tobs (3)

SocietySeptember 13, 2018

The question that echoes in every NZ expat’s ears: ‘Will you go back?’

tobs (3)

London-based Elle Hunt, along with just about every New Zealander living and working overseas, is routinely asked if and when she might return home. It helps to have a spiel ready, she advises, in her first Elleswhere column

I am seven minutes in to my daily half-hour browse of Instagram Stories when I come across one that stands out among the blurry concert footage, mirror selfies and Pebbles Hooper’s social media vendettas. My friend Alix in New York has posted a screenshot of findings on people’s experiences of returning to New Zealand after time spent living overseas.

“Guess I have this to look forward to,” she’d added, highlighting a bit about returning New Zealanders feeling the need to be “less direct in communication style and less open emotionally”. She sounds glum in spite of her irreverent Giphy.

On receiving my explanatory direct message Alix sends me the link, posted on an expat networking organisation’s blog. All interviewees had mixed feelings about their return to New Zealand, I read. Many had found that they had to “relearn how to be a New Zealander in order to fit back in”. This could be achieved by wearing activewear outside of the gym, complaining about the cost of living, and “tempering the extroverted personality they had cultivated while away”.

Reading it, I feel depressed, too.

Being a New Zealander outside New Zealand means being asked on average once a fortnight, “Do you think you’ll go back?” It helps to have a spiel ready, like: “When I’m ready to temper the extroverted personality I’ve cultivated”.

Or you can answer it earnestly, as I did at work last week by outlining, at length, a hypothetical future scenario in which one or both of my parents were seriously ill and I had decided that accepting my share of their care, so as to safeguard against retrospective guilt and preserving my relationships with my sisters, was more important to me than my career.

The woman regretted asking, I think. I suppose I was supposed to be interviewing her.

Overseas New Zealanders ask will-you-go-back question of each other, too – in a tentative tone, as though fearful of uncovering possibly contagious weakness: the homing bug. Though that could maybe be chalked up to that less direct communication style.

Being a British citizen, the decision of when or whether to return is entirely my own to make, based on factors like: How long can I ignore my mum’s increasingly obvious hints? Will quality of life ever be more important to me than career? Does Wellington Airport still say “the middle of Middle-Earth”?

This is a burden in its way; deciding to go back to New Zealand feels even weightier when you have leave to stay. But it is infinitely better than being forced out by the British home office after two years, as many New Zealanders are.

No wonder this researcher reports disgruntled expats, returned before their time, “feeling like an alien” and missing “their old home, lifestyle and friends abroad”.

Though, she goes on to say, “on a more positive note”: many were quite impressed by how much Tauranga had changed.

Interviewees’ experience of returning to New Zealand, she said, depended on their attitude about the move. “For example, one interviewee’s greatest joy was when strangers spoke to her in shops, while another singled that out as the most annoying thing she had experienced on her return.”

Where they had been living overseas was also a factor. Strangers talking to you in shops probably is lovely after several years in Gaza.

The last time I was in Wellington, people were so forthcoming and friendly, I was gripped by the guilty fear that they knew me quite well and that, in the years I’d been away, I had forgotten their names and faces and our every interaction. I imagine it was a lot like the sensation of having face blindness.

Eventually I realised that I had been in Sydney so long I no longer recognised common decency. In Wellington everyone greeted me as an old friend, from the woman behind the counter at Ziggurat, who spent 15 minutes repairing my bracelet and waved away payment, to the Southern Cross bouncer who told me, unprompted upon reviewing my ID, I looked better blonde.

True, he was more like one of those old friends you keep in touch with out of obligation. But in Sydney motorists revved their engines if you were still crossing the road when the green man started flashing. I returned to Australia then feeling lucky to be able to call Wellington my one-time home.

Reading the blog now, however, I feel only mounting claustrophobia that peaks at the mention of a woman moving from London to Blenheim. Blenheim. Maybe one day I’ll be raring to return. For now, I guess I’m just not that curious about Tauranga.

Keep going!