The New Zealand Wars

This page written circa 4 July, 2010.

Our Kiwi friend Garry asked us a few months ago "Is it safe to get friendly with you?". He was asking whether we planned to be in New Zealand for very long. His question has an uncomfortable aspect of relevance beneath the humour. Will we stay here? How long would you consider "long enough" to make it worth the risk of liking someone? Is liking someone that much of a risk?

My old friend Glenn posed the question from Aus: "Why on earth do you want to leave paradise?". Another good question. I am not sure we do want to leave here. True, I have always thought that as the kids grow up they will want to be in a city, "where the action is". When I moved to Wesley College I met a number of people who had come to Sydney from rural areas. Few ever returned. The world is urbanising. Cities are fun, except for the traffic and the noise and the cost.

So why might one want to leave Bywater Grange, and New Zealand? One must admit some shortcomings, true of any place. The shopping is poor, lots of stuff is unavailable or stupidly overpriced. We cope by shopping during our travels or internationally by internet. Rumour has it that Amazon lands a container a day of books in NZ. You can imagine what this does to local bookshops' turnover. It is cheaper to buy from Amazon, and now even cheaper through, so local book sellers have little chance of getting traction. Delicious foods are highly seasonal, raspberries are available about 6 weeks of the year. Jimmy's Sate is unobtanium. Many model railway things are not imported at all. I cannot get exciting colours of Levis. There is a lot of nickel-and-diming that goes on here. Sparse population implies a scarcity of resources, so what you gain in one way costs you in another.

Also on the negative, NZ has an attitude problem. Service is often lousy. Many of the denizens do not show a particularly strong work ethic. (It was so in Australia when we left.) In spite of being one of the best-travelled peoples, many Kiwis exhibit complete ignorance of how the rest of the world works. It must be hard to make a business flourish here, despite sound small-business incentives. I speculate that this attitude is reinforced by two mechanisms, or rather two instances of the same mechanism, the tendency for "race memory" to last a long time. Brits are the largest immigrant group by far, and a significant fraction of them hold to an inner belief that the world owes them a living. This is not a good attitude to hold, and these "whinging Poms" must embarrass their more positive countrymen. In Sydney, Greek, Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese and other immigrant groups came in waves and worked hard, they did the grubby jobs that the Mexicans do in CA, and those immigrants came with a strong work ethic, they boosted the economy, plus they introduced new foods and culture. An 'insularity arising from past superiority' characterised the UK in the 20th century. Now that is collapsing Brits escape out here... where there is a healthier economy and fewer "foreigners" (I have actually had that quoted to me in all seriousness as a reason for having emmigrated to New Zealand!). A second attitude feeder is the "Polynesian" lifestyle. For centuries the natives in these parts have pretty much lived on warm beaches, eating tropical fruit and fishing the seas. This lifestyle is laudably idyllic, but it does not cut the mustard if you want MP3 players and a strong health system.

On the plus side, Kiwis are famed for their 'can-do' attitude. In a country where wages are low and commodities are scarce, they have become expert at fixing problems with what they have on hand - they call this the #8 wire mentality (the idea that many things can be fixed with a piece of fencing wire, which admittedly is ubiquitous here!). This is reminiscent of the can-do attitude that epitomised the Brits in WWII---you don't buy an answer to your problems if you can make it yourself. There is a self-sufficiency about the average Kiwi.

Also on the plus side, the cost of living in New Zealand is low, according to an American connection who lived here and is now in Australia. If you do not seek the exotic, it is probably the most economical English-speaking, Western-lifestyle country. From real estate to bread and milk, prices are very reasonable.

Our friend Wil contends that the disadvantages are necessary consequences of the advantages, mostly the sparse population, the very geographical separation that has left the place without predators or poisonous creatures and with huge unspoilt vistas like unto Middle Earth. I have come to agree with Wil's take, with the exception of the attitude problem. The weak attitude is a "soft" failing, and not one that the hard-core Kiwi deserves. It can be contrasted with the "hard" resoure issues, tradeoffs of the situation, and it is out of alignment with the self-sufficiency. The attitude could change, indeed I believe it will have to change for NZ to compete in the 21st century. I fear the change will require a severe crunch, such as the one that occurred in the 1970s and propelled NZ painfully into the global economy of the 20th century.

I don't plan to be caught in that crunch, by the way, any more than Kay and I fancied being caught by the current US recession. On our recent visit I was struck by the palpable impact of the recession. I saw a ghost-town air in the malls, floor attendants were almost non-existent in Sears and the like. I was left with the impression that floor stocks were low. Cash is king. Prices are painfully low. Kay's favourite dumpster-diving haunts did not yield the usual "bargains and treasures". Our old house in Santa Rosa is on the market for US$180k less that we got when we sold it. Its mortgage is probably underwater, like so many houses there. "It's a sign!", cried Dan.

Let's return to this question of yours, Gary. It is not better to have liked and lost, than never to have liked at all? There are a number of people in the USA that we miss, and with whom we keep in touch. There are a number of people from my or Kay's circle in Sydney that Kay or I keep in touch with relatively actively. We have friends in England and Europe. If we had not made good friends, I don't think I could count my time so well spent. I am sorry they are not handy, but absence makes the heart, etc.

Summarising the attitude problem, we say that Kiwis are "not hungry enough". Surely it cannot be that that they are not passionate enough either? Is it us?

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