Archive for January, 2010

Why I Love New Zealand…

More photos from the South Island

Milford Sound, Fiordland, South Island

Mirror Lake, near Queenstown, South Island

Milford Sound, Fiordland, South Island, New Zealand

Water Taxi, Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand


Bring a Culture to Pass: Confronting Cultural Stereotypes Abroad

Auckland, New Zealand

My team is the poster child for workplace diversity.  We have staff members from Australia, England, Ireland, France, India, Japan, the United States, and yes, even New Zealand.  In fact, the only institutionalized discrimination I’ve noticed at the office is towards contractors.  Sure, I’ve heard a few people complain about how difficult it is to understand some of the foreign customer service representatives; but this is often followed by the recognition that international employees are a reality of international business.

Personally, I find the broken English comforting.  When I worked in Argentina, I was hyper-aware of my accent and self-conscious of my Spanish.  I lived in constant fear that someone would make me answer the phone. Now that I work for a large, multinational corporation with a large, multicultural staff, I realize that for some people and in some parts of the world, living and working in a second language is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

However, the best part of working with such a heterogeneous staff is that I get to learn about other cultures. Did you know that “pom” is a nickname for a Brit or that a Pimms No 1 Cup is a classy English cocktail served during the summer at garden parties, croquet matches, and tennis tournaments? How about that in India, pregnant women are warned to stay in bed and avoid holding sharp objects during a solar eclipse or else her baby will be born with dark spots on its body?

In Japan, you can hire actors to pretend to be your family, friends, or colleagues. Special visitors to my company are greeted with a powhiri, a formal Maori ceremony of welcome. As far as I can tell, New Zealanders love outdoor music festivals and respect work-life balance (either that, or a striking number of Kiwis get sick when the weather turns warm).  And if you want to know anything about Ireland, from the speed of the Internet to the cost of electricity, just ask the girl who sits next to me.

Another great place for cultural observation is a hostel.  Most backpackers I’ve met are happy to explain their practices and rituals, as long as you are open to and accepting of the new and different.  Of course, you have to be careful not to generalize. One example is not a trend, and a trend is not a truth.  If I formed stereotypes based on the limited exposure I’ve had to members of certain nationalities, I’d believe that all Germans are chatty, all French people are cliquey, and all Dutch people are rational. I even have to be careful not to extrapolate from Aucklanders to New Zealanders, as Auckland is to New Zealand what New York City is to the United States.

Still, I must admit that I love it when someone turns out to be a walking cultural cliché, unless that person is an American.  One of the most interesting things for me about living abroad has been discovering what non-Americans believe about the United States.

What you’re about to hear will shock and appall you.

It represents one of the greatest threats to freedom and democracy.

Finally, the secret will be revealed: Americans send their children away to summer camp!

The question is what are YOU going to do about it?

See what I did there?  I “Americanized” my blog.  Apparently we are suckers for sensationalism and guilt.  Also, to the horror of one local radio announce, American parents ship their kids off to overnight camp in the summer against their will, scarring them for life and giving them abandonment issues that only years of therapy will resolve.  That a Kiwi would find the concept of summer camp distressing is particularly odd, as New Zealanders are known for flying the nest.  The New Zealand Government’s Population and Sustainable Development website states that approximately 600,000 Kiwis live overseas.  The total population of New Zealand is only 4.2 million people.

The Titanic Awards, a website that celebrates the “dubious achievements of travel”, features polls on topics of interest to travelers.   Categories include world’s rudest, worst dressed, most easily fooled, and cheapest tourists.  Americans rank among the top three in all categories.

Those results don’t necessarily strike me as suspect.  But when I saw that the United States was also voted as one of the places where you’ll find the worst tasting drinking water (behind India and Mexico), I began to question the validity of the poll.  I’m fairly certain that there are numerous countries whose drinking water is worse than that of the United States, both going down and coming back out.  This leads me to believe that the people surveyed either travel in a very narrow circle or are voting based on prejudice rather than direct experience.

If I ran the website, I would add another category: “Most Likely To Talk Badly About Their Own Country”.  No doubt, American tourists would top the list.  Gone are the days when American travelers affixed a Canadian flag to their backpacks in an attempt to disguise their identity.  Nowadays, those wishing to distance themselves from the ugly, arrogant masses do so by openly bad mouthing America.  In a roomful of backpackers, the most emphatic critic of the United States is likely to be an American.

Not long ago, I met a young African-American man from upstate New York, on holiday in New Zealand before returning to his graduate studies in veterinary medicine.  His primary conflict was trying to decide if he should specialize in horses or dogs.  When I told him I had been living abroad for four years and had no plans to move back to the States, he remarked that I must be, “as disenchanted and disillusioned as he is.”

“Not exactly.  American does a lot of things really well; but there are other ways of doing things that are just as good. I’m just exploring the alternatives,” I explained.

“That’s very wise of you.”

“Thanks.  By the way, I love your t-shirt.”  He grinned and puffed out his chest, where “MY PRESIDENT IS BLACK” was scrawled in large capital letters.

I’m no nationalist nor would I ever advocate defending America’s honor at all costs.  Certainly, the United States can stand up for itself (which is why everyone hates us in the first place).  American citizens should be honest about the mistakes and shortcomings of our country of origin.  However, in mixed company, maybe we could try to downplay our defects and emphasis our strengths. That American citizens are able to publicly denounce their country without fear of imprisonment for treason may be one of the highlights of American society; but it seems to me that we’re abusing that right.

You may think that by trashing the United States, you’re improving your own reputation, but really, you’re just reinforcing negative stereotypes that will later be used to judge you.  In my experience, many foreigners ask about the United States in the hopes that you will confirm what they already believe.  When you don’t, they grow bored and impatient and move on in search of someone who will.  Besides, someone who sees you as a nationality before they see you as an individual is not worth your time.

Recently, I listened to a group of travelers discussing the movie Bruno. “I’m so embarrassed by how many stupid Americans there are,” sighed the lone American in the pack of Europeans.  “Hey,” I interrupted, “if there’s one thing I’m certain of it’s this – all countries have stupid people.”

For more tales of cultural quirks, traditions, customs, and clichés, check out Glimpse, which features real stories from real travelers from all over the globe.

Why I Love Argentina…

Lombard  Twins & Fernando Otero “Sublevados”

Why I Love New Zealand…

Photos from my trip to the South Island with my parents

Franz Josef Glacier

Pancake Rocks, New Zealand

Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef Glacier

Blue Penguin Crossing Sign, South Island, New Zealand

Kaikoura, New Zealand

Orca, Whale Watching, Kaikoura

Wide Open Enclosed Spaces: Contracting My Services

Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland Skyline

Even before arriving in Auckland, I had registered with recruitment agencies. After months of living off my savings while applying in vain to any role remotely related to writing (including sub-editor of the New Zealand Seafood Industry Magazine), I was willing to surrender my career ambitions for the sake of my finances and self-esteem.  I just wanted a job.

Whereas in Wellington I had been persona non grata amongst the human resources community, I had three interviews in Auckland within the first week.   While each agency seemed to have a special relationship with a particular company or industry, they all offered more or less the same opportunity: a full-time, temporary, decently paid data entry contract with a multinational corporation.  The agency would pay my salary, and as a contractor, I would receive no compensation for sick days, holiday leave, or health insurance. As there was not much difference between the positions, I made my choice based on a popularity contest.  I went with my favorite consultant: a delightful Canadian woman (a redundancy in terms, I realize), refreshingly honest and reliable, who placed me in the finance department of a large software company.

The part of my job I most enjoy has to be the walk to work (or, better yet, the walk home from work).  The office is located an ambitious forty-minutes from my flat. I’m certainly not an early riser, but there’s no way I would trade my early morning meander for an extra half-hour in bed, even if it does mean wearing trainers with my work clothes and changing shoes at the office.  (Personally, I think that, just as there is a law that kids must wear helmets when riding a bike, there should be a law that all women have to walk to work in comfortable shoes.  Then we could all wear sneakers with black nylons and a skirt with no shame or stigma.)

My South African hair stylist recently confessed that when she first moved to Auckland after living in London for eight years, she was miserable.   Auckland may be a wonderful city and place to live, but it wasn’t London, which she missed terribly. “You always hate it when you first get there, don’t you?” she sighed. Committed to staying here with her Kiwi boyfriend, she began going for a run every day and forcing herself to focus on the positive aspects of Auckland. It took time (about a year), patience, and will power, but eventually, she came to accept and embrace her new home. That is exactly why I walk to work.

Auckland is hardly the highlight of New Zealand or the epicenter of the cultural universe, but of all the major cities I’ve visited or lived in, it’s certainly one of the most manageable, breathable, and balanced.  The hills provide awesome views of both the skyline and the harbor (and my legs look amazing). The whole city smells of cut grass and fresh flowers, and the streets are lined with trees, homes, and gardens.

And then there’s the weather.  I used to mock anyone under the age of 65 who said things like, “we live in Florida because it’s sunny all year round,” but it’s amazing how dramatically a few degrees and a little bit of sunshine can change your quality of life.  When I left the house in Wellington, bundled in wool from head to toe, I felt like a child forced to wear a winter coat over a Halloween costume.  But in Auckland, it’s so humid that as soon as you start to generate body heat, you feel as though you are trapped inside a wet suit.

The building where I work follows the “open spaces make happy spaces” philosophy of corporate architecture, and looks as if it were designed and decorated by Oprah. The outer walls are floor to ceiling glass.  There are breakout areas with magenta couches and stacks of magazines.  Instead of cubicles, there are pods.  The columns are wallpapered with images typically reserved for children’s pajamas – sharks, crayons, and French fries.  And everyday is casual Friday.

My team is comprised almost entirely of women in their late-twenties (maybe that’s why my manager sits on a different floor).  We all get on really well, which means that everyday I eat lunch and have tea with friends.  And there are the fringe benefits – monthly back massages, team lunches, free movie screenings, gift vouchers to bars in the Viaduct. Really, I can’t complain; but of course, I do.

It may be a wonderful place to work, for the most part, but the work itself is not so wonderful.  At first, I was doing routine data entry so mindless I was able to perform my job while listening to podcasts (check out the “When You Should Be Working” list to the right for recommendations) and keeping up on current affairs.  My attitude was something along the lines of, “As long as I don’t get fired…”

Then, team members quit or went on holiday, and my manager passed some of their responsibilities to me.  Suddenly, I had deadlines and stress.  If I made mistakes, it mattered and people noticed.  I ate lunch at my desk and worked overtime.  I had to focus, unable to listen to a single song or read a single New York Times article. I had not anticipated having to learn complicated processes or make challenging decisions.  Antsy I could handle, but I didn’t appreciate feeling anxious. I became irritated and aggrieved.

Perhaps the part of my job I have least enjoyed has been my initial approach to it. Each day, there were a few (or five) moments when I was taken over by the Rage.  I would think of all of the things I could be doing, like writing, or reading in the park, or lying on the beach, and start to resent spending the best hours of my day copying and pasting numbers into spreadsheets.  But with the help of a little deep breathing, I’ve stopped seeing my job as a waste of time, and started to see it for what it truly is – the best-case scenario.

Making your dreams come true is a long process, especially when your life lacks continuity. Given where I am in the journey, this is pretty much good as it gets; and I’m fairly certain whining never made things move faster.  Surely, it’s possible to work hard without all the gratuitous blood, sweat, and tears, and to take my job seriously without losing perspective. The global economy will not crash if I don’t upload forms into the database by day’s end, but it might cause more work for my colleagues.

Above all, I keep reminding myself that this situation is temporary.   Those flashes of boredom and anguish arise and pass, if I let them. The distress of being trapped inside all day evaporates as soon as I walk out the front door.  And this phase of my life, when I have to do unfulfilling jobs to finance my gypsy lifestyle and literary aspirations, will not last forever.  In fact, the department director has decided to downsize my team at the end of January, which works out perfectly, as I had planned to travel for the month of February before moving to Australia.  They can’t make me redundant; my visa expires.

Why I Love New Zealand…

Sideswipe: Nude Cyclists Cop A Warning

Monday, December 21, 2009

“A reader thought this was classic news for the start of summer in Whangamata, from the Coastal News police report: ‘Two naked men were located riding bikes on Port Rd on December 7. They were warned for not wearing helmets.’ Safer communities together…”

Prime Minister John Key on Letterman

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