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

Ranked #71 in Travel & Places, #2,966 overall

As an American Expat in New Zealand, it's the Little Things About My New Life That Surprised Me

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 were a few 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 was 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.

Important Note: This page was originally written in 2009. It is update for accuracy, but left mostly intact as it is a historical snapshot.
Photo Credit: Ã?Æ'Ã?âÃ?¢Ã?Æ'âÃ?âÃ? © 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.

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

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 had 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 I can wear 3 pair of socks all day to keep my feet warm. It took us nearly 5 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, and the sun warms 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 and by morning it is usually in the low 50s(F) in our bedroom.

How Do You Keep Warm in Winter?

How do you heat your home?

  Show the poll results

2. 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 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 - well 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 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.

Washing Hanging on the Line
Washing Hanging on the Line Photographic Print

3. Butter

Why Would Butter be a Heading in New Zealand Life?

Read on . . .

Butter only comes in a 1/2 kg block (1.1 pounds), which seems to be in contrast to everything else which we found to be small.

In my kitchen my kiwi paper towels are much shorter than my American paper towel holder, my American pots and pan don't really fit on my burners or in my sink, the refrigerator is too tiny to comment on and the butter is four times larger than my American butter dish.

Fresh Butter Checkers
Fresh Butter Checkers Art Print
Clickner, Susan

4. Off With The Fairies

Americans Living in New Zealand Need to Learn Some New Expressions

New Zealand Life is filled with Wonderful Kiwi Idioms

Kiwi speak is loaded with positive and fun idioms, especially the expressions used to describe children. It is so delightful to hear people talk. However, when I first arrived, I had no idea what people were talking about much of the time. Now, many idioms have been adapted so deeply into my speaking that I sometimes forget if they are Kiwi or American.

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):

* These might be of British origin, but they were new to me
  • 1
    Off with the Fairies* - daydreaming
  • 2
    It's like a box of fluffy ducks - Just a positive reply to the state of something wonderful.
  • 3
    Happy as Larry - very happy (I have no clue who Larry might be)
  • 4
    I can't get my head around it - I don't quite understand
  • 5
    Good as Gold - everything is in order
  • 6
    Good on ya mate - good for you
  • 7
    She'll be right mate - everything will turn out okay

5. What Is THAT Doing On My Hamburger?

New Zealand Life = New Zealand Food

I still can't get my head around this one - the kiwi burger. Hamburger on a bun with:
  • Lettuce
  • Tomato
  • Mayo
  • Beet root
  • Fried egg
And, Sadly, no pickle.

Funny Hamburger Poster

6. Claw and Door

(In NZ, they rhyme)

Living in New Zealand, I Often Hear Something Different than What is Said

New Zealand has an accent all its own

If you're from California you might be wondering what these two words have in common, which would warrant them a placement on my top 10 list. If you speak Kiwi English, you already know - they rhyme. Apparently they also rhyme in Australia, England and some parts of the United States.

Similarly, spelling is different as well. In my daughter's English book we found an instruction:
"Circle all words spelt incorrectly".
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 keep and kept.

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

And some words are just different like tyre.

Purple Cow
Piperberg, Cheryl

Want More Kiwi English Laughs?

Don't Miss this Award Winning Article:
Top 10 Funny New Zealand Language Blunders - Expats Beware!

7. Baked Beans

We sure eat different now.

More on Eating in New Zealand

Baked beans on toast?

Plate of Baked Beans on Toast
Plate of Baked Beans on Toast Framed Art Print

Feeding our children's new friends was quite the challenge. Some popular Kiwi lunches include:
  • 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).

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"

8. 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, which has its advantages and disadvantages but the big adjustment to the medical system was its oddities.

First a few positive things:
  • To date we have always had excellent medical care.
  • The wait is generally no more than 5 minutes for a doctor appointment.
  • Should you go to hospital (you will wait) there is no charge.
  • Children's Hospital Emergency room felt like hospital DisneyLand - all bright and cheerful with tons of distractions for the child.
  • X-ray techs will tell you what they think, so you don't need that long wait for a doctor

A few Negatives:
  • Long hospital waits.
  • Long waits for non-life threatening or non-acute specialist referrals (I had to wait 3 months to see an orthopedic specialist for a back injury.)
  • Few hospitals - I had to travel 3.5 hours for an MRI for the same back injury.

My Mammogram Story
The most amusing example of socialized medicine I have come across was my mammogram. Like most American ex-pats living here we have private insurance, which I used for my first mammogram. I was ushered to a changing room, given a gown, had the x-ray, then allowed to wait 10 minutes whilst the radiologist looked it over and told me the results. The next year I was old enough to qualify for a free mammogram. I went to the same location but the "free" procedure was a bit different: I was brought straight into the exam room, told to take off my shirt, stood topless for the entire procedure, then 2 weeks later they sent the results.

9. Jandals and Barefeet

Barefoot Children is Definately an Aspect of New Zealand Life

Being barefoot was the first thing my girls loved about living in New Zealand

I don't think you could find a Kiwi household that doesn't have at least one pair of jandals. Looking similar to the American flip flop, the jandal is a bit softer and more flexible and can be worn anywhere.

Of course, so can bare feet, especially for children. This was one of my childrens' favorite things about New Zealand when we first arrived. They didn't have to wear shoes anywhere. 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.

Flip Flop Heaven
Flip Flop Heaven Art Print

Barefoot Children - Where is it OK?

(Your turn to chime in!)

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

  Show the poll results

10. Fart Tax

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

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 and always called the fart tax. After many farmer protests, eventually New Zealand dropped the issue.

Photo Credit: My girls with a sheep. ©Rhonda Albom 2003

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  • sybil-watson Feb 15, 2014 @ 4:56 pm
    What a fascinating lens! I didn't realize there would be so many adjustments. I think the lack of winter heating would be a hard one for me
  • 3rdworldman Feb 13, 2014 @ 11:00 pm
    Thank you SO much for all of your wonderful stories about New Zealand! I've just gotten started reading, so I'm sure I will have more comments/questions. I want to move to New Zealand too! Would you be interested in adopting a 50-yr old boy? LOL. Thanks again!
  • tolbertsf Feb 04, 2014 @ 2:56 pm
    I am an American Citizen and I have been seriously thinking about moving to New Zealand for an IT Job. I have a Master's degree in Computer Science from an credited University. Do you have any recommendations on the steps to follow. I have a family and would like a new life for all of us.

  • takkhis Jan 25, 2014 @ 9:38 pm
    I have learned a lot from this lens, it is a very informative and awesome lens :)
  • Pukeko Feb 14, 2014 @ 2:11 pm
  • ologsinquito Jan 24, 2014 @ 7:17 am
    New Zealand looks lovely. I really like all the photographs you used.
  • Pukeko Jan 25, 2014 @ 2:52 am
    Thanks. Nearly all of the photos are my own.
  • TandCrecruitment Jan 15, 2014 @ 6:44 pm
    Very interesting Lens, and I believe we should be allowed to be barefooted when we feel comfy.
  • Pukeko Jan 16, 2014 @ 6:01 am
    Tonight I saw a woman barefoot in the petrol station (gas station) and I wondered if I would ever feel comfortable being barefoot there.
  • sandyspider Jan 15, 2014 @ 12:21 pm
    Enjoyed reading about your life in New Zealand.
  • Denmarkguy Jan 12, 2014 @ 11:37 pm
    I really enjoyed reading this-- thank you! I'm a Danish national who lived many years in both Spain and the UK, and now call the US "home," although if there's ONE place I'd consider moving to (if we were ever to move again!) it would be New Zealand (have a lot of friends there). Anyways, what you shared here sounds like a variation on parts of the UK with a little local who-knows-what thrown in.
  • Pukeko Jan 13, 2014 @ 12:56 am
    We spent a bit of time in Spain and the UK too. Actually, if there is one place I would move to (if I ever were to move again) it would be Spain.
  • ChocolateLily Jan 11, 2014 @ 7:15 pm
    Just popped back to tell you congrats on a well deserved lens of the day!
  • Pukeko Jan 13, 2014 @ 1:05 am
    Thanks. This was a fun one to write.
  • MrAusAdventure Jan 10, 2014 @ 4:37 am
    Congrats on LOTD. Great Lens. This is the first LOTD that has appealed to me in a long time! :-)
    Much of what you are describing works with Australia too, except that we call flip flops thongs, jandals is just weird! What about their jutter bars? lol (Speed humps to us Aussies)

    I think much of what Americans think of as weird could be applied to all English speaking countries that evolved from England. The USA seems to be the one that changed so radically from all the rest. We others can adjust from country to country with less difficulties than Americans can.

    Also, we can adjust to the American way of life easier than you can to ours as we have been bombarded with loads of American TV all our lives. So we know what those little differences are and can ask for jello instead of jelly and so forth.
  • Pukeko Jan 13, 2014 @ 1:10 am
    Thanks for the huge compliment. I would imagine Kiwi life to be somewhat similar to Australia. Funny, ten years on, so many of these things seem normal to me now.
  • libertyduckling Jan 03, 2014 @ 5:23 pm
    loves this! < -
  • Pukeko Jan 13, 2014 @ 1:13 am
  • skiesgreen Jan 02, 2014 @ 11:24 pm
    Really great lens. Most of those saying you listed are also from Australia. I am still laughing over the fart tax. In Australia it's called the carbon tax but it applies to something quite different. Congrats on LOTD. Well done mate.
  • Pukeko Jan 13, 2014 @ 1:15 am
    It's been years, and I am still laughing over the fart tax.
  • 3rdworldman Jan 02, 2014 @ 7:26 pm
    I love this lens! My Dad got me interested in New Zealand years ago, and told me I really needed to visit there someday. Sadly, he never did himself, but he watched all the Travel Channel, Discovery & History shows about New Zealand that he could! Cheers, "Happy as Larry" lol
  • Pukeko Jan 13, 2014 @ 1:15 am
    You will really be happy as larry if you come for a visit.
  • BeccaB Dec 31, 2013 @ 11:37 pm
    Humorous lens, ty! I had a kiwi boyfriend once who was new to the US - now I know why he was always complaining about how hot the house was!
  • Pukeko Jan 01, 2014 @ 6:45 am
    LOL - It is shocking how cold some of the houses are in winter.
  • mokiwigirl Dec 31, 2013 @ 5:05 pm
    Enjoy living the's simply a beautiful country. There are plenty of worse countries in the world to live.

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