Sunday, August 06, 2006

Frame Shift: New Zealand

No matter how often I travel, somehow I am always surprised by the mix of familiar and foreign I experience when visiting another English speaking nation. In "Pattern Recognition", William Gibson calls this same but different phenomenon "mirror world ". I think of it more as a frame shift- we are all working from the same cultural genome, but are transcribing it differently. Sometimes, the shift is minimal (parking lot becomes car park). Other times, it is more profound (self confidence becomes arrogance). Together, all of the shifts remind me that while I can speak the language and understand the more fundamental cultural assumptions, this is not home, and I am a stranger here.

Given a number of times I've visited New Zealand, and the fact that I live with a New Zealander, you might think that New Zealand would no longer have this effect on me, but it does. I have not lost the feeling of frame shift, but I am losing the ability to name the differences that cause the feeling, since they are becoming so familiar to me. Before I lose them all together, I'll write some of them here.

1. It is not until you travel that you truly appreciate how accustomed you are to a particular type of toilet. Even in countries with largely similar toilet preferences, the differences between the strange new facilities and those you are used to back home are immediately apparent. In fact, given the length of the flight you probably endured to reach the new country, these may be some of the first differences you notice. There are two principal differences between American toilets and New Zealand ones. First of all, the doors on public toilets are different. Except in the fanciest of hotels and restaurants, American public toilet stalls have a gap of at least a foot between the door and the floor, and usually a small gap between the side of the stall and the door as well. I have heard that these gaps can be quite disconcerting to visitors used to the more sturdy doors found on New Zealand toilets. New Zealand public toilet stalls almost always have a full door, similar to the bathroom door in your home. This prevents you from using the American trick of peering under the stall door to ascertain if the stall is empty. The New Zealanders provide a much more civilized method of determining this: the lock on the door is connected to a sign on the outside of the door that indicates whether the stall is vacant or occupied (similar to the door lock on an airplane toilet).

The differences don't end at the door. The toilet itself is different, because, instead of a familiar single handle with which to flush the toliet, you are presented with two buttons. After some experimentation and a bit of discreet questioning, I learned that these are for the full and half flush, the half flush being a rather obvious water saving feature once you think about it.

2. Another thing I never thought much about before traveling is roofing material. Many New Zealand homes have corrugated iron roofs, something which is not common in my part of the United States. The only California homes with metal roofs also have wheels. My husband was surprised by my surprise at this choice of roofing material, because it is extremely common in New Zealand, and certainly not limited to any particular level of housing.

3. You don't expect to have trouble communicating in a country that speaks the same language you do. Sure, there might be some amusing differences in word choice (let's just say you shouldn't call that bag around your waist a "fanny pack" anywhere outside of the U.S.), but by and large, you expect to be able to have friendly conversations with the locals. This is true, but there are surprising differences in conversational style that can quickly make the traveler feel like a rude tourist. Anyone who has traveled at all outside the United States has probably noticed that Americans are a relatively loud nationality. Conversations that would be lost in the hubub at home reverberate through the entire restaurant abroad. If I could give only one piece of advice to an American setting out on his or her first trip abroad and wanting to avoid offending the natives it would be "shhhh". Whatever you want to say, chances are, the person on the other side of the room doesn't want to hear it. Unless you are alerting everyone to a fire, lower your volume by a few notches.

Kiwis are as quiet as we are loud. When in New Zealand, I often find myself straining to hear the person seated next to me, and have embarrassed myself many times by smiling and nodding when a more expressive response was expected. I sometimes think New Zealand is a nation of lip readers, because New Zealanders have an extraordinary ability to hold sotto voce conversations in noisy pubs. I find my normal speaking voice far too loud for New Zealand, and when I return from a trip there my American friends must constantly ask me to repeat myself.

New Zealanders also do not talk over each other. It was only when I began to hang out with a lot of Kiwis that I realized how often Americans do this. No one thinks anything of a group of friends in which two or three are speaking at the same time. In New Zealand, this almost never happens. I spend my time in New Zealand biting my tongue, waiting for my turn to whisper some contribution to the conversation. New Zealanders in America, have it far worse. They never get a word in edgewise, and when they do, half of the group doesn't hear them!

There are far more differences than I have listed here, but I don't want to deprive you of the chance to discover some of the frame shifts on your own. New Zealand is a wonderful place to visit. Just keep your voice down, and be careful to choose the correct button when flushing the toilet.


  1. The New Zealand roofing at first caused me quite a bit of anxiety when trying to sleep during rainstorms because the sound of the rain is amplified on the metal. A sprinkle could sound like a huge storm, and the roof sounds so flimsy, I sometimes felt certain that the roof would not withstand the rain.

  2. To me, the funniest thing about the roofing issue is the fact that Kiwis are surprised we're surprised. Even Hubby was surprised when I mentioned this as a difference, and he's lived in the US for more than 5 years without once having a metal roof over his head! I'm sure there are equivalent things in the US (i.e., things that would surprise a visitor, and for which that visitor's surprise would be surprising to me), but of course, I can't see them.

  3. Very Amusing - as a Kiwi in Wisconsin I do see tin roofs on older houses but they are quite different from NZ corrugated iron which is now being used as decorative walls and kitchen bar areas, non wet area in bathrooms etc. I work in a visitor center and I'm always a topic of interest and I have had to learn to speak a lot slower. The toilet buttons are here now but not when I first came. One of my webpages is for Kiwis in America - with some similarities to what you've covered here but also places to meet other Kiwis etc.
    Cheers, Gayle


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