Observations of a Kiwi Culture

It’s amazing the number of differences you can identify when travelling in another westernized, English-speaking country.  There are so many similarities that sometimes the differences can be jarring.  At first this left me on edge—going through daily life unsure of when I’d encounter a difference, or discover I was doing something wrong.  Even simple things, like walking down the street, warranted adjustments.  As with driving, its customary to walk on the left side here. It only took one or two near collisions to adjust to that practice.  Now, a little over a month in, I find myself much more comfortable in my environment and even experiencing mild annoyance by those tourists still walking on the right.

If I’ve begun adjusting to the kiwi way of life, the mild annoyance I feel towards tourists is still 100% American.  I’ve found kiwis to be an altogether friendly (albeit private) and patient group of people.  The pace of life is much slower and taking time to get to know people is valued.  Prior to living here, I don’t think I fully grasped how rushed American life is and how vehemently we value our time.  Take walking down the street.  It takes me an extra 2-3 seconds to adjust for a tourist going against the flow of traffic.  Yet, there is a tiny piece of me (tiny being the operative word here….I’m not an insane person) that for 1-2 seconds afterwards feels annoyed that I was inconvenienced getting from point A to point B.  If kiwis feel the same way, they certainly don’t show it.  When driving on the small, windy, one lane roads on the South Island, I was regularly 20-30 km under the speed limit.  I did not once get tailed or honked at.  Locals stuck behind me would keep a safe distance until getting to a passing lane, at which point they would calmly pass me without throwing any rude gestures my way. Perhaps this level of patience is why New Zealand can safely have small, windy roads throughout.

Our teacher cohort and spouses have become a tight knit group. Here are just some of us at The Library.

In addition to patience, there is a lot of value placed on relationships.  I think I can speak for most of my cohort when I say this has been an adjustment.  It’s not that American’s don’t find value in relationships.  It’s that, yet again, we very strongly value our time.  As we make connections for our research, we find that not only are some people happy to give their time to help, but they prefer to get to know us first.  This goes back to kiwis being private.  Yes, they are friendly and willing to help, but they want to build a relationship before they really let you in.  This takes more time.

At the rooftop bar and restaurant near our apartment enjoying some birthday sangria.

To an American, this is unique.  If I were conducting research in the US, I would expect many professionals to deny me their time.  If they did give me their time, I’d surely only be given one meeting and there’d be an expectation of cutting to the chase, being direct about what I needed, and not wasting time with small talk.  Here, I’ve contacted government officials who are not only willing to talk to me, they are excited too.  When I requested one person speak with me, I got several.  I can assume that I’ll need to brush up on my chitchat before heading in.

In a lot of restaurants, cutlery is left for you to grab as needed.

Beyond personality differences, there have been procedural differences that take adjusting to also.  Cafes and restaurants lend a plethora of examples.  For one, food and drink establishments close here!  If you see a cute café and think, “Maybe I’ll try that tomorrow,” you better check that it is actually open tomorrow.  By my estimation, restaurants are open about 5 days a week, sometimes more in bigger cities.  Even if they are open 7 days a week, their hours are not what an American would expect.  There are numerous cafes around Wellington that do not open until 8am.  When you consider what a large coffee culture there is here, it’s shocking to me that people haven’t rioted to get that 6am cup of joe.  Then again, there doesn’t seem to be much of a crowd out and about long before 8am—slower pace of life and all.

Some delicious whitebait in Queenstown.

Paying the bill at a restaurant was perhaps the most awkward adjustment thus far.  I had been warned that you do not pay at your table but had neglected to ask for all the details on how to go about paying.  This left Elijah and I, on one of our first nights here, sitting at a table, empty plates in front of us, discreetly watching to see what the table next to us would do as they finished.  The answer is this: they do not bring a bill to your table (I was unsure if it was like some places in the US where they bring your bill and then you take it to the cash register to pay), at your leisure you go to the till, tell them what table your were at, and pay.  Upon discovering this, there was still a period of adjustment.  For one, there isn’t a universal place to pay.  Sometimes, you go to the bar.  A lot of times, you go back to the hostess stand.  Never, is the cash register consistently manned.  I finally learned to look for the computer.  If you get up from your table and make your way towards the computer, someone will intercept you to take your payment.

Delicious cabinet food in one of the cafes.
Chia pudding.
Gluten free lemon bread.

Cafes are a bit easier.  These are similar to the US in that you usually order at the counter and are given a number to take to your table.  There, they deliver to you all the delicious tea, coffee, and pastries you have ordered—usually more than you intended to order and definitely more than you needed to order.  You don’t feel guilty though, because it is SO DELICIOUS.  New Zealanders will brag about their world class coffee, and they should.  They have every right too.  They also have world class dairy.  This makes cappuccinos, lattes, flat whites, etc. incredible.  I know because I steal sips of Elijah’s and then I elegantly sip the peppermint tea that has been served to me in my personal ceramic teapot with matching cup and saucer, and I feel very classy.  It is impossible to just go into one of these establishments and walk away with only a drink, or rather, it takes the utmost self-control.  Every café has at least one case filled with the most delicious looking breads, desserts, and pastries.  To my delight, there are always several marked with a lovely little “gf df.”  If I return to the US 20lbs heavier and blissfully happy, you can be sure it was the cafes. 

Elijah’s taken to drinking cappuccino’s because both the milk and the coffee here are so good.

One month in, the nuances of New Zealand life are starting to make sense.  I feel myself slowing my pace and enjoying the seemingly mandatory midday breaks for tea everyone takes.  I’m enjoying working through the early afternoon, and then taking mid-day adventures to explore this new city I call home. I look forward to the myriad of differences I’m sure I’ll encounter when I start visiting schools.  For now, I keep plugging away at ethic’s approval so that come March 12, I can start researching!

If you’re not already, be sure to follow my instagram to keep up with all the latest photos and videos. @maggieseegerskelley

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