Earlier this year, I spent three weeks in New Zealand, traveling around the South Island and Stewart Island. It was a fantastic and amazing trip, though it left me with some internal conflicts, as well, starting with the fact that I felt uncomfortable visiting a country that bans fat people from immigrating, but is more than happy to accept our tourist dollars. I think it’s important for travelers to think about where they’re going and to look at the bad along with the good, and I had to consider carefully whether I wanted to go to New Zealand at all, given the BMI limit on immigrants — but better to know about it and think about it than to merrily go and be unaware of this, among other social issues.
I had been warned before I went that some things about Kiwi culture were very different. I was told that people would be friendly and kind, as indeed they were; Kiwis were unfailingly polite, friendly, and helpful everywhere I went, and not in the way of people accustomed to being told to be nice to tourists, but in the way of people who are naturally friendly and, for the most part, easygoing. People were always ready with a smile and a ‘cheers’ or a ‘g’day’ when I ran into them in the street or sat next to them on public transit, and my hosts at both my hostels and my homestay were charming, friendly, delightfully helpful people.
And I was told that New Zealand would be beautiful, which it was, almost heartbreakingly so. The mountains on the way to Queenstown were stunning from the air, and the bus ride from Queenstown to Te Anau was a continuously unfolding map of wonders. My stay in Fiordland was incredible, and I felt like I spent much of my time gawking around me, wondering how people could stand to live in such a beautiful place without exploding. Stewart Island was rugged and oddly familiar to me, filled with the cries of kaka and people going about their business, and even poor, broken Christchurch had a certain pride to it, a confidence that it would recover from the ravages of the quake and become once again a jewel of the country.
I was also warned, though, that New Zealand was a country filled with casual racism, and I could see what people meant almost immediately. Unlike the US, where racism is hidden in dogwhistles and careful steps by a people who have learned that they need to at least pretend to hide their racism, New Zealand is a place where it’s quite open, and I often found myself wondering if I would be treated as kindly if I wasn’t read as white. If I didn’t look like a friendly traveler with lots of American dollars in my pocket, ready and willing to spend them.
It wasn’t just the invisible people of colour in New Zealand, the largely East Asian cleaners, farmhands, and other people who made the world turn — coming from California, I am accustomed to having to actively look for the nonwhite workers behind the white facade. It was the casual use of racial slurs, often from surprising people; the very lovely and kind older woman who told me about a ‘helpful Negro’ in the hospital, the old lady who directed me to ‘that Jap grocery store’ when I needed to buy some yoghurt, the blustering old men talking about ‘Abos’ quite casually in a coffeehouse, the snide comments about the Maori. On Stewart Island, I nursed a hot chocolate while a man next to me complained about the hunting and fishing laws that protect traditional Maori practices, how he’s ‘got to follow the rules, while them Maori can do whatever they like.’ It was the disgust of which many people spoke of asylum seekers looking for refuge in Australia, the patronising way they discussed the Pakis down at the Dairy.
It was the quiet and assured sense of superiority I seemed to feel at every turn, which isn’t to say that every single person from New Zealand is a raging racist, any more than every single person from the US is a raging racist. Entering New Zealand, for me, was like entering a different world in terms of how people relate racially, and I was reminded of a conversation I had with Chally Kacelnik about how race, and racialised interactions, are not identical across English-speaking nations. I had to remap my understanding of race and culture as I transitioned from the US to New Zealand and back again, and I knew that I would have to do it all over again if I traveled to a country like Australia, even though I follow Australian race issues with some attention.
The United States projects itself as a ‘post-racial’ nation, something we all know to be a lie. But, more than that, it’s a nation where the way people interrelate with race, and each other, is quite specific. It’s a world where racism is insidious and bound up in everything, but where it often can’t be pinned down and pointed at. In New Zealand, it was often right on the surface, there for anyone to see, in a manner that was very different from the world I am accustomed to, where it’s considered ‘gauche’ to be openly racist…but where racist structures and institutions continue to dominate society, and where being white gives me an edge that people of colour do not have.
In both countries, I feel like a member of a culturally and socially accepted majority, and that leaves me deeply uncomfortable and angry. And it made me think about the vast cultural and racial gap between the US and Zealand; in the US, people may not use ‘bad words,’ but the underlying attitudes are still the same, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the differences between the two nations.
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