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America not doing it for you any more?

As if on queue (considering the recent LA Times article), a few weeks ago I got an email from a stranger living in LA who is interested in moving to New Zealand. He asked a bunch of really good questions, so I thought I'd post up my response to him.

> How would you describe New Zealanders in general?

Kiwis, in general, are good solid people with a good heart and a friendly, outgoing, easy going disposition. A key personality trait is humility and self deprecation (almost to a fault). They are quite self aware, confident and proud of being kiwi, but in a very low key, unassuming way. Certainly not cocky. I don't think anybody could blame kiwis for being cocky!

Their sense of humor is extremely dry and, frankly, not funny. Of course, some kiwis are hilarious, but in general humor is sadly not their forte. Not that they don't appreciate good humor, they do.

And perhaps above all else, they are relaxed. I think there's something about being constantly on the fringe, realizing that nobody else knows that you exist means that you are free to just be yourself, because nobody's looking. They are not terribly self-conscious or self-obsessed. That would be the Aussies.

And because there are so few people here then you don't get the frenetic hysteria that happens in America. There's practically no hysteria of the media (although that's slowly creeping in). The cities are calm, there's enough room for everybody, and then some, so there isn't this constant anxiety and confrontation (although I hear Auckland isn't quite so calm and roomy these days).

In the US, there is a constant sense of confrontation. In the US, in normal day to day interactions with people there is this tension, a palpable friction. It's always you against them, cuz somebody is going to get fucked, and you're going to make damn sure it isn't you.

Here people are genuinely, sincerely eager to help you out. At stores, clerks will go out of their way to help you. They'll help give you directions to their competitors. And they will always tell you when you can get something cheaper. This is not in the 'customer service policy' forced congeniality way. It is their nature. Although, unfortunately, you can see that the customer service forced congeniality is sadly creeping in as bigger chain based institutions emerge.

> What‚s their attitude toward „transplants‰?

I think they're very welcoming to transplants. Particularly if you're not Asian. They definitely have a racial problem with Asians. Part of the reason for that is WWII and the fact the NZ almost got invaded. But it's mostly about the fact that there has been a massive wave of immigration from Asia and Asians are generally not renowned for assimilating.

I think they hold Americans in very high esteem. Too high, I'd say. They seem to have reverence for Americans like for an older sibling. Seen as a little bit wiser, a little bit more experienced. Not that they agree with the American way of life, or certainly American foreign policy. And similar to a sibling dynamic, usually the younger one is smarter and more experienced because the older one is in fact lazy and self-obsessed, while the younger one quietly over achieves. And I'd definitely say kiwis are quiet over achievers.

> Are most
> people you know local or from places beyond?

Most the people I know are from work, most of whom are kiwis, but at my work there is oddly a large contingent of Americans. I haven't really been networking much, just because I've got a family. My wife knows mostly kiwis via her kid related activities (kindy, etc). And our neighbors are certainly kiwi.

I definitely know quite a few Americans. There are tons of them here. Not a day goes by without hearing an American accent on the street.

There are quite a few Brits here as well. And Canadians. And like I said, heaps of Asians. Strangely, I don't think I've ever even had a conversation with a single Asian. Wait, one Japanese guy. There's also a lot of Indians living here, kind of like in London.

And there is a large population of Samoans here. I do mean large. They are some BIG people. They're great. They have this really cool accent. I'm still not very good at telling the difference between native Maori and Samoans. I think a lot of Maori culture picks up on the Samoan vibe, cuz it's cool, and it's "closer to their island roots".

Relations between Pakeha (whitey) and Maori is a constant point of discussion, debate and noise in contemporary New Zealand culture. It's an ongoing debate about settlement and tribal rights. Somewhat similar to the Native American debate. But kiwis are quite liberal in their willingness to negotiate and accommodate. I consider myself quite liberal, but when I look at the Maori claims I just think about how they were a tribal society and when one tribe conquered the previous tribe there were no negotiations, no accommodations. So it's fascinating to see the dynamic of the relationship, which is completely different to the way Americans would handle it!

But there's definitely not that same high degree of mixed ethnicities here as there is in the States. By and large, it's pretty damn white. As you might expect, there's also not that same high level of racial tension and racial violence.

> What was the hardest thing to adjust to?

The weather is a major factor. The weather can be quite epic. New Zealand is an island in the South Pacific, so it gets big weather. Big winds, big rains, and it can get bitterly cold. And it can change on a dime. Having said that, climate-wise it's not hugely different to San Francisco. It's a bit colder, a bit wetter. However, when it's sunny here, it is intensely sunny.

The weather itself wasn't the hardest thing to adjust to. It's the housing. The kiwis are hearty folk. They don't mind a bit of cold. NONE of their houses have central heating. Absolutely forget about it. That was a shocker. They heat their houses with these tiny little electric heaters. It's absurd. And most of their houses don't have insulation. It's freezing, the wind is literally blowing right through the house, and the wind is violently rattling the windows and threatening to lift the house of the ground. I'm talking hurricane force winds.

The other big thing that's very hard to adjust to is the cost of living. It is very expensive to live here. Particularly living on the kiwi dollar. Housing right now is quite expensive, cuz NZ is all of sudden a hot spot. We pay $500 per week for our house and we got a fantastic deal (it's a big 4br family house with a big garage and a big yard in a great suburb - for a 2br the minimum you could expect to pay is $300 per week - and when you pay by the week you're paying the equivalent of an extra month's rent by US pay-per-month standards). You tend to get a lot more for your money, housing wise, but it's not entirely cheap.

And food is OUTRAGEOUSLY expensive. Shocking. A typical dinner out for two, at a modest restaurant, is at least $50, no alcohol, just food. Bare minimum of $30. Soda is $2-3 a bottle. Bottled water is $2.50. Clothes are off the charts - nothing under $100, shirts, shoes, pants, most everything is $150-300 per item. Music CDs are $30 (not that I buy any). DVDs are $40. Magazines are $25!!! Books are $40. Movie tickets are $15. Cell phones are outrageously expensive: minimum $200 for the phone, calls are aprox $1/min.

Granted, a lot of that pricing accounts for the dollar conversion. But when you're living on NZ dollars you gotta do the conversion. And it hurts.

For Americans accustomed to a vast array of cheap consumer goods (electronics, furniture, books + magazines, etc) there just flat out is NO good shopping here. It's a bit like communist era eastern Europe when you want to go shopping, it can be quite depressing if you don't accept it and decide that shopping is a trade-off you're willing to make in exchange for the other pay-offs.

> What is the best/worst thing about being in NZ with a
> family?

NZ is extremely family friendly. Especially for having babies and young toddlers. Having the baby here was a great experience, with a lot of support that's standard and free. Like having an amazing midwife that does house calls! Followed by a Plunkett nurse, who again, does regular house calls as a standard part of the FREE service. Creche (nursery school from age of 1.5) is awesome and quite cheap. Kindy (kindergarten) is quite good, and free! Montessori is better and very affordable. The people are really nice, the schools are very good. And it's a great place to grow up. Beaches and farms, mountains and rivers and lakes, trees and grass. In every shop and cafe there is a pile of toys set up in a kid's play area. And kids really seem to treat each other with greater respect, and seem to really look out for each other. That might just be where we live, or it might be a skewed perception, but it definitely seems that way. And there are great public facilities, great swimming pools, great libraries, a great museum, playgrounds galore, and hey...insane as it sounds...clean public toilets everywhere.

The worst thing about being here with a family is that travel is quite expensive. Even getting around NZ is very expensive for us, especially if we want to fly. And travelling outside of NZ is prohibitively expensive. Even to Australia, it's $400 roundtrip per person and that's now during a big airfare war. For us four people, that's $1200 just to hop over to Australia. To go back to the States would cost $5000 just for airfare! So we don't really travel much. Which is something that you generally have to accept if you have a family, no matter where you are.

We still have gone a few holidays around NZ. And they have been fantastic. Down to Nelson and the Abel Tasman. Up to the Corromandel. Through Lake Taupo. It's all gorgeous, relatively affordable by car, and not overrun.

> What does the economy seem like? Small and localized,
> or does it seem like it‚s positioned for future growth
> (especially in the IT/internet area)?

The NZ economy is definitely positioned for future growth. But it's a small economy and it's very vulnerable, so it could fall over at any time, at the drop of a hat (any kind of agricultural disaster or tourism disaster and this place is fucked overnight). Having said that, it has been running solid all through the global downturn. It's definitely slowed down somewhat in the IT sector, but it's still quite vibrant. And it's hooked in, in a big way. You don't feel like you're out of the loop, missing out on any of the big action. Thru the magic of the interweb it's easy to stay up on everything and people here are very good at keeping themselves on top of the latest/greatest.

In general, the mood is very optimistic here. There is a lot happening. There's a lot of investment into infrastructure, into building the 'knowledge economy', and into making NZ a great place.

And I have to say that I've worked with THE ABSOLUTE most talented group of people I've ever come across. Hard working, smart as hell, and very clever. They keep hiring Americans thinking that we've got some special skills or special knowledge but it always turns out that the kiwis are better. Much better.

> If you could do it all over again, would you move to
> NZ?

Yes. Getting here was a bit of gamble and a bit of a mission. The process of moving was epic. But I'm extremely glad that we did it. I feel like we're in exactly the right place.

> Would you recommend others do the same?

Hard to say.

(a) no, because I don't want to ruin the place with more people :)

(b) yes, because I think it's great

but (c) what's great for me isn't necessarily great for someone else.

> And what stunning tidbit would you pass along to
> someone considering such a move?

If you move here you might never move back. Because you find life here is good, the people are good, and it has everything you want and need in a nice little package.

November 1, 2003 in emerging trends, New Zealand | Permalink


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I swear you are the Forrest Gump of today with a smart wired brain, jumping into the thick of it everywhere... just wanted to let you know that the LATimes article is gone, new URL to the archived/pay-per-view version is:


Posted by: Robb Ziegler at Nov 12, 2003 5:13:34 AM