In my life, I’ve constantly noted, with private and sometimes public amusement, that I’m a “perpetual foreigner.” Born and raised in the “least New Zealand” city in New Zealand (at least, to the rest of New Zealand), I was from a young age perhaps overly interested in the American landscape, culture, and history, and I always had, to other New Zealanders, an “American accent.” Of course, what I really have is a strange combination of the two, due to having American family members.
So, in Auckland, I’m the “American.” I know a reasonable amount of American history (more than the average New Zealander, anyway), I often use a combination of American and Kiwi slang terms, and, of course, there’s the giant American flag that hangs outside our house and the “Chicago Cubs” baseball hat my dad sometimes wears. I’ve also been told by many New Zealanders that I speak “too loud, too fast, and too much” — apparently a very American trait. It was so bad that I’d mistakenly refer to the American emergency number instead of New Zealand’s own.
Staying in the USA for more than two weeks is more than enough to show me, as I already knew, that, as much as I’m not a “proper Kiwi,” I’m also very much not an American.
As I’m on a working gap year from New Zealand, my time in the United States so far has been riddled with the phrase “well, in New Zealand…”
There were some differences I already knew about. Proven with literal measurements, McDonald’s “large” in New Zealand is smaller than the American McDonald’s “small.” I’m aware of tipping and the annoying habit of having to keep in mind that price tags don’t include tax, even if I’m not used to either. The one that I always warn my fellow New Zealanders about is to say “eraser,” because here, “rubber” means something else.
And yet, still, there are changes that catch me off guard.
Almost everyone I have encountered so far has either pointed something out that isn’t a “thing” here, or they’ve been subjected to a miniature rant from me about what’s not a “thing” there. All of them, however, have been at least mildly amused, and, I would like to think, have become aware of plenty of small quirks they might usually ignore.
One of the most immediate things I noticed (and promptly reported back to other New Zealanders and, indeed, some Americans) was that half of the American advertisements I saw were for insurance and medication. I had never, in my life, seen such an ad before — the very concept of it hadn’t even crossed my mind. Other Kiwis were just as bewildered as I was. Upon tracking down one to send as an example, I got a variety of eloquent responses, many three words long and starting with “what the —.”
Then, of course, I saw the advertisements for pizza. And then I had a pizza. From what I can tell, “pepperoni” pizzas are the “basic” pizzas here. “Pepperoni,” in fact, is apparently the most basic meat topping one can find.
We don’t have pepperoni in New Zealand. By the second time I was looking at a pizza menu, I was quietly longing for a good ol’ ham and cheese pizza.
Then, while we’re on the topic of food, there’s the conspicuous absence of mince meat, or “ground beef,” as I’ve been corrected. After the third time I’d visited a Mexican restaurant (“restaurant” possibly being a dubious term) and “ground beef” hadn’t appeared as an option, I’d exasperatedly asked why these places didn’t offer the most basic meat option in the Mexican restaurants in New Zealand.
I was promptly, and flatly, told that “real” Mexican food wasn’t made with “ground beef.” Fair enough — Americans are the ones who share a continent with that cuisine’s country of origin, so I would like to hope you know better in that regard.
When I went to plug in my laptop charger for the first time, I realized that your outlets don’t have on/off switches, which is both strange and mildly concerning.
And, of course, the differences just keep piling up.
New Zealand (at least, Auckland) doesn’t have fire hydrants (not that I’ve noticed, anyway.) When asked about our firefighting system, I had no answer — it wasn’t something I’d ever learned about. Drive-Through banks are very much not something that’s arrived in New Zealand, and are still an absolutely bizarre concept to me. Sloppy Joes are a very American food, and in New Zealand, “lemonade” means “sprite” while “soda” means “soda water.” When I attempt to explain to Kiwis that “lemonade” is actually a sweetened lemon juice drink, I get blank looks and a “really?”
On the other hand, meat pies don’t exist here, nor does boysenberry or hokey-pokey ice cream. “Milo,” a vitamin packed chocolate drink mix, is nowhere to be found. I referred to a “bell pepper” as a “capsicum” (its proper name, by the way, even if “bell pepper” makes more sense) and met confused stares. Feijoas aren’t even recognised by my spell check. When I accidentally mentioned them in a conversation, I was derailed into explaining what a feijoa actually is, despite the fact that they’re almost frustratingly common in New Zealand. To spare you a Google search — they’re a strange, soft green fruit that sort of resembles an avocado. You’ll often see whole baskets of them left outside people’s houses with a “help yourself” sign, as someone’s backyard tree produced too many for even an entire family to feasibly eat.
And then there are the linguistic differences. “Herb” is pronounced with the “h” included in New Zealand — as far as I’m concerned, it’s there for a reason. Apparently I pronounce “figure” as “figger,” while Americans pronounce the “g” in “algae” as a “j”. In New Zealand, “candy” is instead referred to as “lollies” or “sweets,” (though I’ve always used “candy”).
And then there’s the curious verbal Kiwi habit of “yeah, nah,” or “nah, yeah.” Either are used to respond to a question, with the first word acknowledging your having heard the question, and the second containing your actual response. For instance, if someone asked you a question to which the answer was “yes,” you would say “nah, yeah.” “Nah,” in this instance, means, “I heard you.” If the opposite happens and you want to respond to a question with “no,” then you would say “yeah, nah.” In this instance, it’s “yeah” that means “I heard you.”
I’ve always said I don’t do this. After a couple interesting and unthinking responses to Americans who’ve called me out, apparently I’m very wrong.
Once I started my internship at Catalyst Ranch, there were a few other additions to be made to this steadily growing list.
In direct contrast to my reputation for being a loudmouth, I had a coworker tell me that I was “quiet and reserved,” much to my New Zealand friends’ glee. When I mentioned that, for once, I was the one who was comparatively laconic, one told me, “Finally, you get to experience what it’s like for us!”
On another occasion, I asked for a USB. After a confused minute of back and forth, finally one coworker held up a USB and said, “you mean this jump drive?”
Even as this article is being prepared, I find out that the man putting it together doesn’t know what a “silver fern” is, despite the fact that it’s been used both nationally and internationally as a symbol for New Zealand in much the way Americans are represented by the stars and stripes. Then again, New Zealand is rather tiny. And isolated. And doesn’t hold much influence or attention, to the extent that anytime that New Zealand is mentioned, even in passing, it’s cause for celebration — we were very glad when Lorde brought us marginally more recognition.
There’s a lot of fun in these small cultural differences. Ultimately (for the most part), they’re harmless and unimportant little things, but they do a great job of distinguishing us and our experiences from each other. It’s because they’re so meaningless that they become a great way to engage with someone who is different than you; this way, people learn to have fun with what separates us.
Plus, you get to argue about meaningless stuff and see who gets the most impassioned and indignant over the pronunciation of “herb.”
So, if I’ve learned anything from these instances, it’s that maybe I’m a little more of a Kiwi than I think. If there’s one thing that Americans and I are in total agreement about, however, it’s that Marmite sucks.
About Veronika Hunter
Veronika is our founder, Eva Niewiadomski’s niece and is presently doing a gap year in the United States. Having turned 18 in early April, she promptly hopped a plane three days later and said au revoir to her family with a one-way ticket to adventure. Veronika is interning in the Marketing group at Catalyst Ranch for 4 weeks and then goes to work at a YMCA Camp on the Lake of the Ozarks for 4 months. She’ll be back in Chicago after her camp counselor gig as a life guard. And hopefully back interning at Catalyst Ranch. We know she’ll be back as she has “Hamilton” tickets in early November!