Auckland, New Zealand

January 22, 2017

Nice, Medium-sized Poppies

So if you spend enough time in New Zealand, you'll inevitably come across "Tall Poppy Syndrome". It's a fun quirk of kiwi culture, based on this phrase:

The tall poppy gets cut down.

When I first arrived here, I couldn't shake the feeling that New Zealand (and Auckland in particular) felt like Disneyland. Things were both oddly familiar, and too-good-to-be-true levels of nice.

As I've started to get to know the country more, straying off the beaten tourist paths, I've started to understand why.

Tourism is a huge part of the economy here - notching almost 9% of the country's GDP, and it's built largely on the strengths of the nation's landscapes, and the friendliness of its people. Folks I've met here are - to a person - genuinely friendly, kind, and wonderful. But with so much riding on it, there's also an extra bit of a "public face" that happens in the more tourist-trafficked areas.

But even outside those well-worn paths, fascinatingly, there's still a bit of public/private face going on - which brings us back to the poppies.

Regardless of how successful a kiwi might be, you'll never hear it from them. Folks here defer attention from their accomplishments, downplay successes, and aim for the air of just a regular guy/gal from next door.

In ways, it's similar to how I found the cultures in Thailand and Japan, but without the implied status and deference. Here, everyone is expected to be a nice, medium-sized poppy - from the Prime Minister all the way down to the clerk at the corner store.

The origin of this phenomenon, too, is fascinating. Putting aside the rather interesting question of population selection from colonists exiting the UK (If you could choose to get on a boat to the Americas, Australia, or New Zealand, which would you choose, and what would it say about you?), there's also the interaction between Māori culture and Pākehā (the European settlers.)

There's a Māori proverb, about the kumera, a surprisingly sweet and delicious form of sweet potato — A kumera never speaks of its own sweetness.

That principle, enduring in Māori culture well before the Europeans arrived, lives on in New Zealand today, a testament to the unique cultural interplay in the story here, and the fact that here in New Zealand, nothing is quite what you expect.

Me, I'm trying to rein in my American directness when I talk to folks - finding ways to defer, deflect, and connect.

Sometimes it works, and things are surprisingly easy. Sometimes I'm still a tall poppy, waiting for someone to come along. :)

Have a wonderful week,

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I came across this week was this world map that's just picked up a big design award for accurately showing both the continents and the oceans - in their real scale.

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