reader report

NZ doesn't look so bad

STRUGGLES: Kanji on a rice cooker. Hmmmmm.
STRUGGLES: Kanji on a rice cooker. Hmmmmm.


In 2009, I was a newly minted graduate of Otago University.

Armed with my very career-friendly Bachelor of Arts (with honours I'll have you know), I had a quick flick through the Otago Daily Times and decided I didn't want to use my $40k student loan to tend bar, or work at another old-folks home.

CULTURE CHANGE: Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavillion, Kyoto, Japan.
CULTURE CHANGE: Kinkaku-ji, The Golden Pavillion, Kyoto, Japan.

I'm from a lovely little town called Mosgiel. I have, in the past, had a few choice words to say about this town. I feel a lot of this stemmed from the stigma that was associated with being a resident, and local attendee of The Taieri High School (now Taieri College).

Bogan was a term that my friends from (what they believed to be) the more affluent areas of the nation (read: Wellington and Auckland) would happily bandy about as I sat on the doorstep with my durrie, nursing a can of Woodstock and readjusting my black band t-shirt.

Dunedin is a city that is rapidly losing any and all opportunities for young professionals. In 2009 I had a choice - I could stay in the history department at Otago University, move to Wellington and get an entry level government job along with every BA graduate from here to Auckland, or I could jump on plane and see where the wind took me.

I decided I needed a bit of whimsy in my life, so I jumped on a plane to Cairns, Australia. I had family up that way in Port Douglas so the rent was the right price (free) and it was the perfect safety net to crash land in.

At that time, my international travel experience consisted of a few trips to Perth and Brisbane with the family in tow; and a short, 10 day school exchange to Kyoto, Japan when I was a plucky, blonde 12-year-old.

Port Douglas is a terrible decision for anyone looking to enter the real world after university. As a tourism town, employment options weren't all that much better than New Zealand. However, when you get paid $23 per hour to wait tables, and a cold day is 25 degrees, it looks a hell of a lot better than home. Anyone who's lived in a Dunedin student flat in the middle of winter will know what I mean.

What was supposed to be a three month working holiday, quickly turned into a year. My mother couldn't understand it. Any time the topic of coming home was floated, it devolved quickly into an argument, with me listing 100 different ways that New Zealand was the worst country on the planet to live.

People who have never lived outside of New Zealand actually have no idea how outrageously expensive it is to live there. I lived in and around London for two years and I swear I still had more disposable income than I ever had in New Zealand. It's not just real estate prices, rent, and electricity; it's everything else along with it.

Do you want to have any fun this evening? Sure, let's just pop down to the pub and pay $12 for a pint shall we? Out for dinner? Put aside $100 minimum if you plan on having a bottle of wine, and make sure you have $50 for a cab fare aside, because god forbid we have a reliable or effective public transport system.

In my opinion, ignorance is bliss for Kiwis. Before I left New Zealand, I had no idea what disposable income really looked like. I had worked part-time since I was 15, and as a babysitter before that. I figured that life required you to work hard, make ends meet, and have a little fun once a week. Even at university, "living costs" were barely enough to cover rent and bills. 

As my one year anniversary on Port Douglas crept closer, I pulled myself out of a heat-induced haze and realised I had saved $10k and it was time to move on before I came a North Queenslander for life. 

Cue my Indian work colleague and his wedding. In India. What was I going to do after India though?

Insert London here. Add a dash of Europe every couple of months for the next two years.

Roll on November 2012 and I was facing the end of my UK work visa. There was this sense of sheer terror and anger about having to leave a country I had called home for two years. I had a decent job, and a nice adopted family. 

Things weren't looking so good for my ex-pat status. I didn't speak any European languages, so I could hardly move anywhere else. I had enough money for a flight home in January and little else. All I kept thinking of was the title of Wolfe's infamous novel You Can't Go Home Again.

I had been home once in the past three years, and my memories of that time weren't overly pleasant. I seemed to have slipped out of sync with the family who were once my entire life. My mother and I began fighting after a week of living under the same roof again - we seemed to have run out of things to talk about.

My high school friends who had remained hadn't really changed. They simply had houses and spouses now. A fair few even had a couple of ankle biters running around.

This is in no way a bad thing. I'm even a little jealous of them. Life isn't easy with mortgages and responsibility. Many of them would say to me "I couldn't do what you do." I don't think they ever realised how much I couldn't do what they do. Everyone has their own fears. Real responsibility is one of mine.

In short, I needed something - anything - else.

As I was having dinner with a friend out, she happened to mention her time on the Japan Exchange & Teaching Programme (JET). It's like the Holy Grail of international teaching programs in terms of pay scale and additional benefits. The only flip-side is that you often get stuck in Japan's equivalent of the Outback, known as the Inaka. Just exchange the dirt for snow and you've about got it in a nutshell.

I had spent 10, beautifully whimsical days in a tiny town in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan back in 2000. So, with my New Zealand aversion fully ingrained by this point, it seemed like the perfect answer to all of my problems.

I still didn't speak a lick of Japanese, but felt it would probably work in my favour if I was an untainted Native English speaker. Turns out I was right.

Cut to today, and I am currently sitting at my desk, at a Senior High School in Kyoto city. I got what you might call a dream placement. I live in Western Kyoto City, and it's a ten minute train ride to the delights of central Kyoto.

I didn't really plan on giving you all my life story, however I'm feeling particularly energetic this morning and my fingers ran away on me.

I hope I haven't lost my New Zealand readers on the way sounding like an overly-privileged travel wanker.

This morning, between tidying up a lesson plan, studying Japanese and twiddling my thumbs, I read 'I couldn't live in NZ again' by Amelia Williamson.

I was in the Amelia Williamson camp for a very long time. The post-London/pre-Japan world, viewed through the lens of uncertainty as I waited to JET interview results, was a bit like being thrown into my own mental prison for six months. I felt a very real sense of panic. I suppose they call this Reverse Culture Shock.

And then, Japan.

I couldn't help but laugh at Amelia's mention of her culture shock being severe when she moved to Canada.

Before Japan, I considered myself a pretty tough nut, I was older and pretty well-travelled in comparison to most of the new graduates coming out here. I was also going to one of Japan's biggest tourist destinations, so I wasn't about to become the only foreigner in my placement area.

Yet, in August 2013 I landed in another world. I went from being a strong, independent woman to a child overnight. Just imagine waking up in a world where you understand nothing around you. Every word spoken, and written, is completely foreign. Not to mention, you're alone. 

Language isolation is the pits. You know you're in culture shock when going to the supermarket is actually more terrifying than that time you got stranded in the middle of the night in India by yourself.

Many of us have travelled in situations such as this. However, waking up and facing that this is going to be your reality for the foreseeable future has a tendency to bring about a bone-crushing helplessness that you probably haven't experienced before. 

Seven months later, I'm still here. My Japanese is better and I can go to the supermarket without having a breakdown.

I absolutely love it.

And yet, the point I was trying to get to was that suddenly home doesn't feel so bad anymore.

Japan is a beautiful country. It's exceptionally safe, has gorgeous seasons, amazing food, and more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than you can shake a stick at. Not to mention a public transport system that apologises when it's running two minutes behind schedule (looking at you London and Wellington).

But, above all else, the people are lovely. I have never been made to feel more welcome anywhere.

However, it is also a society based on patriarchal conservatism and face. Appearance is everything here. Teachers work seven days a week, some of them from 7am to 8pm. It's not a society based on productivity but rather the appearance of commitment. There is no work-to-live in Japan, it's a society built on live-to-work. 

The teacher sitting next to me right now is shuffling papers, looking busy. However, he's actually listening to jazz and researching his next train expedition. If I look behind me, another teacher is just blatantly sleeping sitting up. Does it matter? No, he's here. This is just daily work.

Living in a truly foreign country brings with it a level of clarity and much needed objectivity. I no longer look back on my life in London with big rose coloured glasses. I remember the mornings stranded because of public transport, getting clothing, bags, and phones stolen at various bars, the terrible weather, and the extortionate rent prices, the ever rising public transport costs.

It has also given me a brilliant new outlook on life in New Zealand. Yes, we are isolated. Yes, our media can be a bit parochial. Yes, there's a lack of opportunity for new graduates, low wages, and a cost of living which is borderline criminal.

However, in New Zealand, we're practical. When teachers aren't teaching or planning, they're at home or taking much needed holidays, not sitting at their desks fannying about on the internet for 10 hours, attempting to look busy when the boss strolls past.

In New Zealand, everyone is pretty open and honest on a daily basis. We're generally a spade's a spade kind of people. We chat freely and readily with most people, we're friendly, and above all, we are genuine. 

We are also one of 4.5 million. Not one of 127.5 million. We have good healthcare, a fantastic education system, and we live in Middle Earth. Our houses have backyards! My mother always said, "We pay to live in a beautiful country, squirt". She would rather be on the bones of her arse financially, and have access to the gorgeous beaches and hiking trails, than be wealthy and live anywhere else.

I can't tell you where I'll be in two years' time. Maybe I'll head closer to home, or maybe I'll head the other way. I don't know if I could ever make New Zealand my permanent home again. However, for the first time in three-plus years, I finally see what I am missing. After living in a truly foreign country, there is one thing I do know - if you want to - I think you can go home again. It may not be the same as it once was, but you will appreciate it with fresh eyes and fresh perspective. You can go back, knowing that it was your choice to live there. That you chose to be a Kiwi.

Once upon a time, a newly minted graduate of Otago University couldn't think of a worse place to live than New Zealand.

These days, it doesn't look so bad.