Monday, June 27, 2011

A Wee Lay-up

I have lived abroad before, in France actually. I should, therefore, know what to expect about cultural differences, right? What I am finding instead is more often than not I am caught off guard by something someone says, or I say something that is completely inappropriate for the circumstances. But why?

English is my native language. French is not. Simple enough, I realize, but it makes all the difference and not in the way you might think. It is easier to be caught off guard in an English-speaking country than a French-speaking one.

While in France, I have to think about the correct word or phrase in every situation. The only way to continue to grow my French language skills is to be constantly “on,” constantly learning, and the only people from whom I learned were those with whom I would come into contact. I remember a particular day in France when I was talking to a friend, and I said, “รงa peur.” It has no direct translation, but idiomatically it means, “that’s scary.” I was proud of myself. My friend laughed. To her, I was supposed to talk like a book, not a French person. Together we realized that I was integrating. It was a big step.

I do not have that problem in English. I do not have to be “on.” I just talk, right? I reckon, though, it is just a matter of time before I am keen to hang out and go for a wee drink, eh? Oh wait . . .

I feel as though I am living in the twilight zone. I am not sure what my patterns are and what I consider normal anymore until I am confronted by something that seems strange. For example, many flights in New Zealand are on 60-seat planes. After flying a lot, the first time I had to get on a 737 (you know, what Southwest flies), I was struck by how big it is. I was just on one again yesterday, after not flying for awhile, and it felt “normal.” I guess time away from the extraordinary makes old friends ordinary.

But this week has struck me on two fronts, woken me up to the fact that I really am in a foreign country that speaks a different language, sometimes a non-verbal one. (I have to share that, in college, I lived with 3-4 linguists, and these sorts of conversations dominate(d) our conversations.)

One of my friends here is from Australia, and she received two basketball tickets. She did what any normal, non-basketball going person would do – she called an American. Yes, my friends, I went to a basketball game in a small town in New Zealand. I would say it might be able to contend with Division B in college. Might is the operative word in that sentence.


Basketball, to me, is America. I played growing up, and as an almost 30-year-old woman, that is unusual in the rest of the world. Girls here play netball (I have no idea what it is, either), and in France, when I asked what girls do in school, my host sister said, “dance.” So, I am proud of the fact that basketball is a major sport in the United States, for boys and girls, and it is the only truly American sport, created in the 1880s at a YMCA. The point is that basketball makes me think about home.

The announcer was about the most honest announcer I have ever heard. He told us how the team had been on and off all season, and this being the last game of the season, they had to really pull it together. If the other team scored an undefended point, we were sure to hear that a defender should have been there. It sounded like the commentary from Harry Potter Quidditch, not a basketball game.

But the proof that I was not in America were the references to the wee layups and the wee free throws. Basketball Kiwified! And that was not all. In America, we root for our favorite teams, right? Well, rooting has quite a different connotation, and it is not something you discuss in public at family friendly events. Here, you support a team. I was careful . . . until I was not. Luckily, my friend understood, and no one else could hear me. It is hard to be on when at a place that feels so comfortable.

So, the wee plays and careful word choice on my part made the evening interesting. I also had to explain the game to my friend; she had never before attended a basketball game. Luckily, it being New Zealand, the announcer also added in a bit of rule explanation. Apparently, this is not a popular sport here. Overall, I had a great time living in language/culture purgatory. An American movie helped me realize that I cannot escape it.

I am back up in Wellington for a few days; we have a Fulbright event to attend. I planned to stay with a friend Monday night, but thanks to the ash cloud, she is stuck away from Aotearoa, the land of the Long White Cloud (the Maori name for NZ), and instead of bugging someone last minute, I decided to stay in a hostel. Facebook was alive with great references to Bridesmaids, so I went to see what all the fuss was about. For the record, we must look insane to the rest of the world.

First American movie in months, what is my first thought? They were driving on the wrong side of the road. Oy! I guess all my “look right” reminding worked. While watching movies in France, I knew they were seeing a translation, which is really an adaptation (another thesis of mine in my old life). The funniest experience I ever had was seeing Matrix 2 in France during the scene where the “bad guy” repeats about every French swear word there is in a matter of about 10 seconds. The place erupted in laughter. But here in NZ, they do not translate the films. There are no subtitles running in Kiwi. They get to see the American version even if it makes no sense. And I get to see where I fit into the mix.

Before the movie, the woman sitting next to me was explaining living in Christchurch to a friend. I guess she moved up here or is visiting from the earthquake-weary city. I heard her explain the 22 February earthquake. I suppressed the urge to tell her I had also been there, to find a bond, but I sat there realizing I was in the Twilight Zone of my mind – somewhere between the United States and Aotearoa.

I may not struggle to find my words on a daily basis here, and I may technically understand everything that goes on around me, but each day, I am struck by the fact that I am not in the United States anymore. It is fun to see where I have transformed and what my new “normal” is. If nothing else, it keeps me on my toes, eh?

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Taking a Break

I have been in New Zealand for over four months now. In some ways it feels like just yesterday that I arrived, but so much has happened since I have been here that it sometimes feels like I have been here forever. The initial high of travel, orientation, the Future Partner Forum, and a return to Dunedin, has worn off. Now I am back to life as life is – sitting at a desk all day “working.”

Yup, my life has taken on a similar routine to being in the States, the only difference being the lack of Trader Joe’s. One person in the States said to me, “I thought you were just traveling around.” Nope, I am no longer a tourist, at least not now. And just like at home, the routine sets in. Things have been difficult to say the least. Writing a thesis is hard, the weather has been cold, there is no insulation, and yes, I miss Trader Joe’s.

So, just like I do at home in the States, I spend all day sitting at a desk staring at a computer screen, though if we are friends on facebook, you may have noticed that I have recently learned about legal resources in paper, but that is a story for another day. I should also mention that my desk is within a room with about 40-50 other postgraduate thesis students, and although there is a window, my desk faces away from it. Do I need to mention the florescent lights, or is that already part of your mental picture of the place?  

As someone who teaches Stress Management workshops, I knew I had to get away. I had to get away from the routine, away from the energy of the room, and away from my cold house. So I decided to head to Victorian New Zealand, also known as Oamaru (or Oamuru as Google Maps calls it) for the weekend. Oamaru is only about 1.5 hours from Dunedin, and like nearly every other city in NZ, it is right on the coast. What makes Oamaru unique is two-fold. First, and less well known, it was one of the first cities to boom in New Zealand, and at one point was the same size as Los Angeles. The city boasts the first shipment of frozen meat. But then it crashed, and it crashed hard. Some thought it would never recover, and the buildings sat in disrepair for years.

That is where the second point comes in – the one for which Oamaru is best known. All the buildings here are built in Oamaru stone or Whitestone. Better known as limestone to those of us not from New Zealand, Oamaru stone is everywhere in the city. Interestingly, the history video (did I mention I love museums?) said that one of the reasons Oamaru grew so fast was because there were no trees here, so farming was easy, but that also made building from timber difficult – thus the stone! Well, with a booming economy, unlimited (or so they thought) limestone, and an architect who loves all things classic and beautiful, you get historic Oamaru.

The main street in Oamaru with all the limestone buildings.

A beautiful sunset over the sea!

And you cannot be on the Otago coast without another friend – PENGUINS!! I was so excited when I learned I would be living in Dunedin that they have penguins. But Oamaru has more, many, many more. One kind are called Yellow-eyed Penguins in English, but their Maori name – hoihui – literally means noise-maker. I tried to video the noise, but alas, when I ran the video the penguin stopped. Oh well.

A sign for the penguins. These signs are all over the city. 

Yellow-eyed penguin drying itself. 

Then I went to see the colony of little blue penguins. There are over 500 penguins who live in the colony, and in the winter (which is now – we are upside down, remember?) there are usually about 30-60 who come home on any given night. We saw 126! It was absolutely incredible! What is most incredible is how they come ashore. The waves are intense (especially the night I was there), and these little penguins ride those waves into the rocky shore, get thrashed against the rocks, then come out standing and running, yes running, up the rocks to their grassy haven with a wee stop to dry and oil themselves. Who knew that penguins could climb so well? They truly are beautiful and amazing, and apparently slightly mean, little birds. Half the size of the Yellow-eyed Penguins, they are the smallest penguins in the world, and they are social, and oh so cute. Unfortunately, the staff at the colony do not allow photos, and they are nocturnal, so when I went the next night just to the beach to see some, and I did, the only picture I got is, well black. Yes, I was the person on the beach informing other people not to use their flash. I’m that person. If you are interested, there is a link below my black photo to some online photos.

They are serious. They want to protect the penguins.

Sad. This is all I could get from the blue penguins. But click here to see them.  

So, this trip was just what I needed. It only rained on Sunday morning, but cleared up in the afternoon. I walked from one end of the city to the other, visited museums, saw Victorian garb, saw the Steampunk festival participants (folks who dress up in punkified Victorian garb – I don’t get it either, but the photo below is a woman in Victorian dress with Medieval additions because normally when she dresses in costume, it is Medieval costume). And I visited the Whitestone cheese gallery (everything here has whitestone in its name). I love Whitestone cheese. It is sold throughout the country, and apparently is distributed in the States as well, so I visited their factory. So cool and super yummy!

A view of the street with some dressed-up people.

And on my walk back to town yesterday evening, I was talking to myself. Don’t judge, I find this is when I have my best ideas. Crazy? Perhaps, but who writes a thesis that is not a bit crazy? And I had a great insight into my thesis while talking to myself. That insight will be shared in November when I turn it in. Ironically it was right in front of the whiskey tasting room where I had tasted some of the only whiskey ever made in New Zealand earlier in the day. But it made me feel like I could go back to Dunedin on track. I guess I just needed to get away! So, I cannot say that Oamaru is a typical tourist destination in New Zealand, except to see penguins, but it truly is a great place for a weekend, and a great place to rejuvenate.

My point of inspiration. It had nothing to do with the whiskey, I promise.

Oh, and happy Queen’s Birthday! Today is a holiday in New Zealand celebrating the Queen’s Birthday, which is not today, but at least it is a day off.


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved