allow me to clarify: it’s not.  I’m not being negative or pessimistic.  Just think about it: can you remember a six-month period of your adolescent/adult life when you were happy every single day?  Probably not, because bad days happen, even to the best of us, regardless of where we are living.

Yet, most of us, myself included, naively believe that when you leave home, you leave your troubles behind.  Unfortunately, many of your problems sneak into your suitcase while you’re not looking.  Your support system and comfort zone, on the other hand, see you off at the airport.  Even worse, once you land, you pick up new issues that you’ve never seen and for which you have no remedy, like mutant strands of psycho-emotional swine flu.

The stigma attached to being depressed at home is nothing compared to the shame associated with being down in a different country.  We all secretly hope that going abroad will be the best time of our life. Consequently, when you feel lonely, homesick, frustrated, or confused, you also feel like a failure.

In an effort not to disappoint or worry, you write a lot of emails that sound eerily like the letters you used to send your grandmother from summer camp: “Everyone here is really nice. I’m having a lot of fun and the food is better than I expected.  I miss you.”  No one, especially your mother, wants to hear about being defeated by the subway; getting ripped off by the laundry mat, which dry-cleaned all of your clothes, including your socks; or eating meals at McDonald’s because you’re too intimidated to sample the local cuisine.  They want to hear about the different accents you’ve slept with; the nights you’ve spent partying until dawn; the spontaneous weekend getaways; and the sophisticated dinner parties hosted by foreigners that you’ve attended.  They want to picture you in paradise, with a spare bedroom for visitors.

Now, I’ve had plenty of great trips that have played out like a montage of best moments.  However, sometimes things just don’t work out in your favor.  You choose a destination based on the best information available to you at the time.  But there are things that you can’t know about yourself or the place you are going until you get there; and there are factors that will influence your experience that are simply beyond your control.

Transitions are hard. Period.  Some days, you will feel like you’re recovering from a head injury: you have to relearn how to talk, getting dressed is a challenge, and feeding yourself is a notable accomplishment.  An expat friend living in Auckland told me that during her first few weeks in New Zealand, she began each day by telling herself, “there’s a good chance that today will suck.”  Then, she got out of bed and forced herself to do something – sign up with a temp agency, take a class, go for a walk – even if it felt like a lost cause.   Earlier this week, I decided to take advantage of my part-time unemployment: I visited a museum, treated myself to lunch at a café, and spent the afternoon reading and writing.  Normally, I would describe such a day as my version of Christmas morning; but given my current state, it felt more like a white elephant gift exchange.  Still, it certainly didn’t suck.

Depending on circumstances and personal characteristics, some people adjust, adapt and settle more quickly than others.  Often, it’s just a matter of stamina, like one of those “last man standing” competitions where you can win a new car simply by touching the vehicle for long enough.  The trick is not to lift your hand too soon; and not to let your sense of proportion cloud your sense of perspective.  When you only plan on being somewhere for a short while, a few difficult weeks represent a significant percentage of your total stay.  Taking a broader view, your overseas experience, whether you consider it a vacation, gap year, or working-holiday, is just another chapter of your life; and what are a few bad months over the course of a lifetime?

Try not to judge the city, or your connection to it, until you’ve managed to crack the surface and throw down some roots.  Be patient, be resilient, and most importantly, relax.  Moving abroad is an inherently stressful situation; seasoning it with your own special blend of neurosis is a bit like squeezing lemon on a grapefruit.  Once you’ve done your part, and while you’re waiting for the Universe to meet you half way, try to have fun.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Universe stands you up, leaving you sitting alone on the curb like a total chump.  In which case, unless you’re an actor, putting on a non-stop one-man show does you no favors.  You can’t fix a problem until you admit that you have one. I know this because I recently took that first step: “Hi, my name is Amy and I’m not happy in Wellington.”

The truth is that so far, not so good.  The possible reasons why are endless: simple incompatibility, unrealistic expectations, bad timing, global economic crisis, wrong approach, and the list goes on.  (Remarkably, everyone with whom I’ve shared my predicament has been amazingly supportive and managed to say the right things.) All I know is that my present situation is untenable, financially, emotionally, and psychologically.  Rather than invest more time, energy, and savings to maintain the status quo, it’s time to explore other options.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a thin line between quitting and hubris.  Walking away from something that isn’t good for you; isn’t actually what you want; or can’t offer you what you need, is not admitting defeat; it’s taking care of yourself and moving on with your life. There’s no shame in trying something new.  Once you hit your wall, don’t torture yourself with “maybe if I stay longer, things will get better” or “maybe there is more that I could be doing”.  All you can ever do is your best; give it a fair chance, and then come up with a plan B.

No final decisions have been made, but I am currently contemplating ideas for my immediate and short-term future – moving to a different city (other than the one in which I was born and raised) where I have friends and there are things to do other than drink coffee, applying to master’s programs in creative writing – some of which I had never before considered.  When I was living in Buenos Aires, I rode the bus everywhere.  On certain occasions, when made to wait an unreasonable amount of time, I would change my mind and decide to take a taxi or walk.  Without fail, the bus would pull up an instant before I turned away.  Now that I’ve genuinely committed to looking elsewhere, one of two things will happen: Wellington will show up at the last minute; or it won’t, and I’ll go through with my exit strategy.  Either way, I no longer feel stuck.

You know how I know that I’m going to be okay?  It’s Sunday evening, a week after moving into my new flat, and I’m finally unpacking my suitcases.  In the middle of hanging up my clothes, a Justin Timberlake song comes on and I stop organizing my belongings to stage an impromptu fashion show/music video in front of the mirror.  As long as there is choreography, lip-synching, and catwalking in my life, all is not lost.

We Just Live Together: Hunting for Housing in Wellington

Wellington, New ZealandKitchen: Not clean or tidy

Men complain about how complicated and dramatic women are; but I still can’t get a handle on the opposite sex.  After exchanging a few delightful emails with someone that I met online, we decided to take our virtual relationship to the next level and meet in person.  Even though I found his suggestion to have coffee at his apartment to be a bit forward for a first encounter, I accepted his invitation.

The day of our date, I anguished over what to wear like I was debating the best tactic for dealing with the Cuban missile crisis.  I wanted him to find me attractive; but I didn’t want to appear to be trying too hard (especially given the location of our rendezvous).  I wanted my clothes to reflect my personality and style, without scaring him off or giving too much away.  Finally content with my outfit, I made my way to his building.  I announced my presence with a nervous ring of the buzzer; and a few seconds later, the front door opened to reveal a handsome, strapping young man: bald and muscular with a big smile.

Inside, we drank hot beverages and talked.  Just as I expected, we had a lot in common: we both speak Spanish (he’s planning his first trip to Argentina in July); we both studied economics and international relations; and we’re both non-hippie vegetarians.  At the end of the evening, he promised to be in touch; and I believed him.

Days went by with no word, text, or email.  After passing through all five stages of mourning – denial (maybe he dropped his phone in the toilet), anger (how rude!) bargaining (if only I’d worn more makeup), depression (it’s not him, it’s me), and, acceptance (whatever) – I took to the Internet to search for something better.  In my experience, men possess a sixth sense for when a woman is about to move on; and sure enough, just as I finished arranging to meet someone else, Bruce Willis’s gay doppelgänger texted me: “Sorry didn’t get back to u yet about flat.  Need to talk w flatmate b4 we make our decision…will let u know soon.”  I swear, finding the father of my children will be easier than finding housing in Wellington.

Argentina was my first experience outside of college with real estate and randoms.  My initial roommate (or in Kiwi speak: flatmate) was a French girl that I found on Craigslist.  She quickly became not only one of my best friend’s in Buenos Aires, but one of my best friends, literally, in the world.  I was devastated when she returned to Paris, not least of all because it fell on me to retrieve our security deposit from our Latin American landlord, a feat akin to stealing gold from a leprechaun. The good thing about the whole affair is that I learned how to threaten to break someone’s legs in Spanish.

A string of apartments and roommates followed, none as glorious as the first.  For a few months, I lived with an Italian man who was such a cultural stereotype that we shall call him Luigi.  He was a photographer from Milan and wore Burberry scarves, tight black Armani t-shirts, and even tighter jeans (not that I’m complaining).  He drank water from silver Dansk vodka bottles. The only thing I ever saw him eat was pasta with sheep’s milk cheese (cow milk bothered his stomach), which he cooked while complaining about Italy. This, I found amusing, endearing even.  What I found annoying was how he insisted on removing my vegetables from their plastic bags and arranging them in the refrigerator by color and shape.  Then there was the sex.  One night, I was disturbed from slumber by the unmistakable sound of heavy breathing.  I was still half-asleep and the noise was so loud, I thought that Luigi and his girlfriend were having sex on my bedroom floor.  Finally I understood why he ate so many carbohydrates: he was preparing for a marathon.

At some point, I lived with an Argentine girl.  I’m not sure if she was high all the time or just morally opposed to speaking with her mouth open.  Either way, I never understood a single word she said.  Unemployed, she spent all of her time watching videos on YouTube and smoking weed.  She also refused to throw away rotten food or wash her dishes (there are hungry and thirsty children in Africa after all).  When I returned home after a four-day silent retreat to discover the kitchen resembling a preschooler’s found-object art project, I was in such a state of awe and disbelief that I took a picture.

Because I never intended to stay in Buenos Aires longer than a few months, I preferred to rent rooms in furnished flats rather than get my own place.  If I had known then that I was to be there for over three years, I would have done things differently.  What I learned is that your home life heavily impacts your overall quality of life.  Unnecessary roommate drama; depressing rooms with no natural light; and pipes that clog and flood the kitchen with sewage only serve to bring you down, especially when you’re new in town, spend a lot of time at home, and have nowhere else to go.

Unfortunately, since arriving in New Zealand, I have slept on floors, pullout couches, bunk beds, and air mattresses.  I have shared my bedroom with seven other girls, none of whom were relatives. While house sitting has been wonderful for my financial stability and personal freedom, it’s too much house for one person and it’s too far away from the action; isolation is killing my social life.  More than anything, after a while, being a guest in someone else’s home begins to wear out its welcome.

Like Goldilocks, I wanted my next living situation to be just right, as it will likely influence how I feel about Wellington and how long I stay here.  Because desperation does for apartments what beer goggles do for ugly people in bars, I began looking for housing weeks ago.  I sifted through hundreds of listings, setting aside those with promise while dismissing those that mentioned chore rosters, rotating dinner schedules, or vegans who only eat raw produce sourced from their own gardens.  I went to see a few places with little potential because I thought window shopping with no pressure to buy would help me define exactly what it was that I was looking for.

I compiled a list of criteria: location (within walking distance of town); cost (I have a part-time job and earn minimum wage); physical space (nothing too cold, damp, dark, cramped, dirty, or reminiscent of an attic); “clean- and tidy-ness” (hygienic but not obsessive); and most importantly, flatmates (single- and two-bedroom apartments are uncommon in New Zealand, as most people prefer to live in houses or large flats with multiple flatmates).

In the past, who I lived with was less important than where I lived.  I didn’t need or necessarily want for the people I lived with to be my best friends; all that mattered was how well we co-existed.  However, given my current circumstance, I now want to live with people whose company I genuinely enjoy; who have similar interests, lifestyles, and personalities; who are “social but also have their own social lives”; and who make me feel welcome and comfortable.

With such specific conditions, I knew that finding exactly what I wanted would be a challenge; but I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to actually acquire it.  In Buenos Aires, securing a flat was as easy as showing up, having a look around, and handing over a large sum of cash.  In Wellington, the (unofficial) application process involves multiple rounds, including an introductory email (I copied and pasted part of my cover letter); one or two visits to the flat (to which some people brought baked goods); and the final decision.  The pressure to impress (and the awkward questions about your income, intentions, and plans for the future) is similar to that experienced when meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time.  One girl asked us about our favorite book and our personal policy on energy conversation, at which point I panicked: I had left my swimwear at home and had nothing rehearsed for the talent portion of the evening.

Some flats turned me down (or blew me off); and I did some rejecting of my own (including of the aforementioned indecisive flat).  I began to wonder if I shouldn’t lower my standards; if maybe my dream flat didn’t exist; or worse, if maybe it was out of my league.  I had all but given up hope and resigned myself to living in the suburbs in a converted basement with eight university students, when Prince Charming came along to rescue me.  A few days ago, I found the perfect flat; and this time the feeling was mutual. On Sunday, I move into my new home: a spacious, six-bedroom apartment located in the epicenter of my personal universe.  My room is the perfect size; the price is reasonable; and the flatmates seem great: three Kiwi blokes, a French girl, and one as yet to be determined. There’s just one minor problem: now that I have to pay rent, I need to find a job (other than handing out promotional ice cream cones at movie premieres).

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