Raising a family in New Zealand. How much has where you grew up determined your personality?
June 19, 2009 9:02 AM   Subscribe

How much has where you grew up determined your personality? How important is location? Those who grew up in New Zealand, how much has its culture and limitations shaped you? Children of expats, how did having expat parents influence you? Any Americans in NZ want to tell me why they are raising their children there?

And I'm not asking this since I just saw "Away We Go." It just occurred to me the similarity of this question. I often think about where would be the best place to raise a child. Yes circumstance usually dictates, but let's forget that for the moment. I am American but also a New Zealand citizen where my large family on my father's side lives in Auckland. I have always heard that NZ is an amazing place to raise your child, however I have some concerns that maybe you all can help me with.

My experience has mostly been of Auckland and my own family. My family network there is very large and insular with very little room for individuality. I don't think anyone in my generation there has gone to college and they all work for the family business. They all talk of leaving but never do. They are an amazing family, but culturally ignorant and occasionally offensive (for example re gays). I am an artist, my partner a lexicographer, we adore the outdoors, but also like intelligent conversation and debate about everything, anything (University of Chicago life of the mind anyone?). We have considered raising our future children in NZ but basically I don't want them to grow up to be like the rest of my family there, isolated in terms of cultural and intellectual knowledge and respect, open-mindedness and curiosity. Individuality, achievement is a very American value, one that can sometimes be taken too far, but I don't want to rob my children of it if they grow in a more insular culture. My cousin tells me it gets more insular as you move south in NZ from Auckland but I don't know whether to believe her, and I wouldn't want to live in Auckland.

How much does or has location determined your personality? I think it's determined by your parents more than anything (contradicting conventional thought that it's your friends who are the most influential, but I've just never encountered that in anyone I know) but what about extended family?
I've heard Wellington is the culture capital of NZ, is this true? Are there other places? Is it true that cultural exposure declines as you head south?
Those who have grown up in NZ, have you felt a full cultural and intellectual exposure and life?
Any Americans in NZ want to tell me their stories? Why and where do you live in NZ? (Though it would be Saturday for you now, so are you even checking MF?)
Friends I've known who left NZ to see the world have all moved back. What's up with that?
posted by scazza to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have never been to New Zealand.

When I was basically a baby my parents made a decision to move to the country, a place neither of them had really grown up in except for vacations, and raise their kids there. I grew up with cosmopolitan[ish] parents in a rural environment (now suburban, but I went to school with farmer's kids when I was little) and lived there for the rest of my childhood and teen years. I went to college someplace ruralish -- again in MA so not like midwest-rural -- and then moved to Seattle. I loved Seattle, it seemed to fit me culturally and socially, but I always felt that the urbanite part of it was weird, offputting and not quite right. I wanted to sleep someplace quite and dark, and I wanted to know my neighbors and get involved in my community. It was a good place to spend my twenties in any case.

I moved to Central Vermont, to a town about the size of the one I grew up in, and I feel like I fit in here in the ways that matter to me. There is definitely, sometimes, the feeling that yeah I am missing out on what you refer to as "cultural and intellectual knowledge and respect, open-mindedness and curiosity" The place definitely has a mix of farmers, weirdos, people like me, people not like me. The work I do, technology education, is valuable here whereas in more urban places it's still important but less of a crisis. Since I grew up a kid of semi-intellectuals in a town of rural people (some like me but most not like me) I am used to the feeling that I'm a little outside of whatever the mainstream culture is here. I don't go to church, I'm not married, I'm a little hermitty.

The weird thing to me is that even though that was a slightly weird feeling to me as a kid, being an outsider, I seem to have replicated it perfectly, and pretty much happily, in a place that is not entirely unlike where I grew up, though geographically a little removed. I don't know if this is at all helpful but it's something I've been thinking about a lot lately.
posted by jessamyn at 9:50 AM on June 19, 2009

You cannot under-estimate the power of your environment. Your family is one of the biggest elements of that environment, but it is not the only part.

My family is from the New York Area. My brother lives in the South, and he likes classic rock. His three daughters all like country music - they are the only country music fans in the family. Growing up in the South, their peers at school, and now Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift are the greatest musicians ever.
posted by Flood at 10:01 AM on June 19, 2009

Best answer: A bit of background: I was born and raised in New Zealand (primarily Auckland. but I've also lived in Wellington and Christchurch). Moved to Canada a dozen years ago, and return to NZ for family visits once every several years.

I feel you're both right and wrong about cultural insularity. In one sense, you do have the urban / rural dynamic writ large: New Zealand is relatively small, with a low population, and far from anything else. That fosters a sense of independence within the country (the fact that you have to do it for yourself, as it's impossible to have anyone step in and do it for you without great expense) and also levels the playing-field. As part of that, New Zealanders, in my experience, take the Canadian sense of humility one step further: the social "daisy chopper" of reducing any success a few pegs, unless it's in sports.

I don't believe that there's a paucity of cultural and intellectual engagement in NZ, but I do think you have to seek it out a little more: it's not going to be in your face as New York City or Paris would be, and you may not find the same degree of social support for doing so.

I would agree with the general assessment that Wellington is the cultural capital, but would argue that there's simply a lot more going on in Auckland, as it has over three times the population.

Again hearkening back to that rural / urban dynamic, you will tend to find (and this is a very broad generalisation) that New Zealanders who are intellectually curious do tend to emigrate: this has been a trend since at least Katherine Mansfield. I have cousins in London (lawyer) and New York (chef), for example. But you will also find a good portion that tend to circulate - going out into the world to make their work known, but coming back to New Zealand to live (too many to list, but Peter Jackson is perhaps the best known current example) - mostly because of the advantages of lifestyle.

It's also important to note that New Zealand's smallness and remoteness also makes for a fairly liberal society: first nation in the world to give women the vote, prostitution is legalised, same-sex unions recognised, a form of universal health care, etc. As you've noted, that liberalism is not always reflected socially, but there is, overall, a basic recognition that everyone deserves a "fair shake".

I think what you're encountering culturally in your family network in New Zealand is coarseness - there is a general cultural consensus that New Zealanders can out-drink, out-fight and out-play anyone on the field. That sense of roughness, toughness, and independence rubs up against a cultured, mannered approach that you may be more comfortable with. And yes, that attitude does tend to become more prevalent the further south you move from Wellington.

But in terms of location, New Zealand cannot be beat, at least to me. Growing up in Auckland I could literally walk across the road and dive into the ocean, at least during summer; I could sea kayak or sail out to the islands, go for a run up a volcano, drive for a day to go skiing in winter. That, I think, fostered a sense of independence, ability, and sheer joy in life greater that more than compensated for any cultural limitations.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:08 AM on June 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

I am a Canadian who lived in New Zealand for a year. I enjoyed it there, but culturally, it's different. Firstly, due to its size, the scale of everything is very different. I had friends who thought that living where we were (Hamilton) was selling out and moving to the big city. But as far as I was concerned, there were cows five minutes up the road from me and a sheep farm across the road from the university (like, you could stand in the university library, look out the window and see the sheep) and I did not see how this was selling out to the big city---even more so when I got downtown, checked out the only retail bookstore in the city and found it full of stationary products, top five bestsellers, Harry Potter books and two authors of local interest, one of whom was known for a series of picture books about a spotted dog.

Most of my NZ friends did not understand the scope of living someplace bigger. Even simple things, like all the Canadian students were fascinated by the waterfalls and they didn't see the big deal. In their world, you can drive half an hour in any direction and be someplace completely different, and they didn't get that where I'm from, you drive half an hour from the city and you're still in the city, and then you drive half an hour from there and there is about ten minutes of country and then more city that looks the same as the city you've left. I remember one of them telling me how at Christmas time, the mall stays open all the way until 7 pm! So people can do extra shopping! And I explained to them how where I am from, there are vast sections of the city which never close at all, and they were horrified.

It seemed like my Canadian family was very into the idea of me 'doing' something all the time to take advantage of my fabulous opportunity. They were constantly asking me what I was doing and if I was seeing everything and it was very go, go, go. That attitude was very odd to my NZ friends. They spent most weekends sitting on their lawn drinking beer, and sometimes people would come over and sit with them and drink the beer, and sometimes when their go-go-go North American neighbours wanted to maximize their opportunities and see the country, they would pack up the beer in their truck, drive everyone to the beach and then sit there on the beach and drink it. I came to see some of the appeal in this lifestyle after awhile :)

On the other side, there was my 11-hour bus ride from Auckland to Wellington, and I remember being struck by how every single pokey little town we stopped in along the way had a massive Home Depot like hardware store. Kiwis are a very self-reliant and independent bunch, and the attitude seemed to be that if you don't do something yourself, nobody else is going to do it for you, so you'd better be able to get by. I really respect tat and wish I had some of those practical skills as part of my own upbringing.

Ultimately, there was no way I was ever going to stay there because it's too far away from where my own family is. But I loved my year there and can totally see how it would be an awesome place to raise kids if you have family there already.
posted by JoannaC at 10:52 AM on June 19, 2009

Can't answer the NZ part, but have a lot to say about the location part.

I grew up in a small rural town in Eastern WA state (6500 people, got our 4th stoplight my senior year of HS), and I believe that is one of the the larger contributing factors to my personality. I smile at strangers in the grocery store, let people merge in front of me in traffic, and just move about at a slower and more...community-minded pace.

I didn't really notice this difference until moving to an urban area on the West side of the state (north of Seattle). I used to want to move here to be a part of the culture and excitement that everyone talks about, but now? I just miss the quiet, the slower pace, and the friendliness of people. I try to talk about it with my friends who grew up on this side of the mountains, and they don't really understand what I'm talking about. It's not the traffic per se, it's the disregard of your fellow human being that comes with it.

Growing up in a small town also afforded me an excellent upbringing in that my education was better (always small class sizes and great teachers) and, because I was a "good" kid, less of a chance to get into trouble. Even if I wanted trouble, my only options were drinking and maybe smoking pot, and that would get back to my parents before I could finish inhaling. Raising kids is a community effort in a small town, and everyone knows everyone (which can also have it's drawbacks). For the big exciting cultural experiences, it just meant a family trip to a big city, which made it even more special and memorable than if it were part of my every day. These are things that I aspire to share with my children now that I realize how great they were.

Finally, my mom is Canadian, and traveling to visit family each year, we'd notice a pronounced difference in attitude and friendliness immediately upon crossing the border. I'd like to think that my mom brought a bit of that spirit into our home and raised us with a Canadian mindset, but it is a bit hard to tease out from the small town life.
posted by moojoose at 12:28 PM on June 19, 2009

This is sort of a "Nature vs. Nurture" debate but:

An an East Coast of the U.S. raised kid of U.K. parents. I can tell you that... it depends.
For instance, in a lot of my life, I'm your typical pushy NYer. Except my parents taught me to queue with the best of them, so now I'm a pushy NYer who stands in line.
I had a lot of UK kids books growing up, so the letter u has a curious habit of popping up where it doesn't belong when I type.
Growing up in a place where "George Washington slept here" is a common sight, and every other town square seems to have a memorial to some Revolutionary War battle is interesting when you have a father that insists "the rebellion is just about over and the colonies will see common sense any day now".

There are a lot of little things that will make your kid's life different from their peers: food preferences, language choices, shared cultural heritage.
ANZAC Day is very important down there, is that something NZ kids learn or they "just know". My family never really cared about the 4th of July. Did it make us weird or ostracized? Not really, but it does reinforce that feeling of "otherness" that a lot of expat families get. There are expat communities[1] in every country for a reason.

On the other hand, there are definite advantages to being "not from around here".
The ability to look more critically at your(new) country can not be underestimated when you get older. Just being not from there seems to make you automatically more open-minded.
I've found that you are more likely to travel and explore when you are new to somewhere as opposed to being born there, especially if you have a lot of visitors from back home.
If there is something particularly odious about the new culture, your kids can always blame non-participation on "Sorry, it's an American thing, my parents won't let me".
Probably less important these days with the Internet, but your kids will always have a reliable source of cheap, smuggled American goods. Something not available in New Zealand, get an American relative to send it.

Personality-wise, your kids are going to end up kinda like you, and kinda like the rest of the family in NZ. So, a fairly liberal kids who like to argue, smuggle celery salt in their luggage on return trips, and love the All Blacks.
Whether or not this is a good mix...well, raising a kid is a complicated process no matter where you live.

[1] Whatever you do, don't become those people who compare everything to the way it's done "back home" and only socialize with other folks from the same country.
posted by madajb at 2:47 PM on June 19, 2009

[I am a New Zealander, but not much of a Patriot. I hope my response doesn't sound too vitriolic, as it's definitely not intended that way.]

"...isolated in terms of cultural and intellectual knowledge and respect, open-mindedness and curiosity"

This sentence could also be used quite easily to describe the general perception of an American population. Your extended family are typical of some New Zealanders but not typical of others.

As an educated New Zealander I am very aware of my place in the world. Culturally New Zealanders grow up looking out, but also through our isolation and lack of huge commercial opportunities we are creatively quite free, money not being the solitary driving force.

The thing that makes many New Zealanders insular, those that feel happy staying put, is that New Zealand is a relatively safe, comfortable and quiet place where life goes at a slow pace and the stresses of big city living aren't a real concern. It's also horribly expensive to leave too often, hence the 'O.E' [overseas experience] for most young people.

I spent my formative years in the Napier/Hastings area, about 130,000 in population. This is a farming/orchard area, small town vibe, sports etc... It would probably be the same as growing up in any small town in the US. It didn't matter much to me, I had great parents, brilliant friends, access to good music, books, film and television (now they would even have the internet).

I was born in Wellington and went to University there, cultural capital, arts, small but great. I spent 10 years working in Auckland it has most everyone and most things you can find anywhere in the world....on a smaller scale. The Aucklanders who don't travel think Auckland is amazing, but most of us know it's a village on a global scale, but a village with cool people and cool things.

I no longer live in New Zealand, my wife is European and to be frank I have no plans to go back just yet, professionally there is a lot more opportunity elsewhere and it is a quieter pace of life I'm not quite ready to settle for just yet.

I think it's a great country to bring up kids, safe, unique, awe-inspiring at times, lots of space and good education. Most New Zealanders I know head back there to bring up their children.

I think as parents you will definitely shape their attitude, cultural leanings and intelligence (I was always jealous of my friends with foreign parents). As anywhere, there is always the danger that your children might find crap friends, but I think it sounds like the biggest concern should be if you the parents are going to be happy there?

"Individuality, achievement is a very American value, one that can sometimes be taken too far, but I don't want to rob my children of it if they grow in a more insular culture"

I think Individuality and Achievement are very strong values in New Zealanders as far as I'm concerned "No. 8 fencing wire" being a national motto for doing things yourself, some times great things. I won't go through our national heros, but they all show features of this trait.
posted by DOUBLE A SIDE at 3:06 PM on June 19, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers. Every one had a great piece of my answer in it. I thought that maybe I should have waited until Monday to post, but my question has been answered all the same.

This really helped me understand New Zelanders as DIY and a bit coarse, emigration (after all my very ambitious parent did come to the US from NZ), that our kids will be like us mostly and a bit my family but also have an innate love and attraction to wherever he/she grows up. I really like the bit about the capability, curiosity and creative freedom that comes from living in such an open, physical place.
posted by scazza at 9:46 AM on June 20, 2009

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