Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Tracey Barnett: Cultural anorexia rules in the land of number eight wire

You're starting to piss me off, New Zealand. I stopped counting internet entries for "Tall Poppy" at 491 only because I thought cultural commentators here must stutter.

If the sum total of New Zealand's cultural identity is height-enhanced opiates, number eight-wire ingenuity, and "she'll be right", I'm packing my Buzzy Bee tea towels and heading back to the land of despot wannabes, Cheneyville.

There is a benefit to knowing how you are seen in the world's eyes. I'm here to tell you New Zealand needs glasses. Let's call it cultural anorexia. You seem to know who you are, but always skewed on the skinny side.

If I stand an Aucklander in front of a mirror and say you look lithe and athletic, all you can tell me about your reflection is clogged motorways, a revolting domestic violence rate and long surgery queues.

You nod patriotically about the beautiful beaches then ask wistfully, "Have you ever been to [fill in the blank] - now there's a city."

Standing atop Mt Victoria on a sunny day watching the sparkling diamonds in the water reflecting at me like a million tiny cliches, I think, am I missing something here? Just keep telling yourself like a mantra, "Childhood asthma rates suck. Childhood asthma rates suck."

When I take overseas visitors to the Otara market and they spend the morning laughing with vendors and counting the number of produce they can't even identify, like a true Aucklander I tell them, "Yeah, but Otara probably has the highest hubcap-pinching rate in the city, so look, don't fall in love."

Then over a dinner of fried Sydneysiders on toast with a Jafa friend, I consider doing a serious intervention. I throw open my wallet and unfurl the newspaper clipping that has the new Mercer quality of living survey listing Wellington as the 12th-best city to live in the world.

"Well, that makes absolute sense," you mumble into your cup o' half-empty, "I've been wanting to move there for years. Except for their weather."

But by then, I pounce. Auckland, we have been deemed to be the fifth-best city to live in in the entire world. Hello? Why don't you put that in your Blackberry and smoke it?

Yes, to the rest of the world, New Zealand is about stunning physical beauty, the All Blacks, and jumping from an oversized rubber band.

But there is an unstated respect to this simplistic portrait that you seem to appreciate only after you've jetted off on your two-year OE to Armpit, New Jersey. The quality of life here is your richest natural resource.

It hit home for me first when I showed up for school parent interviews after the summer holidays. As I waited for the teacher, I stared at a wall full of children's drawings about what they did on their summer break. Every picture showed a child on a beach or a river, fishing or hiking, boogie boarding or in a boat.

It suddenly occurred to me that is your little secret to success. The kid in Remuera and the kid in Henderson and the kid in Gore and the kid in Otara are drawing the same picture. Some stayed in million-dollar baches, but most of us stayed in a $14-a-night DoC campground with the $14 million-dollar view.

Right outside your window you have the greatest societal playing field leveller of all - universal access to beautiful resources that anybody of any circumstance can enjoy.

The greatest economic and cultural asset you have is staring at you out of your window. There it sits amid a stable, neutral, independent-minded Government, a societal commitment to social services, and a Prime Minister who looks good in red. What more do you need?

I'm no sex slave for the New Zealand tourist board. I know we are short on long-range vision and long on short fixes. "She'll be right" needed to become just "Do it right" long ago.

Then when I see a murder take the lead story on the news, I find myself thinking, "Look, how quaint. The entire country feels bad about it."

I grew up in the Chicago area, a land where the only time someone gets upset about a murder is if the body lands near your mailbox and becomes a speed bump when you back out of the driveway.

I thought this country had grown up and cultivated a respectable nonchalance about crime, second only to multiple varieties of pesto on the grocery shelves as an indicator of cultural maturity.

But no, here you are again, genuinely upset about a young man stuffed into a suitcase or a German hitchhiker found dead in the bush. Rotarians graciously house their grieving families, the aberrant act still making front-page headlines. Birgit Brauer's father said, "Even New Zealand has black sheep." Even New Zealand.

New Zealand, to most of the world you are the end of the rainbow, the Willy Wonka winning ticket. Even in murder, your kindness fuels the very thing you do not see in yourselves. Most of the world envies you.

So put on some weight and drop the cultural anorexian musings of "But I bet in your country they do it bigger/richer/better". Because this cocktail you mixed here at the bottom of the world is the recipe more than 3 million international visitors a year will want to see by 2011.

Maybe by then "She'll be right".

* Tracey Barnett is an American journalist working in Auckland.

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