This article suggests some creative ways to integrate with New Zealand society. The topic has personal significance to me, as I struggled to belong to friend groups until recently, mainly because of my busy routine but also because of my preconceived notions of strangers.
When I first moved to New Zealand, I visited a friend who had already been living here. To understand the ways of these coffee-drinking natives, I tapped into my friend’s understanding of New Zealand culture. One of the first pieces of advice I was given was to politely refuse any offer of coffee or tea from any New Zealander, known or unknown. The notion that these offers of friendly refreshments were ingenious Absolute nonsense! So much for cultural integration! Ten years later, and after sharing many cups of tea, I can safely say that these offers are genuine.
As expats mostly vacation one brief month per year in Sri Lanka but live the rest in New Zealand among strangers, we tend to lose touch with one of the fundamentals of human well-being – a sense of belonging to a society. As they say, “Man is not an island”. We need others to share our sorrows and have a good laugh. Remember, society in Sri Lanka functions as a mosaic, tightly interlocked with religious festivals, funerals, weddings, and everything else. Once you start your life elsewhere, you suddenly lose that lifelong reality. Of course, one can socialize with the other Sri Lankan expats. But ideally, one should also try to integrate with the society they are living in, in this case, New Zealand society. You must open your eyes wide with curiosity, step outside your comfort zone, and jump straight into seemingly uncomfortable places. Suddenly, you realize, “They are no different from us”. And Sri Lankans do have one advantage – generationally reinforced unassuming smiles. So go with a smile right to the bosom of the strangers, and half the job is done. However, first, you must debunk certain preconceived notions and myths, like the one I mentioned above.
We tend to categorise entire nations into tiny boxes and label them. In evolutionary terms, perhaps this made sense 40000 years ago if a random Neanderthal wandered his way to a homo sapien den on a casual social call. They had reasons to suspect each other. But in the 21st century, we shouldn’t operate in society worrying all the time; instead, we should try to understand people outside our ethnic background for what they indeed are—just another group of human beings as clueless as us, trying to navigate the great labyrinth of the unknown. As the Chinese say, try to “Seek common grounds while putting aside the differences.” To do this, we have to integrate with society closely. To warm up to people, an occasional workplace “Hello” would not do it.
But how about an activity together?. And for that, you can join a rugby team – I’m joking, don’t. You can join a community garden, however. There are many community gardens where willing Kiwis who don’t mind the morning chill would come together on Sundays to dig a hole here or a ditch there. But the best thing is the vibe—the abundance of great energy. And they make coffee and tea one hour in, and you don’t have to think twice to accept. As you go there more often, you reconnect with the earth and slowly belong to a friend group of diverse ages. Everyone works towards a common goal, in this case, to have welcoming green spaces in urban suburbs. I understand that tilling the ground on Sunday doesn’t sound fun. But the aim remains the same – to win friends; therefore, a little bit of pain would make friendships more interesting. But, seriously, if you are a willing gardener, you can learn tips and tricks of gardening from experienced tillers that would come in handy in your gardening endeavours too.
Reforestation is another activity where nature lovers who like to see the environment around us preserved for the future and don’t mind offering some free time to society can join. Once again, this is a great place to meet new people and maybe broaden the friendship circle. You will go around a specific reserve section with other like-minded people, weeding out and planting new plants in areas with insufficient undergrowth. These groups are known as “working bee groups”. You can register online. As they are always looking for volunteers, joining is easy. Similar groups also gather in Wellington Botanical Garden. If you inquire with the Department of Conservation, you can join other similar volunteer groups that maintain hiking trails, parks etc.
By Danushka Devinda – Wellington