I have now been living in New Zealand for six weeks. Yet, for me, and my fellow international students in Dunedin everything still feels fresh, new and different. And, quite frequently, everything seems better here than in the United States. The burger place that does two-for-one Tuesdays is so much better than any burger I can get back home, the ice cream and chocolate blow ours out of the water, the people are so much friendlier, the landscape so much more beautiful. However, New Zealand is not the Utopia that it may initially seem.
Think about it. How do you envision New Zealand? The country was immortalized in all its natural glory on the big screen as, perhaps, the true star of the Lord of the Rings franchise. In 1893, it was the first country in the world to grant to women the right to vote, as well as leading the charge in several other progressive reforms. Currently, New Zealand has one of the least corrupt governments. Their health care and gun laws? Top-notch. Don’t forget that the minimum wage is $14.50. Most noticeably, there is an enviable laid-back lifestyle among the population—only 4 million or so people inhabit the islands, creating an idyllic notion that the terrain is unspoiled, free from the grasp of tyrannical human hands.
But New Zealand is far from perfect (especially the food, mind you, that’s completely all in our heads). As I wrote in an earlier entry, the relationship between those of European descent and the indigenous Maori population, while one of the more unique and progressive in the world, still has it’s flaws. Society is somewhat fragmented. My kiwi host, who hails form Wellington, gave me the rundown of his city’s demographics. The higher-income, safer areas are mostly populated by white Europeans and the lower in-come, grittier sections are populated by Maori and Pacific Islanders. Maori and Pacific Islanders make up 67 percent of the prison population.
New Zealand was a nation founded on xenophobic principles—British settlers hoping to build a utopian nation they deemed “Better Britain” were very opposed to Asian and Croatian settlers. The remnants of these principles remain today. While blatant, hardcore racial bigotry is rarely, if ever visible, there is a deeply engrained sense of generalization and stereotyping. I have heard, on several occasions, non-white or East Asian racial group referred to as ‘blacks’, including Maori, Pacific Islanders and Indians.
Poverty very much exists. In December 2014, it was reported that 24 percent of New Zealand children live below the poverty line. Although the rate is dropping, the poverty becomes very visible in certain parts of the country. While driving along the West Coast—an intensely beautiful, but harsh and inhospitable region of the country—the communities I saw are likened to the ghost towns of the American Southwest. Broken down shacks, maybe a gas station, a few old, beat up cars. Except they’re not ghost towns.
As for New Zealand’s crown jewel—its wilderness—, think again. New Zealand has undergone great deforestation throughout the last two centuries—you can’t drive more than 10 minutes without passing another truck carrying massive heaps of fallen timber. Humans have also brought several invasive species, such as rabbits, stotes, and possums that are severely threatening many of the country’s native and unique species of birds. So, that untouched landscape?
Don’t read this blog and all of sudden think New Zealand is some awful, harrowing place to go. It is beautiful, full of life and there are several things that never cease to amaze me. But, with the fear of sounding pretentious, having studied abroad before (I participated in a summer program in Ireland in 2013), I was prepared for the tendency of a group of 20- to 21-year-old students to romanticize about a new place, especially after being exposed predominantly to the more attractive, tourist-inspired parts of the country. I have forced myself to try to observe, to ask questions and not just assume that my fortunate experience is the same for every citizen here.
New Zealand is not the Utopia that international students paint it to be. Yet, that is more than okay. It just means that New Zealand is a real place, with real problems that, like the rest of the world, struggles to find certain answers every day.