The other night Amber, Andy, and I were watching 60 Minutes (yes, they have that over here as well!) and a story came on about Jennifer Thompson, a woman who’d been raped in North Carolina over twenty years ago. At the time, she identified who she thought to be the rapist, a man named Ronald Cotton, and he received two life sentences, even though he declared he was innocent throughout the trial. A few years later, another guy named Bobby Poole was put in the same jail as Cotton, also as a convicted rapist. Cotton immediately noticed the physical resemblance between the two, and Poole, from the same town as Cotton, confessed to raping Thompson. Despite a retrial, Cotton was not released and went on to serve eleven years of his sentence. Not until he began following the O.J. Simpson case did he get his lawyer to prove his innocence with the recent use of DNA in investigations and he was finally released. But it didn’t end there—Thompson wanted to meet with Cotton to apologize for her grave error. He forgave her, and the two have gone on to speak about their experience, write a book on it together called Picking Cotton, and they even showed clips of their two families eating dinner together, having become close family friends. My first thought was “Bizarre,” but Andy had a different saying for it:
“Only in America.”
I laughed at first, but listened as he went on to explain it’s a phrase they use over here to describe the many ridiculously random stories that filter their way out of America onto New Zealand television and into the newspapers. It fit, though, with what I’ve been noticing so far about perceptions or, should I say, misperceptions:
“Virginia…that’s coal mining country, right?” No, sorry, you must be thinking of West Virginia.
“So, do I need to speak slowly for you? I’ve heard we talk too fast for Americans.” I promise I can keep up.
“Oh, I know Virginia. West Coast!” Sure, buddy.
Watching people guess where in the world they think Virginia is located in the States is not far from watching kids play Pin the Tail on the Donkey—Northeast, Midwest, out West, they all take a stab at the right region. And when they do get it right and say the South, I then have to deal with all the crazy connotations that come along with the American South.
Friday night I went along to the youth centre Amber and Andy run through their church. I’d already met one of the girls, Zia, earlier in the week, so I started talking to her again and she introduced me to some of her friends. Soon there were about four or five girls sitting down with me, ooing and aahing over my “cool accent,” quizzing me and learning my life story better than I know it myself. Every time a new girl came over, they’d say, “This is Candace. She’s from Vir-ginny-ya in America,” and the girl would sit down, clasp her hands under her chin and say, “Oh, this is so wonderful!”
“So do, like, cheerleaders talk, like, they’re from California?”
“You know that show Greek? Do they really have, like, sororities?”
“How did Columbine affect you?”
I could have been sitting in front of a Grand Jury, for all it felt like to me, with ten thousand questions being thrown at me about who knows what. Or almost like an alien, having to field questions from a group of scientists about my extraterrestrial environment. But it is, after all, what I love most about being an “American abroad”—getting the chance to break some stereotypes, to smile to myself at their ideas and every so often say, “Well, we’re not all like that…”
That’s what happens, though, when the only information you have about a place is received through the media—that lovely instrument of exaggeration and distortion. If we never get out and see things first-hand, through our own eyes and not through a TV set or movie screen, we’ll never know the real thing. I don’t want to hold filtered opinions and perceptions about the world, I want to form my own. Before I left the States, I’d tell people I was going to New Zealand and could expect about four responses from them:
1. Flight of the Conchords
2. Lord of the Rings
4. Kiwi (fruit or bird)
Amber said when she took some of the kids home after youth centre that night, one girl was so excited and said, “Now I can say I know a real American!” And I myself now know some real Kiwis and can say they’re not all guitar-playing comedians or shepherds—although Ryan’s family in Auckland did have three sheep in their backyard, so that didn’t help that stereotype!
But I myself had a “Only in New Zealand” moment today. While I sat in ASB opening up a bank account, the banking officer asked me, “So what do you normally expect from your bank?” A bit puzzled at first, I think I answered with various things like being able to access my accounts online, use a debit card, and set up direct deposit with my work. I asked her to clarify and she paused for a moment before saying, “Well, the way banks work here in New Zealand is that we discourage customers from actually coming into the branch.” And discourage they do, slapping a $3 fee on every transaction performed by a teller in a branch. I was shocked—not that I’m in frequent need of a teller, what with online banking, online bill pay, direct deposit and ATMs eliminating most need of physically going into a branch—but just the mere fact that I’d be charged for doing so here amazed me.
Checks (or should I write, cheques?) also receive a similar fee, but that doesn’t seem to be a big deal either. Andy explained the other night that New Zealand is moving closer and closer to becoming a cashless society, and my experience today wasn’t the first sign of that. When I signed the lease for my flat on Saturday, my landlord gave me the details of his bank account so I could transfer my rent to him weekly. After handing over my rent in cash every month in London—and the three of us standing there watching him count it meticulously and lay each pound100 in its own stack—this method of payment is going to be quite a step up technologically, quite the seamless transaction. I’d always watched the commercials back home for the Visa debit card where a whole store runs perfectly until some out-of-the-loop customer tries to use cash to pay for their purchase and the store’s rhythm breaks down. Turns out that might actually be the case in this part of the world…
Only in New Zealand, ay?