Whadarya? Some thoughts on being a New Zealander overseas

There’s nothing quite like being overseas to make you think about home.

On a recent trip to Europe I found I was pleased when people asked me where I was from, and that I felt proud to say ‘New Zealand’. This was a bit of a surprise to me, but I think my pride came from two things.

Firstly, New Zealand is a ridiculously long way from anywhere, especially Europe, and I thought they should be impressed that I’d travelled such an enormous distance (and many people were – and I was rather impressed myself).

Secondly, I was pleased to let them know that I wasn’t American or English or Australian or any of the other slightly less exotic and, I suspect, more annoying tourist possibilities. (As much as I’d like to be mistaken for a local, with my paleness and limited knowledge of any language other than English, that was not likely to happen in Italy or Greece. And in fact my pale friend who is actually Greek often gets mistaken for a tourist, but that’s a whole other story.)

Gratuitous holiday snap from one of my favourite places (Oia, Thira)

Gratuitous holiday snap from one of my favourite places (Oia, Thira)

I’m sure individual American tourists, for example, are completely lovely, but I did notice a general level of demandingness that most ‘I’m-not-really-a-tourist-I’m-a-traveller’ New Zealanders don’t have. And I didn’t want the waiters or shop keepers or ticket sellers to think that I was going to waltz on in to their country and start demanding things.

At home in New Zealand I have to admit I don’t feel that I entirely fit into this culture. I don’t like rugby, that universal topic of conversation (though I do have some interest in the weather – that other universal topic of conversation). I’m not really that interested in sports at all. I’m not much of a DIYer; I don’t hunt, fish, tramp or rock-climb, I have neither a bach nor a crib. I don’t like beer. ‘Mate’ and ‘cheers’ aren’t in my vocabulary. (Please don’t throw me out.) But overseas I was proud to be a New Zealander, which suddenly seemed to mean a certain kind of polite intrepidness rather than a sporty repression.

For Wellingtonians overseas, finding a decent coffee is a major concern

For Wellingtonians overseas, finding a decent coffee is a major concern

What are New Zealanders like overseas? What are New Zealanders like in general? Well, according to the American sitting behind me on the plane to LA, who I overheard talking to the English woman next to him, New Zealanders are friendly. He was at the end of his first visit to New Zealand, which he had enjoyed. He said he had been told New Zealanders were friendly, and indeed, in his new experience, they were. Americans could be friendly, he said, but it was often false. Australians also were quite friendly, but New Zealanders were even friendlier. And he had a theory about why this was. Australia is like a big brother to New Zealand, in the same way the US is to Canada, and so, because of this rivalry, New Zealand needed to be even better at things than Australia. Hence New Zealanders needed to be even friendlier than Australians.

I found his theory interesting, but unconvincing. If New Zealanders are indeed so friendly (are we really?), I suspect it’s probably more to do with our belief in egalitarianism (which these days, with increasing inequality in New Zealand, is not actually reflected in reality), along with our desire for people from the outside world to love us (‘So … what do you think of New Zealand?’).

Back home in New Zealand (click for image credit)

Back home in New Zealand (click for image credit)

A last anecdote vaguely related to the topic at hand – which I guess must be New Zealand identity – in Vienna we rushed into the Art History Museum (more properly the Kunsthistorisches Museum) with less than an hour until closing time. The ticket seller made sure we knew how little time we had before he would sell me the tickets (we did, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see just one thing – frescos painted by Gustav Klimt above the grand staircase). Then he asked me where we were from. ‘New Zealand,’ I said. ‘A very long way,’ he said. ‘Yes,’ I agreed. Then he said, obviously trying to be witty, ‘Where is Harry Potter?’ I was bamboozled, but smiled my polite New Zealand smile, and it wasn’t until a few minutes later that I realised he’d confused one fantasy film series – Harry Potter – with another: the Lord of the rings. Perhaps that’s what we are to the world: extras from Middle Zealand – as the Lego movie (which I watched on the plane on my way home) humorously called us. Oh well, it’s nice to be back in my castle.

What do you think? What are New Zealanders like? What are we like overseas? Are we actually that friendly? Leave a comment!

3 comments have been added so far

  1. Comment made by Sarah Jane Barnett || June 16th, 2014

    What a thoughtful post. The other day I was talking to an American friend about the differences between American and NZ culture, and the consensus we came to is that America – broadly speaking, of course – has more of a culture of fear than New Zealand. I think that is where New Zealander’s friendliness comes from; we expect people to have kind intentions. I’ve noticed that one of my other American friends (now a citizen) tends to expect the worst of people’s motives, whereas I expect the best. The same with my husband who is British. Maybe this is because our settler roots are still quite current, and settlers had to work together to survive.

    Also, I think that there are a lot of New Zealanders that aren’t interested in those stereotypical NZ pursuits: rugby, the outdoors, and beer. While this may have been the New Zealand of the 1980s (that fits my memories, and they don’t go back before that decade so I can’t comment on the rest!), the image of that sort of New Zealander has persisted longer than its reality.

  2. Comment made by Laurice || June 16th, 2014

    I’m a bit older than Sarah Jane, and when I was a kid it was all about rugby, racing and beer. Much as you might think those are dominant now (though racing not so much), they are nothing compared to the dominance they held in the late 50s and 60s, and women didn’t really count either way.

    My overseas experiences are a bit more limited, but I once smiled at a guard(?)/police officer(?) at Schipol Airport after I left Customs and she took me back and searched my luggage. I tried explaining to her that I am a New Zealander and we smile at everyone, but it did no good. I guess she hadn’t heard about how friendly we are.

    And whenever I return from a jaunt abroad I am amazed (and delighted) anew at the comparative friendliness of NZ Customs Officers. It really stands out, so I think that must have an influence on the impression visitors have of us in the current global atmosphere of distrust, in North America especially.

  3. Comment made by Ewan || June 20th, 2014

    Interesting piece, thanks Helen. Here is some research on whether New Zealanders see rugby as part of their national identity (about a quarter strongly disagreed with the statement that liking rugby is part of being a true New Zealander):


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