Asni’s Art blog is back – but not an arts review this time. I’ve never missed more than one scheduled blog in a row, so I would like to give my readers an explanation.
Where do I start? Let’s go a way back, to why I first came to New Zealand. Like quite a few other creatively inclined people, I came in the wake of the Lord of the Rings movies: not because I entertained a naive dream of living in Middle-earth, but because I believed the story that was being told by the makers of the movies, on DVD extras, in the media, on the internet. The story of a tiny little country taking on the Hollywood giants and doing something everyone else had thought impossible: a live action version of Lord of the Rings, that most “unfilmable” of books!
New Zealand has become a bit of a mythical Utopia to a lot of people, and particularly those involved in Fandom: a place where motivation and raw talent count more than job experience or formal education, a place were creativity and individuality are given room to flourish. A place where one could go and reinvent oneself, change direction. Get out of the rut.
It also seemed a place that had all the right things going for it: a history of reasonably respectful racial relations expressed by the founding document of the nation, the Treaty of Waitangi (never mind that the European settlers proceeded to completely ignore it!). The first country to grant women the vote. A society that is big on equality and equal opportunities, where discrimination and hate crimes do not exist, and prejudice of any kind would be frowned upon. A place with a pristine natural environment, whose preservation is high on the political agenda.
That, at least, is the tourist brochure version of New Zealand. The clean, green, and liberal image that is assiduously being upheld for the outside world, as New Zealand’s “brand”.
For the last thirteen years, I have experienced something very different.
I won’t go into how I had to abandon my musical career which earned me my residency permit in the first place – how I was expected to contribute my knowledge and skills for free while earning my keep in minimum wage jobs where I was bullied to the point of developing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, on account of my higher education and my German accent.
I won’t go into how I was being treated like an unskilled worker by Work and Income employees and so-called career consultants, who ought to have been the people to turn to for helping me find the kind of work that would put my skills to good use and ease New Zealand’s skill shortage, which is the very reason for bringing people like myself into the country. How my benefit was cut when I insisted on being employed according to my background and experience. How at one point I spent six months writing job applications, for anything from highly skilled work in my field, to minimum wage office jobs – an effort that resulted in exactly zero invitations for a job interview. How I was then threatened with having my benefit cut again because I ‘wasn’t trying hard enough”. How I eventually decided to forego my human right to either be given appropriate paid work, or receive social assistance, entirely – because insisting on it was taking too big a toll on my health.
I won’t go into the systemic dishonesty which meant that nearly every single freelance job I have landed in this country has resulted in either non-payment, or an exhausting battle for my pennies, complete with routine accusations of rudeness – for insisting that my contract be honoured – and threats that “no one was going to work with me again”.
I won’t go into the many times people thought it was ok to yell insults at me because “I did not fit in”. The flatmate who called me a “fucking German Lesbian” and the other flatmate who nearly beat me up, because I didn’t conform to expectations they were unable to formulate for me.
But perhaps the events of the last few weeks can serve to illustrate what it has been like, more or less, these last thirteen years. This is what happened:
One Tuesday morning in January, at around 11 am, our local council’s animal control officer knocked on my door to tell me there had been a complaint about my peahen sitting in someone’s backyard. Failing to understand how this would be a problem that could bring the council officer to my doorstep – the same officer who had repeatedly refused to come out and personally assess the situation when I had made complaints – I suggested that the neighbour should just shoo the bird away. No, I had to come, the bird kept coming back and the neighbour could not let the dog out for fear of harming the peahen. I pointed out that the peahen has fully functional wings, and is unlikely to be harmed by a dog. No, by all means, I had to come.
I said ok, but I need to put some clothes on – I had been working late the previous night, and was still in my pyjamas and morning robe – at which point the officer saw fit to sneer at me. In the end he reluctantly granted me permission to get dressed before going out of the house, perhaps the benefit of this had come home to him.
Some five minutes later, I appeared at the address, a few houses up the street, armed with some maize to lure the bird back home. The owner of the property assiduously explained to me that he was only worried about my bird, as his dog was so ferocious it would undoubtedly tear her to shreds. I repeated that I didn’t think it would be a problem at all, but I was happy to come and get the bird if he’d show me in.
Then a neighbour called out that the bird had flown off and was now sitting on his roof. Which for some reason prompted the council officer to tell me that if I couldn’t contain the bird on my property – i.e. keep her in a cage – I would have to get rid of her.
Now my history with council, and with this particular officer, goes back some five years, and those have not been entirely happy five years: I’ve had to lodge complaints about the way council dealt with me before, so I told the officer that if he was going to force me to get rid of the bird, I was *really* going to have a problem with council.
At this point the concerned dog owner, who may have felt that his person wasn’t being paid the appropriate attention during this brief interchange, started to verbally abuse me in the most explicit and inappropriate fashion. I can’t say that I really took in most of his tirade, but he was using the word “fucking” a lot, and seemed to think he could commandeer me to “go, marsh” as if I was a recalcitrant toddler.
Meanwhile the council officer stood by and did absolutely nothing.
The man, to prove his point, eventually did let the dog out – who was wagging his tail in friendly greeting and did not strike me as in any way particularly ferocious – but since neither the concerned citizen nor the New Zealand local government official showed any sign of coming to their senses, I eventually stalked off, followed by recommendations of the kind of medication I should be using.
I called council to tell them about the incident, and that I was going to lodge a complaint about the conduct of their officer. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon writing a letter of complaint, instead of working on my already slightly overdue illustration commission. I also put up the following post on my private Facebook page:
Later in the evening, I received the following private message:
The next day, I called council again to tell them about these threats, which seemed to indicate that the peahen had never been the issue, but that the man had a problem with my person and lifestyle choices. I also called our local police office, to ask when I could come down to report. The desk lady promised me that the next available officer would get back to me, definitely before the end of the day.
Having developed a headache and various other psychosomatic pains in the meanwhile, I went and saw my doctor, and showed him the note. He got quite worried and warned me to definitely not take this lightly. He agreed that I should follow this up with police, and that the man seemed to have some mental health issue.
I did not hear from any police officer or find a message on my answering machine that day, so the next day I called Featherston station again. After repeated tries when no one picked up, I was for some reason put through to Wellington, where I was at last able to file the incident. The officer expressed astonishment that I would have been unable to reach someone at my local station, this was not how it was supposed to be.
Finally on Friday – three days after first contacting the police station – one of the local officers tried to ring me. I failed to reach the phone in time the first time round and when on the second attempt, I picked up just as the answering machine was kicking in, he had already hung up. He did appear on my doorstep a short while later – I recognized the officer from another occasion when I felt he had been unnecessarily unfriendly, and I would have much preferred if one of the other officers had handled this particular case, but I gave him the printout of the neighbour’s hate message containing the threats against me.
The police officer never asked me what had actually happened. He gave me an impression of being annoyed – when I asked him how he would follow this up, he mumbled something about how he now had to go down to the police station with this piece of paper and how much work that was! He never got back to me to ask what my original message on Facebook had been, which is being characterized as “slander” and “libel”. I”m convinced he never even bothered to read the text, and I wouldn’t wonder if this particular officer shares some of the self-same attitudes that my dog owning neighbour has expressed in his missive. I’m the lunatic in number fifty-one, who just complains about stuff because she has nothing better to do.
A few days later, when there was absolutely no follow-up from the police and I was still unable to reach the local station, I eventually called 111 and asked to be put through to the central switchboard, seeing that it seemed to be the only way to get a response from the police. I described my dissatisfaction with how long it took to get the police to attend to this matter, and with how the officer who eventually came hadn’t even asked me what happened – and asked how I could make a complaint. The person who answered the call had the cheek to tell me that I “should have asked the police officer” – who came to attend to my complaint – “to make a statement”. I offered to include her in my complaint, and pointed out that I do have the right, under national and international law, to have a police officer attend to this matter, regardless of my accent, age, gender, and lifestyle choices. Her response was that “she never mentioned anything about my accent”.
I have as yet not lodged a complaint. I have tried to find a support person to come with me, seeing that I so often, when dealing with New Zealand authorities, run into people who seem to have a great deal of difficulty with my accent. Not all of them, but far too many, and I never know who I will happen to speak to. I haven’t been able to find someone. I tell this story to people and expect that they will be outraged that this is happening in their country, and all I get is a shrug of the shoulders, “this is how things are”.
Meanwhile, a few weeks later, this item went through the local news: Two Featherston teenagers, 15 year olds, had died after crashing a car they had stolen. They’d been signalled to stop by a police patrol, who started to chase them when they failed to comply, though the chase had been quickly abandoned due to the young people’s dangerous driving.
So this is what the local police does while they can’t attend to my complaint!
The two boys were notorious in town for minor offences, and at least one of them was brown. The verdict in the community is “they made their choices and brought it upon themselves, at least they didn’t kill anyone else”, and that “Tragedies like this can sometimes be the best way to get through to people.” I choke on the cynicism of that last statement.
Fifteen year olds. They weren’t even of legal age, but this whole community had already given up on them, and is all too ready to condemn them. I’m sure there are several concerned citizens who are breathing secret sighs of relief, because now their letter boxes are safe from vandalism. Two young lives. “They didn’t have much of a future”, people say. Well, everyone has a future – until they’re dead!
New Zealand is so far away from everything, they think they can get away with creating a public image for their country which has nothing to do with the living reality of a society so steeped in prejudice, political apathy, and denial, it has made me understand what it must have been like in Germany in the 1930s, and how come no one spoke up about the concentration camps. And that worries me deeply. So for now, I will at least make use of the opportunity I have to put this out here on my blog. Time to speak up.