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By guest author Pete McKenzie from the New York Times
April 14, 2023
It’s surprising how hard it is for New Zealanders to make themselves understood in America.
The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Pete McKenzie, a New Zealander based in New York.
Recently, I was explaining to an American how, as a New Zealander living in New York, I occasionally feel isolated. After a few moments, she stopped me. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I understand.”
I apologized too, certain I wasn’t clearly explaining my emotions. But it wasn’t my feelings she was confused by: it was my accent. Try as she might, she couldn’t parse my slurring and mumbles.
The same friend spent a month thinking that I was in New York to study the Baltics, not politics. For a week, another acquaintance thought my name was Pip, not Pete. A New Zealand friend and I were confused when an American reacted with horror to our remark that we liked “a good tramp”: they didn’t realize we meant hiking. I know New Zealanders on both coasts of America who have had to flap their arms like wings to explain to supermarket attendants that they were looking for eggs.
None of this is unusual, of course. Accent woes are as old as immigration itself. But I’ve been surprised at how severe these challenges are for New Zealanders, specifically.
American friends find me harder to understand than other international students from Brazil, India, Chile and Finland. Two of my New Zealand friends routinely rely on colleagues from Denmark and Sweden, respectively, to translate their Kiwi accent for Americans.
This is true even though New Zealand has the developed world’s third-largest diaspora, relative to the size of its population; hundreds of thousands of us are traveling or living abroad at any time. It’s true even though New Zealanders rank among the world’s biggest stars: think Lorde or Taika Waititi.
Most relevantly, it’s true even though the vast majority of New Zealanders are native English speakers. Yet in America, we haven’t made a vocal dent.
It’s an isolating feeling. In my first months living abroad, faced with blank stares from professors and classmates, I spoke less and disappeared soon after lessons. After my sarcasm and self-deprecation inspired concern, not laughter, those crucial elements of Kiwi humour faded away.
I even dabbled with an American accent, wondering if I could hide my identity for convenience. After years living in an English-speaking country as a fluent English speaker, to have multiple people seriously ask whether I was speaking a different language profoundly destabilized my sense of self.
So, I sought out other New Zealanders for coffee catch-ups and movie nights. Having an entire conversation unmarked by “What?” was a blessing. Joking about shared vocal struggles gave me a surprising sense of solidarity.
One friend left me giggling uncontrollably when he explained how he’d told an American that he’d done a math camp before starting his graduate course, only for them to think he’d just finished “meth camp.” Another friend and I laughed about a travel website that judged the New Zealand accent to be the world’s sexiest: who would have thought being incomprehensible could be so attractive?
Suddenly, my accent began to thicken again: my vowels swapped places, my sentence endings faded, my use of the Indigenous Maori language increased, and I responded to every social invite with “Keen!” My Spotify is now almost exclusively the Beths, Neil Finn and the Mutton Birds.
Where once the idea of leaning into my accent would have made me roll my eyes, being around other New Zealanders abroad generated intense patriotism about our verbal strangeness. Through some combination of community and isolation, I and many other Kiwis abroad have found comfort in our national differences. After all the confusion, being a New Zealander is more essential to my identity than it ever was before.