Speaker by Various Artists

The Expat Files 3

by The expatriates

I was born in New Zealand, grew up in Holland and returned of my own volition to NZ when I was 25, after moving back and forth a lot. If I had a dollar for each person I met in Europe who gets all dreamy eyed about being able to live in NZ. However quite a few of them have student loans to pay off at home in EUROS and there's no way they'd be able to pay that by going overseas. Aren't we lucky here, cheap education and a whole heap of countries with the same language who are happy to employ a kiwi ...

Then I've got a whole lot of reverse expat friends here and oh the trouble they have to go thru with immigration, recognition of qualifications, employers scared of foreign sounding names or an accent. I know the govt wants its expats back because popular opinion doesn't seem to allow for a more welcoming immigration policy, but people come here for nature, freedom, crayfish, waves, opportunity - so try and attract those who actually appreciate it I'd say!
Vibeke Brethouwer

I'm one of the 192 expats that Collins didn't mention in the article you linked to the other day.

I was quite surprised at the selection that was included ... they were all quite negative and conveniently about all the buzz issues of the last while (race and education). Apparently my chirpy optimism about wanting to come back was inappropriate for the column.

My reply to Collins was simply that I was keen to come back but just unsure of the likelihood of a job. I'm currently writing my dissertation for my PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, and I have a post-doctoral position lined up in Scotland for when I'm done here in August. My work is a little on the esoteric side (basic scientific research into perception and action), and that essentially means I want a job at a university. I have no doubts that my qualifications would make a nice addition to a psych department in NZ, but for me it's just a matter of there being a vacancy to apply for (no trivial matter given the small market).

Financially, I know I can't earn in NZ what I can here in the US, but besides the fact that I'd live in NZ over the US any day of the week, as long as I'm getting paid enough to enjoy a nice life, then i'm getting paid enough.

I'm not quite done having a fun life overseas, but NZ is never far from my mind. The idea that expats don't know anything about what's going on at home is stupendously naive. OK, so there's NCEA weirdness; OK, so the cops are speeding ticket happy and 111 doesn't always work in time; OK, so Winston Peters is still a stupendous moron and 10% of the country votes for him anyway. Frankly I find it reassuring that all these issues are out in the public eye where they belong (don't get me started on living in a United States run by crazy people who think accountability is something that happens to other people). NZ is not the perfect paradise we expats tell our mates about :) but it's not that bad at all. And i for one would like to come sometime very soon.
Andrew Wilson

I'd just like to join in with probably many others who said "yes -- me too" to your summary of the pros and cons of living in New Zealand.

I came back with my UK partner to NZ after eleven years away in the UK. I am lucky that I found a specialised job, lecturing in computer science, and managing to snag the job was important in deciding to come home.

My general impression is that wage rates are low and that there are a lot of people on really really low rates. I'm yet to see a decent breakdown of who earns what but my impression is that many make do on very little.

I'm actually worse off than I was in the UK when housing costs are taken into account. This is possibly not typical because I lived in Newcastle in the UK, which has ok wages and cheapish housing that comes in sizes appropriate for one or two people. Interestingly, the issues about specialised jobs applied equally there and people often decided to stay because of the quality of life.

My other little gripe is that NZers really do take the environment for granted and have attitudes that are not mainstream in mainland Europe.

The opportunity to live in Wellington, be close to my family, go swimming and snorkelling from city beaches, go walking through greenery, to have (now) my relationship to be recognised through a civil union and to finally to be able learn Te Reo (faltingly) were the driving reasons for me coming home. I imagine a lot of other people feel like this rather than how the Herald portrayed things.
Ian Welch

Yes, I am one of the many expats who read your blog daily to keep up with everything back in Aotearoa. I've been following Simon's Herald stories too.

I live in Saigon, Vietnam. I enjoy a tax free salary as a primary school teacher at an international school, which is more than a principal in New Zealand earns. I get 14 weeks a year off to travel. But, the perks stop there.

My neighbourhood floods daily with the tide via the Saigon (Sewer) River, bringing dysentry and typhoid water under my gate. I can't buy eggs or chicken anymore for fear of bird flu. The only available communist newspaper reports that Vietnamese have more freedom than anyone else in the world(!). I must bribe my local coppers every New Year to stop my house being burgled. My lungs are full of black goo (and I don't smoke).

When I return home to New Zealand, usually about once every two years, I walk barefoot, I don't lock my door, I feast on fresh clean disease free produce, I sign petitions and join protests, and I inhale lungfuls of fresh Waiheke air.

I'm returning home next year. Money in the bank is not equal to the quality of life that one can get from Aotearoa. I'm looking forward to coming home after 5 long years of being away ...
Nicky Poole

I have been living in London for almost three years and am returning to Auckland permanently in April after seven rather itinerant years. I am making a positive decision to return rather than because my visa is running out. I can't wait to once again experience all the things you listed as good about living in New Zealand. London is great but the scales have now tipped in Auckland's favour. I know many successful, professional New Zealanders doing time in London and all intend to return home (leaving behind fairly lucrative salaries) for the good life in NZ. I've never heard anyone talk about the tax rates or the price of petrol. They do want a decent cheap meal, a nice glass of wine on the beach, and so on. It's not a case of seeing our small corner of the world through rose tinted glasses - I / we know what we're leaving behind in London (newspapers feature highly on the list) but the quality of life in New Zealand wins out in the end.
Louise Gardiner

After reading your item on expats I tried to come up with some kind of semi-intelligent response, but the truth is I'm lazy and it was nearly time for gin and tonics here in the tropics (Singapore). You pretty much said it all when you noted that if personal income is all you're interested in then you have to leave. I'm lazy and selfish, I guess. Don't want kids, don't care about schooling standards. Travel a lot. Honestly could not do the work I do now if I was in NZ. I like warm weather, sitting by the pool every day and not paying a third or more of my income in tax. There you have it ...

Always enjoy reading your column, though. And there's no decent radio stations here!

Just wanted to reply (quickly) to the expats with tertiary qualifications buggering off overseas thingie. Part of the way student loans got justified is that a tertiary qualification is a private benefit (as opposed to or more so than a public good). Having told our fine students that they are investing in themselves by working for and obtaining a tertiary qualification, and hence should stump up for a proportion of the costs of that education, surely it's no surprise that they figure they should get the best return possible on that investment. If they go overseas because they get paid significantly more for their qualification there then isn't that a logical extension of the self-investment rhetoric used to rationalise student loans in the first place, and presumably an indicator that they are, indeed, smart?

On another note (and any reference to this info can't have my name attached because then too many people would know which university is being talked about), when I returned from getting a PhD at Ivy League University to take up a job at Nameless NZ university, I arrived to find I was being paid some $13,000 less than my qualifications entitled me to.

Yes, I'd tried to ascertain what I should reasonably expect as a salary from overseas (and knew that I'd get less than I would if I stayed in the USA), but I was led astray by people who thought I should be so glad to have a lecturing position rather than a tutor's position that I should be happy with anything. I guess the university thought so too. I got the appropriate salary for my qualifications the next year (not easily, the university put up a struggle) and then had the head of department fire off less than courteous letters to my partner's referees at Ivy League University when she applied for a position in the department. Well a girl has her limits--we packed up and took our PhDs off overseas again. NZ is great, but I'm less than impressed with the professionalism of (some of?) the universities.

Whenever I read about things in the mainstream media that I find rather disturbing and un-NZ-like (such as the Destiny Church's almost militant protests), you invariably manage to bring things back into perspective and my faith in a more tolerant and inclusive NZ society is restored.

The ex-pat comments published by the Herald horrified me in their apparent bias esp the attacks on "political correctness", the claims of a pro-Maori bias in NZ as well as the attacks on the NZ secondary education system.

A fellow in New York comments on the fine schools available to his daughter there. Bully for him, but I would question if these are private or public schools. While there are some outstanding public schools in the US there is also a large number of atrocious schools providing very little in the way of meaningful education. The standard of secondary education available to EVERY New Zealander is far higher than that available to most US students with the notable exception of those privileged enough to attend private schools or public schools situated in well-heeled neighbourhoods. (One only has to look at how poorly the US has historically fared in international comparisons of students completing their final year of secondary school to decide where anyone of modest means would rather have their children educated).

I taught at a private university in Texas for a year and was stunned to find that my students doing 3rd year math courses were only just covering some material that I had been taught in 7th form calculus back in NZ.

What were my reasons for leaving NZ (way back in 1993)? After my Hons degree I wanted to travel and I wanted to do a Ph.D. Combining the two I went to Canada (where fees were small and I could survive on a TA income)

I was also an angry young man - pissed at both Labour and the Nats for their treatment of tertiary students. I was pissed at Labour for the introduction of student fees and student loans. I then became pissed at the Nats for pretty much lying to get my vote in 1992.

What really chafed my hide was that Helen, Lockwood, Simon and other political stars of the era, who had enjoyed the privilege of free tertiary education themselves, were so comfortable in denying that opportunity to future generations. It may have been somewhat petty and immature but my response at the time was petty much - **** you, I'm off.

Although my loan was small, my loyalty to NZ was severely tested when it continued to grow rapidly while I was a starving student overseas, due to what I would argue are unfairly high interest rates charged on student loans. In the early days both the system of repayment for overseas students and communication channels were not well defined or streamlined and this could cause great frustration. For a while I was definitely one of those who seriously considered not returning in order to avoid repaying the loan. (With some assistance from the folks I can state that it has been cleared for some years now.)

The fact that little has been done to improve the ability of students to pay off their loans while staying in (comparatively) low wage NZ, indicates little stemming of the brain drain ahead.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is definitely good to have our brightest head off on an OE and (hopefully) get to appreciate what NZ has to offer. It is a shame if they are wanting to return to NZ albeit for indebtedness and financial reasons or a sparseness of jobs suitable for their qualifications.

Why haven't I returned yet?

I have often found myself pining for the simpler, friendlier and more laid back lifestyle of NZ. (Boy have I missed "she'll be right.") Despite this it has mainly been an issue of job satisfaction and a lack of suitable employment opportunities in NZ that has kept me in Canada. I enjoy teaching, particularly at the tertiary level, and would prefer to be in a position where I can devote my time to teaching free of the intense research pressures that accompany tenured university positions (publish or perish). As such, the opportunities afforded in NZ are few and far between (although they do appear to be increasing); there are definitely more opportunities in Canada with its extensive college system.

But it looks like the stars have aligned, not all favourably though, and I will be coming home. My current contract expires in May, nothing is on the horizon and a medical bombshell now rules out my other employment options. Despite the persistent attacks on it there are a number of virtues to NZ healthcare that can only be appreciated by those who have been through the systems in other countries.

Although I have to admit that I am not entirely comfortable in returning to take advantage of a system that I have not actively contributed to for the last 12 years, my current health concerns are the major reason I will be returning home. Hopefully I will find a good job and be able to make a meaningful contribution once I return to full health.

I was very interested to read your comments on the Herald expat survey. I am a NZ currently living in the UK and while I have enjoyed my OE with the opportunity to experience new cultures and foods as well as interesting work experiences I have alway intended to return to NZ. Having recently been home for a couple of weeks it has further reinforced my opinion that NZ is a really great place to live with a much better lifestyle, an open and relaxed culture; and given the civil liberties that are disappearing in the name of global security it is still a pretty free society.

I would also say that almost all my friends would agree and be happy to trade the high salaries for the quality of life. Also having spent some time studying in the US I believe the standard of our education system is pretty high and certainly holds its own on the world stage. As well we have a pretty good health system something that the UK lacks. All in all NZ is a pretty good place to live - and my time overseas had simply made me appreciate what we have more.

For me it was the work. It's not really the money, but the leading-edginess of the work to be had in Silicon Valley - not to mention the exotic and expensive tools companies can afford to deploy in the lab for us to use.

If some relative (perhaps encouraged by the Minister of Immigration) could call me offering a job like this back in Christchurch you have to believe we'd be on the next plane.

But that's not really the point. Life happened to us while we were making other plans, and we made our choice to stay overseas. Other people, and older versions of ourselves will make a different choice and return to NZ. Opposing the Brain Drain is a giant Lifestyle Hoover that draws people back. Think of us expats as an offshore investment, some of which will one day mature and perhaps return some sort of dividend.
Peter Arnold

From Eamon Merrick's comments: "understanding and respect for cultures that drives away fear of the unknown and a sense of adventure that enables us to move comfortably in unfamiliar environments." I live in Japan and I think that is true, well put.

Nigel Cox" "the Germans are perfectly welcoming, but you are curiousity, a guest, you don't really count. In the end it is a superficial life." Also true of my experiences in Japan which are mindblowing and fantastic in so many ways. This should remind us to welcome people into NZ when they make the big step of uprooting themselves from their countries to come and live in NZ.

I moved to Hong Kong when I was 14 after my mum got a job here. It was originally for two years, but a sudden death in the family has extended it to seven (so far!). I finished my schooling here before heading off to the UK for university.

Having dinner this evening with an English couple who have lived in New Zealand for the last 20 years (though doing some short term work here in Hong Kong), I was asked where I consider home. It's a question that people living overseas are asked a lot. I've lived in three countries now and, as such, have got to know, and really understand, a fair amount about each. This in itself has been interesting and important in my development (and I imagine that 14-21 is a pretty important time in one's development). But it has also shown me that in the long term I'd rather be based in NZ than anywhere else - I think.

I am pleased I left when I did. I went to a decent private school in New Zealand, but the culture, at least up to the age of 14, was one where it was not good to do well. There was certainly very little that made me really want to succeed. The international school that I went to in Hong Kong for four years was a polar opposite in terms of the culture that it promoted. Suddenly there was no relation between "coolness" and the grades that you got. It was normal to get As. Teachers and students genuinely got on. Learning was a good thing.

Nearing the end of school, I applied to Oxford University. It was Oxford or Auckland, and to be honest I didn't mind which I ended up going to. After almost three years, with regular trips back to HK, I feel entirely at home in Oxford. When I come back to NZ to visit, I'm certainly different from most of the people who were my friends. My accent is has changed (apparently it's fairly hard to place), I dress and behave differently and feel less comfortable with others than I do when I'm in HK or Oxford.

About to finish in Oxford, I find myself in a position of deciding where on earth to live next year (pun not intended, but I'll let it stand). I'm hoping to come back to HK to do a Master of journalism, but might go to Beijing or Taipei to learn putonghua if I get rejected. Having spent a third of my life away from NZ, I'm slightly anxious about returning. I've lost contact with almost all of my friends. I imagine that the people, and certainly the places, will be different to most that I'm used to. Will I be bored? Restless? Then there's the fact that I can't drive, wouldn't have a clue how to get a flat in NZ, or a job. My main understanding of NZ culture has been built through NZherald.com, Public Address and holidays of decreasing frequency. I forget I'm from a very different place than my friends at uni. Despite trying my best to keep up my ties with NZ, it's now feels foreign. I feel foreign. How can I expect to fit into NZ journalism?!

I'm just another spoilt expat kid here. It can carry a certain stigma. Talking to a HK local yesterday I was embarrassed when he realised that I wasn't a tourist but an expat. There seems to be a common characteristic among a lot of expats here, something that goes with the nouveau riche, regardless of income (not all expats are earning big bucks; plenty are on comparable salaries when costs are considered). It's not a community I'd want to spend my whole life in.

Someone once told me that it can difficult settling into one place after being happy in two. I've been happy in three. I'll be coming back to NZ, and fairly soon, but this warning plays strongly on my mind.
Sam Graham

I have never lived overseas, but my family has considered the move to Australia as a "lifestyle" choice after observing the apparent higher standard of living and actual better weather enjoyed by our friends and family on the Gold Coast. It took a few trips there to put my finger on the REAL differences between Nerang and Riverhead - from a straight optical point of view it was the weatherboard and corrugated iron versus brick and tile which may be analogous to some social model which I don't have the political insight to comment on. Also the green, green, green everywhere here - the mould and lichen on the fences (along with the damned tagging) and, as another correspondent observed, the weeds growing up through the cracks in the drive.

But the looks (and the weather) aren't everything, or even really relevant. There was something about the attitude, the psyche of the Aussies (even the ex-Kiwis) that was just at odds with my basis. This country has SOUL, my friend. It has something to do with the Maori people, who have contributed their spiritualism and attachment (integration?) with the land to the greater population. It has something to do with a conscience we all have and our sometimes less than adept attempts to redress past wrongs. How pathetic is it that the country is in mourning when the All Blacks lose? We all take responsibility for their performance and I'm sure there is another analogy there somewhere - I'll leave it to the more eloquent and insightful to comment on this, too.

"It is people, it is people, it is people." Nuff said.
Murray Hewitt, Riverhead

Taking up on a point Eamon Merrick made; I've met some extremely well qualified taxi drivers in my travels around NZ. While we mourn the loss of our best and brightest to other shores we perhaps ignore a willing pool of talent capable of filling the gap.
Geoff Robinson

Just a couple of comments :
Richard Llewellyn wrote :
"In most cases absolutely nothing changes except the nature of the public ownership, but there are irrational fears amongst the white middle class that they will one day be told that they cannot go to or use what has been traditionally been considered 'their' public land or assets, like the local beach, because its owned by one of the tribes. So far there has been zero cases of this actually happening,"
Taieri News put it succintly : "Walking access up Mount Tarawera, near Rotorua, has been stopped except with payment of a hefty fee for a guided tour"
As stated on the NZ tourism site :
"Mount Tarawera is privately owned and access is via Mt Tarawera New Zealand Ltd."
"Guided 4WD Half Day Tour ... $110.00 per/adult and $65.00 per/child 12 and under."

My view is that there seems to be 3 main types of overseas NZers:

OE-ers : Gone overseas for a few years to see the world (and possibly earn good money as well). Some of these end up with overseas ties (partners/children) which make returning difficult, so they may end up never returning, but they still think of themselves as NZers.

Fed-up-ers : People who have had a problem, or problems in NZ, and have shifted overseas (usually to Aussie?) and found it suits them better. They tend to rubbish NZ to justify that decision.

Big fish : Very gifted people who cannot find enough challenge and/or peers in NZ.

(My guess as to the breakdown is probably on the order of 70%, 25% 5% respectively).

Most of the first group will return, adding their OE and skills (and possibly overseas earnings) to enrich NZ - no problem there.

The second group are not the "brightest and best" that people are seemingly concerned about, and are probably more than supplanted by the immigration of people who do want to be here. However, some in this category will have large student loans, which makes never returning sound economic sense - this is a shame.

The third group are a real loss, but not something that can be easily resolved. We are a small country so cannot sustain a large enough pool of every possible niche activity. As Eamon Merrick stated it so well : "Be proud that as a country you can send talented and adventurous young people out into the world and know that their doing so is a benefit and a credit to the country." (The benefit he refers to is the raising of NZ's profile in the world).

Exodus ? I don't think so.
Brent Jackson

Where do I even begin? It's been very interesting reading everyone's responses to the Herald article. It's been fascinating talking about it all to expat Americans and Brits who live in NZ.

And it all confirms something I have believed for a long time. Home is where the heart is, and not all of us are lucky enough to be born in the place in the world where our heart belongs. Some of us will never discover that place, some will carry on searching for the longest time. I, however, am lucky enough to born in the country, of the land, where my heart feels ease and joy and awe.

I was overseas for 4 years. I wasn't homesick at all … but sometimes I was heartsick. I ended up pining for the land. And so here I am. Many years later, I live in the place where I am meant to be, in a city that is vibrant and friendly (mostly), with people near me I love more than anything.

I can't help but think that all the discussion bypasses that simple thing - if expats aren't "at home" at home, then they will never return, and no one would wish that on them. You have to live where you are happiest. Who can begrudge that? I do feel sorry for them though ...
Jackie Goodison

My experience as an immigrant to NZ:

Hans Versluys

I am a Wellingtonian who has lived overseas for almost three years now - first in New York, where I taught and studied at Columbia Law School; second in London, where I now work as an international commercial lawyer.

The brain drain debate, while a little worn, is important to New Zealand and I am pleased the NZ Herald and Public Address have picked it up again. My first memory of the debate was in 1999 when the Richard Poole full-page adverts appeared in the Herald announcing that hundreds of ex-pat New Zealanders would not return if the newly-elected Labour Government raised the highest-band personal tax rate from 33 to 39 cents in the dollar.

I found this incredibly sad and shallow. What sort of person sells their nationality for a few measly tax dollars? Anyone who sets on a strand of government policy (NCEA, employment law, taxation rates) as an excuse for staying away is either bitter, lacks self-understanding, or both. I could write long lists of high taxes, poor policies or hopeless public services in both NY and London. I like to think this level of rancour among ex-pat kiwis is less widespread than the Herald coverage indicated - at least, that has been my experience.

New Zealand's international diaspora is explained by the twin facts that (1) we are very highly skilled and motivated; and (2) our country is small and remote. This makes it inevitable that many New Zealanders will leave to experience opportunities in other places.

But it doesn't mean that we leave the country behind without a second glance. And it doesn't mean we will stay away. The wisest comments I have heard on the debate so far come from Barnaby Weir and his song 'Fly My Pretties'.

I went back to Wellington for the first time in more than two years in December. I remember hearing those lines: "If you have to go take care. Fly away, as long as you come back someday / Fly away, hope to see you round some day"

They choked me up then and still do. What that song captures so well is the inherent trade-off involved in living overseas. Unless you choose Australia, you are making a decision to leave much of your life a very long way behind. You do this because you think you will gain something; but you inevitably lose something as well.

Wherever I go in the world I carry my New Zealandness with me. I hope to come back and feel a sense of obligation to do so. There are things I presently do in London I probably can't do in New Zealand; but then there are many things I used to do in Wellington I can't do in London. My inspiration is Peter Jackson. His example says that if you are good enough at what you do, and passionate enough about New Zealand, you can achieve your dreams at home. What I do know for sure is that the intricacies of government policy will not affect my decision either way.
Daniel Kalderimis

Though I know you're up to your eyeballs in brain drain related posts, I just thought I'd let you know that I've now posted at length on this issue in my blog: