Life in Middle Earth

Today is a big day in New Zealand.  It’s the world premiere of Sir Peter Jackson’s much anticipated new movie, “The Hobbit.”  I read this book in my fourth grade class with Mrs. Hensley but I don’t remember much about it.  It is as vague to me as the world is to New Zealand.

Many people believe New Zealand to be in Europe somewhere.  Somewhere specifically near Denmark. While there’s no excuse, I can’t judge.  I can actually sympathize with not knowing where to find New Zealand, also known as Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud.  I always knew it was somewhere near Australia, but beyond that I knew nothing about it.  I didn’t even know it was a country comprised of islands, mainly inhabited by birds and sheep.  While I am learning more than I ever thought I would about birds and sheep I am also learning the good, the bad and the ugly about those who inhabit Earth’s so-called utopia.

The good?  It’s right there in front of your face.  The temperate climate, the stunning landscape, the fertile soil yielding enough food not only for New Zealanders but for the much of it to be exported, feeding the rest of the world as well.  Much of this country’s apples are consumed outside New Zealand in markets like India and the U.S.  Before such markets were tapped, the older generation tells me they never used to pay for their apples–they were available on the side of the road in crates, free for the taking.

Comparatively speaking, life’s good here.  Hawke’s Bay residents just received a $135 check in the mail from Unison, the power consumer’s trust.  Never heard of that happening before.  (Italiani–can you imagine getting anything from Enel?)  Unemployment is fairly low here and the State is more than generous, providing the have-nots with a generous dole, complete with a home with a yard which seem luxurious if you compare them to American government-funded projects.

Not to say that New Zealanders don’t have their share in difficulties, it’s just that the difficulties here are of a different type.  Just watch the news for a few days and you’ll see what I mean.  Two newscasters deliver the headlines with tight-lipped deadpan expressions I find almost comical, given the context of what’s considered news.  Lately the big stink around here is a clerical error in an automatic payment system.  New Zealanders are normally paid on a weekly basis, worst case scenario; fortnightly.  When the government recently switched their current system to an automated one, a glitch occurred, sending people into a near outrage.  Some teachers had not received their wages for–wait for it–four whole days!

These are the kinds of things that plague New Zealand.  Most of the time.  A farmer dies in fire, a helicopter occasionally crashes.  Bad things happen to good, undeserving people just like anywhere else, here it’s just on a smaller scale.

But New Zealand has their dark secrets.  Here’s a national taboo: violence.  The local paper reported yesterday that 80 cases of domestic violence are reported here a week.  That is in a region of less than 150,000 people.  Hawke’s Bay Today also reported that nationally there were 90,000 cases of violence in the home last year, which equates to more than 240 cases a day.  Statistics I find shocking for a country with a total population of 4 million.

Perhaps these social problems partially stem from the disparity between the whites and the tribal Maoris.  While New Zealand fancies itself a modern country, there are still a lot of social issues that have yet to be dealt with.  The issues here aren’t with the immigrants as they seem to be in other countries.  Instead, these societal rifts are well-established, rooted firmly into this geothermal land.  They are problems that have been brewing here in “Middle Earth” for the last hundred years, problems that are manifesting and rearing their nasty heads in the form of brutality, violence and one of the world’s highest suicide rates.  Maoris and whites–that is, the two predominant populations that make up New Zealand–are at a loss as to how to get along with each other.  They don’t seem to know how to cope when they don’t agree and like in many countries they take to blaming the person in charge: the scapegoat/Prime Minister, John Key.

Because of this, Kiwis are practically begging for immigrants to come over.  Make no mistake, borders here are tight–if you’re suspicious and without a visa, they won’t hesitate to put you right back on the next plane, promptly sending you back to where you came from.  If you don’t have an outbound flight, they won’t even let you in the country.  But if you do things the right way, New Zealand will welcome you with open arms.  If you’re under thirty, they’ll give you a visa to remain in the country for a year.  If you find a job during that year, you can renew your visa.  This is how people end up becoming New Zealand citizens.

Right now, Hawke’s Bay’s local motels and backpacker hostels are switching their usual “vacancy” signs to read “no vacancy” as all the young Europeans are arriving for the what’s known as “picking season.”  But they don’t just hail from Europe.  They come from all over the world, stay for six months, working their tushes off.  If you’re fast and know what you’re doing, you can make some good cash.  Orchards pay by the tree.  Depending on how many trees you can pick a day determines your earnings.  One local legend I hear of is a Brazilian who came over and earned $300NZ a day.  Picking apples.  Grape pickers get an minimum hourly wage, but nearly everybody joins in because wineries are desperate for workers.  Even local pensioners join in, looking for something to do and a way to earn some extra expendable income.

I’ve only been here a short while, and so I won’t hesitate to disclaim that my assumptions could actually be quite naive.  But after five months of general observations, my first impression is that New Zealanders are seeking help from the outside world.  Kiwis desperately want to be rescued from themselves.  It is as if part of their hopes lie in what the potential effect of an increased foreign population might have over New Zealand.  About a month ago, John Key traveled to the States, not to visit D.C. politicians but to Hollywood to coax more movie makers to produce their films in New Zealand.

While a strategy that involves an influx of foreigners might be a partial solution, it is not the whole solution when it comes to fixing things here.  The solution involves something more: wholehearted participation from New Zealanders themselves.  It’s interesting because it’s obvious New Zealanders know how to take a stand.  I’ve seen government-funded commercials against drink driving, commercials against frying while drunk.  (Apparently many people burn their homes down from grease fires, killing their families from an alcohol-induced decision to fry some potatoes.)  I’ve even seen a commercial about the ethical treatment of chickens that will bring any remotely compassionate human being to tears from seeing such torment.  It’s a commercial that works, too.  Even on my tight budget I opt to pay the extra $2 for free-range eggs.

Strangely, though, I haven’t seen any commercials about family violence.  No one talks about it.  No one speaks out against it, despite the startling headlines and the rampant cases of abuse.  If the abuse of chickens is such a big deal to New Zealand, I would have thought that the abuse of children would take precedence.

Just a few weeks ago, two parents were convicted of killing their infant who died of blows to the ribs.  Internal bleeding.  A few weeks before that I read an article about a bunch of low-life cowards who wouldn’t come forward to speak about who was responsible for putting a toddler in the tumble dryer after starving her.  Children die and no one goes to jail.  Abusive parents procreate and the cycle continues.

A chicken being abused?  That’s easy–we just pay a few extra bucks for them to be let out of their cage, for their living standards to be improved.  We go to the supermarket and we only buy the eggs with the big blue check mark, the label of “the ethical choice.”  But children dying at the hands of their parents?  That’s a hard thought to bear.  It’s difficult, painful, very real and a hell of a lot harder to rectify.

This is what they don’t tell you about New Zealand.  It is a country where chickens are often treated better than children.

Give me five months anywhere and I’m sure I could tell a few similar bone-chilling tales.  If I dug around, I could write books on the wrong-doings in my home state of Texas or about the profuse level of obscene corruption in Italy.  But in a country where anyone can literally just pick up the phone and call the prime minister and actually get him on the line, these are facts of life I find hard to tolerate.  These are problems that shouldn’t exist anywhere, much less in a wealthy, well-off, small country full of caring people and infinite resources.

Improving local life in New Zealand and eradicating this unneeded, inexcusable violence is not an impossibility, it’s just a task that’s going to take more than a few foreigners and a hobbit.

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