One thing you always used to hear about New Zealand was how backward it was. Behind the times.
“It’s like how England was in the 1970s,” people would say.
This, apparently, was a good thing. New Zealand was a country living in the past, when life was slower and things were simpler. Certainly, when I arrived in New Zealand as a precocious ten-year-old, in 2001, this seemed at least in part to be true.
In the months leading up to my family’s epic migration, I’d been rather worried that New Zealand wouldn’t have things like electricity. I’d half expected, when I arrived, to see a tribe of excited natives rubbing their bellies and pointing to a large pot. Of course, I quickly found this wasn’t the case, but I still felt like I’d stepped back in time, if only a little.
Coronation Street was years behind for starters, and we had to wait ages for any good television shows to reach us. The latest gadgets were slow to come, but that was never a problem. The biggest blow for me was not being able to find anyone to play Pokémon with. I remember watching an interview with John Cleese: he said that the first time he visited New Zealand, in the 1960s, people hadn’t heard of the banana split!
When I returned to England for a holiday in 2008, seven years after I’d left, I was almost blown away by what I’d been missing out on. What where these newfangled self-service checkouts?! It wasn’t until a few months later that New Zealand started getting them.
New Zealand gets things a lot quicker now than it used to. It’s not just caught up to the rest of the world – in some ways it’s surpassed it. The Internet is to thank, I think. New Zealanders demand to have things, especially television shows, at the same time as the rest of the world these days, and if they’re not delivered, well, people will find other ways of obtaining them.
(The Internet also makes it easy to buy goods from overseas – and you can usually get the same goods far cheaper from overseas than you can in New Zealand, even including expensive delivery costs. It amazes me, for example, that I was able to order a Lord of the Rings sword for my dad’s 50th from England – and have it delivered to New Zealand – for less than a quarter of the cost of purchasing the same sword in New Zealand. And to think The Lord of the Rings was made in New Zealand!)
New Zealand actually gets some things before the rest of the world – Eftpos, for example. The country is often used as a guinea-pig market-wise, in part due to its isolated population. We were one of the first countries in the world to get Pokémon Go – something I never thought would happen! (It was released here a full week before it was released in the UK.)
Thinking more widely, New Zealand has often been ahead of the trend socially too. It used to be known as a ‘social laboratory’ – again, due to its small, contained population. Women were granted the right to vote in New Zealand way back in 1893. (For comparison, women weren’t granted full suffrage in the UK until 1928.) New Zealand was also ahead of its time in terms of its treatment of indigenous people.
So, to the question of whether New Zealand is backward, I’d have to say… not anymore. It’s caught up quickly in the last few years. In some ways, such as housing, it’s behind; in some ways it’s ahead. Some people still feel like they’ve travelled back in time when they come here, but that’s due, I think, to the tiny population and wide, open spaces New Zealand possesses. (New Zealanders are more relaxed when it comes to work-life balance too – just like in the old days.)
Friends on a New Zealand campervan hire tour were astounded to discover, for example, that the old country road they were driving on was, in fact, a highway. A pair of Canadian hitchhikers we picked up recently had the same reaction. We promised to drop them off in the centre of Hamilton. When we arrived, they said, “This is the city centre?!”
Hamilton is the fifth-largest city in New Zealand.