UVA Clubs

Spelling Honour with a ‘U’: 7 Lessons From a Wahoo Living in New Zealand by Elaine Smid (CLAS ’00)

If you had told me that I’d be moving to New Zealand eight years after graduating from UVA in 2000, I would have run away from you, thinking you were crazy. NZ wasn’t even on my radar, and definitely not in my Life Plan. And yet…here I am. If you are thinking of following in my footsteps, I feel that the past five years of living in NZ has qualified me to share some advice and surprising observations that will prepare you to move to GodZone:

1) NZ is nothing like Australia. Australia is hot, NZ is cold. Almost everything that lives over there could kill you, while New Zealanders (a.k.a. Kiwis) walk around barefoot, care-free, even in 50 F weather. Due to their proximity, the world lumps Oz and NZ together as one big Down Under co-country. As a consequence, they enjoy an intense, brotherly rivalry, not unlike that between Tech and UVA. NZ has the edge lately—though NZ is much smaller, they currently hold the World Cup title in rugby (Go the AB’s!), which is a huge deal nearly everywhere but the US.

2) Political correctness? What’s that? The winning rugby team I mentioned is called the All Blacks. Their soccer team is the All Whites. Yeah, no, this would not happen at home. Generally, Kiwis are really polite, but political correctness is not the norm. For the most part, people are taken as they are, without comment.

3) They have conquered work-life balance. They get twenty days off a year, plus holidays. I have no idea how I would ever adjust back to the measly 10 days that is the US standard. One time, I heard an American boss ask a Kiwi employee to come in and work on a Monday holiday, because there was a deadline looming for a project. The Kiwi just laughed it off as a joke, mentioning that she had beach plans already. Boom. End of discussion. This doesn’t mean they don’t work hard, but they know when to stop and unwind. Can you blame them, with views like this everywhere?

You wouldn't give up this view to work, either!
You wouldn’t give up this view to work, either!

4) Keep your sense of humor and let go of the expectation that things will work at all like they do in America. What they don’t tell you about moving abroad is that it is the minute, daily differences that are the hardest to deal with. Examples:

a) A regular topic of discussion amongst my American friends here is about not being able to find good marshmallows. I am completely serious.
b) One of my colleagues was talking loudly about caring for her pot plants in the office tea room one day, and I wondered, ‘Is it a good idea to talk about growing illegal drugs at work?!’ I thought she was a drug dealer until I learned that pot plants just meant potted plants. Oooooh. Whoops.
c) Your soul is doomed (sorry, not sorry). They do not say ‘bless you’ when you sneeze. It freaked me right out when there was dead silence after my first few public ah-choos. I asked a Kiwi about it, and they think we’re all totally weird, superstitious sticklers to say it each time. Trying to explain that it is just a polite and automatic reaction in the US doesn’t work.

5) Never challenge a Kiwi to a drinking game. Just trust me. Kiwis in general are a kind, friendly people, but they will drink you under the table every time. You just think you earned your stripes on Rugby Road or those Brown College theme parties…here they will be stripped away like clothes on The Lawn on a summer evening. My Kiwi boss, not known for partying (as far as I’m aware), easily outlasted me and several 20-something Americans in a bar at a conference recently. I wouldn’t be surprised if a high alcohol tolerance was encoded in their DNA.

6) NZ politics are, quite frankly, refreshing. Their government building is nicknamed The Beehive. The elected members of Parliament give humorous speeches that go viral. Songs break out in Parliament sessions occasionally. I would love to see a sing-along in Congress one day!

The Beehive, one of New Zealand's Parliament (and makeshift glee) buildings.
The Beehive, one of New Zealand’s Parliament (and makeshift glee) buildings.

7) Vote carefully. I knew that US politics had a major influence on other countries before I left for NZ, but seeing the results of our decisions and government on the people in my new country really brought the point home. From our tastes in music, movies, and television shows, to our economy, elected politicians, and views on science and social equality—for better or worse, the world is paying attention and making decisions based on our own. Since I can now vote in two countries, the point has become even clearer. My NZ vote affects my life in New Zealand only. My US vote, however, changes my life both in the US and in New Zealand, not to mention the other countries that I visit, in very tangible ways.

Ignoring my Life Plan and choosing to live abroad in New Zealand has allowed me to gain an immense appreciation for my home country, an understanding of our own oddities, and clarified our weak and strong suits. I urge more Wahoos to live abroad, whether it is in New Zealand or elsewhere…just bring your own marshmallows.

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