Monday, February 08, 2010

Tom's America: Things Americans Don't Think About New Zealanders

As a New Zealander abroad, I am of course always keen to hear what people are saying about me and my country. In fact I suppose you could say that, as a New Zealander, I care about nothing else! But while every person's experience of What People are Saying About Me will differ - I am, after all, almost certainly more fun than you, and so people will say to me, "Oh, New Zealanders are so much fun", but what they really mean is, "You are so much fun" - there are constants in what they don't say. And these constants are worth paying attention to, because the things nobody says turn out to be exactly the things people back home say they say.

First off, let's clear up this Australia thing. Nobody I have met in America thinks New Zealand is part of Australia. While it is true that people in America tend to mistake the New Zealand accent for the Australian accent, and then the British accent, before identifying it correctly, I have never met anyone - black, white, urban, suburban, conservative or Republican[1] - who confuses Australia with New Zealand.
Indeed, whenever anyone finds out they have mistaken me for an Australian, they apologize profusely, because everyone thinks that there is an Australianian/New Zealandanite rivalry, and it is a long slow battle I have explaining to every single person in America that actually, that's not strictly true, it's actually just that New Zealanders hate Australians, but it is America's lucky day to have in her midst the one New Zealander who actually thinks Australia is quite nice, apart from that goddamn ugly nasal quality to their accent. In fairness to people who think Americans think New Zealand is Australia, I have had to field a stupid amount of questions about Koala Bears since I got here[3].

This being the day of the Superbowl, I feel another misconception to be cleared up is that everyone in America thinks rugby players are the shit. Everyone in New Zealand seems to have talked to this one American who spread fallacious rumors about America's feelings re: rugby. The omniscient Yank, so far as I can see, said the same thing to every single person in New Zealand: "Wow! We thought our American Football players were tough, but your guys - they don't even wear pads!"
Firstly, why would this one American call American Football "American Football"? That's like an Irish saying, "Let's go get drunk at the Irish pub"[4]. Secondly, rugby is something I have spent much of my adult life trying to get into enjoying, but simply cannot escape the feeling that it is an idiot game about a bunch of hairy triple-Y behemoths chasing a slab of juicy meat up and down a field; a moron pastime where you can get ahead by sticking your finger up another man's asshole so long as it's not consensual. Whereas I cannot get into American Football because there has never been a time in my life when I have enough tactical cognizance to understand the strategy at play; and I have read Chuck Klosterman's "Football", clocked the strategy-heavy Dynasty Tactics, and had the rudiments of the game explained to me by a philosopher who debates exclusively in NES metaphors, ie Someone Who Should Be Able To Explain Football To Me.

Related to the above, there is a perception that Americans envy Antipodeans for our drinking prowess, both alcoholic and teetotal. Apparently New Zealand's coffee-and-beer-crafting skills are exceeded only by her coffee-and-beer-consuming skills, and both these skills are highly envied by the American people. Not so! I have had the finest coffee of my life in America, and what is more, I have had much fine beer also. I think the perception that Americans are rubbish at making and consuming beer and coffee stems from the fact that New Zealanders have access to Budweiser (The King of Beers) and Starbucks. Someone has told New Zealanders that America is something of a monoculture, and so boom, apparently all Americans think Bud = beer and Starbucks = coffee. Right, because by the same token, every American's favourite movie is Forrest Gump, and Pulp Fiction was made in (and about) Brazil.
This misconception could be cleared up if New Zealanders had access to any of the coffee houses littering the West Coast whose decor and brewing style hark back to the drink's renaissance in the thick-spectacled early-to-mid 1990s; or were willing to spend a few days in the Onanopolis that is Portland, Oregon, on the condition that they were allowed to spend the entire time drinking of the microbrews by which the region self-identifies. I got into a heated discussion with a local there when I made the mistake of asking the barkeep for "a simple unadventurous IPA". And, amazingly, it wasn't for being wanker enough to invoke the concept of adventurousness within a discussion of piss to be drunk, it was for not being wanker enough to imbue my tipple of choice with sufficient swashbuckling fervour. Say what you will of the Man of Portland; he certainly won't settle for Miller High Life (The Champagne of Beers).

The one thing that all Americans do say is something that New Zealanders never attribute to them. When an American finds out you are from New Zealand, they will - even Barack Hussein Obama would do this if he had the opportunity - say, "I have never been to New Zealand but I would love to go. I have wanted to go to New Zealand ever since I saw The Lord of The Rings".
New Zealand, you may wish to consider using The Lord of The Rings as a component of your tourism branding. A free idea, from me to you!

[1] It's an oft-noted peculiarity of our respective sprawls on the political spectrum that, the same month that America elected an uncommonly Liberal Democrat as President, New Zealand elected a Conservative who was almost as Conservative as the new POTUS. Oft-noted, but worth noting one more time for those late to the party or not intimate with New Zealand politics[2].

[2] I actually talked to a New Zealander recently who saw American ignorance of the New Zealand news cycle as evidence of America's national ignorance. Come on, man, I was raised in New Zealand, and when I got to America I had to seduce a local just so she could tell me Cesar Chavez wasn't a lounge singer. Let's not pretend like anyone knows all of everyone's business.

[3] I don't mind this too much, because it gives me the opportunity to tell people that one of the most common word used to describe Koala Bears is "ornery". It's true.

[4] There is actually so much irrelevance in this sentence that the way an Irish would actually say it is simply, "Hi"[5].

[5] No, it's okay, I dated an Irish[6] one time, I can make the jokes. That's how it works, right?

[6] Geez, when did this post become this post?


neocowboy said...

LOTR...tourism? Genius!

When I describe the relationship between NZ and Australia to an American, I say we are Canada and Oz is the US.

I assume the questions about koala bears is quickly answered with "they are not bears, they are koalas."

Rugby and gridiron are equally moronic. However I like the name 'American football' due to the irony.

I'm not a big drinker but North America has some good beer, and some terrible beer as well. I drink coffee even less, this is because coffee tastes terrible, people by it for the smell.

Fun story: When we went to LA for the first time we were on a bus and two Americans started talking to us once they distinguished from our accents that we were not from around these parts.
We told them we were from NZ.
They knew that was down by Australia.
They asked if we had been to Australia.
We said 'yes.'
They then asked, "how long does it take to drive there?"

In his defence this was pre LOTR.

someonefromsometime said...

...wait a koala bear isn't a bear?

Excellent article Tom! a very enjoyable and informative read as usual :)

Eirik said...

Hold on. Wasn't the Lord of the Rings financed by the New Zealand's Tourist Departement?

I've actually always wanted to go to New Zealand, it was imprinted in my at a very young age. I was probably just nine or ten, when my teacher told me that New Zealand is actually more or less the same country as Norway, just in the Southern Hemisphere. This idea made such an impact on me, that anytime, and everytime, I meet someone from NZ, that's more or less the first thing I say to them.

"New Zealand, I've always wanted to go to New Zealand! Norway and New Zealand is more or less the same country, just on the other side of the world." I'm still not entirely sure what my teacher meant back then. I guess it had something to do with the size, shape and placement in their respective hemispheres. Can't really be the climate can it, with NZ's rain forrests and all.

Everytime I say it I feel quite silly, but for some reason, almost every New Zealander I've met is completely in on the concept (or they're just being very polite). I guess there must be some sort of agreement between the teachers in both countries.

Anyway, it's funny how these things stay with you (or maybe just with me). Since then, I've viewed all New Zealanders as my own kin. And I've seen Australia as New Zealand's annoying and better known, but less liked, big brother. Kind of like Sweden is to Norway.

The notion that NZ=Norway, only down under, gave me this amazing idea: This master plan, where I would live in Scandinavia (or at least the Northern Hemisphere) from April through September, and NZ from October untill March. That way, I would have spring and summer for the rest of my days. I still think it is a pretty kick ass idea.

Coming from a small country myself, NZ's spiritual brother even, I recognize the concept you're describing: Norwegians too are obsessed with what other people think of their country, especially Americans, and especially when they're wrong.

For some reason any true Norwegian gets a perverse joy out of hearing how (all!) Americans think Norway is the capital of Sweden, or how they think ice bears are roaming the streets (ice bears are our koala bears).

I guess any attention is confirmation of our existence. So simply the idea that someone is thinking something about us, even if it is wrong, is good news. Great news even. Cause we exist. And they're wrong. And stupid. And we're smarter and better than them. They've just got lousy TV shows, assembly line music, bad beer, poor coffee and lousy geographical skillz.

neocowboy said...

@Eirik There is an ad for white ware that plays in NZ, the company advertised is Norwegian or Swedish, and it compares NZ landscapes to its own with remarkable similarities.

I'd very much like to travel around Scandinavia one day, and in the last few years, I've been compelled to go to Iceland. I think it's the history, I do like a good viking tale. Our history is very short and very boring.

I disagree that NZers are 'obsessed' with what people think of their country, in fact I couldn't care less what people thought, that's our real cultural stereotype, easy going people with lacklustre patriotism. (I can't speak for Norway.)

To my knowledge the NZ tourism board did not fund the production of LOTR but they have had no qualms about milking it to death after its success. Queenstown (where I'm from) is rife with LOTR related activities, none of which I would recommend to any tourist, LOTR location sightseeing is basically a day spent looking at the most bland and unappealing parts of the Wakatipu basin. If you ever come to NZ rent a vehicle and see it for yourself. Only one LOTR set exists which is the Hobbiton set other than this steer clear of all LOTR related activities.

Koalas. Just koalas, like pandas. No bears involved.

hekelly said...

While it may be true that Canada and New Zealand have some things in common, as an American living in Australia and dating a Kiwi, I would like to publicly state here that the relationship between Canada and the US is nothing like the relationship I have observed between New Zealand and Australia.

Americans, with few exceptions, don't give even the most passing thought to Canada or her people. This, I'm sure, is a terrible slight, since I've heard naught but good things about the place. Perhaps this is what prompts Canadians to be such aggressive attention-seekers (honestly, they put that flag on everything). It certainly accounts for why here in Australia when people first hear me speak they will preferentially ask if I am Canadian, or more generically from North America, even if they are reasonably sure I'm from the US. When I tell them that I am from the States they invariably explain that their reason for doing so is because Canadians tend to get upset about being mistaken for Americans while Americans don't care one way or the other.

This is a very different dynamic than that endured by my much-beloved and long-suffering New Zealand friends, who seem to me to be continually beset by Australians pestering them about how small and terrible they must feel for being the lesser neighbor. The Australians assure me that this is just good-natured, big-brotherly teasing, but the tired looks on those Kiwi faces tell a different story--as do the snide remarks I hear from commercials, variety shows and even news anchors here in Sydney. It very much strikes me that it's the Australians that feel they have something to prove, and that's not like our relationship with Canada at all.

AWESOME TRUTH: I wanted to visit New Zealand long before Lord of the Rings.

TRUE CONFESSION: I didn't know it had two islands until a few months ago--and I've been in Australia for more than a year! Geographical ignorance has long been a hallmark of our people. :)

neocowboy said...

NZ has three islands ;)

Sorry couldn't resist.

Homage said...

@Neocowboy: Coffee tastes great. I am currently drinking it for the coffee.

While the colonial malfeasances of Norway may be older, New Zealand has some pretty great historical hiccups too. I dine out on telling white Americans about Te Tiriti and watching their horrified stares turn to recognitory groans as they remember that whole thing with the Indians and the blankets and so forth.

Then again you give Norwegian history the shout-out, then cite Norse myth as an example. And while I agree Norse myth is dope, the Maori cosmology is full of interesting and charming Promethean analogues, vulva-devourings, and A Million Different Words For Darkness.

@Eirik: I have friends who are equally fixated by New Zealand and Norway. However I will always be jealous because almost nobody in New Zealand knows who Krampus is.

@Hekelly: Thanks for your thoughts. It's been my observation that New Zealand sees the NZ/Aus rivalry as a rivalry, whereas most of the Australians I've talked to don't really give a shit; but I've mainly talked to funky cosmopolitan Melbourne Australians, so this may be an exception not a rule. I did have a lot of fun teaching my girlfriend about pavlova, Phar Lapp and how Nobody Wants Russell Crowe.