I’d like to thank you! But, in order for you to understand my gratitude, I first need to give you some context. I grew up in the US, in a home where we never locked our door. Some, including myself, thought this was odd, but my parents didn’t think it posed any real threat so we learned to accept it. Although my family lived in a rural area, we were certainly the exception to the American rule at the time. My youth was unfortunately shaped by after-school TV specials, high-profile child abductions, high school shootings, and America’s Most Wanted – which combined would make my parents and I think that danger was lurking around every corner. At some point, I’m not sure when, trust stopped being freely given. If and when it was given, it was given from a safe distance.
If you haven’t noticed, we take our safety very seriously in America – from germs to terrorist and everything in between. It would be naïve for me to pretend that some of our fears are not justified based on the last twenty years of escalating violence and ever expanding threats, so I won’t. What I will tell you is that there has been a cultural shift in my country over the last twenty years. See, an unintended consequence of our concern for safety is that we have become jaded. The days of striking up a conversation with a stranger on public transit, letting children play with little to no supervision, or picking up hitchhikers are long gone. When you believe as we do, that every interaction you or your family have with people can cause you harm, it creates a hypervigilance where being guarded becomes your norm. “Stranger Danger” has become our mantra. Everyone and everything has become a threat, and our ability to experience meaningful human interaction has become nearly impossible. This is the great tragedy of the last few decades – we’ve lost our confidence in each other. If distrust is the material that has created our walls, fear is the foundation on which it is built. You won’t believe how deep the distrust runs so let me provide you with a few examples of things that cause me angst when I’m out; tell me if you can relate to any of them.
A person coughs or sneezes, a person looks a little too pale or a little too red, they look at the floor, ceiling or me too long, they look too excited or too depressed, they look too aloof or too focused, their jacket is too long or too puffy, they walk too fast or too slow, they speak too loud or too quietly, they look too unkempt or too polished, just to name a few.
I’m sure after reading this you’ll probably think how tragic it is that someone considers so much daily. The truly sad part is that it had become second nature to me. Only after visiting your country have I taken the time to reflect on my sad situation. I realized that as a result of my skepticism I rarely have the privilege of enjoying great encounters with people I meet for the first time. If you are wondering, I don’t blame anyone else. Only myself.
So what does my paranoia have to do with visiting New Zealand? Everything. When I think of culture I often think of food, fashion, music, or the arts, but by doing this I fail to recognize the values that are at the center of those outward expressions. Because I forgot this, I came to New Zealand looking forward to tasting the food, watching a haka, visiting galleries, and enjoying the famous vistas. I told myself that I came to learn and experience new things, but I did not know what that would mean for me. I didn’t realize how uncomfortable you Kiwis would make me. At first, I could not place why I repeatedly felt uncomfortable, but, after a week in the country my wife and I came to the same conclusion. During our first seven days in New Zealand, we had been recipients of so much unsolicited kindness and generosity that our human interaction paradigm was spinning. In those first few days people that hadn’t known us up until a few hours beforehand offered us rides, invited us to their homes for coffee and cake, invited us out to dinner in the city, took off work to show us around the country they were so proud of, engaged us in deep and meaningful conversation, bought us lunch and dinner, offered the use of their vehicles and homes to us, prepared us dinner, brought us home to meet their family, and even invited us to cross-fit with them. I will say it again in case you missed it – this was all in the first seven days! It was not the things people offered us that we were most impressed by, it was that they were offering us access to themselves and their families. The spirit in which they gave was eye-opening. There was no expectation that we would be able to give them anything in return, and even when we insisted, they wouldn’t accept anything.
At this point, you are probably not sure why I’m making a big deal about something that you already know. You have to understand, back home when I meet people, if we are able to make it past the obligatory name, place of origin, and occupation questions, at most we may exchange social media information. This way we can learn more about each other from a safe distance. Here, people were not offering friend request, they were offering friendships.
I know this is normal to you, but this has been a culture shock to me. This level of kindness from strangers is so foreign to me it was like I unknowingly signed up for a language immersion program. Marcel Proust said that, “The only true voyage of discovery is not to go to new places, but to have other eyes.” It only took a week in New Zealand to see my need for new eyes. My cynicism towards strangers has been exposed, and frankly, I am embarrassed that it made the 8,700 mile trip from Rochester, New York with me. You should be proud! At the time of this writing I have been in New Zealand for two months and the consistency in kindness I have experienced from people across the socio-economic spectrum still leaves me in amazement. You continue to challenge me as I am constantly forced to examine the depths of my guarded condition.
On the surface, your biggest cities, Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, all look like American cities to me. But even despite the apparent US and European influence, there is something unique there. From my limited experience, it does not appear that you have succumbed to living in a state of fear of others as many of us do in the US. Perhaps this is the Maori influence and their culture of helping anyone that figuratively and literally shows up at their door (this would include my wife and me). Maybe it’s because you are not tethered to the baggage of being a world superpower. It’s possible that you don’t have the burden of rebuilding your confidence in others after a major terrorist attack, although you know a thing or two about rebuilding a city.1 Regardless of the reasons, at least for now you have not let go of your grip on the kindness that has endeared you to my wife and me. For this, I applaud you. Despite a constant stream of new immigrants flowing into the country, and the challenge of absorbing their collective experiences, your culture of kindness remains. Although I’m sure you have your own problems as a country, it has been a breath of fresh air for an American who did not realize how tired he was of being guarded. You reintroduced me to the magic of human interaction. The mental tax that I ignorantly consented to levy upon myself has been removed.
If you take nothing else from this letter, take this – please don’t change! Some of us need to have our worlds rocked, our paradigm flipped on its head, and our kindness recalibrated. I am glad I started my travels in New Zealand because the experience has been like finding the corner-piece that helps you start solving a puzzle. In my quest to be transformed through travel, I did not know where to start. Thankfully, you Kiwis have provided me with a clear starting point, and for that I am indebted to you. I can confidently tell you that I am growing, and I believe that is the best way I can pay you back.
(A beneficiary of your kindness)