I’ve Acquired a (Mis)Pronunciation Phobia While in New Zealand

Speech bubble made from a keyboard. It’s probably no surprise to anyone who knows me that I get embarrassed quite easily. Often times, this makes traveling difficult. To be a traveler, you can’t be afraid to make a fool out of yourself because it’s inevitable. If you’re an anxious, easily embarrassed person (like I am), it might even hold you back from traveling, and seeing new places.

I’m not afraid of going to new places, per se. I’m afraid of making a fool out of myself when I don’t know the how to’s of a new place: how to order from a Korean restaurant, how to fill up a tank of gas in New Zealand, and how to pronounce an unfamiliar word. Although an eloquent writer, I’m pretty horrible at speaking.

When I arrived in New Zealand, it started with the feijoa. We went to a popular pizza chain here (Hell, if you’re really interested in the name of the place). Thirsty, I eyed the fridge full of different sodas and beers. One soda popped out to me in particular: Pear and Feijoa.

I don’t know why it popped out to me. Maybe it was the English (because it had been so long since I’d seen English anywhere). Maybe it was the bright green labeling. (The graphic designer definitely chose a pleasing font.) Or maybe it was that funny looking word that intrigued me.

A common fruit found in New Zealand called the feijoa.

I asked Daniel if he knew what a fay-joe-ah, fee-ju-ah, fa-yo-ha (maybe it’s Spanish) was and if so, how the hell do you pronounce it? He told me he didn’t know. Hmph.

As we placed our pizza order, Daniel asked if I wanted anything to drink. I looked at the fridge, pretending I hadn’t already studied it for five minutes. My eyes kept going back to that green label pear drink.

Can I have a ginger beer, please?

I found myself not being able to order the drink because I had no idea how to pronounce the word. I was afraid I’d embarrass myself in front of the man. Pft! What a silly American girl! She can’t even pronounce feijoa correctly.  So I settled for the ginger beer.

Daniel later asked if I didn’t order the pear and feijoa drink because I couldn’t pronounce it. NO! I exclaimed, revealing just how much he was right.

By the way, a feijoa is sometimes known as a pineapple guava (why couldn’t they just call it that?). It’s a little green fruit the size of an egg that tastes like a flower (to me anyway). As for how it’s pronounced, I read online that the kiwis pronounce it: fee-jo-a. But then I went to dictionary.com: fey-yoh-ah. Hmph.

The New Zealand Mispronunciation Adventures didn’t stop there.

We were in Rotorua deciding where to go for breakfast. We settled on a quaint restaurant decorated in a funky 70s theme. I was reviewing the chalkboard menu when I saw something that caught my eye: an omelette. Not just any old omelette either. It had tomatoes, cheese, spinach, and chorizo.

As a reader I’ve always had this problem where I have seen a particular word hundreds of times, but have absolutely no idea how to pronounce it. That’s how I am with chorizo. But I really wanted this omelette, and I was going to get it.

Hiya, whatdya like? the girl with the pink hair asked.
Hi, can I please have the tomato and spinach omelette?

Did you see what I did there? I figured doing it this way I could still have my omelette without appearing ignorant when it came to different types of sausage. She pauses for a minute. She looks up to the board.

Uh, oh. Was she confused to what I said? Is it the American accent she is taken back by?
Oh, right. That one with the chore-izo innit. You know, I have no idea how you say that!
Relieved. Ha! Me neither, I said.

Since the Maori were the first to settle in New Zealand, they have named a lot of the places throughout the country. Many of them are difficult to pronounce. For instance, there is the place Whakatane, which I kept calling “whack-a-tain.” But it’s actually pronounced “fa-ka-tah-nee.” [Note: We’ve realized the best place to learn how to pronounce the places is by watching the weather channel.]

Daniel and I went to a place named Whanganui. Now at first glance, I’d expect it to be pronounced: “WANG-ah-newy” and so that’s what I called it. While we were there in Whanganui, we hd to go to the visitor center to find a place to stay. Browsing the rows of information pamphlets, we settled on the Whanganui Holiday Park. It was my turn to do the talking. I told the man at the front desk where we wanted to stay.

Hi, could you reserve us a cabin at the WANG-ah-newy Holiday Park?

I realized just how nasally my American accent enunciated that WANG in Whanganui. The man behind the counter said, “It’s actually WAHN-gah-newy.” (Wahn rhyming with dawn.) Oh, god. What an idiot I am! My fear had just come true. “But don’t worry, even my brother pronounces it “WANG-ah-nui,” he said, trying to soften the blow.

It has been nearly two months since being back in an English-speaking country. Looking back on those incidents now seem so petty, yet at the time were so horrifying. It’s important to know that making a fool out of ourselves is just another part of traveling. After all, the worst that could (and did) happen was my face turned a bright shade of red. I wasn’t ridiculed for my mispronunciation.

In fact, I survived and lived to tell the tale.

Have you had any embarrassing moments when traveling? What happened? 

Photos by , , , and . All published under a license.


  1. says

    Haha this was awesome! I’m a New Zealander (been here 25 years!) and I can’t pronounce any of the Maori names unless I’ve heard them 1000000 times before. Coming from the south island, most things are English down here so when I’m up north it’s all confusing. You’re not alone!

    I also wont order things if I can’t pronounce them :( OR I’ll just state the obvious words in it like you did lol.

  2. says

    I hear ya on this one! I’m from Canada, and have been known to butcher the Maori language from time to time, especially since I ended up living in the Far North, where everything and every one is prodominately Maori. Worst than place names, is people’s names! I’m a school teacher and do a bit of relieving, and they’re quick to correct ya!
    To be fair, Whanganui only recently added in that h… It’d been Wanganui for ages!

    I hear and pronounce fee-jo-ah :)

    • Anxious Travelers says

      Oh man, I’m starting a temp job for the government in about a week. As part of it I’m going to have to call people up and I’m dreading it. I can just picture myself having to call somebody and I don’t understand their name (or worse, their accent.)

      There’s a place on the East coast called Mount Maunganui. I don’t even know where to start with a word like that! “Hello, could I speak to Mister…M-M-M-M…er….oh sod it, I quit!”

      Oh and Canada has its fair share of impossible place names too. Nanaimo?! Saskatchewan?! Nunavut?!

      • says

        Haha, how did that go?

        I work in govt too, we recently had a crash course on Maori pronunciation which was super helpful.

        I totally sympathise with EVERYTHING in this post. The example that stands out most for me was trying to order gelato in Italy – it was like do I go with the one I really want and butcher the words, maybe pointing at it? Or one I can actually say but am not as keen on? Didn’t help my partner was literally laughing at me. I do this terrible thing where if I’m feeling unsure about pronunciation, I kind of exaggerate my pronunciation and kinda drag it out and it just makes it 10000x worse.

        • Anxious Travelers says

          Ugh. This job. I basically have to ring people up all day. I rang a hospital on Friday and I was running through a list of doctors with the admin there, all of the doctors had ridiculously hard to pronounce names. I tried my best, but eventually the admin got sick of my trying and said “Just spell it…” I wish we would have a Maori course.

          I totally know what you mean about not wanting to order something you don’t know how to pronounce. For this reason I can pretty much never order baklava – I’m pretty sure nobody knows how to pronounce that word though.

          My technique is to say the word numerous times in different ways. “Could I have some…hmmm…bak-lava, ba-klava, bA-kLAva, er..that one?” *Points to food and cries inside.*

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