Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Mysteries of New Zealand

Somehow it's already May and we're more than three months into this adventure/project/flight of fancy. For the most part we've made the adjustment with some semblance of grace. The daily operations of our business are now more or less a matter of rote (though much good work remains), our new life without a car remains a refreshing change of pace, and fiery sunrises over Wellington Harbour seem a welcome rule rather than a fleeting exception.

We've learned a thing or two about our new world and also discovered there really is the thing known as culture shock. In our experience it's not the total systemic disruption suggestion by the name, but rather the gradual accumulation of innumerable, seemingly insignificant, differences in ways of thinking, our expectations of native New Zealanders and theirs of us, and run-ins with the uncanny Kiwi approach to solving problems with limited resources.

For example, everything in New Zealand is metered. The minutes on your mobile phone, the gigs you download online, the liters of oxygen you breathe. There is good reason for this, as Everywhere Else Is Very Far Away, and the local population is insufficient, numerically speaking, to produce items in any kind of Quantity.

Add to this the stunning decision, in 1969, by the New Zealand Ministry of Standards, Higher Maths, and Weights of Things to abandon the Imperial system of counting for metrication and you have, for an American brain, a system tantamount to chaos. For, you see, such imposing standards are implemented with a firm irregularity, with the result that you measure (if so inclined) the energy contained in your food not by calories but by kilojoules (whatever they are); your height in the English way of feet and inches; your weight in kilograms . . . or stones -- unless of course, you are determining the mass of a baby, in which case pounds and ounces are your friends.

This same logic dictates that you use a teaspoon for tea but a dessert spoon for dinner, and probably also has something to do with the fact that you'll pay nearly NZ$200 for a pair of Nike basketball shoes circa 1985. Phone numbers are 9 or 10 digits long, with the area codes taking up between 2 and 4 of those digits, and are written in whatever pattern the owner chooses, so you can't rely on the usual mnemonics.

Also, cricket. It's not a Kiwi invention, but still.

Not all of New Zealand's Mysteries are so baffling. In the tradition of British wizardry, the Kiwis have developed a Defence [sic] against Phantom Power, that insidious energy sucker. Every outlet is outfitted with a handy switch that allows you to cut off the flow of electricity and thus prevent the Measurers from squeezing a few more cents out of your monthly power bill.

And then there's the Majestic. Perched atop this tower is a crown of lights (visible in the accompanying photograph). Since we took up residence in our apartment we have made an evening ritual of checking on the color of the lights, which typically go on at sunset. Some nights they are red, others green or blue, still others a flashing sequence of the full ROYGBIV spectrum. As with so many other things here, there seems to be no rhyme or reason, no governing standard, and I suppose that really is part of the charm of this place. You can't be complacent, for things are always changing, and you just might swipe your EFTPOS card the wrong way when purchasing your organic feijoas. Perhaps it's best to take after the little man I imagine is tucked away in his little cell by the Majestic's boiler room, madly pedaling his chromatocycle to power the lights that nightly shine over the city's shimmering waters.

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Anonymous Diane Cruz said...

Incredible post. I definitely remember my Kiwi culture shock when I moved there. I am so happy that you are there. Just the thought of you, Jenifer and Hawk cruising around Wellington without a car reminds me of more simple times living in Nelson. Thank you for reminding me to slow down here in San Diego rapid-pace land.

9:40 PM  

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