Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hold the mayo

Roger Green recently wrote about “Mayonnaise and other important topics”. Mayonnaise isn't really important, of course, but it reminded me of one of the finer points of adjustment to expat life: Food choices. And mayonnaise choices.

When I arrived in New Zealand, the brand of mayonnaise used by most people that I knew was from Eta (a brand of Heinz-Wattie’s). I thought it was too sweet and too runny, so I didn't use it. Awhile later, Hellmann’s mayonnaise suddenly showed up in our grocery store, replaced soon after by Best Foods Mayonnaise (it’s the same product with different names). This was probably after Unilever bought Best Foods in 2000. It was the sort of mayonnaise that I liked.

We eventually settled on the Light version because it had half the fat of the regular version. One day, I happened to see a jar of it and a jar of Eta side by side and I compared the labels. It turns out that the Light version of Best Foods had about the same fat and sugar content as the regular version of Eta. That reminded me how different countries can have very different tastes.

Time passed, and we drifted away from mayonnaise. I later tried—and liked—Heinz’s “Seriously Good Mayonnaise”—in fact, there’s a jar in the fridge at the moment, though it may be a bit elderly by now. Mayonnaise, it’s fair to say, isn’t much of a "thing" for me anymore.

When I was growing up, my mother used Kraft’s “Miracle Whip” (though I have no idea why), and it was all I knew. Because of that, I don’t dislike it as Roger does, but, then, I haven’t had it in many, many years, so who knows? Things may have changed. I could get it from Martha’s Backyard, though I never have. I could also get Velveeta there, but haven’t done that, either. Some things are perhaps best left in the past.

As I’ve said previously, when I first arrived in New Zealand I had to find substitutes for products I knew and liked, though many of the ones I liked in the USA later showed up here, thanks to the brands’ multinational owners. Best Foods Mayonnaise was one such product.

I’ve also said that my tastes have changed over time, and I don’t necessarily still like the products I did when I lived in the USA. That’s probably inevitable as we adapt to our surroundings, and as our tastes change over time, which happens to most people.

I think that the globalisation of food product brands can make things easier for expats trying to adjust, but I wonder if it really serves us to have the same things in nearly every country. If variety is the spice of life, then the world is becoming a pretty bland place.

Obviously mayonnaise isn’t an important topic (for me or Roger), but it IS an example of how things have changed over time. When Best Foods Mayonnaise arrived in New Zealand, I was thrilled to have something I'd liked in my homeland. Now, I wonder if maybe it’s emblematic of the slow “banalisation” of the planet.

Whatever, mayo like all other condiments is a matter of personal taste. I couldn’t possibly care less about what someone else likes or doesn’t—just as long as I can say “hold the mayo” if I want to.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

NZ the best country for LGBT tourists

Lonely Planet has issued a list of the top ten “most gay-friendly places on the planet”, and New Zealand is ranked second. New Zealand is the only country on the list—all the others are cities—so that makes this the best country in the world for LGBT tourists.

I mentioned this to someone recently, and they joked, “that’s because most Americans wouldn’t know the names of any New Zealand cities.” Funny, and probably true, but not actually the reason our entire country is on the list, and not just one city. Lonely Planet says of New Zealand:
The Land of the Long White Cloud has long been lauded for its inclusive and progressive behaviour toward the LGBTQ community. In 1998 New Zealand was the first nation to adopt the label of ‘Gay/Lesbian Friendly’ when referring to businesses and accommodation – an initiative now recognised globally. The country offers a brilliant network of gay- and lesbian-friendly homestays which run the length and breadth of the country from the top of the semi-tropical North Island to the depths of the glacial South. Since passing same-sex marriage laws in 2013, New Zealand has actively promoted same-sex marriage tourism to the likes of Australia and other Pacific nations where equality laws are less progressive. [the link was in the original]
So, it was that NZ is welcoming of LGBT travellers throughout the country that put the nation on the list, and I think that was the right thing to do: While there are regional variations, with some places offering more to LGBT travellers than others, there’s nothing like the vast difference in tolerance levels one would find in, say, the USA. This is partly because New Zealand is a small country, but it has more to do with how laid-back Kiwis are—even those who aren’t particularly personally LGBT-friendly are unlikely to be hostile. It’s simply not possible to make that same statement about a lot of other countries that have LGBT-friendly cities (including some on the list).

Earlier this year, Lonely Planet also named Queenstown as sixth on a list of the world’s “Top 10 gay wedding destinations”. For those into weddings overseas—gay or straight—Queenstown would be a spectacular place to have it.

Last year at this time, Lonely Planet ranked Auckland 10th on their list of "top 10 cities" in the world, as part of their "Best in Travel 2014" series. Later in that same series, they also ranked the West Coast of the South Island as eighth among the "top 10 regions" in the world. I mentioned both in a post last year.

New Zealand has a lot going for it as a destination for all travellers—there’s so much to see, do and experience in this beautiful country. But it’s the specialness of New Zealanders and our culture that makes this country an outstanding choice for LGBT travellers. It's nice to see that recognised.

The image accompanying this post shows New Zealand on December 27, 2004, and is from NASA's Visible Earth team.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

‘The Most Epic Safety Video Ever Made’

Air New Zealand is back with yet another Hobbit-themed safety video. However, this time I think they nailed it: It’s cheeky as their best of these videos are, not taking itself or the source material too seriously. Great job.

Below is their Hobbit-themed safety video from two years ago, “An Unexpected Briefing”. All their Hobbit-themed videos can be seen on their YouTube Channel.

Related posts about Air New Zealand safety videos:

Fit to fly (2011) about the safety video “Mile-high madness with Richard Simmons!”

Betty White and Air New Zealand (2013) about the safety video “Betty White – Safety Old School Style”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Santa is gone

Forget the elections (in New Zealand or the upcoming ones in the USA). Forget wars and rumours of wars. Forget poverty and inequality. Today it was announced that Auckland will not have Santa this year.

The Santa, displayed for the past 15 years on Whitcoulls at the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets in Auckland’s CBD, is privately funded through the business promotion group, Heart of the City (usually abbreviated, somewhat inappropriately, as HotC). They’ve announced that due to lack of funding, Santa will not appear this year.

HotC is in financial difficulties for a variety of reasons, and has said they can’t afford the $180,000 it cost to put the Santa and reindeer up and take them back down. I do think that cost sounds a little over the top, but I have to take their word for it that that’s the actual cost. Since ratepayers/taxpayers won’t cover the costs (nor should they), if the business promotion group doesn’t have the money to display Santa, well, I guess he’ll just have to stay in his workshop at the North Pole.

Still, this doesn’t sound very imaginative for a business group, does it? Could they not come up with a way for ordinary people to donate to “Save Santa”? People use online fundraising for all sorts of causes, big and small, so was it inconceivable that they just might raise the needed funds?

I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but if HotC is really so incapable of creative thinking, so inept at looking for solutions rather than slashing budgets and a beloved icon—honestly, the only truly visible thing they do—well, maybe they’re really not very good at what they do. If so, they could save the businesses who fund them heaps by winding up the organisation altogether.

Oh well, what can you do? Santa is gone thanks to the brick-brains in HotC, and that’s that. Maybe we’ll just have to fight poverty or something instead of railing about the loss of Santa.

Update 23 October: Santa is saved! According to the New Zealand Herald, some private businesses have come forward to assure that Santa is back this year. That’s great, but I have to wonder: Why the hell didn’t HotC think of that? They could have issued a public appeal and—gasp!—fundraised for it instead of just cutting their budget and walking away. "We are overwhelmed and delighted by the public interest and support for the iconic Santa. The generosity of these businesses in guaranteeing that Santa and his reindeer ride again is a fantastic outcome for Aucklanders and Heart of the City,” HotC said in a media release. Yeah, but no thanks to them.

I know that HotC is still dealing with the repercussions from firing their CEO earlier this month amid allegations of tax evasion and “issuing false invoices”, but that doesn’t excuse the complete lack of vision from HotC.

I took the photo at the top of this post for a post in November, 2009.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Learning new things

Yesterday, I watched part of the Commission Opening of the 51st New Zealand Parliament. Yesterday, I also learned it’s called the Commission Opening. Never too old to learn new things—or to have an opinion about them.

The Commission Opening was held after a proclamation from the Governor General issued on October 8, summoning the Parliament to meet yesterday. The primary purpose of that day is the swearing in of Members of Parliament and the election of the Speaker.

The Governor General doesn’t attend the Commission Opening, but sends three senior judges who wear those awful old-fashioned wigs and flowing red robes. They’re led by the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, basically a guy carrying symbolic black stick, a bit like a length of thick dowel, like for a towel rod or something. The three judges, the Royal Commission, read the Letters Patent and other formalities and declare Parliament open on the Governor General’s behalf.

The Members of Parliament—newly elected and returning—are then sworn in by the Clerk of the House. Members of Parliament can either swear an oath or they can make an affirmation, and they can do so in either English or Te Reo Māori.

The oaths, not surprisingly, end with “so help me God,” and many people assume that the people who choose the affirmation are atheists or agnostics, but making the affirmation doesn't mean they're NOT religious; it could merely mean that they believe in secular in government. In fact, the use of the oath or affirmation cuts across party and ideological lines, so I truly don’t think that in NZ the choice of one or the other means anything. I noticed that two of the candidates for Leader of the Labour Party gave the oath, and the other two gave the affirmation. Big deal.

The clerk called MPs up to the Table of the House in alphabetical order, generally in groups of three (it can be groups of up to five). However, sometimes it was one at a time because someone wanted to give the oath in Māori, or because one person wanted to give the oath or affirmation, but the next folks on the list wanted the other.

Incidentally, the option to give an affirmation wasn’t added for atheists and agnostics. It actually originated with the English Parliament’s Act of Toleration of 1689, which was introduced for Quakers, who don’t make oaths. Even so, it was a practice that was already becoming common by that time. It became customary in other countries that derived their laws from England, as New Zealand and Australia did, for example.

Both New Zealand and Australia require MPs to swear an oath/make an affirmation stating loyalty to the Queen. In NZ, they say:
"I, [name], swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."

"I, [name], solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her heirs and successors, according to law.”
If I were an MP, I would say the affirmation, just as I did when I became a New Zealand citizen, and for exactly the same reason: “I feel it's inappropriate to make a plea to, or pledge based on, one particular religion; it has no place in a purely civic matter.” There’s nothing new about that—I’ve talked about it in one form another on this blog many times—but that particular sentiment is something I wrote 12 years ago.

Even so, and staunch secularist that I am, I nevertheless DON’T object to people choosing the oath if they prefer it. Instead, I object to the wording in both the oath and the affirmation.

The oath should be to New Zealand, or even better, to the people of New Zealand, at whose pleasure the MPs serve, and who they really work for. I’m actually not alone in that, and even rightwing blogger David Farrar has supported that, too.

I first started thinking about this when I watched an Australian citizenship ceremony on Australia Day (carried live on Sky News). Their citizenship affirmation says:
From this time forward
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.
I think that’s far better than what either country uses for their MPs oaths, and also better than New Zealand’s citizenship affirmation:
“I [name] solemnly and sincerely affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of New Zealand, Her heirs and successors according to the law, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of New Zealand and fulfil my duties as a New Zealand citizen.”
My problem with the wording of NZ’s Parliamentary oath is that it is only to the Queen. I think NZ’s citizenship affirmation is an improvement, but gets it backwards. I’d rather she wasn’t mentioned at all—like the Australian citizenship affirmation (an aside: The oath equivalents of the affirmations I mentioned are identical except they swear rather than affirm and add the word “God” in a phrase).

Obviously, not everyone shares my views, and not just diehard monarchists, either. For example, National Party MP Simon O’Connor thinks an oath/affirmation “only works” if it’s to a person. In a series of increasingly churlish Tweets, he said:
“Those MPs wanting a change to the oath/affirmation wording clearly do not understand the point of an oath/affirmation.”

“An oath/affirmation pretty much only works if to a person. You don’t make oaths to concepts, pieces of paper, or poetic words.”

“Queen of NZ represents all kiwis regardless of partisan politics. I guess some only want an alternative that suits their view of NZ.”
US officials swear an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America” something that embodies concepts, is a piece of paper AND has poetic words. I don’t even think O’Connor would be silly enough to claim that US oaths don’t “work” because they’re not to a person!

Moreover, the Queen doesn’t “represent” any person, Kiwi or otherwise. Instead, she’s the symbol of our Parliamentary democracy, and it and the government formed under Parliament do things in her name, but it’s not because she “represents” individuals—that’s Parliament’s job! In fact, most of the ceremonies surrounding the opening of Parliament are meant to symbolise the independence of Parliament from the monarchy.

He’s right that she’s supposed to be above partisan politics, but that has nothing to do with anything: The question is, to whom should the members of Parliament swear their allegiance and loyalty, and I say it should be the people of New Zealand. He said to someone else that oaths “can be to anything, but their practical value is limited if there isn't someone specific to hold you to that oath.” I think that’s flat out absurd.

I also think it’s ironic that O’Connor decided to slam those who don’t see things his way as people who “only want an alternative that suits their view of NZ,” because that’s exactly what he’s doing.

This obviously gets at the whole question of republicanism (lower case r, thank you very much), about which a minority of Kiwis on either side feel very strongly, but about which the majority feels—well, if not nothing, than maybe very, very little. I’m convinced that one day New Zealand will be a republic (and so will Australia and Canada), but not any time soon. However, the whole question of form of government is irrelevant.

Regardless of whether New Zealand is a monarchy or a republic, I feel that the elected representatives in Parliament OUGHT to swear their loyalty and allegiance to the people of New Zealand. It really is as simple as that.

The State Opening of Parliament was today. I didn’t watch it. I had real-life things to do today, and, besides: I’d had enough pomp and ceremony already.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

American v Australian junk food

As a bi-national, I often straddle the border, metaphorically speaking, between the USA and New Zealand. Add into the mix Australia and the UK, both important to New Zealand, and I often find myself explaining three countries to my American friends.

Like food for example, junk food in particular.

The BuzzFeed video above, “Americans Taste Test Australian Food,” was originally posted in late January, and I planned to share it here shortly afterward. Things happened. But maybe it’s just as well, because now I can compare and contrast it with the Australian counterpart, “Australians Taste Test American Sweets”, at the bottom of this post.

The first thing I noticed was that the Americans were much harsher than the Aussies. Granted, the Aussies were taking the piss sometimes, but the Americans seems very unadventurous to me, something I’ve often found to be true of Americans when it comes to trying new and unfamiliar foods.

However, someone should have served Vegemite to the Americans properly, not with a spoon!! That was just plain unfair, and their reaction is totally understandable.

Several Australians commented on the connection of various products to American pop culture (TV shows/movies). It reminded me of the time a co-worker asked me “why do most Americans drink their coffee black?"

I think that gets at the larger point here: Up to a point, we experience food products—junk food in particular—through the context of our own culture, or through our impressions of another culture, usually received through pop culture.

Sometimes another culture’s food will enter our own, but often it’s adapted for the new culture. Much of the readily available “Mexican food” in the USA, for example, might more accurately be called “Mexican-inspired food”, though that might be overly pedantic. The point is, it’s adapted for American tastes (in the same way that McDonald’s uses much leaner beef in New Zealand than in the USA; Kiwis don’t like overly fatty beef in their burgers).

I think these videos demonstrate yet again how people see the world, and experience it, from within their own cultural realities. The Americans tried unfamiliar food products that don’t have equivalents in their culture and didn’t like them. The Aussies tried American snack foods, were vaguely familiar with many of them because of American pop culture, and mainly liked the foods they were trying (or, at least, they didn't seem to hate them as fervently as some of the Americans did).

Compare and contrast yet again.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The speed of change

I stopped posting about the arrival of marriage equality in various US states because things were changing so often that it would have meant posting too often. Lately, the changes have become much faster. So, I’d better post before all 50 states have marriage equality.

The map above is from Wikipedia and shows the current status of marriage equality in the states. Dark blue means marriage for same gender couples is legal, while the deep red/maroon colour indicates the exact opposite: Same gender marriages are banned. At the moment—and moment is a good word!—31 US states and the District of Columbia have marriage equality. A further six US States have had their marriage bans struck down, but those rulings are currently stayed while the appeals process winds down. The likely end of those stays varies, but Wyoming’s ends Thursday US time at the very latest. Together, these 37 states account for about 80% of the US population. Challenges to the remaining states' bans are at various stages.

What all of this means is that marriage equality will be in all 50 US States soon, probably by early next year at the latest. It’s now looking likely that this will happen without the US Supreme Court ever ruling on the Constitutional issues that are at the heart of all the bans being struck down by courts around the country. Not that long ago, no one would have predicted that.

It was a little over ten years ago—May 17, 2004—that marriage equality arrived in Massachusetts, the first state to gain it. It was another four years until the second state, California, gained marriage equality, only to temporarily lose it when voters approved Proposition 8. 2008 turned out to be the turning point, though we didn’t realise it at the time. The loss on Prop 8 galvanised a movement and led to where we are today.

As the chart below shows, from 2008 through 2012, there were usually two states a year that gained marriage equality. But in 2013, eight states gained marriage equality (though Utah temporarily lost it). The pace has continued picking up speed in 2014: So far, fourteen US states have gained marriage equality, and it’ll be fifteen states in a few days when Wyoming joins the list of free states. And that’s with more than two months left to go this year.

Things have happened quickly over the past couple years, but it actually took decades to get to this point. It’s important to remember that. It’s also important to remember that there are far too many places in the world where LGBT people's struggle to live with freedom and dignity is the battle, and marriage equality isn’t even something they can yet dream about.

But as the USA nears the finish line in this struggle, it seems to me that most people are glad to see it end. Obviously the hardcore opponents are unlikely to change very soon, but the softer opposition is clearly moving on. Mainstream Americans seem to be ready for this story to be over, and it soon will be.

This is very good news, indeed.

The map at top of this post is by Lokal_Profil [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

The chart lower in the post is by Arthur Schenck [CC-BY-NC-SA NZ 3.0 license].