A Chinese Backpacker’s Experience in Auckland, New Zealand

On the waterfront.

A working holiday in New Zealand, a new trend among young Chinese mainlanders. Each year, one thousand of them are granted a Working Holiday Visa by the New Zealand government to travel and work in the Kiwi country for a maximum 12-month period of time. They are called backpackers.

With career in the stall, and in need of a change of scenery, I too have become a backpacker in New Zealand this year. A young mainland Chinese guy who’s leaving his country for the first time in his life to explore the new and unknown. How original.

I’m not a travel nut. In fact, I’ve barely traveled at all. Give me a computer, food and water, and I can stay indoors as long as any other nerd. So I find it awkward and uncomfortable to associate myself with the word “backpacker”. And I sure don’t act like one:

First, I failed to submit my application for a working holiday visa. So I sort of gave it up, until my friend successfully applied for one for me. He was a good buddy of mine, and it was him who told me he’d embark on a journey in New Zealand before I decided to tag along.

I was getting myself drunk at least twice a week.

Then, from that point forward, I left him in charge of everything. He booked the airline tickets and looked for the accommodations. While he was learning about the working holiday experiences of other backpackers, I was getting myself drunk at least twice a week. I thought to myself: ”What can possibly go wrong? I’ve known him for 3 years, and we’ve always had a good time partying together. When we arrive in Auckland, we’ll stick together, we’ll find a job together, we’ll work and make some money together, and we’ll party every weekend with the new friends we make. Then we’ll buy a car together and he can be the driver since I don’t have a driver’s license. When we eventually have enough of Auckland, we’ll travel to South Island together.”

Later, it was proven that not only was my trust in my friend misplaced, my 2-month stay in Auckland itself was an ordeal that crushed me into the ground like a bug.

On the top of Mount Eden.

Mount Eden, the second highest natural point in the whole Auckland region, used to be the home of the Maori people over 1,000 years ago. Now, it is a scenic spot and is considered an upmarket area for people to live in. It is at the foot of this beautiful mountain that a backpackers’ hostel stands. It is run by a “Shanghai mama”, and it is also probably the worst place you could find in the neighborhood.

The backpackers hostel where I stayed.

The backpackers hostel run by the “Shanghai mama”.

The main building of this hostel was built in the 19th century. Usually when a house is more than 100 years old, its quality either goes up, or goes down, way down. This is the latter. I’ll just quote some reviews I found on the internet about this hostel, for I myself couldn’t say it better:

By far the worst place I have ever stayed at in my life, way overdue a overhaul in every way… The toilet was disgusting, it was never clean. Although the other guests were mainly to fault, but at the same time the management should of cleaned on a more regular basis. And if someone had the washing machine on, you had a cold shower. I can’t comment on the kitchen, because I wouldn’t use it, just passed through on the way to the washing machine which also wasn’t anything to write home about. The bedroom was crowded with useless furniture and the bed was like nothing I have ever slept in. I didn’t have a decent night’s sleep in the two weeks I stayed there. The only good point was the view from the front door over the city… In a word: hellhole!!!

This place is a long way from Auckland central as stated. Good views and nice English guy on desk. But that’s all the good I can say about it. This place has heaps of potential but badly run down. Cockroaches, mice, etc., damp rooms. No heating, when heating is requested as has been done by various guests they are ignored. People sit in lounge in sleeping bags and blankets. Kitchen is totally inadequate and dirty. Bathrooms had band aid plasters in the shower for a several days. Chinese lady owner is very loud as are all her relatives, is only interested in making money. Place has deteriorated very badly, a shame.

Stayed here with my partner in late Oct, 2011. Would not recommend this place to anyone. Cockroaches, rats, mice, etc. Thin walls where you can hear everything in the next room. Dirty place. Run by Chinese woman, a control freak who isn’t interested in your complaints. A rude obnoxious person. English guy on desk a pleasant man but that’s the only positive apart from the view. Very, very noisy.

It was in a hostel like this that I had stayed, for 2 months. Most of the guests who lived here were Chinese backpackers, and they’d either stay for a significantly long period of time like I did, or they’d find another place to live in about a week’s time. Among those of us who chose to stay for the long term, many liked the hostel owner–the Shanghai mama–a lot, and they often spoke of her with affection. Yet for me, her cunning managed to sicken me even before I met her.

When my friend first booked our accommodation there, she promised that she’d pick us up at Auckland Airport without asking for any pickup fees, but hours before our plane took off, she added that such condition would only apply if each of us bring her a carton of duty-free cigarettes. Otherwise, we must pay her money if we wanted her pickup service.

Later, I learned that she was not the only Chinese hostel owner doing this, and that she was even one of the kinder ones. Another owner would simply refuse to accept anyone who refused to collaborate, leaving them high and dry at the airport.

This is one of the subsidiary businesses they have: using Chinese backpackers as couriers to bring them duty-free cigarettes. They reimburse the backpackers the money for buying the cigarettes, while they profit more than 100 NZ dollars selling each carton of these duty-free cigarettes online. As far as I know, most Chinese backpackers, upon their arrival, would comply with this unspoken rule to avoid unnecessary trouble with the Chinese Kiwis.

Even though she always wore a big smile towards me, she only managed to disgust me even more.

However, when she mentioned this to my friend and I, we found an excuse and refused her, but from that moment onward, I never liked her one bit. Even though she always wore a big smile towards me, she only managed to disgust me even more.

She charged non-Chinese guests staying in her hostel more rent than Chinese guests. For example, she charged a just-out-of-prison drug-addicted Maori even more rent simply because the government would pick up the bill. Of the Kiwis staying in her hostel, she always asked for favors, yet would badmouth them behind their backs. So, when I saw that some Chinese guests loved her like a mother hen, my resentment spread to them too.

Besides, I didn’t like most of the Chinese guests staying there anyway. They spoke Chinese all the time, shopped at Chinese supermarkets, ate at Chinese restaurants, and worked under Chinese employment. In short, they did their best to avoid blending themselves into Kiwi culture. I seriously questioned why they were in New Zealand in the first place.

There was a Chinese supermarket filled with “Made in China” goods not far from the hostel and every time a Chinese backpacker talked about that place, his or her face lit up. From the way they described it, it seemed like a church to them. It was like they were in awe just by simply walking into it. I shopped there one or two times, and it was just like any of the lousy third-rate supermarkets scattered all over the suburbs of China which a person would be loath to visit. So, it baffles me even today why these I’m-so-happy-I’m-not-in-China people worship such a run-down supermarket as they do the run-down hostel.

…this shortcoming of mine was fatal in a situation like this.

Therefore, getting stuck with them, I felt like an unhappy ghost. I wanted to get away from them, to get out of this hostel as soon as possible, but I wasn’t able to, because my friend loved it here, loved being with “his own people”, and without him, I wouldn’t know what to do. The aggravation of looking for a job all by myself alone would become an insufferable torture and having never learned to be independent, this shortcoming of mine was fatal in a situation like this.

My friend seemed to have noticed this as well and one night, after a lot of beer drinking, he told me that he’d leave me behind as soon as he found a promising job. This sent me straight to hell. So far, he was on a roll, or at least he acted like so. According to him, he had made a bunch of friends and every one of them was willing to introduce him to job opportunities. He even became good friends with two Kiwis. This made him very cocky. He laughed at me when the only friend I managed to make was an old Kiwi who was considered peculiar by all the Chinese backpackers living there, and none of them would bother to engage him in any way. So, in less than two weeks since I arrived in New Zealand, I was already in a dire state, friendless and alone.

The fish oil factory where I worked.

The Malaysian fish oil factory.

Luckily, through the help of a Taiwanese roommate, I at least found a job at a Malaysian fish oil factory. It wasn’t what I had in mind as far as being the perfect job, but compared with working illegally in Chinese restaurants without paying taxes and bringing a bad reputation to the Chinese community, this was good enough.

For one month and two weeks, I worked in the fish oil factory, 9 hours a day, and 6 days a week. Everyday it took me at least 90 minutes to go to work on foot and by bus, and it took me another 90 minutes to get back to the hostel.

Although I could make a minimum hourly wage of 13.75 dollars working there, I hated the place like those who committed suicide at Foxconn. I hated the place so much that I was thinking about quitting even before I was hired.

All the employees of the factory were Asians: Chinese, Malaysians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and with the most exotic people of all, Indians. Although most of them were nice and hard-working, working alongside them just couldn’t cheer me up. Not only because I had to wear dirty uniforms and work in a confined space, mostly it was because working there provided with me no chance at all to experience what I wanted to come to this country to experience: its culture and its people.

I flew 15 hours across the ocean to the Southern Hemisphere, and the best I could muster was joining the Third World Alliance in a Western country. Out of frustration, this was what I wrote in my travel journal after my first day of work:

My heart was heavy, and I felt like crying. I told my mother about my first day at work on the internet. She wasn’t online. Had she spoken to me, I’d definitely have burst into tears. I felt so lonely and I just wanted to go home. Then, I was amazed to realize how weak I was. I tried to shake off this sadness, but no matter how hard I tried, this heaviness clung to my heart like a tumor. I even tried to cry while taking a shower in the afternoon. A hard truth had struck me again: the world belongs to the rich and powerful, no matter where.

Despite the fact that I was hugely discouraged by the situation I was facing, I held on. I had no other choice, I needed money to support my life in a foreign country. So I endured. Everyday, when I was on my way to work, I felt like a slave heading to his endless labor. Yes, I felt like a slave in a concentration camp rather than a traveler in one of the most beautiful cities of the world.

I didn’t have the guts to let go of a job which had me by the balls.

The general atmosphere at the hostel where I lived wasn’t doing me any good either, but I was afraid to move out, even though my Kiwi friend found me a backpackers hostel full of Europeans, with much better facilities. I didn’t want to be apart from my friend, even though he wouldn’t hesitate one bit to part with me. Another Kiwi, a professional boxing trainer, advised me not to sell myself short by continuing to work at the fish oil factory, but I didn’t have the guts to let go of a job which had me by the balls. Then, I realized that I was no better than my fellow backpacker countrymen. I was stuck with them. I was stuck with a shitty job.

Yet, it wasn’t always in such a downbeat tune that I spent my days. The hostel owner’s sister was a good cook who taught me how to cook some really simple but tasty dishes, and her older son was an absolutely delight to talk to. Two twin sisters from Hong Kong taught me to sing some Cantonese songs. They were extremely nice and sweet young ladies. And that Kiwi who was a professional boxing trainer just loved giving the hostel owner a headache every once in a while. He would toss me his fries when he couldn’t finish them all by himself.

And my Kiwi friend, the one others avoided, he was a very learned man who had spent most of his life traveling all over the world, mostly in Europe. Whenever he was in the mood and I had the time, he’d give me a tour around the city, visiting different places, seeing different things. When I told him about my experiences and feelings here in New Zealand, he told me that when he first left home to travel overseas, he was at the tender age of 17, and he cried over the phone to his mother because he missed home too much.

I am a piece of my home. This was what I had figured out through all the frustration and depression I felt.

One sunny morning, I was on the bus to work and the homesick feeling suddenly became so overwhelming that it was almost unbearable. I was so far away from home, so isolated from my parents and all my friends back home. The desolation of me. Then, these words appeared in my mind: I am a piece of my home. I kept repeating these words until I calmed myself down and from then on, whenever I felt that my spirits were low, I’d say to myself: I am a piece of my home.

After I had made enough money to last me for a while, I quit my job at the fish oil factory. I had arrived in Auckland in early September, and by the time I quit my job, it was the end of October.

By that time, my friend had already found himself a girlfriend, and was about to start a new job with a new friend he had made. A week later, this new job paid them well. Meanwhile, I didn’t bother to find another job, partly because I hated job-hunting, and partly because I was waiting for my friend to quit this good job of his and travel to South Island with me. But it became clear to me that he wouldn’t be quitting this job any time soon when he and his girlfriend looked at his first pay slip with sly smiles on their faces.

According to my Kiwi friend, she was a “toxic bitch”.

During those jobless days, I stayed in my room all day, reviewing my travel journals. When my friend and his new friend returned from work, we’d have dinner together, along with his girlfriend. I discovered that I didn’t enjoy being with them at all, not anymore, because to me, the friendship between my friend and I was long beyond repairing. The way he behaved, the things he did, and the company he kept over those two months showed me his true colors. Through things I don’t want to talk about here, I finally sized him up and decided that I didn’t like him.

I didn’t tell my friend that I didn’t like him, I just began to intentionally alienate myself from him, from his new friend, and his girlfriend. I stopped hanging out with them, stopped eating with them, and I eventually started to look for another job. I figured out that I had to stop being this lazy and always waiting for others to plan my moves for me, and since my friend wanted to give me the slip, why couldn’t I give him the slip first? An unsuccessful job interview at that time reminded me that I wasn’t here to make money but here on holiday, here to have fun. So, how the hell was I going to have any fun if I traveled to South Island in a car with him, with his girlfriend who always packed a sour face? According to my Kiwi friend, she was a “toxic bitch”.

Thus, when I heard a backpacker was talking about going to Hastings, Hawke’s Bay for blueberry picking and apple thinning, I immediately booked us two bus tickets and took off.

With the big city behind me and the roads ahead, I had this feeling that I had set myself free. Even though I had no idea what was ahead of me, I couldn’t care less. My friend along with the lousy job and the lousy hostel sort of forced my hand.

Hawke's Bay.

I arrived in Hastings on a late Saturday afternoon, after an 8 hour bus ride. That night, as I came out of a supermarket, an old man found me. He was on the street with his wife, telling people about Jesus. He introduced me to his friend, who was also a devoted Christian, and later became my landlord.

Now I go to church on every Sunday morning. Though I’m not yet a Christian, I like attending the morning service at the church. I find that I can relate myself to the pastor’s words and through his words, I have finally understood the meaning of me undergoing such a necessary torture in Auckland.

With each difficulty I faced, and with each problem I tackled there, my strength was tested for the first time in my life. I was put into an environment completely new and alien to me, by God or by my own stupidity, to see how far I could go, or how hard I could fall. Perhaps this was what fate had in store for me since the beginning: to crush my spirit with a hammer so that I had to mould myself a new one.

I hope I have. At least, no more hanging around those who hide themselves within their little comfort zone. I’ve broken free from mine, and it’s beautiful.

Peter Barefoot

P.S.

Not long after I left Auckland, my friend lost his job. He arrived in Hastings in December to join me for apple thinning, with his girlfriend complaining about being scammed by him into quitting her job and coming to Hastings with him. Now my friend’s doing cherry picking on South Island, while his girlfriend has remained in Hastings doing blueberry picking. My friend tells me that the cherry picking pays poorly, and that he’ll come back to Hastings by the end of January to do apple picking with me. So, for the foreseeable future, my friend and I will still be sticking with each other. Maybe I’ll let bygones be bygones, for the sake of all the Radiohead albums he gave me. Or maybe, by a chance so thin which will likely never happen, he will visit this site and see this article I’ve written. Only God knows what will happen then.

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  • fscked

    An excellent article! As a person that has travelled, including China, I can totally relate to a lot of the experiences that the author has found himself in. I am happy he recognized them for what they are, tests, and is on his way to overcoming them. As a kiwi that speaks Chinese I see the kinds of Chinese he described in his article everyday, and believe me there are many of their foriegn equivilant in China also. The fact you can surpass them and begin to integrate with the locals and culture is a big step in the right direction, if you are ever back in Auckland I’d love to have a beer with you

    • Peter Barefoot

      LOL. Thank you. I’ll visit Auckland again before I go back to China this year. Maybe we can have that beer then.

      • China Visitor

        So good to hear your honest telling of your time abroad. I’m a foreigner in China and get so busy with work it feels like I don’t have the time at this point to really experience much else..lol..I really want to though. Yes, breaking through your own limitations, what a gift our trials can be! thanks again for the great article!

        • Peter Barefoot

          Haha, what’s in China that you want to experience the most?

          • China Visitor

            Learning more of the language to start with..lol..seeing different places and meeting local people..my best language learning is happening at the small grocery store where I buy stuff. I’m sure they find me amusing but they are patient and take the time to try and
            talk with me so I really appreciate that.

          • Peter Barefoot

            Cool. I’m returning back to China in May. After so many months… I can finally taste Chinese food again!

          • China Visitor

            I hope you will write about what it is like coming home after being abroad. Your story is very interesting!

          • Peter Barefoot

            Sounds like a good idea. I’ll do that.

          • China Visitor

            Have you been enjoying your last few months there in
            New Zealand?

          • Peter Barefoot

            Yes. I’ve made a lot of new friends, and the orchard work is a blast. I enjoy heavy work once in a while, as long as it’s outdoors.

          • China Visitor

            So did your friend ever read your story? :)

          • Peter Barefoot

            I guess they didn’t. We still hang out from time to time.

          • China Visitor

            Have you returned safe and sound?

          • Peter Barefoot

            Yes, I have. Looking for a job right now. Feels like I have never left.

          • China Visitor

            What type of work are you looking for?

          • Peter Barefoot

            IELTS teaching. There are many private language training schools where I can try my luck.

          • China Visitor

            Nice!

      • fscked

        Just let me know when you’re back in Auckland :)

        • Peter Barefoot

          Will do.

        • Peter Barefoot

          Will be in Auckland from Monday evening to Wednesday afternoon next week.

  • William Stewart

    Great to hear of your experiences in my home country :) Thanks for sharing!

    • Peter Barefoot

      With pleasure.

  • Sydney

    Nice story, too bad that so many Mainlanders are deliberately overstaying (sometimes for months) their 1 year working-holidays visa in NZ and are giving Kiwis a bad opinion about Chinese ethnics.

  • Tina

    I thought you should have had a pleasant expierence in NZ, maybe it wasn’t at the beginning, but it will then. Wish you good luck.

  • Hi Peter, thanks for sharing your story, it’s been quite a journey. And thank you also for your honesty. There is a lot about China – and indeed, a lot about New Zealand that I really don’t know about. What I do know however, is that God is incredibly faithful, and some of the experiences you have thus far endured will become a blessing in disguise! All the best for an exciting future :-)

  • Byron

    Good article. Being an expat in China I can identify not only with the writer but also with his (not so good) friend. For the most part I try to learn the culture. I love ancient Chinese history; especial the times during the 3 kingdoms. The things that test my patience are the seeming thoughtlessness and inconsideration of the Chinese people. So when I have had my fill of this poor behavior I find solace in the company of other expats. This provides a needed social comradery required to weather my infrequent ‘I hate China’ days.
    The key in traveling to any place for an extended period is friendship. Make friends with locals; it will reduce the culture shock and allow you to experience parts of the country that you may have never known existed. Make friends with other expats/travelers; we are a tribalistic people. Finding like minded people will help keep us centered and sane.
    Above all keep an open mind and a positive attitude. Do whatever you need to do to keep yourself upbeat and motivated. If that means going to Church or having a pint and catching a sports match on the tube, it matters not.
    When I am down I try to remind myself; life is an adventure and I am living it large!

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