My partner and I didn’t do much research about Aotearoa New Zealand before moving here, it isn’t really our style. We (well especially me) are pretty impulsive people. It actually wasn’t a good time for me to leave our home in Colorado. I was in a PhD program and getting paid to research something I was very passionate about. We enjoyed our home at the base of the Rocky Mountains, our laid back outdoor lifestyle, and our tight knit group of friends. It was place we loved dearly and call home despite not living there for an exceptionally long time. But…..(clearly there had to be a but as we live here), we always dreamed of living abroad so when my partner was offered a job in Aotearoa NZ, we jumped at the opportunity. Within 24 hours we were committed to moving to the bottom of the world.
Like most new places, it was absolute bliss for the first few months (probably even longer). We were constantly exploring new landscapes, learning about a new culture, laughing about all of the crazy quirks of our new homeland. We were immersed in a world of constant discovery, definitely my kind of place. Even after two years, I still feel an excited sense of newness and wonder, but it is now accompanied by a dose of reality. Aotearoa New Zealand isn’t perfection, but I don’t believe that any place is. In exchange for this new adventure, we did give up many things that were valuable to us in the US.
What do other expats think?
With the political strife facing the US right now, I had heaps of friends reaching out, wondering what life in NZ was like as they considered fleeing Trump’s America. While I shared my experience, I wondered how other expats felt about living here. Were our impressions similar? When I started searching, I found there to be a limited selection of fair and balanced information on the web. Most material fell in two categories:
- pure bliss – usually written by young people traveling and making a living blogging about it.
- pure despair – written by people that regret their move here for a variety of reasons and now hate everything about their adopted nation.
While my scale tips towards the positive, I consider myself somewhere between these two. So exactly what are expats gushing and grumbling about Aotearoa NZ and did I agree? It is time to break down the good, the bad, the ugly, and sweet as (according to expats, with commentary by me). We are starting positive and ending positive with this post!
Before I get too far, I need to acknowledge that I have only been in Aotearoa New Zealand for two short years, living in one city (Wellington), and having only one job. Clearly my time and experience is not extensive.
Friendliest & Most Welcoming Nation
I am sure you have heard that New Zealanders are a super friendly bunch. This statement is so darn true and there is even data to back it up. A 2016 Expat Insider report by InterNations, which survey more than 14,000 expats across 67 countries, list NZ as the fifth friendliest and easiest place in the world for expats to settle. When we moved here our coworkers went out of their way to make us feel welcome. We were invited to their homes, they were constantly loaning me books to learn more about NZ, and one even organized a feast of traditional NZ food to sample at morning tea. After only two weeks of moving to our home our neighbors hosted a welcome drinks and nibbles night so we could get to know everyone living on our little bay. Maybe this seems pretty typical and no big deal to some, but for an introvert who views hosting a social event as a torturous affair, I greatly appreciated the effort. We felt so welcomed in our newly adopted country, which helped it quickly feel like home.
So fast forward two years later with all this welcoming and friendliness you would think we would be hanging with friends on a weekly basis. The reality is, eventually the invites grew few and far between. While everyone was so eager to welcome us, they were far less eager about forming a close relationship. We soon found ourselves with very few meaningful friendships, which was a first for us. Maybe it was our cultural differences, maybe it was us, maybe we weren’t making enough effort (this is probably part of the reason), maybe we just haven’t found the right people yet. I am not really sure the reasons why, but we are not alone. In the same expat survey, only 21% of expats found it easy to find friends in NZ and 55% of foreigners had none or only one NZ mate. The wife of a coworker once mentioned that her son’s partner, who is American said she had no friends in NZ and it was so hard to make them. When I confirmed the reality this reality, I think she was crushed, wishing it wasn’t the case.
Work Life Balance
Many expats move to NZ in search of a slower paced life. A good work life balance is typically the number one reason expats make the move and remain here. Coming from one of the most overworked countries in the world, I had put in my fair share of 60-80 hour weeks and was looking forward to a something closer to a 40 hour work week. New Zealanders enjoy the 9th shortest work week, working on average 42.2 hours vs the global average of 44.6 hours.
They also take time with family and vacation very seriously here. I was given an extra week of annual leave (4 total) and 5 sick days. In the US if I was sick, I needed to take annual leave. This meant that I technically had 2 extra weeks (though one was spent sick) per year of time away from the office. Add in a bunch of long holiday weekends (six total) and Christmas/New Years office closure (allowing you to always take time off), I had plenty of time for that ‘life’ part of the balance equation, right?
All that sounds good on paper, but the reality for me felt far different. While the hours worked here are less, they are very specific and had to fit nicely in a tight little box. I could have a life balance, but generally not until after 6pm. I found that the work culture was rigid and regulated. Below a few typical examples that I personally experienced.
- In an effort to provide a work life balance, my employer reduced the core working hours to 9am – 4pm (from 8-5). This allowed people to either come in early or work later to meet an 8 hour day, as long as they were in the office between those hours. I still have a bit of a chuckle that removing an hour at the beginning or end of the day was considered flexible. Core business hours promoting flexibility as I previously knew them were 10am – 2pm, but no one really policed that as they did here.
- Working from home carried a negative stigma. Many felt that it implied that you were disengaged or weren’t working hard or weren’t reachable. Even working from my employer’s other city offices was met with some skepticism.
- Taking an hour break outside traditional lunch hour time was sometimes met with shock and disbelief. You are going to yoga at 2pm? You are running up Mt Vic now, but it is nearly 3pm?
These were all big changes from the work life I experienced in the US. Mind you, I lived out west in Colorado, which if far more lax than the east. In Colorado, while I worked many more hours and had less annual leave, I had far greater freedom about where and when I worked those hours. For me, this made a big difference in not only my happiness, but my productivity and quality of work. I could often work from home, I could come into work late if I wanted to get in a long run, I could leave early and finish up work at home if my brain needed a break, I could head into the mountains for a few days to work somewhere different for change of pace. At one time, I had even worked for a consulting company that encouraged us to work remotely at times, because they felt it encouraged creativity. I was accustomed to having a lot of flexibility and freedom. My employer trusted and supported that I knew how best to get my work done and we had no problem using technology to stay in touch. My work and personal life was balanced in a way that benefited both me and my company.
While I would never expect my NZ employer to change to accommodate my needs, it was still a hard adjustment. In the end, it just didn’t work for me. So I guess it depends on what work life balance means to you. There is no set definition, but here are a few to consider. If it means leaving work each night at the same reasonable hour each night, rarely needing to work on weekends, and having an extra week or two of vacation, you will definitely find it here. If you like being able to have the flexibility to work nights or weekends to balance lifestyle priorities at times, it seems that you will have to search harder to find an employer to accommodate that in NZ.
Scenery and ‘Clean Green’
I have written about the scenery with great love and admiration before on this blog…
“From picturesque fiords, treacherous glaciers, rugged mountains, rolling hillsides, windswept plains, foreboding volcanic plateaus, subtropical and alpine forests, miles of sandy beaches with secret coves, and minimal distances between east coast sunrises and west coast sunsets, Aotearoa New Zealand packs in a lot of sweet as landscape in a tiny area.”
You don’t have a travel far or sometimes even travel at all to be surrounded by gorgeous landscapes. These are just the views from my window at home and at work.
Those views aren’t even considered to be remarkable in comparison to scenery like this….
With a population of only 4.5 million people and more than 80,000 km2 (nearly 32% of the nation’s total area compared to 14% in the US) protected and managed by the Department of Conservation, exploring many of these scenic places in solitude isn’t hard to do. Aotearoa New Zealand has the 5th lowest population density amongst OECD countries. There are only 15 people per sqkm, which is less than half of the OECD average. Let’s face it, no one likes to experience wilderness areas with heaps of people buzzing around and you don’t have to here!
The country has a reputation as a clean green country and they promote it with the 100% Pure Campaign. With few people and endless undeveloped scenic landscapes, you would think this reputation must be accurate. However, add 30 million sheep, 16 million cattle, nearly 1 million deer, and ineffective environmental and tourism planning and the realities are far different than the picture perfect postcard. Below are just a few:
- NZ ranks as the 18th worst of 189 countries when it comes to preserving its natural surroundings (native vegetation, native habitat, endangered species and water quality). Source
- NZ’s per head methane emissions are 5x the global average and while most OECD countries are lowering their per capita emissions, NZ has increased theirs by 23% since 1990. Source
- 60% of monitored water bodies are not safe for swimming. These waterways are the cause of up to 34,000 cases of waterborne disease each year. Source
- Urban development patterns prioritizes low density greenfield sprawl over high density urban infill. While Auckland has a fairly low population (~1.5million people) in comparison to most major cities in the world, it covers the second largest area of land per person. Source
Then there are the little offenders that have been slowly fazed out in many expat nations, but are generally business as usual here; plastic grocery bags, dog waste on sidewalks (you need to be very careful running here), curbside car washing, and lax attitudes about recycling just to name a few. The reality is, scenic doesn’t translate into a healthy ecology and NZ will need to make some serious changes to preserve their national treasures.
Peaceful and Socially Progressive Nation
Aotearoa New Zealand is ranked #2 in the Global Peace Index (US is #114) and #9 in the Social Progress Index (US is #18). As an expat from a nation lead by a misogynist bully that likes to flex the nation’s military muscles, a political party that uses their Christian upbringing to suppress the rights of LBGTQ community, and government officials threatening women’s reproductive rights and suppressing rights of minorities, moving here was a breadth of fresh air (mostly). The following breaks down notable peace and social progress indices:
- There is no ‘gun culture’ here. Most people that own a firearm, do so for hunting purposes. The percentage of households that own one of more guns in NZ is approximately 17% in comparison to the US at 36%. Even police generally don’t carry personal firearms, and it hasn’t lead to more officer fatalities. Mass shootings and gun lobbying is not part of the culture here…though I suppose it isn’t in many expat nations. The US generally stands alone in perpetuating this sickness.
- NZ is a nuclear-free nation, passing legislation to eliminate the risk of nuclear accidents, while demonstrating a global commitment to nuclear disarmament. The legislation prohibits entry of ships that are dependent on nuclear power from entering NZ waters, bans the dumping of radioactive waste into the sea, and prohibits any person to manufacture, acquire, possess any nuclear explosive device. This is a stark difference to the US (6800 warheads), Russia (7000), UK (215), and France (300).
- There is a perception of greater personal safety in NZ. The risk of ‘stranger danger’ is far less than many other westernized nations, which equates to children enjoying freedom similar to our 1980’s American childhood. Kids scooter or walk to school parent free and disappear for hours, returning home when the sun goes down….they are living the dream. There are also comparatively low rates of homicide, 1.5 (NZ) vs 4.5 (US) per 100,000 people. I walk the city streets at night and run remote trails free of worry about my personal safety. While public spaces in NZ are comparatively more safe, the reality behind closed doors is a far different scenario. Sexual assault is significantly higher here, 90 (NZ) vs 38 (US) per 100,000 and it is estimated that 90% of sexual violence is committed by someone known to the victim/survivor. Another statistic indicates that 1 in 5 women in NZ will be victims of sexual assault vs 1 in 6 in the US. Sadly it is estimated that only 9% of these incidents are reported to police, suggesting a far more dire situation. Domestic and family violence is a national shame and is considered to be one of the biggest human rights issues in NZ. Here, 1 in 3 women experience physical and/or sexual violence from a partner vs 1 in 4 in the US. Police respond to a family violence situation every 7.5 minutes. The Its Not Ok Campaign is a powerful motion to bring family violence to forefront.
- Some socially progressive statistics about NZ 1) first country to give women the right vote (1893), 2) first country to have all of its top positions of political power held simultaneously by women (2005 – 2006), 3) 13th country in the world to legalize marriage equality, and 4) considered a leader in recognizing and celebrating indigenous Māori rights and customs. I will touch more on Māori culture later in this post. I can’t intimately speak about what life is like for the LGBTQI community as I only know a few people that identify as such, so I will refrain from too much comment on this issue. What I have noticed is that while there are still people (and people in power) who protest against LGBTQI rights, there appears to be significantly less people who use their religion as a means to suppress these rights. This may be attributed to nearly half of the population (46%) not identifying with religion (compared to only 23% US). I can offer a more personal prospective concerning women’s rights. While I appreciate NZ’s leadership in women’s voting rights and political representation, I have experienced and witnessed some of the worst misogynist behavior of my life during my two years here. The culture is hyper masculine and the ‘good old boys’ circle is solid, so don’t be surprised if you hear language similar to Mad Men at work. When it comes to reproductive rights, women do not have the same freedoms as many westernized countries. Technically under NZ law, abortion is a crime. Women can only get an abortion if there is a risk to the child or mother. Nearly 98% of abortions are done on the grounds of mental health and women are forced to go through a lengthy process that includes two different doctors consultations and an ultra sound. If you are looking to escape gender inequity and greater control over your reproductive health, don’t expect to find it here.
High Cost/Low Quality Living
Despite the widely circulated article NZ – 100% Pure Rip Off, many migrants are surprised to find that the cost of living is far higher than what they expected to find in NZ. Aotearoa New Zealand is a remote, relatively small market so imported goods are especially more costly as are homes. Below are few notable statistics:
- Housing – Auckland is now the 4th more expensive city in the world to buy a home. The rest of the country as a whole is rated severely unaffordable with houses costing 5.9 times the medium (anything more than 3.0 times is considered unaffordable). Expats are also shocked by the poor quality of home construction here. Poorly insulated homes with single pain, drafty windows, no central heating, and mold issues are common in NZ. Our personal reality is not as grim as the statistic I present. My partner and I moved from the highly unaffordable city of Boulder, Colorado to Wellington. We find the housing prices to be more affordable here. We also live on the sea, something we most likely wouldn’t be able to afford most places in the US. However, I should note that our home is tiny (something we were looking for), 62 sqm, 2 bed, 1 bath. Our home also falls into the poorly insulated category. The windy Wellington gusts squeal through our windows and we need a big cozy blanket to keep warm under our heat pump (see below) in the winter. I personally don’t mind this one bit, but our home is warm enough to not pose serious health risks. That is not the case for many others here.
- Income – The average household income in Aotearoa New Zealand is similar to the US, $73,298 ($US 52,770) NZ vs $82,004 ($US59,039) US. Minimum wage is much higher in NZ compared to the US, $15.75 vs $10.08 ($US11.43 vs $US7.25). I haven’t found good comparable statistics for those with higher degrees, but both my partner and I took big pay cuts to come here. NZ also suffers from what they call ‘brain drain‘, the loss of its best and brightest workers to other countries, which is often attributed to greater opportunities and salaries abroad.
- Standard goods – My partner and I don’t buy a lot of ‘stuff’. Our biggest expenses are food, drink, and running/hiking gear. As grazers, we don’t really notice the cost of a night out being much different, but our grocery bills are about 1.5x more and the cost of pair of running shoes or hiking boots can be anywhere from 2 – 2.5x more than the US. While you can try to skirt the system by purchasing things on line, we recognize that it hurts the small businesses here. Goods purchased online are often taxed enough to negate the savings difference. As for grocery expenses, we have learned to adjust, we have a large garden that supplements our veggies and when items like blueberries reach crazy prices like $13 for a tiny package, we just don’t buy them. It is fairly simple.
- Other notable expensive services/items – Taxi service (one of the most expensive in the world), car and campervan hires, hotels, airfare (I nearly cry every time I book a flight)
- Notable less expenses services/items – taxes, car ownership, home and car insurance, and healthcare (this alone may be reason to flee the US for NZ).
We were well aware of the realities of living at the bottom of the world, far from our family and friends and far from nearly every country except Australia and a few South Pacific nations. We have generally adjusted quite well, facetime makes everyone seem a bit closer. I am used to the the 18 hour time difference meaning that most of my conversations with family and friends happen during my morning as they sleep during the later part of my day. I even told my partner after returning from our flight from Tokyo “with only a 10 hour flight, we will be back sooner than later”. Somehow what I had previously considered to be a long haul flight, wasn’t that far any more. However, there is a lot we do miss.
- Family and friends – Besides every holiday gathering, I have missed weddings, funerals, I have several friends that have had babies that I only know from facebook pictures, my nephews look like completely different human beings since I left two years ago, I have missed trips with girlfriends, the list is endless…
- Significant national events – In only two short years, I missed so many (not always positive) historical events back home. I missed bonding in sadness with friends after the election of Donald Trump. I missed standing in solidarity for tribal rights at Standing Rock and marching for women and science, all events that I would have participated in had I been in the US. I missed the coolest scientific phenomenon of my lifetime, the solar eclipse. My partner and I would have certainly been road tripping to be on the path totality. Sure life is simpler and more peaceful here, but I miss that American passion that strives for positive social change. Society here is generally more aloof about issues that are important to them, the ‘she’ll be right‘ attitude doesn’t demand any action. Honestly, not much happens down here at the bottom of the world…and that is probably a good thing.
- Travel – Although we have come to terms with long haul flights, it doesn’t mean we don’t miss easier and more affordable access to a variety of countries. As stated earlier, we are generally only close (4hour max flight) to Australia and some Pacific Island Nations. All beautiful places and while the culture is a big draw, I am not really a heat, beach, and diving person so most of these places aren’t my ideal destinations for travel. I am a snowy mountain girl and other than the South Island I am pretty far from the white fluffy stuff. Not only are we far, but it is expensive to fly from NZ and within the country. Air New Zealand has limited competition, so the cost of flights are significantly higher than what you might find in the US and if you are from Europe, you don’t even have to worry about a flight, taking the train instead. A 1.5 hour flight to Queenstown can cost nearly $1500 ($US1000) for two, ouch! Air New Zealand, can’t you give a girl a break?
Driving is shockingly bad here. I clear rooms complaining about this topic…I should also note that it is not really socially appropriate to be publicly critical of things here (this is hard for me and my American upbringing). When I first moved here, I used to take great offense towards drivers whizzing dangerously close to me at high rate of speeds while I was running or cycling on residential roads or cars expecting me (as a pedestrian) to give way to them when there was yield or stop sign at intersections, or cars nearly turning into me while I crossed at a cross walk. I thought people really threw their etiquette out of the window when they climbed into their car. However, I now know that it is more about the driving culture rather a disrespect for me. It is simply the way everyone drives and generally pedestrians seem ok with this, they don’t even flinch when a car nearly hits them. The other day a woman was crossing the road and a car came out of nowhere and laid on their horn because she was in the intersection. Despite being in the intersection before the car could even see it, she seemed almost apologetic. I was mad for her so I guess I still haven’t fully accepted the culture yet.
Here, cars are king and pedestrians and cyclists get in the way of driving efficiency. Pedestrians only have the right-of-way at orange posted or signalized cross walks and you aren’t really all that safe in those spaces. While you may expect signage in parking lots telling drivers to slow for pedestrians, here it is the reverse (see picture below). If I want to cross the parking lot to enter the store in this picture, I need to wait for all of the cars to move through the drive, they will not stop for me to cross. In fact, most will speed up to beat me to any crossing so they won’t have to wait.
The cycling experience is equally as bad. There are hardly any bikes lanes in Wellington (Auckland and Christchurch are slightly better) and when there are dedicated lanes, they are usually not built to the appropriate standards or are often protested by the community. The cycleway in Island Bay literally ruined people’s lives (in all fairness, it was a badly designed cycleway). All jokes aside, read the comments section on any cycleway article or check out the facebook page NZ Drivers against idiot cyclists that have suggested that members should mow down cyclists. As an avid biker here, I would say I probably have at least two semi terrifying events a week, I have been cutoff, sideswiped, honked at (when in the bike lane), despite wearing every florescent color in the highlighter pack and being lit up like a Christmas tree at night for visibility.
It doesn’t get much better as a driver either. There are actually still campaigns here to remind people to stop at red lights and I see people cross double yellow lines around blind curves ALL of the time (there are even signs reminding people not to do this too).
We live along a quiet little residential coastal road with few homes and businesses. It is notoriously busy with speeding joy riders driving recklessly amongst a large cycling and walking community. It is so common for cars to lose control and drive into the water here that every time we see a police car driving past our house, I say…”oh someone must of driven into the sea again”
You may think I am just being a grade A complainer about driving, but there is data to back up my claims. Aotearoa New Zealand has the 7th highest ratio of deaths per billion vehicle kilometers of road traveled, 9.1 deaths per billion compared to the OECD average of 8.1. The country also ranks as the 9th highest in deaths per capita in road accidents. People here typically blame foreign drivers, but foreigners were responsible for only 6.2% of all fatal and injury crashes in 2016.
I can’t really say anything nice about driving here…it is aggressive, reckless, and it is very dangerous. Just don’t take it personally and learn to laugh about it while approaching cars with extreme caution and all will be good.
Xenophobia and Racism
I wrote quite a bit about this in my post Xenophobia – the ‘nativist’ paranoia is front and center during the New Zealand election and it is ugly as and I will repeat some of it in this little excerpt. When I say xenophobia and racism are alive and well here, people get very defensive and argue about it not being as bad as the US or UK, as if somehow that makes it ok. While you won’t see violent demonstrations like Charlottesville, Virginia or a national leader refusing to condemn racist speech and crimes, while accepting them in ways that fuel further violent incidents, subtle racism and xenophobia is so ubiquitous here that most people don’t even recognize it. I am constantly shocked by racist or xenophobic remarks that are persistent and freely shared in conversations here.
As I have noted before xenophobia and racism aren’t always angry and mean, they can be subtle, mild and at times friendly, which is generally how they are being expressed here. It is a quiet kind of racism as expressed in this article by Guy Williams or a little bit of racism as shared in this PSA by Taika Waititi.
Māori (indigenous people of Aotearoa) and Chinese immigrants face the greatest discriminatory reality. Māori are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, they face housing discrimination (immigrants face this as well), there has been a programatic destruction of their te tino rangatiratanga sovereignty, and the ‘special treatment of Māori outcry’ by Pākehā is common. Chinese immigrants are blamed for most of the nation’s problems, creating the housing crisis, stealing jobs, causing road congestion, not doing things the ‘kiwi way’, and trashing the environment.
Both groups are subject to racist rhetoric and derogatory language from the media and politicians as well. Below are comics appearing in major newspapers…the second comic is from the main paper in Auckland.
The politicians appear to be some of the worst offenders. I am actually surprised that people find Donald Trump so shocking, as many of the politicians here don’t sound much different, they just speak with better vocabulary and without anger. Nearly all of the political parties are pandering to anti-immigration rhetoric, suggesting plans to halt, slash, or regionalize immigrants, as a means to solve a multitude of problems that the nation faces.
The man that seems to have the strongest influence on deciding the direction of the next leadership, Winston Peters of the New Zealand First Party has referred to immigrants as “Asian invasion” or “imported criminals” and that immigrants “carry HIV and all sorts of third-world diseases”. The alt-right loves this man and so does nearly 9% of Aotearoa NZ. The current PM, Bill English of the National Party wrote that Middle Eastern asylum seekers were “leftovers from the Middle East terrorist regimes” and also did not attend ceremonies at Te Tii Marae on his first Waitangi Day, saying that Kiwi’s ‘cringe a bit‘ at Māori protests. The Labour Party released “unconfirmed” data that grouped ethnicities based on ‘Chinese sounding’ surnames to show that the number of Chinese descendants that accounted for home sales in Auckland far exceeded the number of Chinese residents or citizens, suggesting that they were causing the housing crisis in the city. While the party’s newly appointed leader, Jacinda Ardern (the political darling of NZ), is uncomfortable about the data release, she stops short of recognizing it as racist.
Any type or degree of xenophobia and racism is wrong and so is the justification of it because it is ‘nicer and more subtle’. Many people here pride themselves on being ‘less racist’ than other expat nations. Not only is this not something one should be proud of (clearly that PSA above nailed the situation here perfectly), but I would also argue that it is possibly inaccurate. Sure racism and xenophobia are expressed differently here, but they are also done freely and frequently….and it is still ugly as.
The Sweet As
I wrote about this in an earlier post and I will repeat most of the information here as the information is relevant to this section.
Māori (indigenous people of Aotearoa) culture is one of the elements that fascinates me most about living here. Māori arrived from Polynesia by waka (canoe), the first captained by Kupe, sometime between 1250 and 1300. Their culture is rich in language, ancestral paptupu and mother earth papatūānuku connection, distinctive crafts such as wood carving and weaving, and dance such as the haka. Many outside of NZ may have seen the haka preformed by the All Blacks before a rugby game. The traditional haka is preformed and translated by the Waihirere Māori Dance Group below.
Māori are deeply connected to the land and natural world and see themselves as kaitiakiti (guardians of the land) which provides a source of unity and identity for tangata whenua (people of the land). They see humans and the land as one with the natural world, with the land able to speak to humans to give them knowledge and understanding. In their worldview their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are. When māori introduce themselves, their mihimihi tells people where they are from linking them to the land (mountain), river, sea, tribe, sub-tribe, whakapapa (genealogy), and marae (sacred meeting place). Māori have successfully pushed Parliament to recognize the legal personhood of Te Urewera and the Whanganui River. This allows the land and the river to have the same rights and responsibilities as a person, which will help provide long term protection and restoration. In Whanganui, they have a saying, ‘Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au’, which translates in English to mean ‘I am the river and the river is me’.
Story telling is an important māori tradition and is used to explain their connection to Aotearoa New Zealand. There are many stories of humans who transformed into birds, fish and other creatures as well as landforms. Below is Te Mata Peak, the prostrate body of Te Mata. Te Mata died proving his love to Hinerakau when he choked on the earth while attempting to bite his way through the hills between the coast and plains so that people could move with greater ease.
Aotearoa New Zealand is considered a leader in recognizing indigenous people’s rights and customs, although there is still more to be done. Below are some examples of how the government has tried to rectify previous injustices through the incorporation of cultural rights and inclusion of Māori consultation in many legislative and decision making processes.
- Customary rights – The Treaty of Waitangi, first signed in 1840 between Māori chiefs and the British Crown is the founding document of Aotearoa New Zealand. It recognizes the collective rights and responsibilities of Māori, as indigenous people, to live as Māori and to protect and develop their taonga, while also recognizing the right of the Crown to govern and the right of equality and common citizenship for all New Zealanders. Despite the treaty agreement, colonial supremacy views enabled oppression of Māori with the Crown confiscating large areas of their land, while displacing people in the process. However, unlike many colonist – indigenous people settlements throughout history, the Crown publicly recognizes that they breached the principles of the treaty and have been engaged in the process of settling confiscation claims since the Waitangi Tribunal in 1975. The treaty along with further settlements relating to fisheries, aquaculture, and forestry has helped to strengthen and empower Māori organizations and communities and improve their rights as indigenous people.
- Government – The political role of iwi had been improving prior to the the 2017 election. The establishment of the Māori Party in 2004 provided a greater voice within Parliament and the wider community. The party, however, did not receive enough votes to maintain a seat in Parliament in the 2017 election. While it is unclear what impact this will have, there are several notable legislation acts that continue to strengthen the treaty, some include; 1) The Resource Manage Act (RMA) 1991, legislation that promotes the sustainable management of natural and physical resources such as land, air and water, place specific obligations on local authorities and decision-makers to incorporate tangata whenua interests into their decision-making 2) The Historic Places Act 1993 provides for the recognition of ‘the relationship of Māori and their culture and traditions with their ancestral lands, water, sites, wāhi tapu (sacred sites), and other taonga and establishes the Māori Heritage Council, which comprises a minimum of three appointed or elected Māori members of the Historic Places Trust Board, and 3) The Local Government Act 2002 that requires that specific processes be set out for Māori consultation and annual reporting to illustrate efforts to strengthen Māori representation in local government.
- Language and culture – There is an effort to maintain and preserve Māori language and culture. Some notable examples that may individually seem like small gestures, collectively (along with others not mentioned) make Māori culture evident in society. These include 1) school curriculum incorporating culturally significant customs (stories, songs, dance, etc) in early child development. Some children are exposed to Te Reo Māori (Māori language), but it has yet to become compulsory, 2) The national anthem, God Defend New Zealand, is sung in Te Reo Māori and English, 3) The haka is performed before many sporting events, 4) There are many place names, cities, and towns that retain their Māori name, and 5) Māori Television Service, the indigenous broadcaster, has significantly contributed to linguistic and cultural revitalization, while increasing diversity in the media.
While the efforts to recognize and honor the rights and customs are clearly evident and admirable, the systemic power enabling abuse and marginalization of generations of iwi is still evident today and will have lasting cultural and societal effects. The Crown – Māori relationship is front and center in political and human rights discussions in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Are the sacrifices worth the move here? For us, at this moment, ABSOLUTELY. What we gain in learning, exploration, adventure, and experiencing a place unlike our home is exactly the reason we came here and for now the tradeoffs are more positive than negative. Before considering a move to Aotearoa New Zealand or any other country, I think it is important to be clear about your motivations to do so and to recognize that no place is perfection. If you are simply moving to flee the banes of your expat society, you will find that many of the same issues are relevant here as well. If your reasons are more specific and align with values that will be enhanced here, definitely make the move. We sure are glad we did and are happy to call Aotearoa New Zealand our home.