Posts Tagged 'Social Commentary'

Haciendo Ecología: Being Green in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Argentina

When I left New Zealand, I donated old clothes to the Salvation Army, threw away toiletries, and gifted my oil pastels and blue plastic bucket to my boyfriend.  One item that did make it into my suitcase was a bright green cloth grocery bag.  Available for $1.50 at most major supermarkets in New Zealand, the bag shamelessly implores you to “help us create a better environment”.   Girl scout cookies I can resist, but I never could deny the exigency in the eyes of the clip-art raindrop.

In Buenos Aires supermarkets, produce is weighed before you reach the cash register. Shoppers place fruits and vegetables into plastic bags and present them to a store employee, who affixes them with a price sticker.  The first time I went produce shopping after returning to Argentina, I selected my items, set them on the counter, and tried to explain in rusty Spanish that I didn’t want plastic bags.  The man behind the scale stared at me as if I were a talking orange cat.

“Because of the environment” I explained, brandishing my hideous, slightly self-righteous tote bag.

Ah. Ok,” he smiled after a brief pause, “estás haciendo ecología.”

“Yes, exactly, I’m doing ecology.”   After a few minutes of brainstorming, he agreed to weigh and sticker each item individually.  I walked out of the store with a clear conscience, albeit slightly self-conscious.

Unfortunately, the bags aren’t the only thing here made of plastic.  I recently invented a game called “spot the boob job.”  It’s easy – you just look for a tiny woman with a disproportionately large chest and no bra.  Ironically, women who get implants no longer want to appear as though they are wearing a corset, and so are requesting natural-looking fake breasts.  The result is girls with the body of an adolescent and the chest of a senior citizen.

In Buenos Aires, there is overwhelming pressure to conform to an ideal image of beauty.  According to a CNN article, an estimated 1 in 30 Argentines has gone under the knife.  OSDE, a leading health insurance provider, covers the entire cost of aesthetic plastic surgery if you hold their plan 410 or higher.  The concept of healthy is totally distorted. A popular brand of yogurt, known for promoting regularity, launched an ad campaign encouraging women to eat their yogurt because of its slimming effect.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it contains a mild laxative.

The moral of the story is that it’s not easy being green in Buenos Aires, and the struggle extends beyond being a vegetarian in a carnivorous country.  Buenos Aires is a city obsessed with physical appearance but utterly negligent of the physical environment.  The other day, I encountered a group of young Argentines on the terrace, drinking mate, rubbing tanning oil on their skin, and flicking their cigarettes into the pool.

I’m no sociologist or psychotherapist, but I speculate that this combination of personal vanity and environmental apathy stems from a lack of control.  Inflation and corruption are rampant, university classes are cancelled due to protests, public transportation is interrupted by strikes, and noise and air pollution are palpable.  I can hardly blame porteños for preferring to invest in their looks rather than their city.  Their bodies are one thing they can still take ownership and pride in.  Perhaps it’s unfair to expect people to care for a city that doesn’t take care of them.  Still, even if individuals can’t fix the broken sidewalks, would it hurt them to clean up after their dogs?

When I moved to Buenos Aires over four years ago, I didn’t care about or notice these things.  Instead, I was enthralled by the city’s sense of urgency, arrogance, and glamour.  But live in New Zealand (and date someone doing a master’s thesis on water conservation) long enough, and you start sprouting your own lentils and growing your own herbs.  I used to make fun of people for shopping at Whole Foods.  Now, I say things like, “I’ll just carry my tofu and flaxseed.  Why do I need a bag when I have two hands?”

Leading a healthy and natural life in Buenos Aires is not impossible.  There are vegetarian restaurants and organic cafes, gorgeous yoga studios, meditative breathing courses, and lovely parks and plazas.  However, even if you surround yourself with like-minded individuals and create a micro-community, fighting against the zeitgeist is like driving the wrong way on 9 de Julio.

Obviously, there are many things I adore about Buenos Aires; I wouldn’t have made a pilgrimage back here otherwise.  Unfortunately, the pervasive culture is not one of them. If you move to a new city or country where neither you nor the native residents hold you to the local standards, you can observe your surroundings without being personally impacted by them.  But if you and the local culture take each other on, as was my case in Buenos Aires, the prevailing atmosphere directly affects you, making it harder to accept.

Luckily, as a traveler, I have the freedom to move on if the lifestyle doesn’t suit.  As of now, I am a voluntary and temporary guest in Buenos Aires.  For the short time I’m here, I can overlook the city’s shortcomings and focus on the great things it has to offer.

On my next visit to the supermarket, the staff member in charge of the produce section informed me that plastic bags were an obligatory store policy.

“Why?” I challenged.

“To prevent theft.  We seal your bags so you don’t take more items between here and the register.”  I considered proposing another solution – to weigh fruits and vegetables at checkout, but that would result in slower lines, and put him out of work.

“If it’s one item, fine,” he continued, “but if you’ve got multiple items, like your bananas, I have to bag them.”

“But it’s one bunch of bananas,” I argued. “I can’t possibly add another banana to the bunch.”

“Look,” he said, agitated and annoyed, “I’m just trying to do my job.”

I realized then that he didn’t make the rules, nor was he in a position to challenge or break them.  Neither of us can change this city; but unlike him, I have the luxury of leaving in a few weeks for a place where the grass (and the people) are greener.

“Ok.  Bag them,” I conceded.  At that moment, his job seemed more important than my convictions.


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.

The Left Side is the Right Side: Road Tripping from Wellington to Auckland

Motorway 1, North Island, New Zealand

Hitching a Ride to the Top of Whakapapa

Hitching a Ride to the Top of Whakapapa

I was leaving for Auckland in less than three weeks, yet no one knew of my plans.  Even though I was committed to and eager for the move, I was avoiding accepting the consequences of my decision. I could only predict the reactions of my flatmates, who were convinced that I was staying “indefinitely” (or at least longer than a month); my manager at the bookstore, who would no doubt tell me “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed”; and my friends, who would be left heartbroken to confront their abandonment issues.  I considered penning a few witty but apologetic post-it notes.  Eventually, I summoned the courage to break the news face-to-face.

As usual, it was not nearly as awful or dramatic as anticipated.  (I swear my imagination could twist a full-body massage into a life threatening experience.)  One flatmate secured me an interview at a recruitment agency (the others posted an ad online for my replacement), while my manager offered to contact the various Auckland branches on my behalf.  That just left my friends.

Over drinks with three former roommates from the hostel, I blurted out, “I’m leaving Wellington.”

“Wait. What? Really? Cool!” Somehow I had forgotten that they are all fellow expats, accustomed to losing friends to travel and unselfishly enabling of wanderlust.

“I’m moving to Auckland,” I continued with renewed confidence.

“Oh. We’re not angry, we’re just disappointed.”

Why do we unabashedly and greedily steal each other’s enthusiasm, like bullies stealing lunch money in the schoolyard?  For the record, when someone tells you they are so unhappy that they have decided to relocate to a different city, “Ew, why would you want to move there?” is not an appropriate or appreciated response.  Allow me to propose an exercise: the next time someone shares with you their hopes and dreams, regardless of how unappetizing or unrealistic they may seem to you, try to be encouraging.  If you don’t have anything nice to say, be vague.  My two favorite pleasantries are “I hope that works out for you” and “Let me know how that goes.” But I digress.

When I announced my departure date, Kate, my closest friend in Wellington, unexpectedly exclaimed, “Me too!”  Unhappy in her receptionist job and due to start WWOOFing in the Coromandel at the end of the month, she had decided to quit work early in favor of exploring the North Island.

“I have an idea,” I shouted spontaneously, “let’s do a road trip!”

“Wicked!  Except I don’t have a driver’s license.”

“That’s okay, I do!”  And just like that, I had agreed to drive us from Wellington to Auckland, on the left side of the road.

I learned to drive at the tender age of fourteen and nine months in an automatic sedan in a small town in Michigan.  Other than driving to school with my head out of the window in the winter, I’m not particularly skilled at operating motor vehicles.  Only once have I been behind the wheel of a manual transmission, and that was in the parking lot of the Veuve Clicquot champagne house during a day trip to Reims, France with my parents.

Given the dearth of automatic cars abroad, I’ve always been wary of not knowing how to drive a stick shift.  In Argentina, I even toyed with the idea of taking lessons.  However, the chances of me wanting or needing to drive were so slim it hardly seemed worth it.  New Zealand is a different story.

With a total land area of 268,680 sq km, New Zealand is similar in size to Japan.   But Japan has an estimated population of 127 million people; New Zealand 4.2 million, and over 80% of that tiny population resides in cities.  In other words, nearly everywhere in New Zealand lies off the beaten path.  Sadly, public transportation in New Zealand is either inadequate or inexistent.  Buses, both within and between cities, are expensive, infrequent and their routes are limited to only the most urban destinations.

Those brave enough or on a tight enough budget may try their hand (or thumb) at hitchhiking. New Zealand remains a relatively safe place to rely on the kindness of strangers, though not entirely devoid of crazies (just ask my Chinese-American friend who was picked up by a war veteran who spent the next two hours telling her, to paraphrase a line from Kill Bill: Vol 2, how much he hates Asians, despises Americans, and has nothing but contempt for women).  Nevertheless, the best method of exploring the country is by car.  But I couldn’t possibly drive in New Zealand – Kiwis drive on the opposite side of the road.

As it so happens, I could drive in New Zealand, at least legally if not very well.  All that’s required to take to the road is a valid driver’s license from your home country.  I find this curious, as I question the prudence of allowing me to drive in say, Los Angeles without further instruction, let alone in reverse.  Nevertheless, I was hardly going to pass up a road trip and the chance to decompress before starting over in Auckland over something as silly as mono-motor-vehicle-dexterity. Since Kate is British, I figured that she would instinctively shout out before allowing me to turn into oncoming traffic or sideswipe a parked car.  Besides, for just an extra $10/day, we could reduce our insurance liability to zero.

At the rental agency, we filled out paperwork for a Nissan Sunny. Keys in hand, I opened the front door, and immediately began rummaging through the glove compartment.  “Just looking for a map,” I offered with a lighthearted smile.

“Aren’t you still holding the one I gave you earlier?” asked the rental agent.

“Oh, so I am.”  Nothing inspires confidence like a driver who can’t find the steering wheel.

Surprisingly, the biggest challenge turned out not to be driving on the left side of the road, but sitting on the right side of the car.  With a little practice, I soon became accustomed to both.  Correctly using the turn signal, especially in a roundabout, still eludes me.

Lake Taupo

Lake Taupo

Since we had given ourselves less than a week, we were only going to two places: Mt Ruapehu – a popular destination for winter sports enthusiasts, and Taupo – a tiny town on the edge of the incomprehensibly enormous and enviably photogenic Lake Taupo.

Frankly, I am not enthusiastic about winter, but I wanted to cross “learn to snowboard” off my to-do list.  Other than the fact that the car radio turned out to be a diehard fan of Christian rock music (further evidence that rural New Zealand is identical to rural America), it was an easy four-hour drive to the mountain through scenic landscape and small towns with names like Bulls (incredi-bull!) and information centers shaped like a dogs.

Eventually, we reached Ohakune, a quaint village 20 minutes from the Turoa ski area.  Ohakune is also the carrot capital of New Zealand and the host of the annual carrot festival in July.  And yes, there is a giant carrot stationed at the town’s entrance.  

We checked into the hostel, which was owned and operated by two brothers who had clearly missed their calling as video store clerks.  When I asked the younger of the two to please lock my laptop in the safe, he stared at me like I had just demanded the cube root of 81.  I repeated the question, this time pointing at the computer.  “Oh, man, I totally thought you wanted me to put that in the safe,” he said, nodding towards my pink Nalgene water bottle.

In the lounge, Kate and I discovered a lit fireplace and not one, but three Frenchmen sitting beside it: Henri, Victor, and Philippe, a dead ringer for Asterix’s sidekick Obelix.  In Wellington, my friend had been casually dating Henri, another long-termer at the hostel.  He was leaving for Australia in two days, but had dragged his friends to the mountain for one last run and one last good-bye.  How romantic, I’m sure.

As neither my friend nor I had any snowboarding experience, I suggested we start the following day with a course.  She suggested that we start our day messing about with the French guys on the bunny slope.   Who was I to argue the injustice of majority rule with citizens of the birthplace of modern democracy?

The following morning, we arrived at Turoa and waited in an interminable line to rent snow pants, boots, boards, and wrist guards, but not gloves.  Those you have to buy for an additional $20. When we finally waddled over to the beginner’s area, I dropped my board onto the snow and it immediately sped away like a rogue shopping cart in a supermarket parking lot.  Luckily, I managed to wrangle it before it bulldozed a pair of instructors.  If I couldn’t even set my board down properly, there was no way I could go down the mountain on top of it.

Suddenly, I remembered that a charming Kiwi bloke from the hostel had offered to teach me to snowboard, free of charge.  More out of boredom than anything else, I sent him a text message, but he was already on his way back to town.  Tired of waiting, I strapped on the board, and with a little help from Victor, coasted to the bottom without falling on my face or maiming a small child.  Just like that, I was hooked.

I fared far worse without my French training wheels.  Your coccyx may not serve any functional purpose, but it still hurts like hell when you land on it. In a moment of desperation, I fashioned a makeshift buttpad by shoving my hat down the back of my pants.  Of course, this did little more than transform me into an extra from a rap music video and give me the courage to keep going.

The next day, I left Kate to eat carrot cake in a café while I snowboarded.  After lunch, we loaded the car and began the drive to Taupo. On the way, Kate and I made a pit stop at Whakapapa (pronounced, to the amusement of my adolescent sensibilities, Fa-ka-pa-pa), the ski field on the other side of mountain where Kate’s friend worked in the repair shop.

Interestingly, while Kate hates snowboarding, she loves ski lifts. “Do you think they’d let us just go for a ride?” she whispered.  It never would have occurred to me to go sightseeing at a ski field, and I was fairly certain the staff wouldn’t be too keen on us treating the ski lift like a red double-decker bus.

“It’s a chair lift, Kate, not a camel. Probably not.”  Kate looked like a child who had just been told she couldn’t press the buttons in the elevator. “But it doesn’t hurt to ask,” and with that, I reluctantly trudged my way through the snow, in grey canvas Converse sneakers, to bat my eyelashes for a free ride on the ski lift.

After a long and majestic ride to the top of the mountain, we were instructed to dismount the lift.  I landed with all of the grace expected of a former competitive gymnast, only to discover that my zipper was caught in the wooden slats of the chair.  “Help!” I shrieked, running alongside the chair to avoid being dragged behind it. “I’m stuck!  I’m stuck!  I’m stuck!” I am now that girl who stopped the ski lift.

View From Whakapapa

Kate is a genius.  The view from the summit was spectacular – certainly worth defying death for.  The setting sun backlit the fluffy white clouds, making them glow like roasting marshmallows.  My feet turned blue before Kate begrudgingly agreed to return to the base of the mountain, where we said good-bye to her friend and resumed the drive to our next destination.

Taupo, both the city and lake, are located in the Taupo Volcanic Zone.  Unbeknownst to me, the area is something of a geothermal wonderland. And as I’ve come to learn during my time in New Zealand, where there’s geothermal activity, there are hot springs.

Our hostel owner suggested that we walk to Spa Thermal Park, where we would be able to bathe in mineral pools au naturel.  She also recommended that we wear our swimsuits under our clothes, sound advice that we acknowledged but ignored.  The pools are completely exposed to the elements, which is of course part of the fun.  But they are also completely exposed to the eyes of passersby.  Despite the park’s abundance of trees and plants, there was nowhere out of sight for us to change.  Not to mention that it was the middle of winter.  We stood at the water’s edge, debating our options.  Intoxicated and seduced by the pungent vapors, we dropped trou in the middle of the woods, much to the delight of the father and son team that coincidentally walked past at that very moment.  Unsurprisingly, the pools were positively delightful – hot, shallow, surrounded by nature, and best of all, free.

Hot Springs in Spa Thermal Park, Taupo

Hot Springs in Spa Thermal Park, Taupo

The rental car was due back at noon on Sunday.  We woke early that morning and hit the road to the “big smoke”.  (Calling Auckland the “big smoke” is a little like calling a library loud.  I guess when you’re used to immaculate even spotless seems dirty by comparison.)  At eleven a.m., we arrived in Auckland.  At 11:59am, we arrived at the car dealership.

I can summarize the route from Wellington to Auckland in two words: Motorway 1. Thus, Kate’s navigational duties had been no more challenging than locating the cleanest rest stop.  It wasn’t until we were irrefutably lost in Auckland that I noticed that not only does she have a terrible sense of direction, she is actually cartophobic.  Nevertheless, we brought the car back on time, without so much as a scratch on it or our friendship.

The sight of snowcapped Mt Ruapehu rising from the Central Plateau transformed Wellington from an open wound into a distant memory, and reminded me of what a magnificent country New Zealand truly is.  The experience solidified my friendship with Kate and delivered me to Auckland energized and optimistic.

I hate to think of all the previous trips I never took because I was afraid to take the wheel.  Now I’m left wondering – how often do I say, “I can’t” when what I really mean is “I prefer not to”? How often do I convince myself that I am incapable of doing something, rather than merely unwilling?  How often do I conceive plans, but never execute them? How often do I bemoan my bad luck when I should be decrying my cowardice?

Financial concerns, prior engagements, no organizational or time management skills, complete lack of interest in the proposed activity or, as is most often my case, irrational fears are all legitimate reasons for not doing something, but they are not can’ts.  Can’ts are insurmountable obstacles or acts of God, not minor inconveniences or personality flaws. There are so many factors out of our control that dictate the terms and conditions of our lives, why do we deny ourselves the few chances for adventure, immediate gratification, or happiness that are afforded to us? We should all be more mindful of and conservative with our can’ts, for can’ts kill possibility.

Just as “I’m fine” can mean everything from, “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life” to “I’m the closest I’ve ever been to taking my life”, “I can’t” has become a euphemism for everything from “you couldn’t pay me to attend a Teletubbies tribute to Michael Jackson on ice” to “I have a triple bypass scheduled that afternoon”.  In both cases, no one even bothers to call us on our ambiguity; no one except my friends.

If you start a sentence with “I’d love to but…” my friends immediately start working on solutions, like your life was a word problem about trains leaving Boston.  In a few weeks, a friend from home is coming to Auckland.  She’s in med school at the moment, saddled with ludicrous student loans that will take several generous kickbacks from pharmaceutical companies to repay.  Those same student loans paid for her flight to New Zealand.  When you’re already $100,000 in debt, what’s a $2,000 plane ticket?

My friend turned what for most of us would have been a dead end into a means. Where most of us would have seen an excuse, she found an answer.  Clearly, not all of us would consider this a sound calculation.  The point is my friend doesn’t have more resources or opportunities than anyone else; she just has a different set of values, priorities, and basic accounting skills.

I’ve realized that being honest about your motives for saying no and acknowledging that you have a choice is empowering. Cutting back on “I can’t” may not make you anymore brave or proactive, or your life anymore exciting or fulfilling, but it will stop you from feeling like a victim of circumstance.  It also gives you the chance to change your mind and behavior.  I’m fairly certain that it would be easier for me to eliminate like from my vocabulary than can’t; but I’m going to try, because I’m tired of living in a world full of walls with no windows.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to consult a thesaurus.

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.

Acclimatization: Weathering Windy Wellington

Wellington, New Zealand

Because even teapots need help staying warm

Because even teapots need help staying warm

When I awoke on Friday morning, the house was rocking.  And yes, I had slept alone the night before.  As it was only 6am and my eyes refused to open more than halfway, my first instinct was to incorrectly blame myself for the swaying.  But when I steadied myself against the bathroom counter and the mirror continued to bounce merrily like a child on a pony ride, I quickly surmised that the shaking was structural.

Far beneath New Zealand, the Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates are engaged in an ongoing, geological Sumo wrestling match.  The result of all of this tectonic butting, crashing, and slipping is New Zealand’s diverse and shapely landscape.  Geothermal wonders, such as geysers, mud pools, and hot springs, rank among the North Island’s most popular tourist attractions.  The Southern Alps were born of plate subduction, and volcanoes are to blame for the Waimangu Valley, the Central Plateau, and Lake Taupo. Given that an earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale leveled the town of Napier in 1931, I couldn’t help but wonder if I wasn’t experiencing my first taste of seismic activity.

But alas, it was merely another windy day in Wellington.  The weather in New Zealand’s capital is real shit.  Temperatures may be moderate (annual averages range between 6-20°C), but it’s the wind that’ll kill you.  The gap between the North and South Island is a natural wind corridor, and as air passes through the Cook Strait it becomes faster and stronger.  Consequently, Wellington averages 173 days per year with powerful gusts (winds faster than 60km/hr), and those winds often travel with a posse of purple rain clouds that pass overhead like a stampede of buffalos.  At least on those days I don’t have to worry about watering the plants.

Of course, I knew this before choosing Wellington.  But I was promised that the city compensated for its climate.  People assured me that with so many great things to do, places to go, and people to see, Wellington’s meteorological shortcomings would be reduced to small talk.  They were wrong.  No mixed drink, hip club, or Kiwi bloke has yet to convince me to shed my leg warmers and hooded sweatshirt, leave the space heater at home, and go out in a torrential downpour.

However, I can’t help but think that maybe my friends were onto something. Every time I walk home after work on a Friday night, I pass hordes of co-eds in short, strapless cocktail dresses, an entire can of Aqua Net sprayed in their hair, walking like Quasimodo in their four-inch heels.  One would assume that they are all dressed up because they have somewhere to go (like Shooters on Courtenay Place).  I guess my invitation was lost in the mail.

Recently, it has occurred to me that Wellington, like all cities, is an exclusive, members-only club. If you want access to the best bars, flashest stores, top neighborhoods, finest classes, and coolest cultural events, you have to be an insider, or at least be friends with one. But I am still the uninitiated new girl.

However, it seems as though I am slowly gaining entry.  The woman who co-owns the hostel where I used to stay recommended the Wellington Community Education Centre, where I am now taking an acrylic painting class on Thursday nights. (Either I’m the next Picasso or I should have signed up for a drawing class).  Last week, a flier delivered to the bookstore informed me of an event at the Te Papa museum featuring six international authors nominated for the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. And just tonight, a friend told me about an outlet mall located a short train ride outside the city.  Now that Wellington and I are getting to know each other, and I’ve earned its trust and respect, it’s starting to open up to me.

I’ve taken to viewing the weather as Wellington’s version of hazing. Rather than tie two 40oz bottles of beers to your hands or knifing you in an alley, the city sends the wind to weather-beat you. If you hope to make it here, or anywhere really, you have to prove just how badly you want it.  (To give you an idea: you know when a little kid tries to fight a bigger kid and the big kid defends himself by simply placing his outstretched hand on the little kid’s head, leaving the poor, misguided attacker to flail his arms in desperation while running in place?  That’s what jogging in Wellington on a windy day feels like.  I joined a gym.)

Truthfully, if I do end up in Wellington long-term, I doubt I’ll ever cease to comment on the weather. I lived in Buenos Aires for over three years and never stopped moaning about the humidity, overcrowded subtes, and missing monedas.  In my experience, a city’s faults become part of the shared experience, and rising above them brings residents closer together and distinguishes them from other communities. Complaining is an integral part of the collective narrative.  It is also a source of pride, because staying with a city despite its flaws indicates that you have a profound connection to and a rewarding relationship with that place.

I don’t know if Wellington and I will go the distance.   But I’m not ready to give up on it yet.  I have a good feeling about this city and we’ve had some good times together.   And as time passes, I am more comfortable and at home here.  Besides, after careful calculation and scientific analysis, my fellow expats and I have concluded that eight months is the magic number – you simply can’t determine if a city is right for you any sooner.  Who knows, maybe I just need to buy some warmer clothes.

Good While It Lasted: Managing Transience

Wellington, New Zealand

I may be a fan of The Power of Now and a proponent of living in the moment, but if I’m being honest, I don’t and can’t always practice what I preach.  We live in a fearful, future-focused society that encourages us to help our children plan for retirement rather than talk to them about safe sex.  Delayed gratification is a virtue, while instant gratification is seen as hedonistic, frivolous, self-indulgent, and worse, irresponsible. But I believe in the short-term.  I believe that we should allow ourselves to do the things that make us happy now, even if they won’t do anything for us later.  Call me a utilitarian (actually, please don’t), but I believe in the intrinsic value of pleasure.   Yet lately, I’ve been plagued by the question what’s the point?

Considering that I’ve only been in Wellington permanently (and given the nature of the current discussion, I use that term reluctantly) for a few weeks, things are going well.  I live alone and rent-free in a beautiful house, and I have a fun part-time job, friends whose company I enjoy, and a good-looking English guy to give me something to think about.  In other words, there are a lot of things to be happy about.

But happy is not exactly how I’ve been feeling lately.  And trust me, there is nothing more frustrating, obnoxious, or unattractive than being able to count your blessings but not being able to appreciate them.  It’s a little like finding out that your boss, who has a wife and twin girls, is having an affair with the young man who works in the mailroom, and not being able to tell anyone about it.  At first, hormones were my only explanation for this unwarranted and irrational display of indifference.  Until I realized that rationality was actually to blame for my bad mood.

Yesterday, after dance class, I met a friend for coffee.  She had spent the weekend in the mountains, interviewing for seasonal work at a ski lodge.  A lot had happened since we had last spoke, just a week before.  We sat for hours talking psychology, dating, and the hardships of being an expat.  It was one of those great conversations that graduate the relationship to the next level of friendship.  However, when we said goodbye, I didn’t feel satisfied.  I felt empty.  During the evening, my friend had revealed that whether she gets the job or not, she will likely leave Wellington within the next month. And it hit me just how temporary my life is at the moment.

The pleasure we derive from doing certain things, like buying treasury bonds, lifting weights, or shaving our legs is based on the promise that our actions in the present will pay off in the future.  Sure, the more masochistic among us may find such activities amusing (I, for one, do genuinely like going to the gym), but for the most part, we suffer these tasks in silence because we understand that they are part of the creative process.  All of these actions, and the subsequent sore muscles and nicked knees, are necessary in order to reach our objectives.  And it is the knowledge that we are building a foundation or nearing our goal that makes these steps not just bearable, but rewarding.

So, it’s a little disheartening and disappointing knowing with certainty that I will soon have to say good-bye to many of the wonderful things in my life, like the house, my job at the bookstore, and my friend.  And it’s discouraging sensing that the energy I am currently expending will not be compensated.  I just can’t help but feel burdened by the expiration date.  Which brings us back to the age-old question: is it better to have loved and lost or to have never loved at all? When I think about my time in Argentina, this blog, or the recent coffee date with my friend and how comforting it was to share stories, worries, and plans with another person, I would definitely place my vote on the former.

Besides, as my friend pointed out, as much as I need a certain amount of stability and control, I also need to explore, experiment, and evolve.  If everything were sorted and settled, eventually I would get bored and crave change.  Rather than resist or resent the transient nature of my existence, perhaps I should try to accept and embrace it, as it gives me the opportunity to constantly refresh and do-over.  The problem is when something ends before you’re ready to give it up.

It’s exhausting to think about starting anew, again. Especially for a girl who may or may not be writing this at 1pm from her bed because she can’t be bothered to get dressed.  I had been hoping to put on cruise control and just coast for a while.  However, in the immortal words of Bryan Adams, “Ain’t no use in complaining when you got a job to do.”  And there’s also no use in staying at home on a Saturday night, even if it is raining, just because your partner in crime won’t be around the following weekend.  So, I guess I’m going to get up, brush my teeth, and make dinner plans with a friend who is leaving for Asia next week.  I might as well enjoy what I’ve got before it’s gone.

All To Myself: House Sitting for Six Weeks

Newtown, Wellington, New Zealand

Due to my commitment issues and mood swings, I don’t typically plan in advance. But I knew exactly how I was going to spend last Friday night, long before it happened.  During my friend’s wedding, she and her husband introduced me to friends of theirs, a couple, who live in Wellington.  Not only are they stylish, intellectual, and gorgeous, they are also unnecessarily generous.  Just days after we met, they gave me the greatest gift I’ve ever received – they asked me to house sit for six weeks.  And we’re not talking just any house, but a newly renovated house from the 1900s with high ceilings, wood floors, natural light, and a garden. Did I mention they don’t have any pets?

Given that I’ve been living in hostels, sharing rooms with up to nine other people, and sleeping on air mattresses, pullout couches, and bunk beds for the past two months, if someone had offered me my own teepee it would have been too much.  The offer to live alone and rent-free in someone else’s spacious, modern home was like asking to borrow a cup of sugar and being handed an apple pie.   The day I moved into the house, I could barely concentrate on the homeowners’ last minute instructions. Luckily, I didn’t have to, as they had left me a note detailing phone numbers, security codes, and the location of the Tupperware and extra towels. It was like the first day of college, and I was waiting for my parents to leave and the fraternity party to begin. Except that binge drinking was not on my agenda for the evening.

As soon as the couple pulled out of the driveway, my night began.  I turned on the radio, dumped out the contents of all of my suitcases, stripped off my clothes, and did laundry naked, because I could.  Then I soaked in the claw-footed bathtub, made snow angels in the white sheets of my double bed, and fell asleep under the down comforter.  Oh, the joys of being a single girl in a new city where no one knows you.

This house performs miracles.  Lately, I’d been having a crisis of faith, uncertain if things were going to work out for me in Wellington or if I have what it takes to become a writer, here or anywhere.  The truth is that things are already going well, it just didn’t feel that way.  I’m impatient and anxious by nature – once I know what I want, I want it now, and the idea of “enjoying the process” is a little like trying to enjoy getting vaccinated before going on an African safari.  But this time, I wasn’t just talking about moving faster towards my goal.  I was talking about trading in my dream for another one.

I started to feel jealous of my roommates, with their nine-to-five office jobs and exam schedules (or maybe it was resentment over being woken up at 6:30am every morning).  They had somewhere to go and something to do each day, and something to show for it.  I began to covet my neighbor’s routine.  I wondered if being my own boss wasn’t a failed experiment, if I shouldn’t give up my desperate housewife lifestyle and literary aspirations and return to the office.  Or worse, return to school.  Luckily, before I could trade in my pen and paper for a business suit or textbook, I left the hostel.

One of the first things I did when I moved into the house (after cleaning up the mess I’d made and getting dressed) was go for a run.  There is a closed track around the corner, and I resigned myself to running around in a circle for 40 minutes while people in spandex mocked me openly.  But before I even finished my first lap, I saw a paved path in the distance, heading uphill.  Hmmm, I wonder where that goes? I thought, and I was off on an adventure. I discovered children playing soccer (on a field next door to a pistol range), numerous parks, the bus stop, post office, supermarket, and library.  As I ran, uncovering the secrets of my new neighborhood, I was like a pig in mud. I remembered how much I enjoy exploring, and how liberating it feels to be able to go with the flow because you have nowhere you have to be next.  I remembered how thrilling it could be to veer off the beaten path, as long as you have somewhere safe to return to.

Many people like living in hostels.  Because their only ambition is to finance their travels and have a good time while they’re in town, they happily trade privacy and freedom for constant companionship and zero responsibilities.  But I have other priorities and other needs, and I found the hostel tiring and oppressive. Hostels may seem like a community, but they are governed by the Law of the Jungle.  Everyone circles the two computers like vultures circling their prey, boxing out anyone who tries to cut in before their turn.  Food left on the counter for more than five minutes is consumed before it can be placed in the free food container. And then there’s the battle for the bottom bunk.

Personally, I waited two weeks for one of my roommates to vacate her bed.  When I returned to the room on the day of her departure, I found that a new girl had claimed it, even though I had already placed my belongings on the corresponding shelf.  I kindly corrected her error, moving her stuff off of my bed.  Later, I discovered that she had made the bed, placing her possessions on top.  Again, I was forced to remove her things and replace them with my own.  When I got home that night, she was fast asleep in the top bunk.  All’s fair in love and bed wars.

Used to setting my own schedule, I found conforming to the pace of the hostel difficult.  I didn’t understand why strangers should inform when I eat, sleep, read, or go to the bathroom, and I hated having to lock my suitcase every time I left the room. What it takes to reach your goal is stamina, but fighting for counter space, waking up early to take advantage of the free breakfast, and waiting in line for the shower left me exhausted.  I wasn’t starved for stability.  I was desperate to get out of the hostel.  I literally felt like I was being pushed out the door.  However, without a home base, I was much less willing to venture out into the great unknown.

When I moved into the house, the only thing that really changed was that I had heated floors in the bathroom.  But that changed everything.  With a comfortable place to call my own (even if just for six weeks), I can finally see that I’m in a great place in my life.  I no longer feel limited by other people’s stuff or agendas.  I signed up for classes and returned to my interests and activities because I have space to spread out and the resources that I need in order to stay organized.  Content with meandering towards my goal and easing into my new life, I no longer feel the need to rush anywhere.  Sure, I have to find another job (because the one I have won’t pay the bills) and a flat (because, unfortunately, I can’t stay here forever), but not this week.

The first phase of moving abroad is definitely the hardest, full of uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety. It’s easy to lose perspective, especially when you focus on what you gave up to come here rather than on what you already have or stand to gain.  But it can also be the most fun because everything is new and novel, and everyday is unpredictable and exciting.  For a while, I was so unsettled that it was upsetting, distracting, and demoralizing.  But now I’m ready to face the world because I know that at the end of the day I can come home and slam the door in its face.

Follow me on Twitter

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 10 other followers