We arrived at Auckland airport, via a few days spent wolfing Malaysian food in Kuala Lumpur, on Sunday. We had been conscious of a pronounced antipodean flavour in the dress of many of the other tourists in KL – who sported stubble and beachwear rather than parted hair and polo shirts – and so were somewhat prepared for the atmosphere of our arrival.
I am always struck by the politeness and warmth of New Zealand’s customs officials. I don’t want to overstate this; customs officials in all countries are designed to make life difficult, but in New Zealand they do it with a smile. I was genuinely grateful to the passport officer who, once she saw we had ticked the “permanent return” box on the customs form, smilingly welcomed my wife and I back to the country.
Having negotiated our way through the MAF fruit police, we picked up a rental car and drove through Epsom to a central Auckland hotel for a night to shake off our jet lag. Our families are based in Wellington and we will see them next week, as we head down the island visiting some grandparents. As I drove, visions of Christchurch suburbia appeared before me. I saw well-marked roads, sensible saloon cars being driven carefully, well-tended gardens, well-trimmed grass and functional, practical, squat houses. An image of life as Good Clean Fun. This was disconcerting. I also know it is not representative. Other parts of South Auckland look very different and in a strange way I was pleased to recall this and to remind myself that behind the suburban weatherboards probably lay one or two P factories, tinny houses and aspirational garage bands.
The hotel was a mistake. I figure there are two types of hotels in the world: those that figure you are paying them enough money and so treat you like a valued guest; and those that see your dependence upon their amenities as an opportunity to fleece you at every opportunity. This fell firmly in the second camp. Internet access – even the wifi in the lobby – was expensive, breakfast was extortionate and came complete with “upgrade options”, and the privilege of parking anywhere near the hotel (ie a five minute walk to a nearby parking building) was, predictably, an added extra. Which wouldn’t have been so bad had the place not both resembled a tired 1970s grand dame and yet been insufferably smug, as if – for reasons known to the staff but not to you – it was a great honour to be allowed to walk down its faded brown hallways.
That day my wife and I met some good friends for a few drinks and a bite in a bar in central Auckland, which we walked to along quiet, leafy streets. This was the same day as Billy Connolly’s show, in which he described New Zealanders as beige and challenged his audience to step outside the comfort zone of discussing interest rates over salad and sausages eaten off paper plates. If I had read this ten years ago, living in Wellington, I am sure I would have been somewhat indignant. Now, I thought I could see what he meant, with a clarity I had not carried in my memory of New Zealand.
I had a privileged position as the bar we were in had filled up with the middle-aged punters about to head to Connolly’s show. I was struck by how familiar, yet quite unfamiliar, they looked. The men resembled Gavin Larsen – short cut, salt and pepper hair, chinos and short-sleeved shirts, inoffensive smiles and matey gestures. The women looked somewhat more confident, yet somehow uncomfortable; brightly dressed up with more effort than style, as if to impress a distinguished guest. Everyone ate quickly and efficiently, refuelling on kumara chips with aioli with the minimum of fuss and conversation.
We then headed up to Russell, with my old and good friend Mike, for a few days before starting work in a fortnight. It has been great to catch up in such a relaxed setting; eating, drinking and losing at board games.
But, while I have tried, with all my might, to appreciate the simple joys of a beach holiday in a traditional Kiwi bach, I confess to being slightly ill at ease. The drive from Auckland to Russell provided even more evidence of Good Clean Fun. The scenery seemed too pristine, too innocent, too unspoilt. I was relieved when, after the first day, the sun disappeared, lending a rather menacing wildness to the scenery and positively pleased when the inclement weather turned into a full-blown storm.
Prior to this, I was haunted by flashbacks of the adverts I remember for Kiwiburgers; snatches of beach holidays, Jonah Lomu and slices of beetroot. Yes, Sizzlers, Twisties, Tip-Top ice-cream, the Black Caps collapsing again – all of the signs of summer – are great for a break, but I am not truly on a break (all external signs notwithstanding). I am finding my country again. I know that New Zealand is not a 3-D Kiwiburger commercial. But I am anxious to confirm this with some first-hand experience.
It is probably apparent by now that I am not returning to New Zealand for “lifestyle” reasons. Indeed, I have never known quite how to respond to people who assume this must be the case. I loved my lifestyle in New York and London. I like books, music, restaurants and interesting discussions; all of which were easy to find. I walked to work daily from my New York apartment and from both of my London flats. In New York I diligently explored, and grew very fond of, Manhattan streets and nightlife. In the UK I happily spent most of my free time in pubs, bookshops and wandering around the countryside (where I could find more pubs and bookshops). In both places, I grew to like the solid, stone buildings and the centuries of history scattered all around. And I liked working in fascinating jobs amidst it all.
In this connection, I should mention this week’s Listener article on returning Kiwis. I bought a copy on my third day back, hoping to find a bit of solidarity.
Its starting point was a Massey University survey of New Zealand expatriates, which suggested that those who stay overseas had “higher levels of achievement and influence motivation than those who chose to come home”, who were motivated by social and family reasons. The article then postulated that even those ambitious expats might be forced to return due to the global recession, as reduced opportunities overseas make them more receptive to lower New Zealand salaries. In other words, those who come back either want to own a lifestyle block or have had their hand forced.
I found this line of reasoning rather depressing, perhaps because it doesn’t describe me very well: I have chosen to return, but neither because I lack ambition nor due to the global recession. It is true that I am partly motivated by social and family reasons – as are we all – but I am driven significantly by my work. I just think that my work will be more meaningful and fulfilling if done in the context of my own country.
My main objection to the article’s argument is its implicit identification of “ambition” with “the single-minded pursuit of wealth”. The premise seems to be that anyone who is primarily motivated by their career will naturally want to obtain the highest-paying job they can. As overseas jobs pay more, ambitious expats will stay overseas unless forced to return.
This seems unduly narrow to me. In truth, I think that the most driven people are sustained more by the satisfaction of what they do than the salary they draw. And there is, I hope, a lot of satisfaction to be found beneath the hoary old cliché of “making a difference” to a community, or country, you feel you belong to.
I can well understand Kiwis who cannot find the same opportunities in New Zealand as out of it: a friend who does disaster aid work for the Red Cross, and has recently been in Ethiopia, Chad, the Congo and Sri Lanka, is a good example. But if you are lucky enough to find (or be able to create) ways to pursue your vocation in your own country, then I have no doubt that there is interesting work to be done with a ton of drive needed to do it well.
But perhaps not in a bach in Russell during a storm. Which is probably a good thing. I have time to lose a few more board games yet….