Sensible or Scaredy Cat?

Risk management is tricky business. To celebrate my mid-March birthday, Scott and I had planned to go to Hilma af Klint’s exhibit in Wellington, and finally visit Te Papa Museum. But when Omicron escaped New Zealand’s managed isolation facilities, we reconsidered our timing to minimize the chances that we might catch — or worse, spread — the virus.

First, we moved our trip forward to mid-February, figuring we’d beat the COVID peak, expected at the end of March. Then we decided to drive rather than fly. Driving would extend our trip by two whole days, but if we happen to catch Omicron while in Wellington, we’ll at least still be able to get back home to isolate in Thames. Finally, I booked us a hotel room with its own bathroom, kitchenette, and a three day cancellation policy. The shared bathroom and kitchen in the bed and breakfast we had booked suddenly feel like unnecessary risks.

We’ve been following the news about The-Convoy-and-associated protests, never imagining it would last this long, or get this tense. When I came across a map of the protestors’ activity I started to wonder: do we really want to visit Wellington at a time when the city is full of people who are not only gathering without masks, but actively harassing those who choose to wear them? As a person of color and an immigrant, do I really want to enter a zone rife with anti-Semitic sentiment? Where nooses hang? Where known white supremacists may be recruiting as others fearlessly share violent intentions?

A few years back, while applying for visas to live and work in New Zealand, my partner and I had to declare that we’ve never made public racist statements, or been members of a racist group. Now permanent residents, we enjoy most of the rights of New Zealand citizens, but there is still no guarantee we will be safe from their racist statements or actions.

My birthday happens to fall on March 15th. On that day three years ago, a white supremacist gunned down 51 innocent Muslim people in Christchurch as they gathered in their places of worship. Many New Zealanders were shocked that such a racially-motivated terrorist massacre could happen here, despite what many Muslims already knew — and had been trying to tell authorities — about anti-Muslim sentiment. If I’m scared about what this protest means for New Zealand’s future, I can’t help but wonder how the Muslim community feels about what’s happening in Wellington right now.

Every year, on the anniversary of the day my partner and I immigrated to New Zealand from San Francisco, people around the country light off truckloads of backyard fireworks. Every year I joke that all this fanfare is in honor of our immigration. The truth, of course, is more complicated.

In 1605, English Catholics had had enough of being persecuted under the Protestant leadership of Great Britain. A group of conspirators hatched a plan to assassinate King James I and his parliament, gathering 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament with the intention of blowing it all up. Their chosen date: November 5th.

As the date approached, however, some of the conspirators began to have second thoughts, particularly as they considered the innocent people that would inevitably get caught up in the blast. One sent an anonymous letter warning a friend to stay away from Parliament on November 5th. That warning eventually made it to the king, whose forces discovered the barrels of gunpowder under Parliament, along with Guy Fawkes, with only hours to spare before the attack. Guy Fawkes was convicted of treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Guy Fawkes Day is meant to be a reminder that traitorous plots will not be tolerated.

I’m not sure how many Kiwis are aware of this history, or see Guy Fawkes Day as anything other than an excuse to light off fireworks. If they are aware of the political backstory, do they see themselves as celebrating the government? Or do they align more closely with those who sought to bring the government down? Do they see any parallels between this event and what’s happening in Wellington right now?

On our first evening in New Zealand, the fifth of November, 2016, we attended a Guy Fawkes party at the home of some fellow Americans, friend’s of Scott’s. An older man who works with one of them brought, along with an enormous selection of fireworks, several MAGA hats. “As a joke,” he claimed, when we Americans failed to laugh along. Scott and I tried to stay awake for the fireworks but were exhausted from the flight, from jetlag, from the months of logistics related to securing visas and shipping our things across an ocean. We excused ourselves early, catching occasional flashes of light through the windows or our Uber as we crossed town.

Three days later, Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States. My new boss, a Māori man I couldn’t wait to move across an ocean to work with, offered me a hug when I came to work shellshocked the following morning. But before long he too was saying things like, “well, you got what you deserved, more than half of you voted for him.” I got tired of explaining how few people in the US actually vote, or the intricacies of the electoral system.

“Your timing was impeccable!” people kept saying of our move to New Zealand, as if I’d had any idea Trump stood a chance at being elected. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to the rise of alt right sentiments in the US. What little I’d heard I wrote off as too absurd, too fringe to be of real concern.

Are Kiwis paying attention?

I view New Zealand’s history of peaceful protests with a sense of awe. I have deep respect for ngā rōpū tautohetohe, the Māori protest movements and hīkoi, protest marches. Since moving here we have attended marches for climate action, rights for all women, and Black Lives Matter. It has been disheartening to watch the pandemic-era protests get co-opted by people espousing a narrow sort of freedom and a false inclusivity, both of which disproportionately affect the very people who pioneered Aotearoa’s protest traditions.

Of course I’d prefer not to live in fear. I too want to get on with life. How lovely it would be to celebrate beauty, to learn more about Aotearoa’s history at Te Papa, to see the Hilma af Klint show before it closes at the end of March. 

So we wonder: how much longer will the protesters be occupying Wellington? How exactly do they define freedom? Freedom for whom? At what cost? How will they know when they’ve got it? How bad will things get between now and then?

We have no way of knowing, just as we have no way of knowing when the COVID curve will peak, whether or not we will catch it, or what will happen if (when?) we do. If we let the protesters change our plans, are we just giving them too much power? Should we just get on with our lives, regardless of risk? We have until midnight tonight to cancel our hotel booking without penalty. I still can’t make up my mind.

Rover 90, and other pleasures of Pic’s peanut butter

I love Pic’s peanut butter. As a lover of jars, I love how easy it is to remove their labels. I love that so many of my homemade jams (etc) are now adorned with bright red stars on their reused-jar lids.

The last Pic’s label I peeled off had a poem on it so good I’ve been keeping said label around for weeks, trying to keep it from sticking to everything I accidentally get near it.

Time to transcribe so I can finally throw this gluey label away. I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I do.

Rover 90

Once I met a girl who owned a Rover.
Older than me, could barely reach
the clutch. Hair as fine as cobweb;
a piece missing from one of her fingers.

The Rover ran on five. In spring
she let me under the bonnet.
I ground the valves in, and we drove
on six all summer. Running like a dream.

By autumn, the engine was blowing smoke,
the girl was pregnant. By the side
of the road out of Tapu it died,
the Rover, the girl, the baby, and I.

-Bill Smith
The Poet Who Writes for Peanuts!’

I really FEEL this one, you know? Tapu is just 25 minutes up the road from us. The whole scene reminds me of my old Holden Gemini, and associated adventures in Tasmania in 1998. “…serious pieces worthy of a darkened corner, a glass of wine and perhaps a box of tissues” indeed. Thanks, Pic’s.

How are things in New Zealand during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Every time I start writing this update I hesitate because… it feels like gloating, and I don’t want to do that at a time when so many people are suffering. We are so so privileged on a normal day, even more so to be in New Zealand, and even more so to be here at a time of a global pandemic. And people keep asking, so I wanted to write up a few details to share.

On 22 March New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that within two days, the entire country would be going into lockdown for 4 weeks… which is where we are now. Everyone self-isolating, staying home, keeping at least 2 meters away from anyone if we do go out (for a walk or to get groceries); and interacting only with people in our household “bubbles;” all non-essential retail businesses and schools shut down; working from home only; no more indoor or outdoor events; no more air travel except for medical reasons or essential services like moving essential freight; most new arrivals into the country are being quarantined. She ended her speech with an appeal for people to be kind to one another.

To put things into perspective, there were a total of 102 known cases of COVID-19 here at the time of this announcement, which was prompted by the first known cases of community transmission… as opposed to transmission due to overseas travel or known contact with someone who already had it. To date there are still fewer than 800, most of which are related to overseas travel or contact with a known case (51% and 31% respectively), 1% due to community transmission, and 17% with causes still under investigation [source].

To get a feel for how clearly and compassionately the Prime Minster announced the new alert level and associated guidelines, I highly suggest watching her deliver this speech (or read the transcript if video isn’t your thing):

Then take a look at this Facebook livestream she did from her couch a bit later:

I’m not saying things are perfect; the situation in New Zealand, like everywhere else, is going to disproportionately affect people who have fewer resources and support systems in place. It already seems pretty clear that they’re looking out for businesses more than people with a lot of the relief programs, but we’ll see what (if anything) changes as more and more people find themselves in positions where they can’t pay the rent.

Meanwhile, New Zealand already has an awful track record with regard to mental health, and I can’t imagine this period of self-isolation is going to improve that situation. My heart goes out to people who are enduring lockdown with people they’d rather not be in constant contact with, and especially women and children in violent households.


A few other comments and observations from our privileged perch:

Life feels oddly normal so far

We’re weeks behind the rest of the world as far as this pandemic goes, and everything feels relatively normal compared to the news we’re reading from elsewhere. Which makes it feel even more remarkable to me that the government is acting so decisively, so early. But maybe still not early enough to prevent community transmission from asymptomatic cases? To prevent essential workers from taking the hit for the rest of us? Who knows; we’ll find out soon enough.

Working (or not) and playing

Scott’s job is non-essential retail so he isn’t working, but the government’s COVID-19 wage subsidy program means that he’s still getting paid. My office had pretty much moved everyone to working from home before the lockdown, though neither of us has gone in to work since the 11th thanks to a road trip we took that weekend to go to WOMAD… the entire time we knew it was going to be our Last Hurrah before things got weird, and in hindsight, I’m amazed an international music festival even happened! We’ve been self-isolating since we got back to Auckland on the 16th.

It’s much more peaceful in the neighborhood without all the car and flight traffic. A few busses are still running, including the double-decker ones on a route near us, but all the ones we’ve seen are empty. The sidewalks, however, are quite full! It’s remarkable how many more pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter-ers we see out and about. The park near our house (the equivalent of Golden Gate Park, just add sheep, cows, and the second tallest volcano in town) is even more mobbed than usual. We’ve only attempted walking there twice before conceding that panting joggers were not going to stay a safe distance away from us. We regularly go walking at night now, and I try to obey my Fitbit every time it buzzes to alert me that I’ve been sitting on my ass for an hour.

Staying connected

Even under normal conditions, the internet quality in my company’s New Zealand offices is far better compared to the connections in offices in some other parts of the world (esp Melbourne, San Francisco, and London). I’m feeling pretty darn fortunate that we can stream video (Scott) or video meetings and calls (me) all day long from our house with no issues. It’s been really nice to connect with so many long-lost friends who are reaching out!

Our neighborhood (we live on a street that’s only one block long) has mobilized! One neighbor put a flier in everyone’s mailboxes asking for contact details, and another went door-to-door to collect the same from people who hadn’t responded… keeping a respectable distance, of course. I helped format their Google Sheet, complete with columns where people could offer and ask for help, and sent it out to everyone. We’ve lived here over year now and I still only knew one neighbor’s name, so I’m tickled to have been involved, and feel much more a part of the community now! Tūrangawaewae (a Māori concept I’ve written about before) = the place where one belongs ❤

Takeout, retail delivery, and mail in general

All restaurants are completely shut down here, including all options for “takeaway” (that’s what they call takeout restaurants here). Which means that everyone is cooking for themselves… whether they know how to do so or not!

And you can’t just order stuff on Amazon, because A) we don’t have Amazon here and B) New Zealand Post and couriers are only allowed to deliver to essential services: food, prescriptions, computers and tech that would allow you to work from home.

Grocery shopping

This is the longest section because this is all we’re doing outside of the home other than going to long walks in the dark…

It’s possible that what we consider “normal grocery shopping” — buy a bunch of stuff when it’s on sale, 10kg of bulk goods at a time, because we can, because we don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck — is actually hoarding? A few weeks ago we calculated we still have 3 months’ worth of pinto, kidney, and black beans left from the bags we bought 10 months ago. (An aside: New Zealand banned all single-use plastic bags last July so pretty much everyone brings their own bags or boxes to supermarkets now, it’s pretty awesome to behold!)

I can’t find the article now but apparently New Zealand is not expected to run out of anything because we grow or manufacture most of our groceries domestically, a fact which my former local-sustainable-food-systems-self would already have known… Meanwhile, the government is monitoring people’s reports of price gouging and apparently the #1 complaint is that cauliflower is too expensive, in some places costing up to $13 NZD (~$7.50 USD)!

Dispatch from Countdown (big Australian-owned chain): Big lines to ensure social distancing inside the store. Shelves empty of baking essentials, pasta, milk, yogurt, soap, feminine items… piles and piles of toilet paper though! The introduced very civilized limits on how many similar items any one customer can purchase shortly after people began panic-buying, and I appreciate that they have a priority assistance system in place to make it more likely that people who need it (folks over 70, people with compromised immune systems, people with disabilities, etc) can access to their online delivery service.

Dispatch from Tai Ping (our equivalent of 99 Ranch; a massive Asian grocery): When I arrived there was a long line to get in (again, because they’re attempting to keep things social-distance-friendly inside) and of course no line by the time I was done… and a security guard took my temperature with one of those touch-free thermometers before he’d let me in. Was very disappointed to discover that there was NO CANNED EEL left on the shelves and the tofu selection was a pale reflection of its usual self, but happy that their bulk section meant I didn’t also have to go to the bulk food store for oats. Only the white people (and I) were not wearing masks; I need to make some. They were in the process of installing plexiglass sheets to separate shoppers from the check-out staff while I was in there.

Dispatch from Farro (our much-more-limited equivalent of Whole Foods, and the closest store to our house): You have to check in using an online contact-tracking system before you can enter the store, but no lines at all! Hand sanitizer and wipes for your cart. Nobody seems to care much about the 2-meter-separation rule in there but they’re clearly taking care of their still-upbeat employees with gloves, masks, and full-on protective plastic shield enclosure-thingies at the checkout counters. Most items on my list in stock other than yogurt. We’ve pretty much decided it’s worth paying a bunch more to avoid the crowds and stay super local.

Anything else?

There’s probably other stuff that would be interesting to know? Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll report what I can.

How being American in New Zealand shines some light on the Commonwealth

Toward the end of a yoga class I was attending this morning, the sounds of a very exuberant… school band? church band? began wafting in from the building directly across the street. Crashing cymbals, clunky piano, and off-key singing, oh my!

Our teacher closed the windows on that side of our room but frankly, I was more inspired by the live music. Much more moving than the canned soundtrack I’m getting a bit tired of hearing at every class, week after week; good thing I’m there for the yoga, not the music 😉

After class I stood under a tree and listened to the band for several minutes, inexplicable tears in my eyes, while they thrashed their way through This Little Light of Mine.

Wanting to keep that light shining a bit longer, when I got home I discovered this:

Other than having seen recent headlines that apparently they’re thinking of moving to Vancouver Island, or is it Vancouver? — I am totally out of the loop. Had no idea they had gospel at their wedding, and I approve!

But I suspect that my ignorance of all things Royal makes me yet another kind of minority here.


Living in New Zealand has oddly shed a lot of light on aspects of my experiences living in Canada, where my mother is from. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise given that both countries were colonized by the British, and are therefore part of the Commonwealth (aka the Commonwealth of Nations, formerly known as The British Commonwealth of Nations).

To a much lesser extent, living here has helped me recognize that certain experiences I’ve had in Hong Kong, where my father is from, are also the result of British influence.

Prefaced by some very substantive caveats (obviously not everyone is like this / I’ve observed far more similarities between New Zealand and Canada than New Zealand and Hong Kong / this is not an attempt to summarize ALL aspects of my experiences in those countries / etc), some of these common Commonwealth aspects I’ve noticed include:

  • British-style Tea as an Event (including varied, though always-specific personal expectations about preparing the beverage, and what to serve with it);
  • Less willingness to speak directly or engage in interpersonal conflict compared to my experience in the US, sometimes coupled with a bit more unexpressed intolerance of differing opinions;
  • A cultural commitment to remembering the lives lost during the first World War;
  • A sense that anything British is better than anything that might have been there before the British arrived (people / values / culture / animals / plants other than those deemed useful for selling back in Britain or elsewhere) or who might be arriving more recently, namely, immigrants from non-European countries;
  • An obsession with the British monarchy, including most recently the activities of Harry and Meghan… speaking of immigration.

The combination of these observations, plus several others that are much more subtle and difficult to articulate, have also given me a much stronger sense of my American-ness. Sometimes I even feel vague sense of pride that the American colonists of yore stood up to the British. It’s not constant, or concrete. “Pride” doesn’t even really feel like the appropriate word. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that it’s more a noticing that Americans chose a different path that resulted in some different outcomes, for better and for worse.

Most of what I feel as an American is a sense of shame that I am somehow representative of or responsible for the havoc wreaked around the world by American exports, including war and consumerist values. I cringe every time someone points out that something I tend to do is “so American.”

And I cringe even more when people here lump all Americans together when making an observation. Clearly they don’t understand that the US is an enormous AND enormously diverse country. No, not every single person in the country keeps the tap running while washing dishes, and no we certainly don’t all support our current president any more than all citizens of Commonwealth countries are the same or love the Queen.

I hold out hope that my particular way of being may help demonstrate that not ALL Americans are that bad, even if we do sometimes share some cultural similarities to each other, and even to the mythical America that Americans and non-Americans alike cling to.

May we all let our lights shine, no matter where we are from or where we find ourselves living now.

Where there’s smoke…

Smoky skies.png

At 3pm the Auckland sky has gone dark with an eerie, apocalyptic orange glow.

As weird an experience as this is for us, I can’t even imagine the mayhem and grief they must be going through on the ground in Australia, where the bushfires continue to rage…

The smoke had to travel a very long way to get here.


To put that distance into perspective, that’s only ~100km less than the crow-flies distance from San Francisco, CA to Fort Worth, TX.


…or one kilometer shy of the driving distance between Vancouver and San Diego.


My heart goes out to all the people, animals, and landscapes suffering across the Tasman Sea right now.

If we don’t suffer massive fires (as we have in California Siberia the Amazon), Climate Change and its impacts, not to mention human behavior in general (what is 45 doing in the Middle East?!), are coming for us all one way or another… may we use these trying times to awaken to new ways of living, on this Earth and with each other _/|\_

Three years in New Zealand: some reflections

As of this week, we’ve been living in Auckland for three years.

The particular date we arrived — 5 November — is hard to miss because of two very interrelated factors:

  1. It’s Guy Fawkes Day, a truly bizarre holiday wherein people in New Zealand (and other Commonwealth countries) celebrate, in various explosive ways, the anniversary of a guy trying to blow up Parliament with a bunch of dynamite; and
  2. It’s completely legal for anyone to light fireworks from private property in Auckland, and oh do they ever, despite the inevitable fiery mayhem that ensues.

And so I’ve been joking since the day we arrived that the country sets off fireworks in celebration of our coming here.

Last year, on the two-year anniversary of our arrival, I wrote up some thoughts on pestestrianism, public health care, and paying income taxes… and forgot to share them. These days I have absolutely no idea what life is like back in the U.S. (and I doubt my experiences in the Bay Area Bubble were ever representative of what the entire country goes through!), so the intro feels even more relevant than ever.


The longer we live here, the harder it is to know whether the things I notice are really reflections of differences between the U.S. or New Zealand, or whether they are simply reflections of how the world has changed in the last two years. More likely, the things I notice are reflections of how I have changed since moving here? Continue reading “Three years in New Zealand: some reflections”

Singing Spring in the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand

Spring in West Marin — and the Pacific Northwest in general — always meant the return of Swainson’s Thrush singing their hearts out:

One of the things about moving a significant distance from the plants and animals I’m so familiar with is that I am also a long way from the kind knowing that is only possible when one has lived somewhere for a long time. Like any reunion with rarely-seen old friends, I was both thrilled to hear these boisterous birds in both British Columbia and Washington State during our trip in July, and a bit sad to recognize just how much I miss them.

Given the record number of rain days in Auckland this Spring, I haven’t been outside to get amongst the few seasonal markers I do remember: new lambs at nearby Cornwall Park, the magnolias at the Auckland Botanical Garden. So it’s been a joy to hear one from the relative comfort of our living room! And one that reminds me so much of the Swainson’s Thrush:

We started hearing them a few weeks ago and assumed it was the fantails (pīwakawaka in te reo Māori) we started seeing at the same time, but turns out it’s the grey warbler… which has so many names in te reo I’m not sure which to commit to memory.

Perhaps one day these birds too will be known to me as old friends.


Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day + the four reminders

Here’s another attempt to paraphrase the four reminders, aka the four mind-turning Reflections, into my own words:

  1. It’s a pretty unique and awesome thing to be born a human being;
  2. We don’t live forever;
  3. What we think and do affects our experience; and
  4. No matter how hard we try, we’re going to experience suffering in one way or another.

These always remind me of the last few lines of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Here she reads the entire poem, or you can read it below:

Continue reading “Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day + the four reminders”

Fun fact: Auckland’s housing is even less affordable than San Francisco’s

According to Demographia’s latest study (which I found quoted in The Guardian, so hopefully we’re not all spreading fake news), these were the least affordable major housing markets in the 3rd quarter of 2018*:

  1. Hong Kong
  2. Vancouver
  3. Sydney
  4. Melbourne
  5. San Jose
  6. Los Angeles
  7. Auckland
  8. San Francisco
  9. Honolulu
  10. London and Toronto

*In Australia, Canada, China [Hong Kong Only], Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States, as measured by median housing price / median household income.

Clearly my immediate family has expensive luck/taste; between my parents and brother and me, the four of us were born/grew up in, lived for a significant period of time in, or currently live in (or very close to) a walloping six out of these eleven cities, located in three different countries!

Want more geeky tables? Continue reading “Fun fact: Auckland’s housing is even less affordable than San Francisco’s”

We are now officially permanent residents of New Zealand + some thoughts on global mobility

On the 20th of February, I got an email from Immigration New Zealand (INZ) informing me that they’d approved our application to become permanent residents. I’m super relieved as this was kind of hanging over us for a while, even though there was very little chance that it would not work out in our favor.

Here’s what permanent residency means for us [I’m not an immigration consultant blah blah legal disclaimer check INZ’s website for the latest and greatest info]:

  • We can now vote;
  • Our continued existence here is no longer tied to my current job (not that I’m interested in quitting, it’s just nice to know I’m not stuck if it ever ceases to be a good fit);
  • I can now do jobs on the side (this wasn’t permitted on my specific work visa)
  • We can get credit cards (not to carry a balance, but to get cash back on all our purchases!);
  • We can buy a house (not that we can currently afford any houses we’d want to live in, it’s just that the new government here recently passed a law that foreigners cannot buy existing houses, only build new ones… and even before that law changed, banks wouldn’t give us a mortgage unless we were residents anyway);
  • We can go to school (we weren’t allowed to study for more than 3 months on our work visas before)…
  • …at local tuition rates (which are ~1/3 of the rates for foreigners, this number varies a lot depending on which program and which university);
  • We qualify for KiwiSaver, NZ’s retirement plan (employers are required by law to match employee contributions up to 3% for employees who opt into the KiwiSaver plan, so I’m signing up right away. And yes, if you leave the country you get to take your KiwiSaver funds with you); and
  • We’re pretty sure Scott’s existence here is no longer tied to our relationship… though we have no plans to test that out 🙂

The “permanent” part of our residency means that we can Continue reading “We are now officially permanent residents of New Zealand + some thoughts on global mobility”