Research shines new light on expats

Return migration researcher Tracey Lee.
Return migration researcher Tracey Lee.

Sometimes the biggest surprises come from the places you’d least expect. Like home. 

Kiwi Tracey Lee lived in New York and Shanghai for 12 years, working in brand strategy and communications for heavy-hitting clients like the Coca-Cola Company, Diageo and Unilever.

When she returned home to New Zealand to live, however, the experience was not neccessarily the smooth homecoming she expected. 

Lee has spent the past couple of years back in New Zealand completing her Masters in sociology, researching New Zealanders’ experiences of return migration. Her research found her own experience was not uncommon among the 24,000 Kiwis who return home each year.

“A lot of the drama comes because people aren’t expecting the culture shock, and they’re ill-prepared to deal with that culture shock,” says Lee. “Right now we’ve got 24,000 people learning the hard way about what’s coming up and how to navigate it.”

Lee’s research looked at the experiences of New Zealanders returning from extended periods of overseas residence — of five years or more — as opposed to those returning when the visa expires from the traditional OE.

What she found was the return represented a profound life change that could take years to adjust to. 

The issues ranged from the personal to the professional; the emotional to the practical. Tensions arose within couples where one had campaigned more than the other to come home, for example.

Employers and co-workers often appeared unwilling to tap into returnees’ offshore experience; a sense of loneliness ensued from leaving behind close friends; buying a home or a car for the first time added to stress. 

Lee says discussion of returnee issues in the media has tended to focus on New Zealand’s comparatively low wage rates, but that wasn’t a focus among those she interviewed.   

“We’ve got this unneccessarily divisive thing where you’ve got this underlying suspicion and ambivalence and sometimes hostility to returnees — that they’re the people that are coming back and complaining about money and thinking they’re special,” says Lee.

“Then you’ve got this reality of people who are coming back with all this hope and optimism and excitement and passion about wanting to contribute to New Zealand’s success.”

Lee’s research found that, on balance, returnees were glad they’d made the transition home. 

But by better recognising and addressing their issues, returnees could hit the ground running, allowing them to make the contribution they hoped to make back in New Zealand more quickly and easily. 

Creating more positive returnee experiences and role models, says Lee, could in turn encourage more overseas Kiwis to return.

Lee says many returnees she interviewed were motivated to set up their own businesses when coming home. Helping those entrepreneurs better tap into professional networks, investment and business support would have wider economic impacts in terms of job creation and boosting our export sector, she says.   

“It’s not about treating them as special; it’s about acknowledging that this is a vital migrant group to the country. There is a huge capacity for them to muck in with everyone else.”

Lee’s now talking with government and business groups about her findings and how to better harness brain gain.

She’s also interested in developing a returnee-focused website offering advice and other resources to help promote smooth landings. 

Because in the global fight for talent, she says, it’s a group New Zealand can’t afford to ignore.

“I see this not as a personal issue but as a national issue in the sense that it will impact on us achieving our economic goals if we’re not harnessing this brain gain. It’s ripe for the picking ... just by purely embracing these folk.”

Tips for coming home

1. Manage expectations; don’t overly romanticise your thoughts of New Zealand before you return.

2. Prepare in advance; look into the job market and professional networks before you return.

3. Mental preparedness; if you are in a relationship, be patient and take care of each other.

4. Be aware of others; don’t irritate your friends and workmates by comparing New Zealand to the rest of the world.

5. Stay focused and positive; remember why you came home and find the unique treasures in New Zealand.

6. Coming home doesn’t mean having to go backwards; think about coming home as an opportunity to go forward in life.

7. It takes time and effort: give it a chance and join in.

Source: Tracey Lee