In this episode of “Jamaicans to the World”, Jamaicans.com founder Xavier Murphy speaks with speaks with Johnnel. She is a Jamaican living in New Zealand.
Xavier: What is it like being a Jamaican in New Zealand? Hi. I am Xavier Murphy the founder of Jamaicans.com. Today in Jamaicans to the World, we talk to Johnnel Smith who is a Jamaican living in New Zealand. Welcome Johnnel. How are you?
Johnnel: Hi Xavier. [Greetings] from Aotearoa, New Zealand. It is an absolute privilege and pleasure being here with you. Thank you so much for having me on your program.
Xavier: I love, that you have the flag there representing Jamaica. And for the folks who don’t know and may even recognize Johnnel, Johnnel is a former Miss Jamaica Festival Queen. I think you were also in Miss Mandeville or something like that?
Johnnel: Miss Manchester, yes.
Xavier: Miss Manchester. Okay. So always representing.
Johnnel: Have to.
Xavier: So, you are from Manchester?
Johnnel: Yes. I’m from the most enchanted parish in Jamaica which is Manchester. I was born and raised in Mandeville. Most people think I’m from Kingston. But no, I’m from cool, cool Mandeville.
Xavier: The cool that you experienced, because I think you are at the side of New Zealand that is close to Antarctica.
Johnnel: It is the coldest, one of the coldest parts of New Zealand. No Xavier. It’s a different kind of cold. It is a different kind of temperature here. I don’t think I was properly prepared for the weather here in New Zealand. But, you know, actually I think I’m acclimatising, they say. It’s not so bad as when I just started. When I just arrived, I was really reconsidering my decision, and saying, yeah, you know, what’s that ticket back home again? Let’s see how far we can take this. But I think I’m acclimatising. And yes, I am on one of the last spots before Antarctica. That’s how far down I am.
A lot of people when they hear New Zealand, they think of one country, but actually, New Zealand is divided into two islands. There’s the North Island and South Island. The North Island has popular cities like Auckland and the capital Wellington and I’m down on the South Island which has Christchurch, which unfortunately had the, the attacks, probably a year ago, terrorist attack a year ago. I’m in a place called Dunedin, which is about four hours from Christchurch, and three hours from the adventure capital of the world which is Queenstown. It’s a good place to be on the South Island.
Xavier: Okay. Have you thought about, again, I don’t know how close it is, but have you thought about a trip to Antarctica?
Johnnel: Actually, yes because Antarctica, though cold, very beautiful. So, from what I’ve seen, and I have a lot of friends who are from Antarctica, and they’ve lived in Antarctica, and they’ve always encouraged me to visit. So, I was like, “I’ll come in the summertime for Antarctica [Laughter], maybe not now.” But yeah, and even their summer, is still gonna be everybody else’s winter. But it is very beautiful, it is.
Xavier: Good. Good. What do you like about New Zealand?
Johnnel: Oh, wow! New Zealand for me, is really a beautiful country to live in. It is absolutely fantastic. My number one favourite thing about New Zealand would have to be the Great Outdoors. It is just fantastic. There’s a reason why so many movies are filmed in New Zealand, like Lord of the Rings, Hobbiton, even Mulan was filmed in New Zealand, because of the picturesque beauty of the country. You drive out and you see these ice-capped mountains. You see these lakes, these cascading waterfalls. And it’s very natural and pristine, very untouched. And I think that is what makes it so beautiful. You know, it’s unbelievable sometimes when I’m driving and I look out and it’s as if, “Is this a real place? It looks like a painting.” Even when I take pictures sometimes like on my Instagram or on my Facebook, and I look at even how the cloud is, it’s really beautiful. That’s why from the sea to sky it’s just absolutely breath-taking. You are driving and you are like, wow! The wildlife is wonderful.
Xavier: I’m a Lord of the Rings fan. I totally understand and get it, and it’s one of these places that’s on my list because of the Lord of the Rings.
Johnnel: Yes, it’s absolutely fantastic. And the thing about even with that you’d think that it’s a movie and it’s fake. No, the background is real. The backdrop is actually real. And that’s why many films are shot here, and it’s the Great Outdoors. As I said it’s pretty, especially on the South Island, it’s quite, it’s not very populated, so when you’re driving out it’s just these large spaces of empty land and you just looking and you’re just driving and you are in awe of it. It’s really good. So, number one would definitely be the scenery, that we have here, the outdoors. Yes, how natural it is. I love it,
Xavier: What’s the thing you like the least? I think yuh gwine (you are going to) lean to the cold but I’ll leave you, I’ll let you answer.
Johnnel: Have to, the weather. Yes, the weather is one of those things that, I would say I like the least about New Zealand, because it does affect your ability to enjoy the Great Outdoors, as I said before. When they say, you have four seasons in a day, that’s a typical saying here in New Zealand, you have four seasons in a day. It is not a joke. Literally, you’re walking, I would even say four seasons in five minutes. It’s possible. I’ve seen it gone from snowing, to wind, to warm sunshine, to spring. I’ve seen that in five minutes. I’ve seen that in five minutes and it’s just unbelievable.
Xavier: Amazing! Local customs, tell us about some of the local customs, maybe one or two of the local customs that when you got there, like, this is interesting.
Johnnel: Wow! In New Zealand, it has a great respect and integration of the indigenous culture which is the Maori people. When I began, I greeted you in Maori which is, Kia ora kotou. And even the name New Zealand is, Aotearoa, which is, the Maori name for New Zealand. And it means a land of Long White Cloud. What I love about New Zealand is the integration of the indigenous people. They have very wonderful respect and kind of a veneration of the Maori people here. And so, with the Maori, there’s a lot of culture and traditions that come along with it. The respect for the land, and the nature, the ancestors, and, as well as the tattoos, a lot of the tribal tattoos. You’ll see them tattoo their entire bodies, even on the face, the eyes, over the mouth.
I remember when I just arrived at the airport and I was picking up my luggage, off the conveyor belt and this guy was next to me and he was Maori. And he had the tattoo, like his entire face was tattooed. I kind of just, I was so surprised when I saw him, I was like, you know. Because I knew I should expect that because I did my research before coming here. But when I actually saw it in person it was like, you know. But then afterwards when you see it a few more times, it becomes typical. It becomes the norm.
The traditions are really good and, in general, Kiwis, that’s what we call New Zealanders. The long name is New Zealanders, but everybody call themselves Kiwis. They’re really very nice and friendly people. The custom and tradition, they’re nice, they’re friendly, they’re outgoing and adventurous. And I guess that’s why Queenstown, which is a couple hours from me, is the adventure capital of the world because they generally like adventure. They like being outdoors. And they’re very compliant and humble people. I mean, Jacinda Ardern, she came to visit us, yesterday, that’s the Prime Minister for New Zealand, such a humble lady. And even how we dealt with COVID-19 is something that the world over, was looking at New Zealand and appreciated. Because generally Kiwis are very compliant people. They will do what is necessary in order to get back to as much normalcy as possible because they love being outdoors. So, I think we handled Covid very well, and the traditions are lovely.
Xavier: Good. Good. You are a student in New Zealand? Or are you working, or doing both, student and working?
Johnnel: Both, doing both. You know Jamaicans we are hustlers [laughter], natural born hustlers so we can’t just do one thing. We have to be in everything. I’m a PhD candidate here. I’m a PhD scholar. That is how I actually came here, and for me, I also lecture. I also teach. So, I have been doing both for a while and other jobs. So yes.
Xavier: Was it difficult getting a visa, student visa, work permit, all of that stuff, when you made the decision to (guh) go to New Zealand?
Johnnel: It wasn’t very difficult. The process was a little tedious. More tedious than others, because New Zealand, and understandably so, has very strict border control and regulations because the environment is so beautiful and captivating, they’re very strict about who they let into the country but also what they let into the country. Even the process of getting here was more rigorous than other countries, because I’ve been to several other countries and New Zealand was the most rigorous for me in terms of having to do, the typical full health check and blood check and police record check. But it’s, as well as the process for matriculation into a New Zealand University is extremely competitive. Because you’re competing with so many people who love to come here. Even as a Jamaican they’re not many Jamaicans coming this side at all.
And so, even getting information about coming to New Zealand was a little bit difficult. That I would say, was the most challenging part of it, and just the general paperwork and bureaucracy, I guess to come here. But getting a student visa wasn’t difficult. Once you have a bona fide reason for coming, it’s really not that difficult, yes.
Xavier: Okay. And I know you are starting up a YouTube channel and maybe even by the time this has broadcast, we should be looking out for Johnnel’s YouTube Channel, where she is going to be talking to some of the students there and the folks there and kinda helping us know more about New Zealand.
Johnnel: Yes. You’re right Xavier. Thanks for that plug, by the way. I am going to be starting up a YouTube Channel. And it’s really is about sharing information. Because as I said before, when I was coming here, I didn’t have that much information about what it was like to transition, especially from a Caribbean island to New Zealand because there’s not many. I’m the only Jamaican in this part of the world. And there are more Jamaicans up north in Auckland and I know of a few in Wellington and there’s one in Christchurch but she left I think 25 years ago. In terms of like recently coming from Jamaica, I’m the only one. And so, it was a little bit more challenging. There are some things that I wish I knew then that I know now. The YouTube channel is about sharing that information, not just from me as a Jamaican, but I’m surrounded by over 35 different nationalities. My friends are from many different countries and they all got here. I’ll be interviewing them to share information with others who wish to come to New Zealand, about the processes.
Xavier: Great. On the topic of being a Jamaican there, in New Zealand, tell us one of these stories where it could be someone from New Zealand, what do they call them now? Kiwi?
Johnnel: Kiwis. Yes.
Xavier: It could be a Kiwi, or it could be someone else realise you’re Jamaican and what happens because it opens the doors to a lot of stuff when somebody finds out you’re a Jamaican. Tell us about one of those experiences?
Johnnel: Yes, it has been very interesting especially when you’re the only one in this side of the world. People have a fascination with where you come from. And so, even before I got here, people knew a Jamaican was coming, because it was advertised apparently. I didn’t know that.
Xavier: What do you mean advertised? What do you mean by advertised that a Jamaican is coming?
Johnnel: I’m living on a residential college which is close to the campus. It’s owned and operated by the university. Whenever a new resident is coming there’s a blurb about where they’re coming from, what you’re coming to do, that sort of thing. Even separate and apart from the blurb that was set about me. Before, the administrator actually told a lot of residents that oh, you know, “A Jamaican is coming, a Jamaican is coming.” And so, by the time I got here, everybody was like, “Oh yeah, we’ve been waiting for you.”
That was quite interesting and just a few examples of, funny Jamaican moments. I think the, the most profound experience I’ve had since I’ve been here was, because of the climate and the weather I got quite sick. I think earlier this year, probably around January, February I had flu-like symptoms. But it was a different kind of flu. You know when you get into a new environment, you know, yuh (your) body still adjusting. And so, I knew how my normal flu-like symptoms would be, but this one was a little bit more severe. And at the time COVID-19 had just started to spread to different countries. So, because, you know, of all the travelling and visitors coming in I actually thought it was COVID because it had some of the symptoms of COVID.
I remember my friends taking me to the hospital. They’re like, okay. Let’s just check it out just in case, we’re not quite sure, just check it out, check the symptoms. And I was in the emergency room, and you know just really feeling very restricted in terms of my breathing and I had a raging fever and everything, and the nurse had a lot of other persons with similar symptoms. Fortunately, it turned out not to be COVID-19. But while she was taking my details, my friends were giving her the information and her head was down the whole time. Okay, what’s her name? Has she travelled recently? How long has she been in New Zealand? And the last question was, where is she from? And then I couldn’t say anything at the time, but my friend said, Jamaica. And the nurse lift her head up, whipped it around and looked at me and started laughing in the middle of the emergency room. And I’m like, I’m sick lady like you know, help me out. And she just couldn’t stop smiling. She’s like, just looking at me, and just a bright face and her eyes just became radiant because she’s never seen a Jamaican before. And, you know, even the whole time I honestly got VIP treatment from I told them I was Jamaican.
From there she just couldn’t stop smiling and laughing, even in the middle of an emergency. I think that is the most profound thing you know. And that is who we are as Jamaicans. When people hear about us, they think about happy people. They think about this vibrancy and energy of our people. And so, when we go into places, even before they get to know us individually, they have happy thoughts. They have positive thoughts about us, and I think that’s really incredible.
Xavier: That is an amazing story, VIP treatment in the emergency room. She didn’t fine nuh ackee an’ sal’fish fa yuh though? (Was she able to find any Ackee and Saltfish for you?)
Johnnel: No, no, no. She didn’t get that at the moment, but she was you know, she was just in adoration and awe. Because especially down this side as I said, I’m the only one. So, you know in her mind she was thinking about all the happiness. And I do get asked about Bob Marley a lot, and Usain Bolt. And of course, I get asked occasionally for weed (marijuana). Everybody thinks I jus’ walk aroun’ wid weed, so (Everyone thinks I simply walk around with marijuana.). People are like, Oh, you do have any weed (marijuana)? I’m like, “No I don’t.” They’re like, “But you are Jamaican.” I’m like,” no we don’t all do that. Not all of us do that.
Xavier: Yeah, it’s one of them stereotypes that just will never die.
Johnnel: It will never die.
Xavier: But on food, what is the food like? Is there a particular food that they serve there in New Zealand that you say, I really enjoyed this? Give us an idea of the food there.
Johnnel: I think the New Zealand cuisine is my least favourite thing about New Zealand. And I know my Kiwi friends are going to be like, “What, how could you say that?” But the Kiwi food is, is sometimes, you know, it can be very bland in taste, you know, not very well seasoned. And you know in Jamaica we like wi (our) pepper, an’ we like ‘ole ‘eap a seasonin’ (and we like lots of seasoning), an’ we luv, yuh ‘no, wen di ting inna di fridge a marinate an’ yuh no, we (and we enjoy meats that are seasoned and marinated in the refrigerator, you know). Yeah, we like dat (Yes, we like that). We like a lot of things in our food, and it’s not the same here in New Zealand. They do have the Fergburger which is pretty popular, and you can actually get that in Queenstown and it’s a delicious burger so I would say definitely that is, that would be my absolute favourite of all the foods here. But it’s really not my favourite part about New Zealand. I miss the Jamaican food. I do.
Xavier: What do you miss? What Jamaican food yuh (do you) miss?
Johnnel: You know, I love jerk chicken. I’ve always loved jerk chicken. I’ve always been a person to go to Scotches. I have always been, seeking out my pan-chicken man on the roadside. I had a favourite pan-chicken man on Old Hope Road in Kingston. Every Friday ‘im ‘no dat a coming to buy ma jerk chicken, an’ ma jerk pork, an’ di jerk chicken neck wid sweetie, off course (He knew that I would be coming to buy jerked chicken, jerked pork and jerked chicken neck with along with sweet on Fridays).
Of course. So, I do. I’m a true Jamaican and especially at Christmas time, A (I) miss the food a lot. A (I) miss Sorrel. A (I) miss Jamaican Christmas cake, even though I can get it over here. There’s a difference. There’s a difference when, when yuh (your) family makes it for you, versus when you buy it, manufactured from a manufacturer. There’s a real difference to it. I don’t know if it’s love that’s the extra ingredient but it miss something wen we mek it at home (it lacks something when it’s not homemade) that’s very different. So, I miss, especially at Christmas time, the traditional Jamaican Christmas food, jerked chicken and just the variety that we had and especially patty. Mi luv patty (I love patties). Yeah, a miss dat (Yes, I miss that).
Xavier: Folks who are watching, you know, Johnnel wants her jerk chicken, her jerk chicken neck, an’ har patty (and her patties), some Sorrel. So, look for her when she gets her YouTube channel, you know to reach her. Package it, next-day shipping. Amazon, Amazon probably get it there in hour.
Johnnel: In an hour, an’ don’t forget di’ sour sap juice (and don’t forget the soursop juice), please.
Xavier: Any, words of advice for anyone who is thinking of coming to New Zealand to work, to study. Any words of advice?
Johnnel: Oh, wow. And, actually, that’s one of the reasons I’m gonna (going to) be doing the YouTube channel because there’s so many things that I would want to mention and I probably can’t even get into the details in this interview. But in general, I think a lot of persons are a little fearful about going into parts of the world, that there’re not many Jamaicans. You know, when I think about migrating in Jamaica, we often go to the dynamic two or three. So, we think about the US, Canada, or the UK. And it’s usually in England, London. We think about those places. But the world is so much bigger. That is why I really, wanna (want to) congratulate you on this platform, Xavier, that you have started by featuring Jamaicans around the world, to let other Jamaicans back home know that it is possible to go into places and take up spaces that we’ve never done before. And in addition to really celebrating the Jamaican culture and spreading that overseas or, to persons we’re close to, we’re also offering a new narrative, of Jamaicans, so that we’re not just this one, weed-smoking (marijuana-smoking) Rastafarian who loves to say, “Irie mon” and listen to Bob Marley. There’s so many different facets of us, you know. I will never forget that, I’m a lecturer by profession. I actually lectured at UWI and decided to do my PhD overseas and that’s how, I actually got here, and I will never forget I was doing this presentation, and one person from the audience came up to me and she is like, “Jamaica, I love Jamaican, but I just never imagined that a university, that you said you’re a lecturer.” She’s like, “Jamaica have universities? Like there’s a university in Jamaica?” And I’m like, “Yeah there’re several universities in Jamaica, actually.” But that is just how important it is for us to be diverse and to show people the level of our diversity, by really going out there in different facets and corners of the world, to really show our culture, and who we are as a people and how in-depth and diverse we are.
Xavier: Wow, I love that. I love it. What a perspective, Jamaica to the world. What a perspective! Wrapping up here. Is there a goodbye. I know they speak English, but it sounds that there are some other, like dialects or you mentioned, you kind of went into some of it earlier. In closing, how would you say goodbye, New Zealand style?
Johnnel: It’s still Kia ora. So, it is two words Kia, ora, but it’s pronounced Ki-ao-ra. So that’s the goodbye message and of course it’s coming from Maori tradition and Maori language here in New Zealand. It is an absolute pleasure to be here to represent Jamaica here, and again, I wanna (want to) thank you for this platform of showcasing Jamaicans to the world, and again, I wanna (want to) encourage all Jamaicans to reach out far and wide wherever you are you can, if you have an interest in studying in New Zealand or living in New Zealand, you can message me as well.
Reach out, you know, let’s be a bridge for each other, and also, I just wanna (want to) again, commend you on this wonderful work that you’re doing to feature our people all over the world. Don’t be afraid Jamaicans, go out there, even if there’s no Jamaican there you can be the first, and represent, in true and fine style, definitely.
Xavier: Johnnel thank you for sharing your story with us. We know we have someone there in New Zealand so folks, reach out to her. Thank you, and let me make sure seh dis right (say this correctly) now. So ba-bye, is kia ora?
Johnnel: Kia ora, yes.
Xavier: All right, Johnnel. Kia ora.
Johnnel: Kia ora, Xavier. Thanks again. Bye guys.