Notes from Afar 12: Wellington, New Zealand


Going away was in large part about returning. And it has been a strange and uneasy homecoming. Here are some observations. (And I am very aware that Wellington is far from completely representative of NZ.)

Kiwis are a funny looking bunch. Maybe we are an isolated population inbreeding. They tend to be unaccountably down on themselves, and emotionally withdrawn. We give each other so much space it is dysfunctional, and seem to require alcohol to reach a functional level of outgoingness. I shudder to think what our depression rates are, but there are a lot of obviously unhappy people around. (This is all in implicit contrast to other countries which have a much stronger sense of community and engagement and life lived on the street, particularly Morocco and Peru. Big cities in the West, well, no one shows any humanity, at all, on the street.)

New Zealand is a Pacific island, very far from the rest of the world. And almost devoid of people, at least in terms of global population density.ย  It runs at a totally different pace of life to anywhere else. The isolation lends an unreality to the rest of the world, and also a hyper-reality – so much of our media and news is all about this faraway world which we inevitably fetishise.

Kiwis seem politically apathetic and naive, and tolerate a truly pathetic and ineffective media. Brutal to be welcomed back by a farcical election – the lowest voter turnout in a 100 years – returning an embarrassing right wing government bent on environmental degradation for profit, led by a blatant slimy fuckwit millionaire merchant banker. With a majority of one vote, they will continue an adherence to failed economic ideology and gut the country and its resources to service the already wealthy. We have an unusual political history, one of the few existing countries that has not changed government by violence in the past hundred years. I suspect this lack of having to fight for anything at any point adds to our laxness. We have not fought for our identity, or what we have, and so do not resist it being taken away.

We are half-assed to the point of incompetence, and no one seems to mind. Life here is easy enough to allow that. The absence of population makes for an absence of competition. This is nice, in that it makes things chilled out, but lame, in that there is little to drive excellence.

The country itself is a little ludicrous in how effortlessly pretty it is compared to basically everywhere else on the planet. There are lots of pretty parts of the rest of the world. But here just does it, all the time, everywhere. I had missed our beautiful native birds, too. So many! And such song! New Zealand is green, green, everywhere. Nature swarming, but not seething, like the jungle. And the light is stunning. An absence of pollution, and ozone layer, both.

And yeah, we are chilled out and friendly compared to most places, and have a naive honesty, in that so much of the negative behaviours I encountered in the rest of the world would never occur to people in New Zealand – you just don’t treat people like that. Though also, because the population is small, if you are an asshole, it gets around swiftly, so there is pressure not to be a lying cheating sonofabitch.

While our race relations lack the obvious tension of overseas, perhaps it is just that we have the space to ignore each other, and no one is going to bother anyone else, because that would be effort, anyway.

More positively, Kiwis are also a pack of mad bastards. (Somewhere in the travels I observed that I felt a higher proportion of kiwis suited the description “dangerous lunatics” than any other culture I have encountered, with the possible exception of Americans.) The thing is, we have access to all the intellectual and technological fruits of the pinnacle of world culture, but are basically left floating alone in an isolated cultural void, free to concoct demented alchemical experiments in our sheds. We just get on and do stuff, with a “its rough and ready and mostly works and who gives a fuck anyway” attitude. Alchemical here meaning any flavour of weirdness that an individual has glommed onto, and decided to combine with whatever other obsessions, and sheds meaning the infinite space we have here, or your closet, or a shed. One of the truly great things here is you can do your own thing and no one will bother you if you aren’t bothering them.

Despite the resolute absence of culture pursued by the mainstream of NZ, we are also the most refined, open minded and wide ranging scholars I have encountered. (There is a bias there among those I know and cultivate.) We are outside it all, but plugged into it from the outside, often in the weirdest way. So far away but so aware of the rest of the world, to which we are invisible. A nation of scruffy low-key obsessive geniuses with no respect for anyone telling them what to do. Mutants on the periphery of the global empire.


13 Responses to “Notes from Afar 12: Wellington, New Zealand”

  1.   Helen
    December 12th, 2011 | 11:35 pm

    >Mutants on the periphery of the global empire.

    I like that description so much, I am going to try to find somewhere to quote you.

  2.   billy
    December 13th, 2011 | 12:02 am


  3.   Joel Pitt
    December 13th, 2011 | 12:41 am

    Love this reflection on things. I’ve certainly learnt much about our context and felt a lot of the same things you mention here. I’m looking forward to returning and catching up.

    One of the things I noticed is that whole OE cliche is actually extremely valuable in keeping NZ connected with the rest of the world. My time in Hong Kong will hopefully forge the connections necessary to bring jobs to Wellington and build IT based solutions for foreign companies.

  4.   bruce
    December 13th, 2011 | 8:58 am

    >My time in Hong Kong will hopefully forge the connections necessary to bring jobs to Wellington and build IT based solutions for foreign companies.

    Joel for PM!!!!

    Seriously, thanks for the perspectives and insights, and for saying things that one has to be a native here to get away with saying. Good cross-indexing on my own particular perspectives, and also helps explain why I have ended up here.

    Don’t beat yourself/country up to much about John Key. It’s happening everywhere, and at least here it’s the right wing party that’s doing it, so at least there is some hope of change with the next election. In the US the left wing party is doing it, so voters are completely disenfranchised.

  5.   Maire
    December 13th, 2011 | 9:33 am

    Interesting. Especially the bit about depression.

    Our suicide rating seems to have gone down a bit (we used to be right up there with Finland), but it’s still way, way too high.

    However, coming home from the Black Country in 2000, I was mainly struck by how positive, upbeat, and cheerful Kiwis were, by comparison.

    I guess it depends what one’s comparing things with.

  6.   Anna
    December 13th, 2011 | 10:19 am

    I’d like to add some witty comment but quite frankly all I can summon is: well said! Particularly loved 2 phrases:
    — A nation of scruffy low-key obsessive geniuses with no respect for anyone telling them what to do,
    — We are half-assed to the point of incompetence, and no one seems to mind.

  7.   michael
    December 13th, 2011 | 1:16 pm

    Re: gloominess, I often wonder (with no possible answer) how much of a factor the weather is. Just thinking of our closest neighbours and the generalisation that they’re more outgoing, upbeat, etc. May fit with Maire’s experiences too. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Interesting read, anyway.

  8.   beth
    December 13th, 2011 | 1:35 pm

    well said, moose.

  9.   Vince
    December 13th, 2011 | 1:56 pm

    “with no respect for anyone telling them what to do”

    Don’t know… NZ seems to be rule mad and it all seems to have happened in a few short decades. +1 about people being emotionally withdrawn. So much isolation.

  10.   billy
    December 13th, 2011 | 10:53 pm

    Joel: likewise
    Anna, Beth: cheers
    Michael: we have quite varied geographies and climates within the country, too… by that logic Dunedin and Northland should have quite different depression rates, etc
    Maire: comparison is an impressionistic art; everywhere I went was better in some ways and worse in some ways.

  11.   Scott Kendrick
    December 17th, 2011 | 2:03 pm


  12.   Jorri
    December 25th, 2011 | 11:52 pm

    This is a very good critical text, especially for someone like me who tried to explore and understand NZ and its people for a long time. It makes me think a lot, and makes me understand a few things better, too.
    Thank you, my friend! Iยดll get back to you with some questions when the time comes, so be ready for that! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  13.   billy
    December 27th, 2011 | 12:05 pm

    รou know you have arrived when the Germans say it is a good critical text. ๐Ÿ™‚