Move to New Zealand? We did
By Jules Older
In the 24 hours after the election, Immigration New Zealand’s website had more than 56,000 views from the US. From the daily average, that’s a 2,500 percent jump.
So, because of an election, everybody wants to move to New Zealand.
It was 1972, and we foresaw a Nixonian America. Combine that with twin babies in New York and our shared love of adventure, we pulled out the atlas and chose where we wanted to live.
Don’t tell ‘em we said this, but too much like us.
Smog and no skiing.
In 1972, Australia wouldn’t let in Chinese, so no thanks.
South Africa? Puh-leaze.
Switzerland, Sweden, Slovenia, et al?
We make our livings in the only language we speak.
That pretty much left New Zealand, a place we vaguely knew was near Australia and reputed to be peaceful, environmentally aware and unbigoted. And skiable.
I applied for a job. Got it. We sold or gave away nearly everything, and twin daughters in tow, off we went. Promised our parents it would be for only a year.
We stayed fourteen. The whole family — now, three generations of us — became dual citizens. Weekdays, I taught at the world’s southernmost medical school; weekends, in the guise of American Pie, morphed into an undergroundish disc jockey. My wife, Effin, became the only American accent on New Zealand TV, co-hosting the Kiwi equivalent of This Old House. Her photo graced the cover of the country’s leading national magazine.
Here are the takeaways from our election-based decision, starting with three caveats:
First, don’t go expecting perfection. It doesn’t exist in New Zealand nor anywhere else on Planet Earth. Aotearoa (the original Maori word for New Zealand) has its own problems and dickheads. We prefer to believe both are fewer and more manageable there.
Second, if job security and making big money are issues, don’t go. I gave up tenure and took a two-thirds cut in pay to make the move. Never once regretted either, but you very well may.
Third, if you can’t live without grand opera or world-famous ballet or football or the [insert team of your choice], stay home. You’ll need to find different pleasures in this young, Pacific nation. Among them: the most glorious mountains and beautiful beaches in the world, rugby, netball (an acquired taste, I admit), local theater and sheep-shearing contests. Plus, outstanding wine and coffee, fish and shortbread.
That said, here’s what, in addition to those mountains and beaches, New Zealand gave us.
It’s a wonderful place to raise a family. Though not nearly so slow as 1972, everything moves at a more measured pace. Children are grateful to parents, schools are well ahead of their US counterparts, education is free and medical care is affordable.
Maori in Aotearoa are the most inviting, most accessible indigenous people I know. We took part in hui (gatherings), tangi (funerals), hangi (feasts) and protests at marae (Maori gathering places), and are much the richer for it. I’ve lectured about the Maori way of death at Harvard; my first book was about the need for more Maori in the professions.
What’s the greatest gift New Zealand offered us? Expansion. Our minds expanded. Our cultural perspectives expanded. The range of our friendships — now including Kiwis, Aussies, Indians, Brits and Polynesians of many stripes — expanded.
And what we did with our lives expanded. When you go to a place where you don’t know the rules, you aren’t so limited by them. I wrote in medical journals about psychosurgery, something I’d never have done in New York since I wasn’t a brain surgeon or even a medic. Effin got a job on national television, something she’d never have considered in New York since she’d never once set foot in a TV studio. Our daughters learned Maori hakas and how to run relay. I’d never have spoken at Harvard nor published in the New England Journal of Medicine but for New Zealand.
(As a bonus, so I could see how programs were made, I auditioned to be a walk-on for a television docudrama … and walked off with the title role. This had little to do with my acting ability — I had, let’s see, zero experience — and everything to do with my accent. The last criminal hung in New Zealand was, yes, an American.)
One of our daughters has moved back to New Zealand; after the election, the other cast longing eyes south. Effin and I spend considerable time there each year.
So, do I recommend you pack up and go? If those three caveats don’t deter you, yes. Very much yes. Moving to New Zealand was one of the best decisions of our lives.