Sunday, November 14, 2010

If your family moved to New Zealand, what would life be like?

It might be something like the life of the first family who hosted me as a WWOOFer, the Berger family. They’re a smart, down-to-earth group of liberals who moved from D.C. to New Zealand in 2006 (one night during my stay with them, they joke that they’re part of the select few who made good on their talk of leaving the U.S. if Bush did something else stupid). Since then, many aspects of their lifestyle have changed, as has their personal connection to the United States.

Paekakariki, their new hometown, is somewhere between the peaceful suburb you’d love to live in, and the tiny beach village you’d love to retire to (the local fire dept made a press statement in the town paper recently, reminding families that they’re always available to help in case of an emergency, and were able to do so in that week’s emergency when a child accidentally locked himself in a bathroom). Most New Zealanders live near the coastline, and in Paekakariki, many of the houses come with a stunning view of the Tasman Sea. Weather in many parts of NZ is highly unpredictable, they say that sometimes you can experience all four seasons in one day. Especially here in this coastal town, it’s not uncommon for an hour of heavy rain to be followed by an hour of blazing sunshine, then rain again. The sporadic weather has two great side effects though: one, it makes NZ a land of massive rainbows, and two, it makes the Tasman Sea never quite look the same. Around town are a couple of parks, walking trails through the hills, and a few shops and restaurants. The hip city of Wellington is 40 min away by train.

From the somewhere on the edge of the 3 block wide town

The kids, 9 and 13, go to a nice school that’s only five minutes walking distance from the house. It’s a small enough place that they know almost every other kid in each of the grades covered (up to about 8th grade). NZ schools focus on developing various core competencies in the students, but there are no national standardized tests or lists of facts that students have to learn, so teachers generally have more room to be creative in what they cover. One of the kids had the recent assignment of writing up a story for a still inhabited city of Atlantis. The story had to address why the city had never been found and how life there could carry on underwater. It may sound overly loose but apparently the system works. New Zealand's students rank third in the world for both Math Literacy and Reading Literacy, and rank 7th for Scientific Literacy. (

Another small daily life difference in NZ is the food. NZ is a 3 hour plane ride from the nearest country, Australia, so imports are not as common as they are in the states (though funny enough, the country’s finest lamb meat is exported). It’s not unusual for a supermarket to just not have something for a week or two, especially if it’s out of season. Like many families here, including city families, the Bergers keep chickens (chooks) in the backyard. These chooks are part pet and part livestock in NZ culture. They’re fed pellets and food scraps, and are traditionally eaten at the end of their lives (but this mostly vegetarian American family isn’t quite ready to make that big of a leap in their NZ assimilation).

In general the Bergers certainly are proud of their move, but they haven’t made a complete switch to identify themselves as Kiwis. Many of the family’s close friends are native New Zealanders, but several are immigrants from other western countries, like the Bergers themselves. The family pays more attention to global news now, but they still follow much of American news and culture. In addition to the local NZ papers, they still subscribe to the New Yorker and keep up with NPR. The tricky topic of the kid’s national identity is a common household conversation, and like most things discussed here (such as the “sad state of current American politics”) it isn’t dumbed down for the kids’ sake. But the two kids take up opposing views when it comes to the U.S. One hopes to go to the big city of Los Angeles one day to become an actress (“Enjoy the gang violence, pollution, racism and lack of healthcare” her parents cheerfully reply). The other wants to go even further into rural NZ.

2010-10-7 Paekakariki

Disclaimer: Actual experience of New Zealand may vary. The politicians aren't perfect, and there is some racism and other problems. It's no utopia, but it's pretty nice.

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