Episode #3 – New Zealand’s Dark Side
You came here looking for the dirt on New Zealand and you will definitely find it. Contrary to what you may have heard, New Zealand is NOT a paradise. 1/4 of all Kiwis are abroad at any given time, and that is not because they have utopia-phobia. Here are some of the things that stuck out to me.
If I had to describe New Zealand travel in one word, it would be ‘stunning.’ If I had to describe day to day life in New Zealand in one word, nothing other than ‘boring’ comes to mind. NZ as a whole lacks a lot of activities and the ones they do have are ridiculously expensive. I lived in west Auckland, but even the city center feels like an American suburb. I hope you like watching TV.
Everything Closes Early
I asked around about this one on forums and people assured me that only the post office and the bank close early, which is absolutely not true. I worked at a mall, which only opens till 9 on ‘late nights’ and normal closing time is 6pm. I’ve been to bars in the city that close at 9:30pm on a weekend! Good luck with cafe’s as the schedule pictured above is pretty normal.
The Weather is Terrible
One of the best things I talked about in the last post was about how amazing the Great Walks are. I was scheduled to do two, but unfortunately, the Whanganui Journey was cancelled due to weather. On my 3 week trip of both islands, I often talked to other travelers about this with regret, and almost universally, everyone had a similar story of just torrential rains during different hikes (year round). During my 10 month span, I recall just a handful of days which were nice from morning to night. Even days that started out sunny would end with drizzle and crazy winds just to mess with you. Auckland gets an average of 134 days of rain a year and the rest of the country isn’t much better. You really have to plan around the weather and given how few indoor activities exist, I hope you like to sleeping-in early.
Services AND Goods are Insanely Expensive
In Asia, goods are usually expensive, but eating out and general services (public transport, mechanics) are cheap. The US is the opposite where the goods are very cheap (groceries, clothes, electronics, etc) but services are expensive.
New Zealand has the worse of both worlds, with just about everything being expensive. The going price for a 20 oz soda in a fast food joint is $4.20 NZD which is just ridiculous. The minimum wage is (or was) high (approximately
10.20 9.65 USD, plummeting currency), that doesn’t get you very much. A meal that you don’t cook yourself at that price might fill your gut, but will leave you feeling like crap for the rest of the day. To put things into perspective, the minimum wage in Thailand is 300 baht a day. If you assume an 8 hr day, that’s 37 baht an hour. I can find a better tasting meal for 37 baht ($1.60 NZD) in Thailand than I can for $14 NZD ($10 USD) in New Zealand. Which leads to…
The Food is Meh
Thailand has pad kra pao, Italy has fettuccine alfredo, Japan has curry, Korea has just a plethora of foods and New Zealand has… meat pies?… Fish and chips? To be honest, I couldn’t quite figure out what is the iconic food here as they all seem to be borrow foods which are more popular in other western countries (Australia and the UK respectively for those examples). The food is meh, which is a similar criticism I have of American food (non-ethnic foods that is). The parallels between the two countries is rather uncanny in many other respects, which reminds me…
Not Culturally Unique
If I were to be kidnapped in the US and dropped off in New Zealand, it would probably take me a while to realize I was not in America anymore. Besides a different accent, nothing really struck me as culturally unique or different. From the malls, to the ‘Chinese’ food, to the way people dress, I think Texas is more ‘culturally shocking’ than New Zealand. One of my favorite things about being abroad was learning something new, no matter how small, virtually every day. From how to properly give money, to passing some temple on my way home, to the different uses of the word ‘prego,’ it makes being abroad a wonder. This probably added the most to my boredom.
Before coming to New Zealand, I heard about how culturally different the Maori compared to Caucasian Kiwis. I expected an experience similar to the Kayan I met in Myanmar. This is not the case at all. In fact, there have been case studies conducted by New Zealand universities on how the Maori have adopted more concepts from African American culture than traditional values. While more traditional Maori definitely do exist, you’re more likely to come across Maori youth that looks like this than this.
Auckland is Pandora’s Box
Much of what short term visitors experience is outside of Auckland, which is a good thing. In many ways, New Zealand is the world of Pandora, and Auckland is the stuff inside her box. This is not just my view though, as I learned when speaking to non-Aucklanders.
Two days before arriving, we met two Kiwi guys who asked where we would live. When we mentioned Auckland, they retorted with, “I thought you were going to New Zealand?” This sentiment wasn’t unique either. Whenever I went outside of the city and people asked if we liked New Zealand, I almost always said “except Auckland.” Every single person chimed in on how terrible of a place it is and how they agreed completely. Initially, I thought it was some sort of regional pride, but with time I tend to agree.
Auckland, in short, is everything you don’t like in a city, and none of the things you do. It has even higher prices, crime, is less friendly, but there is absolutely nothing convenient about it.
If you’re a woman, it gets worse. After a while, Sidney started walking to work and noticed guys would honk at her from their cars. I first thought it was nothing or not aimed at her, but it kept happening and got progressively worse. I was trying to be optimistic, but then a post on Reddit caught my eye. A girl in Auckland’s city center told almost the same story verbatim which lead to a FLOOD of similar stories (and almost all of them in Auckland). Don’t take my word for it, read it here. Nonetheless, harassment against women is fairly commonplace.
Were I worked, there was a thief caught at least once a week with a couple more who escaped our grasp. Theft is to be expected in retail and especially in a mall setting, but the general consensus on the problem is what really irked me. Security guards and police in general seem to have a very “boys will be boys” approach to thieves. In fact, a caught thief casually strolls in minutes after being caught as if nothing happened because, well, nothing did happen. There seem to be no consequences or general shame about the whole thing (and this applied to adults as well at kids). One thief I caught red handed threatened to break my nose, shoved me around, claimed I was being “a racist white boy” because she was Maori (I’m not even white) and the security guard just let her walk away despite the evidence (she was allowed to keep the stolen goods too).
Car theft, on a grander scale, was fairly commonplace too. Signing up for car insurance, one of the basic options is ‘theft insurance’ which I found a bit odd that it went into such detail as to what actually counts as ‘theft.’ After talking to co-workers, customers, and just people around, it seems that everyone has experienced their car being stolen at some point or another.
As accepting as Kiwis may be of people with disabilities, there is a sort of subtle racism towards Asians, Indians, Maori, Islanders, you name it. I worked in a Korean owned shop, and I constantly got told things like:
“It’s good we got one of US in this shop”
“It’s great that SOMEBODY in this shop speaks English” (note, some of my coworkers were raised in New Zealand and are as fluent I am).
“Finally, SOMEONE who understands customer service” (note, everyone is rather nice despite some ridiculous demands)
And sometimes, it wasn’t so subtle:
“I just don’t like Asians”
“Too many damn Asians in Auckland as it is”
“GO BACK TO CHINA” (happened twice while I was there, and I heard two more times when I wasn’t in a 7 month span)
This was definitely not the majority, but after hearing this about once a week, you get pretty sick of it.
The Job Market
When I first arrived, I was WAY too optimistic about the job market. I assumed that my engineering degree would be enough to get some menial but related work to avoid picking fruits in a farm. Almost universally, every job I found and applied for explicitly said they did not accept Working Holiday Visa holders. In addition, some were also explicit that only degrees from New Zealand universities would be accepted. So, yes, even if you have a Master’s in Computer Science, some companies will not accept it if it is not from New Zealand as one poor Indian guy I met found out the hard way. In fact, I came across a number of people who were allowed residency in NZ BECAUSE they had bachelor’s or master’s degree, but are not allowed to effectively use them to get a job. That’s pretty absurd if you ask me.
A Singaporean man and his wife recently moved into our neighborhood and it took him 9 months to find a job (which starts four months after hiring) despite having a degree from the one of the top universities in the region (rated above any university in New Zealand btw). He tells me that those looking to move to NZ from Singapore are aware of this and plan for it years in advance. I understand the need to protect domestic jobs, and generally agree with the concept. However, why promote that you want ‘skilled migrants’ to come and then bar them from potential jobs?
I was also under the impression that jobs in hospitality would be easy to get. They are… if you are willing to work below minimum wage. For Kiwi owned hostels and farms, a common offer would ask for some work in exchange for accommodation and maybe food. While some are reasonable, asking for 15 hrs / week for accommodation, doing a little math puts it in perspective.
If they paid minimum wage, you would get paid 190 post taxes. That would make the dorm bed they offer $27 a night, or the going rate more or less. A fair trade, kind of, except that they save on the taxes of the bed and the taxes of paying someone, and get a guaranteed tenant, but let’s overlook that for a sec. The more we looked though, many places asked for 25-30 hours and some even asked this of couples (so 50-60 hrs) for a room, which is way below minimum wage labor. So, how do they get away with it? Because people are willing to do it. Thousands of WHV holders with no other options because of limited English (like some French dudes we met, or many Asians) or limited options just take anything they can find. Many are young too (18-22 yrs old) and I sympathize as I too didn’t complain too much about obvious legal violations in my first job in Korea when I was 23.
We then turned to the Korean Post, a New Zealand website for Koreans living in the country. It is the general go to for the 1800 (2014) to 3000 (2015) Koreans on the working holiday visa to find jobs and support. On the plus side, a text message gets you an instant interview if the job is still available. However, getting offered 10 NZ dollars (25% below minimum wage post tax) was pretty common-place. When we talked to our Chinese flat-mate at the time, she told us how in a similar website aimed at Chinese in NZ, $8 an hour (by the way, the minimum wage is 14.75 or 12.60 post taxes) was pretty normal as well (36% below minimum to you, and a savings of 46% to them) which she personally did in Chinese restaurants. Ever wonder why those dumplings were so cheap or why the service doesn’t come with a smile?
They also don’t normally pay extra for national holidays work, holiday pay (Dec / Jan), overtime, and skip on required breaks, all of which are New Zealand law. Employers, however, just retort with how “they just can’t afford it.” I don’t know if the government is aware of this and looks the other way, or has no idea, but I figured it out within a month, so it is either ignorance or incompetence and I am not sure which is worse.
Public Transportation Sucks
A while ago, I had work in two locations with the further place taking 25 mins by car. When my car started breaking down, it became impossible to get there as it would take around $25 round trip and 4-5 hrs on buses and trains (optimistic Google maps says. I’m guessing more like 5.5 hrs). In fact, getting to the city costs me $4-5 and takes an hour to an hour and a half in what is a 15 minute drive. Hell, if I want to take the bus to work, I have to get up EARLIER than if I just walk 35 minutes and is very unreliable. On the way back, the bus is often late, despite this being the first stop! While I have learned to live with it, I cannot imagine how people without cars do it for their whole lives.
As much as it is tempting to say it is a matter of the size of the city and population, that doesn’t seem to be the case as my Google-Fu found out. A few decades ago, New Zealand was booming and buses was all the rage. However, the government had a choice to either expand public transport or expand highways and encourage the country to become as terribly dependent on cars as American cities. They struck deals with construction companies (who are still expanding highways today) and foreign countries (specifically, Japan for used Japanese cars) and cut back on public transport to expand the highway system. The result was an increase in car consumption, decrease in bus usage, and the justification needed to further gut the public transport system. Today, only 11% of Aucklanders use public transport to go to work, the lowest in half a century. Who would have thought this would come back to bite people in the ass when gas prices exploded to the current rate of about $8 NZD a gallon?
While doing research for this post, I found this article with many other people telling their stories about their struggles in New Zealand (and some defending their country). While most were not on a working holiday, it is definitely worth a good read.
Disclaimer – Half of the points I made here are probably unique to Auckland and I probably also had shitty luck. Don’t be discouraged and give New Zealand a shot.
Are there other downsides to living in New Zealand I missed? Put them in the comments below!
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