Tēnā koutou katoa
Returning home after having lived overseas requires a period of adjustment. ‘Reverse Culture Shock’ is the term used to describe the feeling of disorientation associated with re-entry. Like culture shock, the symptoms can vary.
Having left New Zealand in August 2008, I gave the subject significant thought before deciding to return because it was something I did not want to underestimate. Reverse culture shock is an emotional journey filled with relief, disbelief, amusement and frustration – often all in the same day.
My Kiwi family and I returned to Auckland last month and are therefore in the honeymoon period. Our experience in managed isolation at the Sebel Hotel in Manukau was positive on the whole, and we remain grateful to those on the COVID frontline, especially as we head once more into the fray. After the 14 day quarantine period, we were greeted by my wife’s parents and Pukekohe’s fresh air, dark reddish-brown volcanic soil and rolling hills.
New Zealand’s values are in alignment with my own, and as a result, my anxiety is somewhat tempered. These values embrace a socially liberal outlook, an egalitarian viewpoint, as well as the advocation for fairness and equal access to opportunity, which in New Zealand includes many Famous Firsts. I also admire New Zealand’s strong and historically independent stance in foreign policy, the practical can-do approach of Kiwis in general and of course, the level of patriotism which is most apparent in the countries sports-orientated culture. Sport is a great leveller that improves societal cohesion.
For these reasons, I am proud to be here.
As I write this, I am not seeking to compare Aotearoa or any of the other four countries in which I have had the good fortune to live. Instead, I’m sharing my journey in the hope that it helps other expatriates to acclimatise, wherever and whenever they decide to return.
So here goes.
When viewed through a Malaysian lens, there is an abundance of pavement and parking space in New Zealand. Our life has become more pedestrian-friendly which in turn contributes to a higher daily step count. As a direct result, there is more interaction with strangers who are always polite and friendly.
The penalty for being outside more often is that the Auckland sunshine is intense. Even in the southern hemisphere winter, long sleeves are a sensible choice, and sunscreen is an absolute must. And, when I do drive, most follow basic road rules (except for the odd tailgater) – a refreshing change!
To my frustration, I find myself carrying a physical wallet again in the absence of digital payment offerings which feels like stepping back in time. It also feels like everything is expensive and closes too early.
I would describe New Zealanders as risk-averse. In part, this stems from the impact of the 1987 stock market crash, but it also results from a reliance on the residential property market to generate wealth for retirement. I believe that this focus is preventing innovation in other sectors.
Lastly, Kiwis are self-deprecating, the example that comes to mind is the phrase, “World Famous in New Zealand,” which recognises success while simultaneously saying that something is unknown internationally.
When viewed through the lens of the United Kingdom, New Zealand’s houses are large, often bespoke (which leads to high construction costs) and cold, due to a lack of insulation and central heating. And while the total landmass is comparable, the UK’s population of 68 million compares to just 5 million, which makes for a completely different pace and space in one’s life.
Gross domestic product per capita (a measure that breaks down a country’s economic output per person) is again very similar and suggests comparable levels of prosperity.
The Untold Truth
I want to take this opportunity to point out that New Zealand is more than a bolthole for the mega-rich or as some overseas friends have said to me ‘only a beautiful country for retirement’.
The country is and has consistently been ranked number one for the ease of doing business. It has a world-class broadband infrastructure and is situated in a timezone that complements the Asia-Pacific region as well as the West Coast of the United States, and offers a well-educated workforce with a startup community that continues to flourish.
New Zealand is a safe and politically stable country where the rule of law is alive and well. Combined with the argument outlined further above, the Land of the Long White Cloud makes for a compelling value proposition – one that big technology firms should consider as, by their very nature, they are not troubled by the country’s isolated geographical position and the so-called tyranny of distance.
It’s probably also worth mentioning to employers that when compared with an Australian, a New Zealander’s earnings are considerably less.
Despite my optimism, there is room for improvement.
For example, TradeGecko (recently bought by Intuit) was founded in 2012 by three New Zealand entrepreneurs, yet due to an apparent issue with local funding, is a Singaporean company.
I may be 18,000 kilometres away from the country of my birth, but I never felt more at home. For the reasons described, my level of anxiety has been minimal. And I am optimistic for New Zealand as a whole and for my prospects as a returnee.
That is with one notable exception – slang.
I am now swapping my Malaysian “lah” used for an affirmation or exasperation, for New Zealand slang once again, which includes:
“Choice” – a word which generally means anything positive.
“Eh” – a validation checker used at the end of sentences like “Innit” in the UK.
“Yeah-Nah” – a polite way of saying no.
Finally, I would like to say that the process of writing about reverse culture shock certainly helps to manage expectations and gain perspective, with additional support provided by keeping in contact with overseas friends.
The life of an expatriate is always one with new adventures, and we must live in and enjoy the moment.
Thanks for taking an interest!