Imagine, if you will, a land that measures 40 leagues from the Far Downs in the west to Brandywine Bridge in the east. And from the northern moors to the marshes in the deep south, ripe fruit is in abundance, pockets of forest and snowcapped mountains dot the periphery to the edge of the horizon, and the eye is constantly tinged with red from the finest pipe-weed in the land.
Yes, I just described the Shire. Yes, I traveled to New Zealand specifically to re-enact scenes from movies where I could say lines like, “They run as if the very whips of their masters were behind them.”
I may also have gone snowboarding on Cardrona and, when roused from a concussion in said ski resort’s nursing station, said something along the lines of, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.”
Maybe I did those things. Maybe you should shut up.
The point is, there is no divine mandate requiring black women to be cool. No—actually, my point is that New Zealand is a place whose beauty is truly mythical.
Like its neighbors to the west, New Zealand has universal health care (which continues to be rated among the best in the world), maternity leave and breathtaking natural beauty—though, FYI, earthquakes do on occasion hit, to catastrophic effect.
Unlike Australia, however, New Zealand doesn’t herd refugees off to illegal detention centers. There aren’t any venomous serpents lurking in the bush to put your blood into reverse circulation until you hemorrhage to death. Marriage equality was passed in 2013 (under a conservative government).
Perhaps most important, a treaty exists between the Maori people and early British settlers guaranteeing land ownership and certain rights, and it is one of the many reasons that te reo Māori (the Maori language) is a “defining feature” in Aotearoa’s (the North Island’s) education system, although controversy surrounding the interpretation and implementation of the treaty remains.
In case that’s not enough, the rugby team occasionally wins … World. Freaking. Cups. The All Blacks are the single greatest recruiter of large, gorgeous, neckless men anywhere in the world—in case you’re, ahem, into that sort of thing.
Here’s something else: I’ve been to 25 countries, and Kiwis rank as the No. 2 kindest people I’ve ever met in any of them. Kind for no fucking reason. Kind because it’s Tuesday, and they had a bowl of Wheaties and a solid bowel movement after breakfast.
Kind because you’ve been driving for six hours straight in a rental the size of a shoe box, and you bang on the doors of a small grocery store because you need muesli, tampons and a few eggs to cook over a gas-top stove for warmth in the middle of winter, and you’re let in after store hours because they just want to help a hungry sister out, and not because they want to play target practice on the canvas of your (flawless) black skin.
Again, I repeat: THIS PLACE IS REAL ...
But not perfect. With a population of just 4.6 million people, 1.3 million of whom live in Auckland, it’s a small country in land mass, scale and, of course, opportunity. In fact, the inhabitants are outnumbered by the sheep … 6-to-1.
But that’s not to say that the less-populated towns of the South Island don’t have their charms. In fact, the South Otago town of Kaitangata made headlines last year when it put out an ad seeking new residents to occupy all those pesky jobs and offering NZ$230,000 home packages—which, if you’ve ever been house hunting in Auckland (or San Francisco, or Brooklyn, N.Y.) on any given Sunday, is a price that would surely make you weep.
But if you’re interested, get in there before Brexodus kicks in … and learn how to farm sheep.
For anyone craving actual human interaction, you’re better off sticking to the more densely populated, ethnically diverse and generally more livable North Island, and reserving your South Island Lord of the Rings romping fantasies (winery expeditions, outdoor hiking adventures, snowboarding accidents and wypipo-watching events) for vacation.
For the best of both worlds, Auckland is my pick.
For wāni, a 27-year-old student who, along with his family, moved to Auckland as a Congolese refugee when he was 9 years old, it’s a more problematic home than my doe-eyed first impressions might otherwise convey. His family was one of the first African refugee families to ever settle in New Zealand.
He says that the Kiwi approach to resettlement was poor, not in small part because officials seemed happy to homogenize various African countries, simply because they were all black.
“We were bunched up with different refugees, but we came from the Congolese War,” wāni says. “We were in dorms, Rwandans and Congolese … we ended up in crazy fights.”
It was a tumultuous introduction to a country where, he says, he was meant to be safe—but it was only the beginning.
He says that lack of awareness, along with the precarious management of stereotypes and pre-existing intercultural tensions between Pacific Islanders and white kids, made growing up at times a surreal experience.
“Everybody but you is an expert on blackness; if you drink milk and not Kool-Aid, people think you’re weird,” wāni says.
After several resettlements around the North Island, his family managed to finally settle in Auckland, and things seemed like they were getting better—until wāni started school.
“Everybody else was behind. I was doing their high-school-level thinking, but I couldn’t even get into a normal class because they weren’t sure of my schooling and my English-language abilities,” wāni says.
For his parents, finding employment and having their qualifications recognized in New Zealand caused additional stress, giving him an intimate look into the comprehensive effects of racism.
“Man, it was just … rife,” he says.
Now, as a postgraduate student at the University of Melbourne, wāni is cognizant of how racial and economic disparities in opportunity and employment play roles in shaping the dynamics within black and brown communities in New Zealand. He cites shocking levels of intimate and family violence against children and women, of which New Zealand has the highest rate anywhere in the world, as a problem that has not been addressed.
“Child mortality for kids that are being beat to death is crazy—but nobody talks about it,” he says. “It affects black and brown communities, specifically Pacific Islander communities.”
Having grown up in a place with so many people who were minorities but not necessarily black, wāni says that he’s now much more aware of how his actions affect other black and brown queer people, citing the undercover nefariousness of being classified as a “model minority.”
“I’ve really had to learn what my footprint does. … I gotta remember how what I say affects other people, like brown people, Maori people,” he says. In that sense, he’s trying to create more space for people of color in New Zealand to exist outside of a narrative that ascribes blackness only to African Americans.
“We’re all trying to be African Americans, because that’s the only image of black people anyone ever sees,” he says.
Janina* sighs heavily when I tell her this. It’s an observation that’s marked her experience, too. Originally from Chicago, she moved to Auckland five years ago after a brief stint in Wellington to work in marketing, and found that she was immediately pitted against African Kiwis and Maori Kiwis as the “model minority.”
“At first it was really strange. A lot of people approached me as being ‘authentically black,’ thinking that I would want to talk about hip-hop, and know how to sing.,” she says. “At first I thought they were joking, but then their faces were dead serious.”
If Janina listens to rock music or pop music in the office where she works, people automatically get weirded out with arcane comparisons that make absolutely no sense. “Someone actually said to me, ‘But … my Maori friends only listen to hip-hop.’ She looked so sad!” she says.
“It took some time to wrap my head around the fact that ‘black’ here means something very different from ‘black’ in America. … [‘Black’] can mean Maori, Pacific Islander, African or African American,” she adds.
Despite occasionally disappointing people by not being a hip-hop artist, Janina says it beats her lifestyle back in Chicago by a mile. She lives in a nice flat, is in a loving relationship, and has found a supportive community of black and Maori friends with whom she can wax lyrical about issues that matter to her.
“That’s made a huge difference, finding a tribe … now I realize that [living] in America as a black woman was a hazard to my health. I just wish it weren’t so far away from my family,” Janina says.
When I inquire about her love life (because I freaking HAD to know), she’s quick to note that fetishism is still a big problem, but she feels lucky to have fallen in love with someone who has a similar narrative.
“Maybe because it’s he’s part Maori, he gets it,” Janina says. “I don’t need to explain things like cultural appropriation to him because he’s able to relate, even if it’s from a completely different culture. He’ll say things like, ‘There goes another white guy with a Maori tattoo,’ and I hear where he’s coming from, too.
“I feel safe here, the health care is amazing and people are, like, really cool, even if they’re a little ignorant,” Janina adds.
It’s a sentiment echoed by wāni, who, despite his trouble growing up, agrees with Janina’s assessment. “Everyone is willing to help. Kiwis are just super nice.”
Even though they have completely different experiences, wāni and Janina both feel that they have found a home in New Zealand.
“I think New Zealand is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I reckon it’s definitely the place where I’ll retire,” wāni says.
When asked if she would recommend Auckland to others, Janina doesn’t hesitate: “Absolutely—but do your research; sort your visa out beforehand, because they ain’t playin’ right now. ... Just come with an open mind.”
“And don’t get too hard about cultural appropriation,” wāni is quick to add, “because you’re gonna get hurt.”
*Name has been changed at subject’s request.