One of the things that I thought about a lot when we moved to New Zealand back in May 2010 was, “Will I stand out as an American?”
The answer is yes, of course. My accent instantly makes me stand out as being from North America, though most people can’t tell for certain if I’m Canadian or a Yank. But in most other ways, I tend to blend in here. Even my accent seems to fade away when I converse with Kiwis that I’ve known for a long time. But every now and then, I say or do something that reminds others – and me – of just how foreign I am. Thankfully the number of times that I do or say something that might be considered a cultural no-no has dropped the longer that we’ve lived here. The things that I notice now are when newly arrived expats say or do something that’s a bit culturally “off”. Inwardly I cringe, mainly because I recognize those words and behaviour as things that I used to do myself.Take complaining about the cost of living and the prices in New Zealand: when we first got here, I was boggled by the cost of things like groceries, petrol, weekly rent, internet/phone plans, and so on and so forth. I still remember shopping in one store, finding a raincoat that I liked, and then gently putting it down while slowly backing away when I saw the price tag: over $400. Can you find more economically priced raincoats in New Zealand? Of course, but I was still in the mindset where everything was compared to US prices and that raincoat? Cost about $100 in the USA, as I later found out (which is still overpriced, in my opinion).
I would mention my disbelief at prices when conversing with new friends, fellow expats, or with family back home. Those still in the States would share my incredulity, but most expats that I met here and the majority of Kiwis would simply smile and nod their head or say that yes, things are certainly less expensive in the USA. I knew in my mind that the high costs were justified more often than not. How else does one expect to have things in a far off island country without paying for shipping? And when there are only a few games in town, naturally there isn’t going to be incentive to slash prices to beat out competitors. While I knew that in my mind, I didn’t come to accept it for awhile.
It wasn’t until one day when a long-term expat kindly pointed out to me that you pay for your quality of life. And in New Zealand, there’s a very high quality of life. This country consistently ranks higher than my home country across a variety of factors – violence, healthcare, personal satisfaction, longevity of life, and economic health, just to mention a few things – and all of those come at a cost. When I thought about prices in that regard, it made me realize that I’m happy to pay extra and shuffle the budget in order to have that high quality.
This was brought to mind here recently when I was speaking with some other expats. One in particular hadn’t known me for long and while talking about our mutual expat experiences, began to heavily criticize anyone who came to New Zealand and then complained about prices here. In short, they suggested that those who did such a thing should pack up and go back home. Of course, they didn’t realize that I used to be one of those expats. While I don’t believe that I went on and on about the cost of living here, I did whine about it, and I’m sure that I stepped on a few toes. Thankfully, no one ordered me to pack my bags and return from whence I came. I would have missed out on a lot if they did, and I’d venture a guess that many of the Kiwis that I’ve met and befriended and the expats that I’ve been able to connect with and help would have missed out, too.
While I think it’s good to come alongside someone to share experiences and insight, I also think that it’s important to keep in mind that we all get here via different routes. I came from small-town Midwestern USA. Coming from there vs. a city and state with a higher cost of living had an impact on how I viewed New Zealand prices vs. US prices, with it being more of a shock based on where I’d most recently lived. I try to remember that when I meet a new or fairly new expat and here them gripe about the differences between their home country and New Zealand. If I can and if it’s the right timing and appropriate situation, I try to gently remind them that we take the good with the bad. I’m glad that, in New Zealand, there’s a lot of good for which to be thankful.
It’ll be interesting when we move back to the States this July. I’m curious as to whether or not I’ll have a similar reaction as to when we moved to New Zealand, if I’ll find myself complaining or wanting to complain about things that are different from how they are here. I guess time will tell.
Jenny is an American from Indiana living abroad in Auckland, New Zealand. An ER nurse, she spends her spare time with her husband and infant son and enjoys photography, travel, and writing about her experiences as an expat. You can read more of her thoughts and opinions at www.practicallyperfectblog.com
Read Jenny's other Expat Focus articles here.