We’re getting ready to host another group of American university students and sponsors in just over a week. The eight of them will be with us for three weeks, volunteering in local schools, playing with little people at our mums groups, and spending time at an after school program for refugee children. They’ll also get a feel of some of New Zealand’s diverse culture as they hang out with a group of teenagers from all over Auckland and then a group of young adults later in their trip.
With their arrival just around the corner, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to compile a list of a few of the things that make New Zealand unlike anywhere else in the world. Don’t get me wrong… some countries have one or two of these things, but when you put them all together, you get a country and a culture all its own.
Let’s start with the obvious. With 8,700 miles (14,000 km) of coastline (10th in the world), New Zealand is guaranteed to have a significant amount of beaches. I’ve heard people joke that if you feel a little too crowded at a beach (as in there are more than 20 people), just drive down to the next one. They’re a dime a dozen. However, it’s not just the quantity that makes New Zealand’s beaches so amazing. It’s the vast variety as well. Black sand. White sand. Large rocks. Small rocks. Driftwood. Calm, protected waters. Big surfing waves. Whatever you want in a beach, you can find in New Zealand… unless it’s warm water. That’s one request New Zealand simply can’t fulfill.
#2 Just a Few (Million) Folks
With a boom pushing the population up to 4.7 million people, New Zealand still ranks as the 127th country in the world in terms of population. It’s not the smallest in the world by any means, but it’s definitely towards the bottom in comparison to other first world Western countries. That translates to daily life in some interesting ways. Often, seemingly common things are a lot harder to come by. Those craft supplies you saw in a Pinterest project? There’s a good chance they’re not available. Things cost more. There’s not as much variety to choose from. It’s a much, much smaller market than the US or the UK or Canada or Australia. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
#3 East Meets West in Polynesia
Those 4.7 million people are really what make New Zealand unlike anywhere else in the world. I could write an entire book about it. It’s a case of Eastern culture meets Western culture on a Pacific Island. The Maori people first settled in New Zealand hundreds of years ago. The Europeans came next. However, most immigrants to New Zealand today come from India, China, and the Philippines. Toss in a large number of immigrants from other Pacific Islands like Samoa and the Cook Islands and you have a people group that is unparalleled anywhere in the world. It’s Western, but with an Eastern flair, and strong Pacific Island roots.
New Zealand has two national languages—not all that unusual. English is the obvious one to outsiders, but Maori, or Te Reo, is also a national language. It’s a Polynesian language not spoken anywhere else in the world. In New Zealand, it’s used on a daily basis for common items like kumara (sweet potato), names of places, greetings, karakia (prayers), and more. A beautiful language, it is known for its extensive use of vowels. Just take for example Aotearoa, the name for New Zealand, meaning land of the long white cloud.
#5 Treaty of Waitangi
When the Europeans were busy colonizing the rest of the world, they were notorious for taking over indigenous people groups by force, running them out, or killing them off, and most certainly subjecting them to the prowess of the white man. It’s a gruesome reality in the history of the Western word. Things went a little differently in New Zealand. Instead of being run off or killed off, the Maori demanded a treaty. I think they were just intimidating enough to get it. The treaty was written in Maori and in English and hundreds of Maori chiefs signed the treaty, known as the Treaty of Waitangi declaring British sovereignty in 1840. However, since the Maori chiefs couldn’t read English, they didn’t know that there was a disparity between the two versions. It wasn’t until more than 100 years later that the Maori people began holding the New Zealand government accountable to the version that their people had signed. As a result, the Maori culture has a much more significant impact on the lives of kiwis from every heritage than the culture of indigenous people does in many other places, such as the United States.
Did you catch that in number 5? The British were just colonizing NZ in 1840. While there had been a handful of explorers and settlers in New Zealand for quite a while, New Zealand as we know it is a very young country—practically making the US look matronly.
Have you looked at New Zealand on a globe? It’s really one of my favorite things to do. New Zealand is practically on the bottom of the earth—the last stop before Antarctica. Auckland, the most populous city in NZ, is located at a latitude of 37 degrees south. There are only three other countries in the world that can claim that location! Australia, Argentina, and Chile all have narrow bits of land on the 37th parallel south, but if you account for New Zealand’s South Island, you will find it is only rivaled by Chile and Argentina in proximity to the South Pole.
#8 Holiday Destinations
New Zealand’s location in the South Pacific makes for some interesting and exotic holiday/vacation destinations. Life is pretty grand when your nearest neighbor is Australia and a trip over is roughly the equivalent of a US domestic flight. Other nearby destinations include Fiji, French Polynesia (including Bora Bora and Tahiti), and Rarotonga (a favorite wedding destination among kiwis). Such exotic neighbors, I tell ya! That said, many kiwis make an annual pilgrimage to the UK. By pilgrimage, I mean more than 30 hours of actual flight time, not including layovers. Yikes! Others opt for a 6-week tour of US hot spots like California and New York.
#9 No Native Land Predators
You can’t mention New Zealand without mentioning it’s flora and fauna. It’s truly stunning and one of a kind. The climate lends itself to rampant and varied plant growth and animal life. Home to a wide variety of unusual birds, New Zealand has (or had) many flightless species that thrived with no natural land predators. That’s right, not a lion, a tiger, or a bear to be found. Not even a fox or a snake. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for domesticated cats and dogs to take advantage of the wee birds roosting on the ground. Many flightless birds are endangered or extinct due in part to our pets!
#10 Direct Bank Transfers
I’ll confess. I don’t really know if other countries have this or not, but it was so foreign to me when we moved to New Zealand, I’d like to say only New Zealand could make it work. New Zealand banking is such that when you want to pay an individual (for, say, a used table they are selling), you acquire their bank details (as in, they give you their actual bank account number). You then enter their account number and the amount of the transaction into your phone app and click confirm. Nearly instantaneously, your money shows up in their account, and apparently, nothing is ever stolen this way. 4.7 million people participate in transactions like this all the time, and I haven’t read one news story about it going awry. It’s strange. It seems so risky, but it’s also awfully convenient.