One of the books I remember reading at school, in Wellington in the 1990s, was James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It's a semi-autobiographical account of a young Irish writer, Stephen Dedalus, struggling to create his own identity in the midst of a repressive Catholic upbringing. It is a visceral, powerful book. I particularly recall the lurid hellfire and brimstone school sermons Stephen is forced to listen to, which make Milton seem light-hearted.
Stephen does, in the end, intellectually repudiate Catholicism and consciously adopts the life of a bohemian artist in Paris. But the point of the novel, if it is not too radical to suggest it has one, is that he is never able - no matter what he says or thinks - to shake off his formative past. In moving on, Stephen has only Irish Catholic imagery with which to express his new-found freedom: in trying to escape his background, he merely draws attention to his on-going struggle. The result that, despite his determination, he is now torn; stuck in no-man's land.
Although a rather dramatic analogy, this is is not totally dissimilar to the experience of being a New Zealander. Like Irish Catholicism, our culture is proud, insular and definitive. It engenders both a fierce loyalty and, conversely, a desire to transcend our remote distance and limited perspective. To put it crudely, you can be a Kiwi at home - and risk feeling removed from the world; or you can be one in the world - and assuredly feel removed from home. This is, of course, the dilemma of any diaspora and, for New Zealanders living overseas, a statement of the bleeding obvious. Still, New Zealanders are unusual migrants. Most diasporas are caused by severe economic, social or political events. The Israelites didn't leave Egypt to see the world, nor did the Irish who left for America in the 1840s. The same is true for more recent waves of economic migrants in search of a better life. In contrast, (most of) the one-fifth of New Zealand's population which lives overseas does so by choice.
The unique consequence is that, just as we freely choose to leave, we must actively choose to come home. A recurrent issue in in the brain drain debate is how the government might entice Kiwis to make this choice. One answer I heard to this question was given by Helen Clark, speaking last year at the London School of Economics. After a stump speech she was asked a pointed question from an audience member who said that he had it so good financially in the UK there was no incentive for him to return to NZ. He asked Clark what she proposed to do about this. Her response was equally pointed. He would have to make his own choice, but in her experience many New Zealanders tend to return because that is their country and where they want to raise their families. In other words, Clark recognised the Dedalus factor - the ceaseless pull that our New Zealand identity exerts - and the simple truth that this is more influential than anything government policy, say tinkering with tax rates, could hope to achieve.
From my own experience, there are three ways Kiwis overseas address the issue of home. They: (a) try to banish it, and make a decision to stay overseas; (b) try to exorcise it, and return home; or (c) prevaricate. I presently live in London and have done an almighty amount of (c), as do most of us, especially during wintertime. This, I can attest, does not usually make for scintillating and innovative conversation. But my ultimate choice is (b). In less than a week I will be homeward bound, after almost seven years' away. It is good to have made the decision and to know there will be no more dinner parties with fellow Kiwis drifting, inevitably, to whether and when such a return might be made by any of those present (I will now have to work on my friends from afar!). I am, I hasten to say, not returning alone, but with my wife, who is also a New Zealander. We are very much looking forward to it - though, like many before us, we are not quite sure what to expect. I expect the best approach is not to expect too much: we will simply have to find out.
The reason I am writing this blog - with many thanks to Russell - is to try to describe the experience of coming back: what is good, what is bad and what is simply interesting or surprising. It seemed to me, in the depths of my prevarication, that there was not much ready guidance or advice as to why one might choose to return and what the experience would be like if one did. I know this because I spent far too much time consulting the internet as if it were a divine oracle. One piece of advice I can give for free is that it is probably time to return home when you have googled "New Zealand, long-term happiness, answers" and read hopefully through the results.
I found that the clichés about when and why to go back did not greatly assist. For instance, I was confounded by the idea that you will simply know when "it is time". When exactly is that? And how will you know? The reason it seems so tricky is that, for most of us, the decision to stay or go is not really about timing; it is about identity and values, about deciding what you really want from your life. You will find different things in different places and you can't have it all. The problem is - as Stephen Dedalus found - that we don't tend to decide our values self-consciously; they are influenced by our context and revealed over time by our choices and actions. In many ways, you slowly become what you are (or as an existentialist might say, you are what you slowly become). The key reason my wife and I are returning home is, I suppose, that we were becoming rooted in the UK and didn't want to have emigrated by accident. Don't get me wrong, London has grown on me, as did New York (rather more rapidly) before it. But while is a one thing to live and work in another country, it is quite another to find yourself tied to it, with a house, a job and a life which have become your own through no real exercise of choice. So we are taking the plunge.
I am sure that, whatever we find back home, we have made the right decision and I will let you know how it goes. I hope this post is of passing interest to New Zealanders who are considering going back but are keen to know more about the process of returning. I also hope that it is of some interest to New Zealanders back home who are curious as to the notion of feeling mild culture-shock in your own country. Mostly though, I just hope our luggage doesn't get lost on the way back....