In praise of Kiwi-dom

Hillary Clinton wisely observed that New Zealand punches well above its weight in the international arena.  She’s not the first to say this, and I doubt she’ll be the last.  And she couldn’t have been more right.

I think for most people in the US, the concept of New Zealand is rather fuzzy.  Before moving here, I always assumed that New Zealand was a stone’s throw from Australia.  And while Australia is New Zealand’s closest “big” neighbor, Antarctica is in the same block.

Where in the world is New Zealand?

That's New Zealand. The long speck at the left, bottom

To put this into perspective, Australia is approximately 1,826 miles away from New Zealand, which is roughly the flying distance between Savannah and Las Vegas (give or take a few miles).  Antarctica is approximately 3,000 miles away from New Zealand, which is a bit more (by 200 miles) than the flying distance between Key West and Seattle. Fiji and Tonga are both closer to New Zealand, at 1,615 and 1,483 miles away, respectively.

These sound like huge distances, and they are.  But when you’re on a small island at the bottom of the South Pacific, you’ll take your neighbors where you can find them.

But let’s take a moment and talk about size.  The size of New Zealand (a composite of all of the islands making up the country) is comparative to the state of Colorado. New Zealand’s population (approximately 4.36 million) is a bit more than the population of Kentucky and a bit less that the population of Louisiana.  For comparison purposes, the population of Colorado is approximately 4.95 million.   (2010 US Census).

So.  We have a country at the bottom of the world, roughly the size of Colorado, and with only 4.36 million people, which sits in the shadow of its much larger neighbor, Australia.  What could New Zealand possibly offer on the international stage?  A lot.

Here’s what I’ve learned about Kiwis.

Kiwis are brave and willing as:

ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) memorial

In the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, 2,721 New Zealand soldiers were killed and 4,852 were seriously wounded.  Just taking into account those who died, that represented approximately one percent of New Zealand’s population at the time.

Consider that figure in US numbers. America’s current population is approximately 312 million.  Losing one percent of the US population in a single military campaign would equate to roughly 3.12 million people.  This would be like losing the entire population of Iowa and her visitors. 

That is an especially sobering thought when you consider that the Kiws and the Turks who fought against each other in the Gallipoli campaign were considered expendable pawns in a far more deadly game.

Kiwis have a long, distinguished history of performing well in conflict.  Consider the 28th Maori Battalion in World War II.  Among other successes, it was responsible for almost completely destroying a German panzer grenadier battalion in March 1943.

After 9/11,New Zealand was one of the first nations to offer its assistance.  It still is.

While New Zealand is small, and even the Kiwis joke about the Navy consisting of single dinghy, never underestimate the ingenuity and tenaciousness of a New Zealander.

Kiwis are ingenious as:

And speaking of ingenuity, the phrase “Kiwi ingenuity” doesn’t just refer to things held together by string and tape.  Here’s just a sample of the things Kiwis did first:

  • They split the atom.   Kiwi, scientist and Nobel Prize winner Baron Ernest Rutherford was the first in the world to split the atom in 1919.
  • They invented the eggbeater, spiral hair pin, and the first burglar-proof window.  All three are courtesy of Ernest Godward, who was British born, but emigrated to New Zealand in his teens.
  • Jet boats, water sprinklers, advanced air compressors, and a thingy that smooths ice on ice ponds.  All of these were courtesy of Sir William Hamilton.
  • Jogging.  Yes, jogging is a Kiwi invention thought up by Arthur Lydiard.

You also have Kiwis to thank for items like disposable hypodermic syringes; spreadable butter; tranquilizer guns; referee whistles; and air-tight lids.  And of course, New Zealand is the birthplace of the Bungy.

 Kiwis are egalitarian as:

While egalitarianism permeates most structures in New Zealand, what I’m really referring to is the fact that New Zealand completely ignores its size and thumbs its nose at the strictures of hierarchy, whether at work, or in government.

Consider that the US wanted to dock the USS Buchanan (a ship that may or may not have been nuclear powered and/or carrying nuclear weapons—the US would neither confirm nor deny) at a New Zealand port. New Zealand said no.  Why?  Because New Zealand had declared itself a nuclear-free zone (in part, in response to the request to dock) and wasn’t interested in budging on that.

The US responded by suspending its ANZUS alliance obligations to New Zealand.

According to Wikipedia (you know, the font of all knowledge), “New Zealand’s three decade anti-nuclear campaign is the only successful movement of its type in the world which resulted in the nation’s nuclear-free zone status being enshrined in legislation.”

I think there was a healthy consideration of, “Who was New Zealand to tell the US that they couldn’t park their boat in New Zealand”?    Who was New Zealand?  She was herself.  That’s pretty darn cool, when you think about it.

nuclear-free protestors in NZ. (Image courtesy of NZhistory.net)

But beyond a little nation saying “no” to a big nation, since moving to New Zealand, I’ve seen strikes, protests, sit-ins, rallies, marches, and other forms of political expression about everything from caged chickens, to worker’s rights, to the price of milk.

What is most incredible to me is that, as an American, I am bemused by this.  That’s extraordinarily sad, really.  When I think about why I’m bemused, it’s because if I were at home, I probably wouldn’t bother with making protest fliers or marching on Parliament.  Perhaps I’ve become too jaded and apathetic about the “little guy’s” voice being anything more than a whisper against the din of political self-interest.

Either way, New Zealand is refreshing in its egalitarian zeal.  I find myself protective of that earnestness, that true belief that every voice matters; every vote counts.

That extends to personal issues as well. New Zealand recognizes same sex marriage and civil unions.  All people—gay, straight, transgendered, whatever—are afforded a level of dignity and normalcy that I can’t say I’ve seen in other places.

And finally (and some would say most importantly), I close with the fact that New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote.  In 1893, no less.

That, to quote a good friend, is ‘Choice, bro.’

Rocks and Islands and Life’s Eternal Question

Since moving to New Zealand, I have accepted rides from strangers.  I have been kicked out of a bar (by association).  I have habitually jaywalked.

I have faced the prospect of being alone in a place so very far away from home.

I have been more straight-forward with people on difficult subjects.  I have dressed up like a zombie.  On purpose.  In public.

I have asked a total stranger for his phone number (for a friend).  I have met the total stranger with my friend at a bar (not the one I was asked to leave).

I have successfully driven on “the wrong side of the road” for over a year.

I have had fun.  I have been scared.  I have been sad.  I have been angry.

I have learned that I like Indian food, that I like eating more vegetables than meat, that I can tell the difference between a good laksa and a not-so-good laksa.  I have learned that pumpkin and kumara humus is delicious.

I have learned that some things in life are sacred.  They are, in no particular order: love, loyalty, curiosity, friends, laughter, and cornbread.  But only cornbread like my Papa used to make.  I have accepted that I will never be able to make it the same way.

I have learned that the core of me is the same, no matter where I live or what I do, but that I can change.  That I have changed.  That I am changing.  That I will continue to change.

I now wear patterns (occasionally) and layers and boots and scarves and don’t worry about standing out.

I think about all of these things as I get ready to leave for a trip home next week.

I wonder if my friends will think I’ve changed?  Will I think they’ve changed?  Will I miss Wellington?  Will I want to leave Savannah?  Will I ask for coriander and courgette instead of cilantro and zucchini?

Will I unthinkingly say, “Cheers, mate,” instead of “Thank you.”?  Actually, that’s a very unlikely scenario.

I have no idea how I will respond to any of these potential questions.  And (maybe this is the Kiwi creeping in me), aside from mentioning all of these things here, I don’t really care.

I can’t wait to see Wright Square, to have lunch at the Pink House, to eat real pulled pork with mustard sauce, coleslaw, and maybe a rib or two.

But in saying that, I know I’ll miss hearing the Tui birds sing every morning and that cheeky cat who saunters along the waterfront.  I’m going to miss Rahzoo and walking the waterfront on Sunday mornings.

In short, I’ll miss home when I’m home.

It’s a very odd feeling to have one foot in Savannah and the other in Wellington.  The halves of you are stretched between two planes of existence, and you never wholly fit into either.

Though in saying that, the constant stretch and pull of finding my center when I’m not sure where center is has provided unparalleled opportunities for growth and experience.  And I love Wellington, and New Zealand, and on most days, feel like this *is* home.

At its worst—on days when I feel isolated and sad and unsure of where I am and what I’m doing—having two homes is a displacing, discomfiting existence.

We need an anchor in life.  I disagree with Simon and Garfunkel—we are not rocks, we are not islands.  But even if you were an island, sometimes, the best of yourself fails you, and you need the warm, comforting blanket of familiarity and history.  You need the terra firma of a back garden in Brunswick,Georgia or a front porch in Savannah,Georgia.  That is your rock.  That is your island.  That is what gets you through the times when you’re experiencing a sort of emotional vertigo.

I saw a German film at the NZ International Film Festival called, At Ellen’s Age.  It was a weird, disjointed film about a middle-aged woman whose entire life turns upside down and—in an effort to discover who she is without the definitions of her job and her partner, she careens from one bizarre experience to another.  I didn’t particularly like the film, but I knew exactly where Ellen was coming from and why she did some of the things she did.  I understood the choices she made in the end.

We are all pursuing our authentic selves.  Part of human experience is stripping away the layers and definitions and wondering, “Who am I”?

I had a voice teacher who told me once that she would study voice until the day she stopped singing.  When I asked her why she would do that, why she would continue to learn about something she had obviously mastered, she replied:

“When you stop learning, you stop living.”

Well, indeed.

Here’s to a few more rides with strangers, trips to unknown, faraway places, and the knowledge—that when I need it—my rock is still there.  Waiting for me to find home.  Wherever “home” may eventually be.

Where is your home?  How have you dealt with feeling displaced, whether by geography or something else?

The day I called the Wellington Central Library a toliet

I confess.  It’s true.  I called the Wellington Central library a toilet.

It was completely unintentional.  You see, I called it a wharapaku (pronounced FAR-eh-pah-koo), instead of a whare pukapuka (FAR-eh-poo-kah-poo-kah).  The importance of this will soon become clear.

I have always loved languages.  Over the last few years I have slowly been delving into Te Reo Maōri, which is the Maōri language.   It is an evocative, beautiful language.

But even if I didn’t love learning new languages, living in New Zealand requires a very basic understanding of many common Maōri words and phrases.  Regardless of whether you’re Maōri or Pakeha (non-Maōri European), everyone knows that you eat kai (food); that when you say Kia ora, you’re informally saying hello; and that the world needs more aroha (love).  Morena is “Good morning” and ka kite ano (pronounced kah KEE-tay AH-no), roughly translates to, “See you again.”  Iwi (pronounced EE-wee) refers to a tribal family, but it also means bones. 

Place names in New Zealand are often made up of component words and are poetic translations.  You can usually puzzle out what many words mean simply by knowing what each component means.  For instance, Aotearoa (OW-te-ah-row-ah) translates to land of the long white cloud and is the Maōri name for New Zealand. 

Another good example is Wainuiomata (pronounced Why-new-ee-oh-mah-tah).  Wainuiomata is a suburb of the HuttValley, just outside of Wellington.  Wai means water.  Nui means big.  O means of, and Mata could refer to a person’s name.  So, one possible translation is ‘the place of Mata’s big water’. 

I did a little bit of Googling to see if I was right.  According to wainuiomata.net, I was close.  It states:

The origins of the word are disputed, but one commonly accepted translation refers to the women who came over the Wainuiomata Hill to evade marauding tribes from the north, and who sat wailing by the stream after the slaughter of their menfolk. From this we have ‘faces streaming with water’ or ‘tears’ although it could equally refer to the large pools of water which lay over the swampy surface (face) of the northern end of the Valley, and which led to that area being known to the first settlers as ‘The Lowry Bay Swamp’.

 See?  Fabulous.  There are all sorts of great stories behind the origins of Te Reo Maōri words. 

Te Reo Maōri is also constantly evolving.  For instance, traditional Te Reo Maōri didn’t have a word or concept for airplane.  So the Te Reo Maōri translation for airplane is waka rereangi, which literally means canoe sailing in the sky.  (Generally speaking, waka refers to any and all forms of transport). 

As part of that evolution, you find a lot of transliterations in Te Reo as well.  The traditional word for Monday, for example, is Rāhina (RAH-hee-nah), but its transliteration is “Mane” (pronounced, MAH-neh). 

To be fair, though, knowing a little Te Reo is like knowing a little French—you generally wind up unintentionally insulting someone when trying to ask for a glass of water.  And that’s exactly what happened when I called the Wellington Library a toilet.

The word for toilet in Te Reo is wharepaku, which (as I understand it) translates roughly to small (paku) house (whare).  (Though in this sense, I think “small” is less of a description of size—which would more likely be “iti’—than a description of stature). 

The word for library whare pukapuka roughly translates to house of books. 

I realise that these are very distinct concepts and words.  However, for someone who knows so little about the language, wharepaku sort of kind of maybe sounds a bit like whare pukapuka. 

So, as T and I strolled through theWellingtonCBD one Saturday afternoon and I pointed to the grand Wellington Central Library and said, “Look, it’s the wharapaku!”, you can imagine why he choked on his soda and started laughing. 

As you can see, the Wellington Central Library is not insubstantial. And it is definitely NOT a toilet!

Te Reo Maōri is an official language of New Zealand, but there was a time when children in school were forbidden to speak it.  There was a time in the not so distant past when it seemed as if Te Reo would die an unceremonious and needless death.  Through many recent efforts and much encouragement—both private and public—there is now a slow and steady movement towards more New Zealanders having a working fluency in Te Reo. 

I tell this story (and give you this lesson) because I think it’s important to preserve indigenous culture.  A huge part of that preservation is maintaining a base of knowledge of the language.  Without the language, we are lost.  I realise it may seem odd that an American living in New Zealand is saying this.  Maybe it is odd.  I don’t know.  I guess part of it is that so much of the Native American culture is now lost, as are the people, the languages, the crafts.  The history.  Perhaps that’s why I’m so keen on this topic.  For me (and for my wounded pride) I hope that means that many, many more people will proudly (albeit mistakenly) point to the library and exclaim, “Look!  There’s the toilet!”

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Skirt-Like-Thing

I am not a fashionista.  My wardrobe sits comfortably in the range of “mainstream safety” with occasional forays into “mainstream quirk”.  But, above all else, I do not mix and match.  My blacks go with my blacks.  Sometimes, I add something red, just to be controversial. 

Moving to Wellington meant throwing all of that out of the window.  Suddenly, stripes and plaids mixed together; vintage looks were popular (to the point that I thought someone was a historical re-enactor.  No.  She was just on her way to work); and things I considered very racy (fishnet tights, stiletto heels), were daytime de rigour

I have become a bit more experimental with what I wear, but I wanted to take it a step further.  I wanted to find something that was uniquely New Zealand fashion that I could take home with me for my upcoming visit.  Something that would totally up my “cool” factor. 

So I decided to go to DeNada.  I love DeNada.  It’s a lovely boutique full of strange and interesting clothing options that are ridiculously expensive for what they are but intrinsically lovely all the same. 

I have to confess that, heretofore, I’d never actually purchased anything from DeNada.  There are three reasons for this.  One, the price.  Two, the fit (I’m a bit more ample than the target customer).  Three, my complete befuddlement at how some of the garments are meant to be worn.  Or even gotten into.  But I had this moment of capriciousness and decided that I wasn’t leaving until I had a new, lovely, tres chic garment.

Now, had this occurred at home, at least three of my friends would have stopped me.  Or they would have at least gone with me to make sure that I wasn’t going to be a walking fashion disaster.  SL, with her critical eye, could say—without malice—“No, that’s not you.”  She saved me from a very awkward sweater purchase once.  LA would encourage me to branch out, but would also politely tell me when something worked or didn’t.  LA convinced me to buy a pair of shoes that have since become my favourites.  TM would tell me to “work it,” and convince to buy something that showed a peek of shoulder. 

LG, CS, IN, and TP–in their own ways—will tell me when something makes the best of my assets and when it doesn’t.  And they are tough.  Really tough.  And I love it. 

I trust these women with my lives.  Therefore, it was a suicide mission to walk into DeNada without them.

An hour later, I came skipping out of DeNada with a skirt-like-thing.  I say skirt-like-thing, because it wasn’t a skirt at all.  It was this odd tube of fabric with large, pointy panels in two colours draping down my front and rear with a large slit going up the side of the leg.  According to the sales clerk, it was a skirt meant to be worn over pants.  Or another skirt.  It was not, apparently, a skirt by itself. 

That seemed edgy.  Cool. Fashion forward.  And I liked it.  I happily handed over my credit card for the skirt-like-thing. 

The infamous skirt-like-thing, on it's way back to the store

Then I got home. 

I was so excited, I rushed upstairs to put it on, telling T that I wanted to show him my new skirt-like-thing. 

But what happened next was like waking up in the middle of the night to discover you really shouldn’t have eaten that second burrito. 

The skirt-like-thing looked very, VERY different in the far more judgmental mirror of my bathroom, than in the one in the shop.  Oh no!  What had I done?  How could my skirt-like-thing have forsaken me so quickly??

Sure that I was just being overly critical, I sloped downstairs intent on getting T’s honest appraisal.

I said to him, “I want your honest appraisal of this.  You won’t hurt my feelings, I promise.” 

T winced and an expression passed across his face that reminded me of the time that he ate some bad fish. 

“I don’t like these kinds of games,” he said warily. 

“I’m serious.  You won’t hurt my feelings.  Well, I mean, don’t say I look like a two-thousand pound hippo, or something.  Be constructive.  Non-emotive.  Tell it to me straight.”

The bad fish expression passed across his face again.  He opened his mouth and then closed it.  He motioned for me to twirl.  I did.  He opened his mouth again, blinked, and closed it shut.  He asked me to twirl again.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” I asked.  “That’s why you’re not saying anything.  Because it’s bad. I knew it was bad!”

“I didn’t say it was bad!” he rushed to say.  “I just … I mean … what is it?  Is it a skirt?  Is it missing some fabric?  I mean, it’s hard to really give you an opinion when you’re wearing it over your jeans.”

“You’re supposed to wear it over your jeans.”

T’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline, the universal symbol for, “You’re shitting me.”

“Really,” he asked. “Oh.  Okay.  Well … wait, so it is a skirt or is it … what is it?”

“It’s a skirt-like-thing.”

“Okay.”

“They said to wear it over pants.  Or another skirt.”

“Uh, huh.” 

“So what do you think,” I asked, sure he was stalling.

He did the mouth flapping thing again.  Cleared his throat.  Asked me twirl once more.  And then he stuttered, “I … well … I mean … it’s … I’m not sure … That is, I don’t know if …”

I sighed.  “It’s bad, right?”

“It just looks … complicated.”  Encouraged, he continued, “And I don’t know if that … well, I mean I love your—but I don’t think it plays to your best assets.  I mean—oh hell!  Why can’t you ask your girlfriends about this?”

I put him out of his misery and agreed that the skirt-like-thing was indeed a bit too complicated for my much more simple style and that it did, in fact, make my ass look like it was the size of an airplane hanger. 

I just know that if any of my girlfriends had been with me, they would have told me to step away from the skirt-like-thing and would have encouraged me to look at something else. 

I caution to add that it’s not as if I don’t have girlfriends here.  I do.  And they are amazing, lovely, wonderful women.  But history is important.  I have an insane amount of history with SL, LA, TP, CS,LG,IN, and TM.  I have barreled through more than one pint of ice cream with several of them—one or both of us crying our eyes out at the time.  I have rushed over to one’s house at 2 am when she needed me, and vice-versa.

We have been through the wars together.  We have talked and lived love, death, and taxes.  We have seen each other naked.  I don’t mean in the physical sense (though, yes, obviously we have had occasion to witness this).  I mean in the, “Oh, dear God, please don’t ever tell anyone that I {insert embarrassing/vulnerable moment}”.  That (among many things) keeps my defences low when I ask these women leading questions like, “Does this make me look fat?” 

We’re honest with each other and we don’t have to explain our motivations.  We know that whether it’s a skirt-like-thing, a relationship, or a work problem, we’re going to be straight with each other.  Why?  Because we love each other and we only want to see each other blossom.  Sometimes, to blossom, you have to step away from the skirt-like-thing. And sometimes, it takes someone you trust more than yourself to tell you. 

It’s like having seven sisters, really.  That’s the way I think of them.  It’s nice knowing that, even at 8,000 miles a way, I can still count on these women to keep me grounded, and to remind me that I’m loved.  And tell me if the skirt-like-thing makes me look fat.