Migrants Tales – Cael’s Tale of The Kiwi Way

A Kiwi education didn’t reach the grade

Continuing in our series of Migrant Tales – first hand accounts of the migrant experience of New Zealand taken from locations around the net.

Today’s tale was written by a Malaysian migrant who moved to New Zealand with his family during his high school years. Very quickly Cael realised his education had taken a massive step backwards when he was confronted with The Kiwi Way.

This is the first in a number of blogs written by Cael.

The Kiwi Way
I arrived in New Zealand straight after my GCE O Levels (a set of British examinations originating from the University of Cambridge that is the second last set of exams you will take in secondary school). I was about 17 at the time and pretty naive about the Western world, having been brought up in Asian countries all my life. After a couple of months of holidays, it was January again, and straight into the NZ school system. Scary, right? Heck, you have no idea! After hearing stories about how difficult NZ secondary school is, and after being told that I would likely to crash and burn if I went straight into Bursary (the NZ version of the pre-university exam) by a principal of a respected NZ high school, I opted for going to Form 6 instead to ease the transition.

You see, one of the things that the principal said was that I would have problems with the studies because English is not my native language. He was right. I did have problems with the English in NZ. My problem was that I was brought up on the Queen’s English. The way I was taught was from the basics up. You know: grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension, composition of fictional and non-fictional essays, how to write a formal and informal letter, etc. I walked into 6th Form English in NZ and found out that many of the students could not even differentiate between a verb and a noun. Things that were second nature to me (“wouldn’t” is the short form for “would not”, for example) had to be explained to the class. What is an antonym is another thing that needed to be explained. Before I could get over my shock, the teacher went into the real lesson, which is either a reading from Macbeth or starting a project about a “serious” author, I can’t remember which exactly. That was when I realised that the students were not taught the basics. They learnt to talk as kids and went straight to learning about Shakespeare. Later in the year, we had to do a critique about a movie (“Red Dawn” starring the late Patrick Swayze). I read some of the critiques done by my fellow students. Grammar is haphazard at best. Vocabulary revolved around the same hundred words and a string of Kiwi slangs. And all but one were either fawning over the beauty of the film or you could tell that the author had no idea what to say about it, so rambling and pointless was it all. One Caucasian guy and I not only panned the film, we ripped it apart. Funnily enough, we got identical and highest marks in the whole of Form 6 that year…

One thing the principal of that aforementioned school asked when I applied was whether I knew how to use a scientific calculator or not, in order to gauge my mathematical skills. I honestly told him that I have never used a scientific calculator in my life, which was true. In the countries where I studied, calculators of any stripe were banned. We did everything by hand. That included Calculus. Yep. Tan = Opposite/Adjacent = Sin/Cos, etc. All memorised and zipped out at the drop of a hat. That apparently, put me in the “underprivileged” section of the students, who needed extra attention. Great. I am going to be put into a class with maths geniuses on the level of Einstein here. Cue trembling legs and flickering eyes. I really should have just paid more attention to the shopkeepers when they were giving me change. Now, if it was in Asia, you buy something for $13.50, the person behind the counter would go, “$50? $36.50 change.” No “thank you” or anything (hey, it’s ASIA!) but it was fast. In New Zealand, it would be: *shopkeeper gives you a 50c piece* “Fourteen” *gives you a $1 coin* “Fifteen” *$5 note* “Twenty” *$20 note* “Forty” *pause* *digs out a $10 note* “Fifty. Thank you, have a nice day.” Ooookay… Yep, you guessed it. The NZ students were glued to their calculators. They cannot even figure out what is 7 x 8 without having to whip it out (it is 56 by the way). I was blurting out the answers to multiplications from 1 x 1 to 12 x 12 on command by the time I hit 5 years of age on pain of writing out that particular formula (e.g., 7 x 8 = 56) 50 times if I get it wrong. The Kiwis could never figure out how I managed to complete in-class maths exercises so quickly (I did what was supposed to be a 60 minute exercise in less than 10 in Form 6). The calculator was supposed to be faster than the human brain. Well, the *calculator* is. Typing in the required numbers and formula and then transferring it on to paper, on the other hand… Trust me. It is faster to do it without a calculator. Even today, I don’t carry a calculator around with me, and I am an engineer involved in power electronics. It was Year 1 at university before I learnt something new in the mathematical front in the NZ education system. I spent Form 6 and Form 7 mystifying the teachers and students, and just plain reading a fiction novel in Maths class (Lord of the Rings got very bad reviews from me).

You see, what I ran into is what is called “The Kiwi Way” by the locals. It is a pretty funny mix of hubris, delusions of granduer and sneering at others that the Kiwis have developed into an art form. “He is Asian. His English can’t be as good as ours.” “We are the best at science and maths in the world. Look at OUR Ernest Rutherford.” No, dears. RUTHERFORD was good at science and maths. YOU are not Rutherford…

It is a very funny cultural phenomenon that my father called the “Island Mentality”. He explained it to me once when I was about 12: “As a small island off the coast of a big landmass, the islanders HAVE to tell themselves that they are better than the mainlanders. Otherwise, the idea that the guys from the mainland can come and wipe them out at any time would be too much for their psyche to bear.” Or, as the Urban Dictionary puts it: “Inspired by positive-minded well-meaning groupthink, increasing homogeniety over time, isolation-induced ignorance of other cultures or communities, fear of the unknown or being outnumbered (and a desire to compensate for their smallness amid the world), and lack of conflict with/lack of destruction by other communities (improving relative progress and social harmony and giving some creedence to their feelings of superiority).” New Zealand is not really alone in this. Singapore exhibits much of the same attitudes. In fact, my father was speaking of Singapore at the time. The difference is that Singapore is actually a pretty successful and modern society, with a high percentage of professionals, a vibrant culture, booming industries and a economy that is the envy of much of the world, let alone the region. New Zealand has sheep and… err… sheep.

I will talk more on New Zealand’s other famous attributes in the next entry.

8 thoughts on “Migrants Tales – Cael’s Tale of The Kiwi Way

  1. It is open knowledge that Kiwis have bad English, poor grammar and are hopeless at spelling. It really puts the English language curriculum under scrutiny as it is apparently not preparing NZ students to communicate in the real world.

    Kiwis especially have a big problem with homophones – words that sound alike (there/their, heir/air). It appears to be because they learn English primarily through speaking rather than being drilled in the basics of spelling/reading. You would be hard-pressed to find any Asian elementary school pupil making mistakes such as “he’s on a role”, or “they’re she goes”, “me to”, “your welcome”, or “he has bad manors”, that are so common in New Zealand. I lived in Southeast Asia for over a decade, working as an editor and English tutor, but never came across such poor standards there. High-school students in Singapore, for instance, know how to pen formal letters (which requires comparatively sophisticated knowledge of tone, appropriate vocabulary, formatting and essay planning), something I understand is not taught in NZ colleges.

    The bad writing in NZ is widespread, even in the publishing field where I currently work. You’d think clean writing is the barest minimum one should expect from a person who earns a living as a writer. Some of the Kiwis I’ve worked with consider themselves “veterans” but deliver copy that suggest they’d been writing while inebriated. Punctuation is either carelessly abused or treated as an afterthought. And yet these are the people who are quickest to tell a new migrant their “English is so good!”.

    If memory serves me right, NZ tertiary institutions require international students to test for a minimum of IELTS 6.5. If Kiwis had to go through the same tests, I doubt many could even pass.

    • “that suggest they’d been writing while inebriated” -well there is you reason. Drunk on the kool-aid!

      I have the fortunate excuse of being ADHD with some mild dyslexia, which can improve by leaps and bounds if I eat well and have no stimulants or alcohol.

      Grammar Nazi,,

  2. Externally, the NZ education system is “world class”, what NZ wants the world to think of their education system. Internally, there is a debate going on about the poor completion rates [70-80%] and the lack of literacy and numberacy.
    There are those that have been “flushed through” the system, supposedly having become both literate proficient in mathamatics, and are in fact neither.
    Once more, a case where the “appearance of propriety” is more important than the reality of propriety.
    “Mean what you say and say what you mean” is a foreign concept in NZ. Least “honest” country I’ve ever been in.

      • Depends what you are studying.
        Hard sciences – very good,
        Social sciences, hairdressing, cookery … and I’d be asking, tell me, why did you go overseas for your education?

  3. I can concur with a lot of what Cael says, based on what I experienced at university.
    You have people there who think A-Level Mathematics … is a step down from their “Introductory Mathematics” (I actually had to help someone doing her Bachelor’s in Education, taking that paper … with fractions … at University 😡 ).
    I know compassion is necessary, but sometimes it’s shocking to realise it gets to that way and people don’t see it as a problem.
    Things vary by faculties though – and remember that lecturers aren’t the same as primary/secondary teachers.
    Of course, that puts some of the “dux” students in for a rude shock, unless they go either for “arts-heavy” courses … or cleverly sidestep points requirements with 1st year subjects.

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