“And the people are the best!” We regularly hear when researching a new destination.
Often, it’s true. We’ve had the experience of visiting a number of countries in a row where we find ourselves feeling that the locals get nicer and nicer with each new place. It’s most likely due to our novel status of animated-tall-white-American-native-English-speakers, but we’ve been met with grins and offers of help and requests for pictures almost everywhere we go. I can’t blame rural Vietnamese, Nepali, or Malaysians for feeling this way- we must look like walking cartoon characters wearing backpacks and pointing things out while smiling to one another. We’ve been told we’re the first Westerners locals in a particular area have seen many times. They seem as excited to meet us as we are to meet them!
Not only have we been blessed with good experiences from natives, we have had the incredible fortune of making dear friends with other expats on our travels. We’ve met people in Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal, and Malaysia who invited us to dinner, babysat our child, and invited us on playdates. We’ve even traveled through three different countries with some of these new friends, which has been a bucket list goal of mine since adulthood.
It feels easier to make friends while traveling abroad than it was in suburban America (not to discount the incredibly meaningful friends we left behind in North Carolina. We love and miss you all dearly!) Expats around the world seem to congregate for a simple reason: you’re in an unfamiliar place and it’s comforting to spend time with people you share cultural commonalities with. We’ve made friends with other expats because we all speak English, are from North America or other westernized countries, are worldschooling children the same age, and/or have made the choice to leave our home countries. Those similarities bind us.
The main way we meet other people is through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Our church organization remains the same in every individual ward (congregation) around the world, and it’s been so comforting to be in a brand-new environment and at least have the familiarity of the same church program on Sunday. We try to find English services wherever possible, and the English speakers attending that ward have almost always recognized us as the timid newcomers we are and welcomed us warmly. They give us invaluable insider tips on where to go and what to do in the area as well as emotional support. I have often wondered how other traveling families we’ve met survive the constant change and stress of travel without the support we feel from our extended religious community!
While we are careful not to spend all our free time with similar people (experiencing new cultures is why we chose to travel, after all), these friendships have come to mean a great deal to us. It’s been such a blessing to grow closer as a family through these new experiences, but it’s nice to differentiate our day by being around more than just the two other people in our family. Ben and I have appreciated having adult conversations and Whit benefits from playing with other children. Traveling makes you more vulnerable, and having someone take you by the arm and offer to be your support means so much.
(Thank you thank you thank you to those of you who have had the strength to adopt our strange little family in the last year. Feeling part of a larger group has made the experience of leaving home much less scary.)
Here’s the point of my ramblings: We have not had the same welcoming experience in New Zealand. And it’s been hard.
I hope others have had great experiences of helpful, kind New Zealanders on their travels here, but it just hasn’t been the case for us (with a few exceptions of very nice people, of course.) I’m sure part of the difference is that we don’t stand out here until people hear our American accents. Among so many English speakers from Westernized countries (New Zealand feels like a melting pot of people from various English Commonwealths), locals don’t have a void to fill with familiar people.
I also wonder (and the same thought has been shared by other travelers) if we aren’t actually looked down upon as being American travelers, though. We felt especially judged when taking our RV through the South Island, as though locals have developed a dislike of backpacking tourists overcrowding their natural wonders, littering public parks, and disturbing ecosystems by bathing in public lakes. I wouldn’t blame them for resenting the cause and effect of New Zealand’s recent surge in popularity, but not all travelers are the same!
People have been friendlier in the North Island, especially since we’re now in a rental car, explain that we’ve moved in for two months, and are paying to send our son to a free public school. They appreciate our interest in the country and our commitment to one area, in particular, but their friendliness rarely goes beyond a cordial level. We aren’t being asked to dinner, but at least we aren’t made to feel like we’re flat-out invading someone’s life.
The one exception is a man Ben knew 15 years ago. He and Ben were teaching companions while serving as Church missionaries in Seoul, Korea. Ben has fond memories of him and has mentioned his old New Zealand companion a few times as we planned our trip here. He gave Ben some great impressions of the country, and we’ve been hoping to cross paths with him since we arrived. It took a few weeks to get in contact, but he’s still in the country and even living nearby! He barely remembered Ben, but still took the time to drive an hour to our home to meet with us this past week. We spent the afternoon talking before heading to one of his favorite beaches where he taught Ben how to surf on a paddleboard. He left his best contact info, invited us to his house, and even compiled a huge list of places we should see while we’re in town (which he said his family would love to visit together). We stopped by his house to meet his wife and daughters a few days later, and they, like him, were incredibly welcoming. The four adults laughed at similarities and old stories and Whit literally ran through the house laughing with the other kids.
It made a huge difference.
We all had more pep in our steps this past week because our daily routine of School, Work, Outing, Dinner had been shaken up a tiny bit. We were more excited about the upcoming weekend because our plans included seeing people, not just going places. We were kinder to each other because there were new people to focus some energy on.
I’ve been surprised at how we are received in New Zealand, and so grateful for the contrast of a good person and his family who has taken on the responsibility of befriending the new people. Thank you!
Oh! I almost forgot to update on last week!
I’m happy to report that my work stresses were just a temporary slide. I did some deep digging into my website analytics and noticed some viewership trends that show I am actually doing a decent job. Not a spectacular job, but good enough to boost my confidence! Yes!
Ben, likewise, has spent more time focusing on the details pulling down our sales lately and has some insights on how to change things. It’s tedious work he hates doing, but spending time on dull work can pay off in the long run. Let’s hope, at least.
And the idea of being positive because positive behavior is contagious? Well, I think that’s working, too. It’s an ongoing experiment.