Making sense of leaving home

23:12, Feb 10 2013

When I first started this blog, I figured that it would be in the most part a place to reflect on the multitude of weird American habits and ways. And that's been a big part of it, sure.

But there has been a whole, maybe most important, part of this blog that I didn't spend too much time considering when I put forward the idea, about the physical and emotional realities of leaving your home. I'm not sure I had spent too much time articulating these specifically myself when I pitched this blog, until I found myself exploring these ideas and writing about them and starting (what I feel) is an ongoing and (hopefully) fascinating conversation.

What I've come to realise more and more is this: 600,000 New Zealanders live overseas. (Some estimates put it nearer a million, but I think 600,000 is the more convincing figure.) This collected diaspora of expats would form the second largest city in the country.

The assumptions I've sometimes seen made about expats and the scorn directed in different forms toward these people are so common off base.

There are things about the experiences of the considerable amount of New Zealanders living overseas that I think people don't quite understand.

As a country we need to stop thinking about a person leaving as a person lost.


I interviewed a New Zealander in the weekend, for a story that will come out this coming weekend in the Herald on Sunday, who has about the most amazing story I've ever had the pleasure of sitting and listening to in person. She carries herself with the sort of gravitas that puts New Zealand on the map to in a far more enduring way than a screening of the Hobbit. There are New Zealanders in senior management positions at Google, Facebook, Pepsi, Chevron and Dupont. Across America alone, there are tech entrepreneurs and artists and chefs and thinkers. They all have strong relationships with New Zealand and are heavily involved with the New Zealand community and mentoring other Kiwis looking to get a taste of the wider world. As Ambassador Mike Moore told me once in an interview, every New Zealander he encounters abroad transforms into a miniature minister of tourism.

But still, in 18 months writing this blog I've seen hundreds of comments snipping at expats leaving before they've repaid what they "owe" New Zealand (and I'm not making covert overtures to my student loan blog here). Sometimes this comes out in a more negative sense, along the lines of "America can have you" or "New Zealand is best rid of you". (Heh, you're stuck with me, New Zealand!)

It's generally very shortsighted; the expat community is a foreign asset representing the nation abroad and picking up skills and experiences and ideas that they never would have had otherwise and in many cases bringing them home.

I am an expat, but I'm not necessarily wealthy.

There is the often-made assumption that I, or other New Zealanders living abroad, must be extremely economically advantaged to do so. (Which plays into a perception that rears its head from time-to-time that expats think they're "too good" to live in New Zealand.)

While research has shown that many New Zealanders who end up staying oversees in the long term would place in the top percentiles of income earners at home, this is far from the general rule. Circa 2013, travel is not solely the domain of the toffee-nosed Richie Rich's of the world. It is in the grasp of anyone earning a somewhat okay wage that has the temerity to plan ahead and institute a savings plan.

I still feel incredibly lucky that I have been able to travel. In the greater scheme of things, it will always be a privilege. But it is always odd when people make strange comments to me through this blog about my own financial situation.

(I am a self-supporting freelance journalist. I could have chosen more lucrative fields.)

I am still, and always will be, first and foremost a New Zealander.

I didn't renounce my citizenship, despite the claims of some, when I moved away from New Zealand. It has even had the opposite effect. I think that by not living there, it has given me a much more active sense of how where I was born shaped me as a person. The distance has allowed me to see my home country in a new and more complete light.

I've always claimed that I never see New Zealand quite as clearly as when I'm not in it. I'm deeply proud of my country.

I don't think I'll ever consider anywhere else to be "really" home. My internal compass is always set with New Zealand as its true north. I've lost count of the number of times I've looked out at a landscape in America and been struck from nowhere by a sense of disorientation as to where I am and how I got there. 

It's not an easy decision to give up on your home country.

I'm lucky that as an adult I get to consider my sisters and my parents to be close friends. In the time I've been away my two-and-a-bit year old nephew has almost become school age, my eight-month old niece is now a long-legged, walking, talking beauty and I have a new nephew who is currently blowing my mind climbing over everything and is very shortly about to start walking. I've missed out on a lot, with family and with friends. Everyone sees each other a lot more than they'll see me. Coming home once or twice a year there's still so much that I'll miss out on. These things will always make me feel a little bit funny and jealous to reflect upon.

I'm reconciled to live abroad in the long term because LP is American and we felt it was easier for me to be here than her in New Zealand. The stakes of what you have to sacrifice to be away from your home country in the long-term, I think make it an incredibly personal decision for anyone involved.  

I don't know if I will ever get used to the idea that I'll never live in New Zealand again.

That aside, living abroad has its perks.

There's just much, much more of the world outside of New Zealand than in. It is nothing to be defensive about. You can just do, buy, see and experience a little more when you're not tucked into an ocean a while away from anywhere. Sometimes people don't respond so favourably when you point this one out.  

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