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You can never go home again: On expat life, loving a local, and the enduring pull of NZ

It’s a story as old as the New Zealand OE itself. You move to London, you fall in love, you settle down. But what happens when you start feeling homesick and your UK-born partner doesn’t want to leave? James Quentin writes about the double life of an expat Kiwi.

In May I will be bringing my other half to New Zealand for the first time. He’s never been farther than New York before and as I pressed “buy” on our economy class tickets a few months ago, I gleefully told him: “You’re gonna die. You’re just gonna die.”

Over the eight years I’ve lived in London I’ve slowly accepted that I can never fully shrug off New Zealand. I will never pronounce yogurt as ‘yoggit’, and always say data as duh-tuh and not day-tuh. I will passive aggressively ask for all measurements in metric units and feign ignorance about the length of a mile; I genuinely still don’t have a clue what a stone is or why tabloids are obsessed with giving the temperature in Fahrenheit.

I’ll always be just a little bit Kiwi, and as such, I feel it’s my responsibility to educate my boyfriend about New Zealand.

Before we met, his understanding of New Zealand was limited to “Maoris” (pronounced incorrectly), and, he says, “I knew there were two islands and that a third of the population lived in one city.”

I could hardly complain about this scant knowledge – after eight years in the UK I still haven’t even visited his hometown of Manchester. Mostly because I’ve been assured that it’s a Godforsaken dump.

Still, I did my best to give him a working knowledge of my home country. I was especially eager to persuade him we weren’t stuck in the 1950s: New Zealand has drugs, I told him. Meth, even. “Oh, my friend dropped out of uni to become a meth dealer when we were younger,” he said wistfully. I’d met said friend and didn’t doubt it for a second.

New Zealand has racism, I went on: less than in America as a whole, but more than that showcased in Glee. Less alt-right and the KKK – more your drunk uncle Doug sounding off about “dole bludgers” at a barbecue. Actually, I have an Uncle Doug and he’s lovely. The least racist of all my uncles, to be fair. Uncle Dave, he’s the super racist one.

New Zealand had a prime minister who liked to tug on girl’s ponytails, and earthquakes, which are mostly meh but sometimes scary. Cars are utes, beaches are uncrowded, winter is 15° – and anything below that is gross and should be banned.

The first time it ever snowed on my street in London. It is a lot colder than the Waikato.

He lapped it all up. And once Brexit happened – and despite my initial vow that I’d stay and fight the good liberal fight – I started looking up TradeMe rental properties. I saw a two bed flat in Remuera for $350 a week. That’s great. Is it? I don’t know. I grew up in the Waikato and went to uni in Wellington so I have no idea how much rent should be in Auckland. Prices for mouldy flats in Kelburn circa 2007, however? I’m your man (it was $145 a week and we nearly froze to death. Lesson learned: never take a flat where the dehumidifier is the only furniture provided).

But as Brexit got worse (hate crimes ahoy!) and I actually found myself sad the day David ‘is that pig pleased to see me?’ Cameron resigned, I realised escape might be viable. If the EU was soon to be shut off to the British should I make the most of my dual citizenship while I still could and decamp to Berlin now?

But it wasn’t to be. Europe made it clear they weren’t going to be playing ball with British demands for rights that were basically-EU-membership-without-paying-for-it. All my liberal leftie friends gave up muttering about moving to the continent and resigned themselves to staying in London and listening to the racism pouring out of the hometowns they hated to visit.

So New Zealand was the best option. Every time the politicians reminded us that Brexit “really means Brexit” I found myself darkly muttering that “I might just sod off home then”.  The boyfriend began to get nervous.

The real trouble is, I’d already told him about my parents. About my Kiwi father who, in the mid 80s, convinced my quintessentially English mother that south Auckland was a viable option. Look, he’d said to his highly educated civil servant wife, at home in the West Kensington flat she’d bought on her own at 27, “We’re poor. We’ll always be poor. And you’ve got Maggie Thatcher in power; it’s a lot easier to be poor in New Zealand.”

It was true: Dad left school at 15 with no qualifications, but he demanded to be the breadwinner, so Mum gave up her job to have a baby. They moved first to the Midlands, but he soon got sick of the winters and convinced her to leave England, leave her family, friends and the BBC, to move to the other side of the world. His reasons were the same as all the others who’d emigrated over the years: it was warmer, jobs were plentiful, houses were bigger and cheaper, there was no class system, healthcare and education were better, and importantly for them my father’s family were a sprawling mass of potential babysitters just waiting to look after however many babies they felt like supplying.

My rural credentials: ardent heterosexual chatting up the ladeez at the Ohinewai Primary School Calf Club 1993.

Thirty years later, the marriage is long dead, my British-born brother has been back to England precisely once since he was three, my mother never got to go to her parents’ funerals, and my father now lives with his new wife on the Gold Coast, where he moans about Australia in general and the number of immigrants in particular.

This is what my boyfriend hears when I speak to him about New Zealand. Not that mum now lives in Island Bay and spends her days walking on the beach and tending the garden, and that if anyone tried to take her back to England she’d cling to the walls of the SPCA where she volunteers, screaming that she has a sausage sizzle to help organise next week and she’s making the lamingtons. She’s become a Kiwi without realising it, though she’ll splutter she hasn’t. When she and Dad separated she briefly thought of returning, but once again house prices were a problem. One Google for two bedroom flats in a pleasant English town were enough to decide her against it once and for all.

This is what my boyfriend fears. Our two countries, so entwined by history, are so far away by geography. To escape World War III would mean leaving forever in his eyes. He doesn’t see Aotearoa as a multi cultural, sub-tropical paradise. He sees it as a backwater that happens to be quite pleasant.

This trip is my attempt to showcase what it has to offer, but with house prices in both countries borderline insane, and us both indebted millennials, seriously considering a move is useless. Our little flat in London is where we’ll stay.

Admittedly, the boyfriend has looked at solicitor jobs in Auckland, though I know he’s only thinking short-term, to placate my yearnings through the worst of Brexit and Trump. He’s heard my mother’s story of being stuck on a farm out the back of Matamata, where voting Labour was illegal and the nearest bright lights were a passing tractor during silage season, and shuddered. He’d never willingly choose that for himself.

To leave one’s home is exciting at 21. When I return at 29 I worry it might be heart-wrenching –I may want to stay for good. I don’t know where I want to end up: England feels like home now, but a picture of Mt Maunganui beach can elicit a chest-rattling sob.

Growing up in a small town where everyone was the same, where everyone lived in a one-storey bungalow and where everyone’s dad was a farmer and their mum a housewife – it was hardly a way to make you proud of our country. It was insular, off-putting, close-minded, and often, frankly, racist and homophobic. It wasn’t until moving to Wellington at 18 I felt like I had anywhere I could live in this country, and since then I’ve definitely romanticised the place.

I worry that wherever I go, the grass will be greener on the other side. Exciting, cosmopolitan London with all its job opportunities? Or comfy, spacious New Zealand where the pace never really seems to change? With such distance between them, there’s no real room for compromise.

New Zealand feels alien almost now. When I watch a news clip online I cringe at the broad accent; a private school-educated Aucklander with a journalism degree in a $1000 suit sounds no less fush and chups to me than the farmers I grew up around.

And if we did return, my boyfriend worries he’d become the foreigner trapped, his career stolen from him for the lack of ‘Kiwi experience’ (Have you ever heard a more insulting phrase? Telling people from bigger and more developed economies that they lack the necessary experience?). I look at other couples of different nationalities I know. It always seems to be a curse, a divide that many can’t bridge. One side always has to abandon where they’re from.

I look at my parents and I realise I’m doomed to repeat history. And I’m not alone. The yearning for two places is common in our immigrant nation. Whether our origins lie in England, or in India, Samoa, China or South Africa, it’s a common dilemma. And home is where the heart is.

I just wish I knew where mine lies.


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