Long before I set foot in New Zealand, while I was still waiting to hear back from IFSA and conducting preliminary research on the place where I would soon spend five months studying and exploring, I assumed that New Zealand would be very similar to my home in Hawaii. Afterall, how different could this Pacific island be from the one where I was born and raised? Such was my mindset when I boarded my flight at the airport in Kahului, Hawaii, and the mindset that I continued to hold 10 hours later, as I stepped into the Auckland night. Exiting the Auckland airport and stepping onto New Zealand soil for the first time in my life, I immediately felt like I was home. I was met with the familiar smell of warm rain, wet grass and the salty ocean breeze, and my tired eyes and cramped legs were immediately engulfed by the comforting blanket of humidity that is summer nights on the north island. Growing up in Hawaii, this was what I knew and where I was comfortable. Who knew going abroad would be so easy? Who knew it would feel like I’d never left home?
The initial similarities went beyond my first night. Both islands share a friendly and laid-back culture– money and prestige will not automatically earn you respect. You’ll find that neither people from Hawaii nor New Zealand are particularly fond of bragging about where someone went to college, their grades, or how much money they make. A truly refreshing take on life for a student like me, who attends a competitive private college on the east coast of the United States.
The connection to land and water is something that both cultures cherish. There is a cultural respect, fascination and obsession with the stunning natural landscapes in both Hawaii and New Zealand and both places are fighting hard to find a way to guarantee protection of these natural resources they hold so dear. Conversely, both cultures share a battle with the immense isolation. In Hawaii many people, young people in particular, feel trapped, stuck on an island in the middle of a vast ocean, and here in New Zealand I can see reflections of that same cooped-up loneliness among young people, despite the country’s larger size.
As the days roll by and my adventure continues, I’ve begun to notice more and more, the differences between my home and New Zealand, and I know that it is these differences that will make my time here such an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.
One of the first major differences that caught my attention was diversity among the New Zealand population. My first day in Auckland left me stunned by the amount of Chinese, Korean and Indian restaurants I encountered. Nearly every corner housed authentic cuisine from some far reach of the world, and nearly every street sign had Chinese characters under it. Whether walking the streets of Auckland or here in Dunedin, the presence and general acceptance of a multitude of races and cultures is obvious. However, unlike Hawaii, here in New Zealand I have noticed less mixed race individuals. Hawaii is a mixing pot, a stew of ethnicities and cultures, while New Zealand seems to have been modeled more after a boxed lunch: each ethnicity and culture complementing one another and playing an important role but refraining from mixing. This reality was one that took me by surprise and I’m still unpacking that a bit.
What I also didn’t expect, despite being informed of such by multiple people, was the diverse and unpredictable climate of New Zealand. This country’s size and location means that the climate variation is dramatic. The week that I spent in Auckland was as tropical as any day in Hawaii: scorching, hot days accompanied by cool showers at night, a combination that led to a nearly perfect temperature. However, when I flew south to Dunedin the weather dropped nearly 35 degrees and the ecosystems changed drastically — it suddenly felt like we were in the foothills of Ireland or Scotland. These conditions can change within the day, so I’ve got to keep a jacket and raincoat handy– a reality that’s an adjustment for a boy who grew up in board shorts and T-shirts.
Another, more depressing, difference between New Zealand and Hawaii, is the disparity of reverence for indigenous culture. Though Maori culture and language are fairly recognized and respected throughout New Zealand, this respect is nowhere near as prevalent as it is for a Hawaiian in Hawaii. Nearly every street and every town on my home island is written in Hawaiian. Here in New Zealand however, the country’s British and Scottish history still dominate public spaces, and twice in the span of two weeks I have heard derogatory names for the Maori people. Perhaps my sample size is too small, but this difference has been a noticable and disturbing one.
I have observed both parallels and contrasts between Hawaii and New Zealand, in the few short weeks that I have called New Zealand home and I am extremely thankful for both. While similarities allow me a certain level of comfort, it is the different perspectives that I have gathered, from which I have certainly gained the most. They have forced me out of my comfort zone, requiring me to view this new world and my old one, in a different light, and in doing so, push me to grow while abroad, as a student and as an individual. There is no doubt that the different culture that I am currently experiencing, will resonate with me for years to come, long after I have returned from abroad.
Liam Chan Hodges studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Otago in Spring 2018. He is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-To-Study Program.