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My Top 10 Adjustments to New Zealand Life - The Story of an American Living in New Zealand

Updated on November 20, 2016
RhondaAlbom profile image

Rhonda is an award-winning travel writer/photographer at AlbomAdventures. Based in New Zealand she has visited 54 countries on 6 continents.

Whether You're a Visitor or an Expat Living in New Zealand, There Are Surprises Heading Your Way

Don't get me wrong, I love my New Zealand life and am proud to now be a citizen of this great land.

However, as an Americans living in New Zealand there are several things which took us by surprise at the beginning. Not the big things like learning to drive on the other side of the road. We knew about that in advance and were prepared for it. It is the little things. We shifted from California, USA to New Zealand about six years ago, and still laugh occasionally at the unexpected, as we shake our heads and say "only in New Zealand."

Here you will find my top 10 list of adjustments to New Zealand life. I hope you enjoy it in the light-hearted vein in which it was written. Either way, please leave me a comment or two.

Photo Credit: © Rhonda Albom 2007, photo location Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

1. Heating

Specifically the lack of central heat

Heat is Lacking in New Zealand Life - Before living in New Zealand, I was never cold indoors

New Zealand in the Winter
New Zealand in the Winter | Source

We shifted from latitude 37 degrees north (San Francisco) to 37 degrees south (Auckland). The outside temperatures, although opposite seasons, are similar but suddenly I find myself cold indoors. Despite being an island in the Southern Pacific ocean, it gets cold in the winter.

That's not the problem. Most homes here are still built with single pane glass and without central heat - our brand new, modern home actually has no heat source at all.

Coming from America and a world of constant indoor temperature, I had no clue how to keep warm. People continually told me "put your woolies on." What were they talking about?

Apparently, "wollies" refers to any warm layers. It was three years before I discovered that it's not uncommon to wear three pair of socks to keep my feet warm. It took us nearly five years to understand Kiwi's warm only the main living area of their home in the winter. Most Kiwi homes are built so the living room faces North allowing the sun to warm this room all day. As the sun dips down at the end of the day we close the curtains, light a fire and close off the doors to the main living area. This warms our kitchen, dining room and living room only. The bedrooms stay cold, so we sleep with hot water bottles.

The bathrooms - well I try not to use them in the middle of the night. We are down on the South Island now, actually closer to the South Pole than the equator, and I am fairly sure I could see my breath in the bathroom last night. We stoke the fire before bed, but it doesn't last all night and by morning it is usually in the low 50s(F) in our bedroom.

It Is Possible to Keep Warm at Home in the New Zealand Winter? - Heaters, fireplace, and extra clothes do the trick

How do you heat your home now?

See results

Lonely Planet Travel Guide for New Zealand - My favorite book to carry when I travel around the country

Lonely Planet New Zealand (Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet New Zealand (Travel Guide)

You can buy it now by clicking above and going straight to Amazon. This book qualifies in their free shipping offer.


2. Off with the Fairies and Other Bizarre Idiomatic Expressions

Whether Visiting or Living in New Zealand - It's Time to Learn Some New Expressions - Is this really an English speaking country?

My first mistake was assuming I could actually speak New Zealand English.

Kiwi speak is loaded with interesting idioms, and delightful expressions to describe children. Now entrenched in the language, I hardly notice the difference, however, when I first arrived, I had no idea what people were talking about much of the time.

Here are some of my favorite idiomatic expressions along with my understanding of their American equivalent (any native Kiwi's reading this, please correct me if I am still missing the plot):

* Thanks to all those who let me know in the comments marked with a * are also British expressions

  • Off with the Fairies* - daydreaming
  • It's like a box of fluffy ducks - Just a positive reply to the state of something wonderful.
  • Happy as Larry - very happy (I have no clue who Larry might be)
  • I can't get my head around it - I don't quite understand
  • Good as Gold - everything is in order
  • Good on ya mate - good for you
  • She'll be right mate - everything will turn out okay

3. What Happened to the Letter R?

And how is it that "claw" and "door" now rhyme?

It's Not Just the Expressions, I Can't Understand the Accent Either!

New Zealand has an accent all its own

I remember the day another American expat mom was telling me about a new rhyming game she just picked up for her kids. They matched all the rhyming words and had two cards left over - "claw" and "door". At first we laughed about quality assurance and the two missing cards. Then she mentioned it to a Kiwi friend, "No, they rhyme." And when she spoke the words, the did in fact rhyme.

It's the allusive letter R. For some reason in Kiwi English it appears randomly at the end of all sorts of spoken words: peninsular, and of course: clawr. And if that's not confusing enough, the R is seemingly randomly left off then end of other words in speech: supa (super), ca (car), etc.

Actually R is not the only odd letter. There is "T" used for past tense:

In my daughter's English book we found an instruction: "Circle all words spelt incorrectly". While I thought it was an example of incorrect spelling, it turned out to be past tense with a 'T' rather than -ed. While it sounded really funny with these words spelt, learnt, burnt, I soon remembered kept.

Then there is the added 'u' as in: colour, favourite, neighbour.

And some words are just different like tyre (tire).

Want more? Don't Miss this Award Winning Article:

Top 10 Funny New Zealand Language Blunders:

Expats Beware!

This Book Helped Me a Bit - And it gave me a few laughs

Personal Kiwi-Yankee Dictionary, A
Personal Kiwi-Yankee Dictionary, A

My hubby brought this one home for me one day, and while I laughed and tossed it aside at first, I have to admit it has come in handy a few times.


4. What Is THAT Doing On My Hamburger?

I Miss That Little Slice of Pickle on my Burger!

beetroot on hamburger
beetroot on hamburger

Photo credit: Licensed under creative commons attribution by: Pauline Mak

I am not a fan of beet root, and I really don't want to see it on my burger. Unfortunately for me, the classic the kiwi burger: Hamburger on a bun with:

  • Lettuce
  • Tomato
  • Mayo
  • Beet root
  • Fried egg
And, Sadly, no pickle.

5. Baked Beans on Toast Is Not a Sandwich!

We sure eat different now.

Meal time sure has changed. A Kiwi dinner is a "meat and two vegetables" (potatoes are defined as a vegetable).

Lunch is often a sandwich, but not one I was familiar with (we quickly noticed the lack of protein):

  • Baked beans on buttered toast with fried egg on top
  • Tinned (canned) spaghetti on toast
  • Peanut butter and butter
  • Salt and pepper on toast (I don't actually think anyone but one 9 year old we met eats this, but that was her request)
  • Maramite on toast (a Kiwi yeast spread similar to the Australian Vegimite)./li>
  • Two slices of bread with butter and one slice of ham or other lunch meat

Then to add to the food confusion for Americans in New Zealand the food language is often different - same words, different meanings:

  • American: French Fries = Kiwi: Chips
  • American: Potato Chips = Kiwi: Chippies
  • American: Cookie = Kiwi: Biscuit
  • American: Biscuit = Similar, but not exactly the same as a Kiwi scone
  • American: Jello = Kiwi Jelly
  • American: Jelly = Kiwi Jam

And then there is Tea

  • Morning Tea - snack between breakfast and lunch
  • Afternoon Tea - snack between lunch and dinner
  • Tea - dinner
  • If you just want a cup of tea - that's a "cuppa"

6. Children in New Zealand Are Barefoot

Being barefoot was the first thing my girls loved about living in New Zealand - (and the wonderful ice cream)

barefoot kids in New Zealand
barefoot kids in New Zealand | Source

Kiwi kids rarely wear shoes.

Really that is all that need be said. From their first steps until nearly high school, shoes seem optional here. My girls were thrilled to join in. Suddenly, they didn't have to wear shoes anywhere. We see barefoot kids at beaches and pools as we would expect, but they also leave shoes at home before heading to the doctors office, zoo, restaurants or even the grocery store. Even to school, where uniforms are required, shoes are often optional (the option being bare feet or a specified uniform sandals in summer or shoes in winter).

A few times it caught me off guard. They signed up for athletics (track and field) so I went out and bought them decent running shoes. First I was surprised how difficult it was to find child sized running shoes. When the first day arrived I understood. The children (up to about age 12) were all barefoot. Nearly all, my girls and a few other immigrants showed up with shoes.

There are bare feet at beaches, doctors offices, zoos (yuck), restaurants and grocery stores. Importantly, all kids have a pair of jandals, just in case they don't want to be barefoot. The school children wear uniforms, however many schools allow children the option of bare feet or uniform shoes.

Jandals (the New Zealand name for flip flops) take over for adults, and they can be seen everywhere all summer. Professionals, retail and food service workers all wear more traditional shoes, but that wasn't part of our adjustment.

Barefoot Children - Where is it OK? - (Your turn to chime in!)

My kids love being barefoot. It took a while for me to be comfortable with them barefoot in places which sell food. I have even seen adults in the grocery barefoot. What's your view?

Should children be required to wear shoes at places where food is sold?

See results

#7 Butter Is Big, Everything Else Is Small

Everything in the New Zealand Kitchen Is Small Except the Butter

New Zealand is a dairy producer and nowhere is it more evident than when shopping for butter. Rather than quarter-pound sticks I was used to as an American, butter in New Zealand comes in a 500g block (1.1 pounds). In contrast, just about everything else in my new kitchen is smaller than its American counterpart.

For instance, my kiwi paper towels are too short for my American paper towel holder; while my large American pots and pan don't really fit on my burners or in my sink; the refrigerator is too tiny to comment on; yet the butter is four times larger than my American butter dish.

8. Laundry

I Had to Learn a New Way to Do Laundry While Living in New Zealand

New Zealand life is sometimes a bit behind

One of our first major purchases (after the house, space heaters and a wood burning stove) was our washing machine. The sales clerk showed us a tiny washing machine, claiming it is perfect for a family for four. I asked for something larger and she replied, "Oh that's right you Americans like everything big." So I ended up with the largest washing machine they had, which was still about half the size of the one I left in the states. And the clothes dryer - what a waste of money. For starters, it's really tiny - holds about 1/2 of the small washer. But not to worry as everyone hangs their laundry, either outside on nice days or on a rack in the living room on rainy days (remember, it is the warmest room in the house).

It wasn't until we were here long enough to need new clothes that I discovered why the dryers are so un-used. Kiwi made clothing is not pre-shrunk, so nearly all labels read "do not tumble dry."

So, as part of my New Zealand life I learned a new skill, hanging laundry outside.

9. No Gown?

Going to the doctor is a bit different here


New Zealand Life Sometimes Involves the Medical System

Don't miss my mammogram story:

New Zealand has socialized medicine, with private insurance options, which I think is mostly used by expats. To date we have had excellent medical care through the public system. A few broken bones, minor illnesses all treated and recovered.

However, I still giggle when I think about my mammogram . . .

My first was self paid:

1. I offered a changing room to put on a gown.

2. Politely exposing only what was needed she took the x-ray

3. I waited only 10 minutes whilst the radiologist looked it over and told me the results.

The next year I qualified for the "free" mammogram through the system - at the same location:

1. I was brought straight into the exam room

2. Told to take off my shirt and stand topless for the entire procedure

3. Sent home to wait 2 weeks for them to post the results.

Photo Credit: ©Rhonda Albom 2007

10. Fart Tax

Only in New Zealand - Where Else Do They Call it the Fart Tax?

fart tax for cows in New Zealand?
fart tax for cows in New Zealand? | Source

As an American in New Zealand, I had to respectfully bite my lip to restrain from laughing when I heard about the fart tax.

It wasn't really an adjustment issue, just one of the top news stories back when we arrived. It was enough to make you shake your head and wonder what is the government thinking. The proposed tax was to help reduce greenhouse effects caused by flatulence of NZ farmers' millions of sheep and cattle.

No kidding, this was on the news for weeks. While it had an official name, the broadcasters nearly always referred to it as a "fart tax". After many farmer protests, eventually New Zealand dropped the issue.

© 2009 Rhonda Albom

Which Adjustment to New Zealand Life Would Have Been Hardest for You? - Have you had any adjustment issues to something new? Tell us about it here.

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    • bonmotsminot profile image

      Sue Minot 5 months ago from Wellington, New Zealand

      Haha -as a Kiwi born and bred, you've absolutely nailed it with this blog! (please tell me you've heard the expression 'nailed it'?!) :)

    • profile image

      Amanda 19 months ago

      I came across your article after watching a New Zealand police programme and noticed so many people coming out of their cars barefoot, so I googled it :-) however as I read your fantastic article which did make me laugh, I wanted to let you know that these expressions

      Happy as Larry - very happy (I have no clue who Larry might be)

      I can't get my head around it - I don't quite understand

      Good as Gold - everything is in order

      Are also British phrases the foods you mentioned (apart from potato chips which we call "crisps") and all the "Tea Times" are also the same in Britain.

      I did laugh out loud at the fart tax and can't imagine life with out central heating! I do hang my washing out in the summer (about 3 weeks in August in my corner of Scotland) but need my lovely large tumble dryer.

      Superb article though very funny.

    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna Sanguinetti 2 years ago from London UK

      Love what you tell us here about New Zealand. Great hub voted up and shared.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Thanks Glen for the heads up.

    • profile image

      Glen 2 years ago

      Lol, just read after reading your post and it looks like he has been "inspired" by your article :)

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 2 years ago from New Zealand

      @lewisgirl: I was the passenger for the first month, so when I drove for the first time on the left, I was already somewhat used to it.

    • profile image

      awolkiwi 2 years ago

      @RhondaAlbom: For jobs check or

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 2 years ago from New Zealand

      @snowwhitecat2014: It is a beautiful place and I hope you get here someday.

    • lewisgirl profile image

      lewisgirl 2 years ago

      I visited New Zealand years ago and had the best time. Definitely driving on the left side is very challenging for me.

    • josephchen profile image

      josephchen 2 years ago

      hahaha. I'm curious about the "fart Tax". What was the government thinking when they proposed that policy? :D

    • snowwhitecat2014 profile image

      snowwhitecat2014 2 years ago

      This was such a great article. I would love to visit New Zealand. It always looks like such a beautiful place.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 3 years ago from New Zealand

      @daria-a-price: LOL, you inspired me and today I blogged about the toilet water:

    • profile image

      daria-a-price 3 years ago

      Loved this. I have a friend visiting me right now, she is from new zealand ( I am american ). We are having fun figuring out all our differences, especially the wording. She has tried to get in the driver side of my car since the day she got here. I get confused when she asks to open the "boot " to get her suitcase. She is amazed that the water in our sinks and toilets go around the opposite way ( who knew ? ) I guess I never paid attention before which way the water went. She is here for a month and I am sure I have much more to learn, a :)

    • profile image

      valerie1956 3 years ago

      My biggest adjustment has been trying to adjust my American recipes to work with New Zealand foods especially cheeses. My first attempt at macaroni and cheese was a complete disaster. The cheese melted but stayed in chunks and did not mix with the other ingredients.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 3 years ago from New Zealand

      @ArtByLinda: I laughed too.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 3 years ago from New Zealand

      @ecogranny: After a while it just became nomral.

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 3 years ago from New Zealand

      @Heidi Vincent: I wish New Zealand was hot like the Caribbean! It's never "hot" here. In eleven years, I can only remember it crossing 30C in Auckland a handful of times. However, clothes generally dries during the day anyway. Now when I go back to visit in the states I am looking for a place to hang my clothes to dry.

    • ArtByLinda profile image

      Linda Hoxie 3 years ago from Idaho

      Great article, I love that they call it the fart tax, so funny!

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

      Probably the laundry. We do a LOT of laundry, even though there are only two of us now.

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