We dribble into the smoko room, line up for the microwave, then jostle for a seat in sea of grungy neon-yellow high viz. We segregate as if were in Atlanta in the 1940s. Kiwis at the two middle tables, Chileans in a chattery bunch by the windows, with the middle-aged kiwi women perching precariously to the ends of the tables they used to rule. The last table is for the Asian rift raft—a few Filipinos, Chinese, Malasians, and a lone Indian. The rain patters on the outdoor tables, crowding the break room with even the die-hard patio sitters, me among them.
I take a seat at the cross-roads, between the generously proportioned kiwi women with bleached hair and make-up and the boisterous South Americans. My Spanish isn’t good enough to follow the rapid conversation to my right, laced with slang. I’m across from an icy green-eyed Chilean queen, who has never given me more than a disdainful glance, though she shares sandwiches and noisy banter across the table with her brethren. I’m not part of the comradery, but I wish I was. I get why the crew self-segregates—it sucks to be the misfit, not sure where it’s safe to make eye contact, awkward in silence but likewise awkward in accented conversation.
“They sound like a bunch of chimpanzees,” the plump kiwi on my left grouches under her breath, rolling her eyes.
I hesitate for a half second, then hazard an opinion. “You know, I wish I was from a warm colourful culture like theirs, where you sing when you’re happy—wouldn’t that be fun! I’m from a cold reserved culture like your own.” There, I’d said it.
“They’re so noisy!” Mrs. Kiwi defends her position. “We have the radio and the noise of the transplanting machines all day long. At lunch you just want a break!”
“Yeah, my kiddo house is a noisy too,” I sympathize. I’ve already made my point, now it’s time to soften it. Embracing cultural differences doesn’t come naturally to anyone, least of all New Zealanders. It’s fascinating how uncomfortable it is to sit isolated among a sea of clicky groups. It’s discouraging to see, but I get why people choose the same seats day after day, the same familiar companions. “Us versus Them” seems to be irrevocably entrenched into our human nature.