Whimsical Aotearoa

The Wizard - he's still a thing

The Wizard – he’s still a thing

I came across this wee gem on the Interwebs yesterday and was in stitches over what a strange and wonderful (strangely wonderful?) place I come from.

The writer (I use the term loosely, the piece was from BuzzFeed after all) compiled a list of, as the title suggests, ’69 Things About New Zealand That’ll Blow Your Mind.’

Mind blown. And I had quite a few LOL moments and chortled heartily right to the end. Which caused a flareup of my homesickness. (Which will likely lead to a very expensive plane ticket being bought soon).

So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite ‘facts’ about that wacky lil’ country at the end of the world.

6. Only 5% of NZ’s population is human- the rest are animals.

17. More people die in New Zealand each year playing lawn bowls than scuba diving.

20. Auckland is one of the most affordable cities in the world to live in. (I’m including this one because it his hilariously UNTRUE! Auckland is more expensive than Manhattan!!).

38. In 1996, a man broke into a radio station in Wanganui and took the manager hostage, demanding that they play the Muppet song “Rainbow Connection”.

40. The Kiwi badminton team name was ‘The Black Cocks’, but after a year, had to change it due to complaints.

41. In 1990, the NZ prime minister appointed a National Wizard.

42. Rugby player Wayne Shelford got his scrotum ripped open mid-game in a bad tackle. He was taken off the field with one testicle LITERALLY hanging out, got stitched up on the bench and continued the game.

46. There is a clock in Dunedin which has been running since 1864, despite never having been wound since it was made. (Shout out to my hometown!)

58. In 2008, Henry the tuatara became a father for the first time at the age of 111. (A tuatara is a reptile native to New Zealand.)

59. New Zealand is the only country with the right to put Hobbit-related images on its currency.

64. In 2007, the NZ courts banned a couple from naming their child 4Real. In the end they named him Superman.

68. Niue, a self-governed island of NZ, has images of Pokemon on its legal tender coins. There is also a limited collection of coins with images from the Star Wars films.

69. There are more vending machines in Japan than there are people in New Zealand.

Ladies and Gentleman, the land I call ‘home.’





Fabulous New Zealand

gaynzYesterday I sat down at my computer with my cornflakes as I usually do at breakfast time and read a news (I use the term loosely) Website from New Zealand. This little ritual has been going on for years and helps me feel connected to those two long islands down in the South Pacific.

One headline caught my eye (Young Nelson doctor pays tribute to late partner through exhibition) and I clicked. As the accompanying photo is of a man, I assumed his deceased partner was a woman. But as is revealed in the first paragraph, his partner was male. Nothing too shocking there. This is, after all, the country that was fifteenth in the world to allow same-sex marriage (and incidentally was the first country in the world to allow women to vote). But what I read next surprised me. The ‘young doctor’ is 24 while his partner was, oh, a bit older – 85. I nearly choked on my cornflakes – that’s almost a sixty year age gap. While I try not to be too judgy in matters of the heart, I did look twice.

The article goes on to show a photo of the couple (who had been together for six years) and talk about their shared love of landscape photography, which took them on international adventures (Wong’s partner, Barry Woods, was a professional photographer). It also mentioned that the hospice in which Wong’s exhibition is a fundraiser for gave the couple of a lot of support during Woods’ battle with lung cancer.

Reading this from my little perch in Seoul, in what has to be one of the most conservative, sexist, racist, classist, conformist, ageist, patriarchal, closed-minded and homophobic countries in the developed world, I felt a surge of pride for my homeland. While New Zealand has its fair share of social problems (child abuse and poverty, rising inequality, erosion of indigenous rights, covert racism, an embarrassing prime minster etc.) it is awesome that such an article can be graciously published on one of the country’s most popular and mainstream news Websites.

While I don’t have the mobility of someone with say, an EU passport, I’m so happy that I was born in New Zealand and have grown up in a progressive, accepting and free-thinking society. I’m grateful for the world-class education I received which fostered the growth of a social conscience and open mind which underpins the person I am today. I heart you NZ!

On Spring Cleaning & Tiny Houses

Tiny-Home-Movement-Threatens-to-Go-Big-VideoIt’s that time of year again, when the temperature leaps from -4 degrees celsius to 20 in the space of a few days. The cherry blossoms burst open in all their pink loveliness and that North Face puffa jacket that has been like a second skin over the past few months gets tossed into the back of the closet.

And then the Monica Geller-worthy cleaning frenzy starts, with old clothes and random bits and pieces finding their way to the ‘charity clothing bin’ across the street, which means they’ll end up in a clothing market in Uganda.

Luckily, I don’t have much to clean or get rid off. Material things have never been important to me and don’t gel well with my nomadic lifestyle. I’ve never had my own car or TV. I have fewer clothes and lady-things than most middle-class women. I have an old MacBook and a decent SLR camera. I have a lot of books and have traveled more than the average bear.

Most expats/migrant workers who live in big Asian cities get used to living in rabbit warrens. Unless you work for the government and/or military, you won’t have a garden, yard, and in many cases, an actual bedroom. You may get lucky as I did and score a balcony. The upshot is that you realize you can live comfortably in a small space and all the money you save by being able to live in a Tiny House (they’re a thing, see image above) when you repatriate, you can spend elsewhere.

And thus, I hereby declare my membership to the growing Minimalist movement (yes, also a thing). I came across this concept when I read about The Minimalists – basically two rich, white dudes who wanted to break the cycle of working hard and spending harder. They started to understand the relationship between time and money. They began to realize that maybe happiness doesn’t lie in working 80 hours a week in order to have all the latest gadgets. Revolutionary, I know. Having built their new lives around this movement, they’ve thought long and hard (they now have the time) about what is entails. In their own words:

At first glance, people might think the point of minimalism is only to get rid of material possessions. Eliminating. Jettisoning. Extracting. Detaching. Decluttering. Paring down. Letting go. But that’s a mistake.

True, removing the excess is an important part of the recipe. But it’s just one ingredient. If we’re concerned solely with the stuff, then we’re missing the larger point.

Minimalists don’t focus on having less, less, less. Rather, we focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more experiences, more growth and contribution and contentment. More freedom. It just so happens that clearing the clutter from life’s path helps us make that room.

Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things—which actually aren’t things at all.

So, as life as we know it hurls towards disaster (we consume too much, we work too much, we destroy the planet far too much), wouldn’t it be nice if everyone in the privileged, developed countries turned over a new leaf?


Italy beyond the pizza

Italy sonninoAbout five weeks ago I tumbled out of a plane into the fashion/food/history capital of the world – Italy. I am here for an extended vacation/look-see, to learn the language (ha!) to explore possibilities for the future and to spend time with my nearest and dearest. Given the fact that I have been here three times before over the past 15 years for brief stints as a tourist, you would think that I would know something about the place. However, I can assure you that while I can alphabetically recite every gelato flavour ever invented, it turns out this extremely beautiful country is rather mystifying. This, coupled with my laziness, idealism and naivety means that I am often left scratching my head about how the country functions (or, rather, doesn’t).

The first curious aspect that was brought to my attention (or, more accurately that I paid attention to because I have become cluckey for them) is the presence of dogs. Everywhere. It seems that every man and his dog has a cute little pet dog, the most common being yappy poodles and fat, pregnant sausage dogs. It seems that dogs are given special human privileges here and are basically allowed everywhere. I’ve seen well-behaved dogs in clothes stores, restaurants, bars, public transport, on Vespas and even at a wedding. I assume they’re also given access to cinemas, churches and public swimming pools too, but I will need to confirm and report back. While the dogs are, for the most part, obedient, the same cannot be said for their cousins, the children, who are left to run wild everywhere and are tolerated in all their caffeine and wine induced revelry (yes, wine drinking starts here at 7 years old I am told).

The next striking thing is the fashion. OK, so everybody knows that Italy is the fashion hub of the universe. But knowing it intellectually and living it are two very different things. I only realized this after I found myself in a sobbing heap one day as a tsunami of insecurity that I haven’t felt since I was like, oh I don’t know, 13 and unable to afford any of the clothes the cool girls were wearing, washed over me. And by ‘washed over’ I mean pummeled. No, wait. It’s not the fashion that is so insecurity-inducing. It’s the whole industrial complex of beauty that places a disproportionate emphasis on appearances. This means that designer glasses, sunglasses, handbags and shoes are the norm. And that’s just the children. Imagine the sense of discombobulation and cultural confusion one feels when faced with the fact that what the average woman in New Zealand wears to a wedding is what the average Italian woman wears to supermarket on Saturday morning to buy milk. Imagine how one feels, when during a job interview in Milan, the interviewer says, ‘you have to up your dress game. I don’t agree with the importance of appearances here, but it’s the reality. It matters more than you think.’ Yip, that happened to me. This does not bode well as I have always been someone who has avoided heels and make-up like the plague (chronic clumsiness is debilitating, people) and who would rather spend an extra ten minutes in bed in the morning than waste time putting together a nice outfit. The times I have put in a lot of effort I just look like I raided the dress up box at 3am after too many shots of tequila.

So, the point is that Italian women, 80% of whom are incredibly naturally beautiful anyway, have upped the game by spending all their money on designers clothes and accessories in an aggressive effort to outshine women of other nationalities in a kind of Darwinian survival of the most beautiful. This means I must dust off all those old pretentious books I bought and actually read them, so that I can compensate for my frumpiness. War and Peace, anyone?

But, it could be worse. One of the most eye-opening things here has been the presence of prostitutes. While I’m no stranger to seeing ladies (and ladyboys) of the night – I’ve walked through the red light district of Amsterdam and passed by the girly bars of Bangkok. What makes Italy different is that prostitution is illegal. So, how have pimps and police gotten around this? There are two solutions. The first is to set up massage parlors with names reminiscent of a spa in Asia, like ‘Zen Dreams’. Decorate the exterior with pictures of water flowing over rocks, jasmine flowers and a lot of pink. This might be the sort of place I would consider going to for a mani/pedi, but luckily locals in the know set me straight. The second solution is somewhat more bizarre. The sex workers (women – often very young –  and transgenders, who are often from Africa and Eastern Europe and are in all likelihood working against their will) stand on the roadside of busy sections of highways on the outskirts of cities in their heels and skimpy, blingy clothes, at roundabouts and outside gas stations. Day and night a prospective client will drive by, slow down and pick them up and they’ll do the deed in the car or a nearby field or forest. Sometimes on the car in broad daylight and in public. The reasoning goes that it’s just a woman standing on a street and a man stopping to give her a ride, so to speak. There are so many reasons why it’s wrong and is a good example of the hypocritical Italian government turning a blind eye while people find a way to dance around the laws.

These observations have caused a kind of splitting in my mind – perhaps there are two Italies – the one enjoyed by tourists and the much more complex and bizarre society that I am trying to understand every day. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg – I could go on about the obsession with hygiene but the lack of public bathrooms, causing one (OK, me) to pee in the street, the arcane politeness and formalities, the homogeneity and xenophobia. But no, it’s time to take some more gelato and literally put my head in the sand.


It’s the Little Things

buds1Recently a photojournalist from Spain (but based in Asia) contacted me out of the blue after he read an article I wrote about mental health services in Seoul. He is on assignment here and wanted to meet with me to find out more for a project he is working on. We met over coffee and I think I may have unwittingly performed my first act as a stringer – the person who hooks up journalists with sources and contacts.

The photojournalist (let’s call him Albert, because that’s his name) and I talked about his work in Asia and the high profile newspapers and magazines that publish his work. He likes to document life as it is in all its gritty realness (in fact, you can check out his work here). Attracted to both the beauty and the tragedy of life, he showed me a series of photos he’d taken recently when he was based in Beijing of a pair of women. However, they were not your typical skinny, pale, fashionable Chinese girls with fine features and long black hair. No. These women were plump and homely. One isn’t even Chinese – Lina hails from Eastern Europe. But one thing both women have in common is that they are blind.

A chance encounter with the women led him to spend time with them and capture their story. I was moved by the scenes of the pair relaxing in their basement apartment, walking arm and arm outside and touching the delicate buds of trees growing alongside the polluted canals in Beijing. Both women work for an NGO that helps blind people, so neither earn much money. But the message of the photo essay, Albert tells me, is that you can be content with very little, as long as we have companionship and a roof over our heads. Everyday, these women overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and face discrimination and stigmatization, but take comfort in the others presence, in the platonic love and sense of family they have for each other.

Seeing these photos reminded me of how lucky I am and also how special yet fundamentally important having that human connection with others is.