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International expat: Leaving the rat race behind for New Zealand

2020-03-09 17:55:42
Leanne moved from Belfast to Dunedin, New Zealand with her husband and son in tow. Read more about her family’s past year

Decisions, decisions

I came with my husband, Bronson, and my then-8 year old son. The move was prompted by being at a crossroads anyway; Bronson had retired from professional rugby which put him at the juncture of deciding what field to work in next. I had been freelancing in my own business and could technically work anywhere as long as I had a laptop and an internet connection.


We had saved the equivalent of a house deposit in the UK but we hadn’t expected Bronson to retire. We had planned to move with rugby to Europe for a while. And so perhaps when that fell through we had itchy feet anyway. So somehow buying a house over there didn’t feel right.


Alongside that, I had visited New Zealand for the first time back in March 2016. We had only 6 days here (due to rugby constraints) for my brother-in-law’s wedding. We stayed with family in Christchurch and flew to the wedding in Arrowtown, Central Otago. It was wonderful. When we got home, I don’t think I ever truly settled. People talk about New Zealand calling to them and it did to me. Particularly as I realised how much better it would be for my son to grow up in (his Autism means that big city life is pretty stressful on his senses).


A risk worth taking

So at that point, I suggested to Bronson that we should try it for a bit since we had the opportunity (he could easily have stayed in NI though, because he has Irish citizenship through his Mum). We knew it was a big gamble, as it would take almost all our savings to make the move and my son’s Autism might prove challenging with visa applications. And neither of us had a job to go to. But when I looked at the grey, stressful rat race that Belfast city was becoming – the 45-minute school run in tailgate traffic and the competitive consumerism lifestyle – I felt it was a risk worth taking for the “better life” people talk about.


Visas and more visas

We’re on a two-year visa (working for me and student for my son as my dependent). It expires in December 2018. Our application for residency is currently with Immigration New Zealand but we are still in the 2-month wait for a caseworker before it even starts progressing. The time scales are quite long at the moment. So it’s a good thing we got it in with a year left on the temporary visas.


The first visas were pretty challenging. People think it’s straightforward when you marry a Kiwi but it’s not. We had to provide a lot of evidence of our relationship because we’d only been married a year.


We booked our flights to New Zealand about 6 months out, because the temporary visas only take a month at most to be processed. But of course, we hadn’t anticipated that they’d send us for private medical assessments of my son, for which we waited weeks on an appointment and then even more weeks for the reports to be assessed.


In the end, our visas arrived a week before we were due to fly, 6 weeks before Christmas. By which time all our stuff was already on a boat to New Zealand.


That day remains the single most stressful period of my life – I wouldn’t recommend it! But we wanted to give ourselves time to get settled during their Summer holidays (December-January) before the school term starts, so that was the logic behind the decision to move then.


The current application for residency is giving me similar anxiety! Not least the fact we had to re-submit the paperwork THREE times because of tiny errors or omissions (like leaving a box blank instead of writing “not applicable!”)


I also had a headache over police checks given the peculiar position Northern Irish citizens are in. We’re entitled to dual citizenship of Britain and Ireland. I am applying on my Irish passport (as I haven’t renewed my British one). Your police check for residency must come from your country of citizenship.


But living all my life in Belfast, I don’t exist in the Republic of Ireland’s police database, because my addresses are all “in the UK.” So you have to go through a whole other process of getting a data protection type disclosure from the Garda in Ireland – which luckily was very fast and helpful.


The application is on the basis of partnership (with me being married to a New Zealand citizen) so it only works because he hasn’t sponsored anyone before and it means it doesn’t matter that I ended up with the fancier job out of the two of us!


And they may very well come back and scrutinise us again over the Autism diagnosis – even though my son is thriving in a mainstream school here without any intervention or services. It’s just a hell of a lot of paperwork, medicals and money. But we hope it will be worth it. The constant waiting in silence is the worst, as anyone will tell you.



Finding work in New Zealand was fairly simple for me. In the beginning, I continued my freelance work with clients from the UK and USA remotely and it worked well. I also enjoyed some local work training in organisations like Otago Hockey and Badminton, Dunedin Ice Skating Club, writing digital strategy for the Wild Dunedin festival as well as guest speaking gigs at Sport Otago and the National Digital Forum up in Wellington.


But working from home was really isolating after a while. I felt that not having an office job was holding me back from integrating into the community and making friends. So I started job hunting.


Changing jobs

But there weren’t as many roles in a senior level in Dunedin and it became apparent that things like loyalty and good character are rewarded here. Things “a blow in” from out of town like me can’t really show! So it wasn’t until I joined local groups like Women in Business Dunedin (run by the cool shared working space Petridish) and started doing more freelance work with local organisations that contacts eventually put me in touch with the people who would give me my first job here.


However, I’ll be moving to a job that is very exciting for me in February 2018 – lecturing at the University of Otago combined with consultancy work – in the role of Professional Practice Fellow in Marketing. This is a job that doesn’t exist in universities back home (where industry experience wouldn’t be enough without a Phd to teach at tertiary level, even with my guest lecturing experience) and so the reality is that this is a professional opportunity only New Zealand could provide me with.


The good

One of the advantages of living here is getting to enjoy the lifestyle. I don’t want to use the word “lifestyle” but it really is the most appropriate word to summarise why I love living here.


I have way more work-life balance here. People work hard, often long hours, but their weekends are for family and there’s so much to do that is free and fun, whether it’s a beach walk to see sea lions, a cool museum visit or the cafe culture and great restaurants. People don’t prize shallow things – the car you drive, the clothes you wear, no one cares. They judge you as a person and it’s so refreshing and liberating to live like that.


My husband always described New Zealand as “the land of simple pleasures” and that’s exactly what the South Island is. Granted, the Winter in Dunedin is long and grey and bloody cold with the lack of central heating! But the majority of the year you can guarantee your work commute is less than 20 minutes by which time you can be home with your family enjoying a BBQ dinner, going for an evening walk on the beach, reading a book in the sunshine. And I can do this from November through May because I’m from Northern Ireland so it’s practically tropical weather to me. It mostly rains at night while you sleep. One year in, I still haven’t purchased an umbrella!


Watching how much less anxious my son is is also a reflection of the lifestyle. School is no longer a regimented place to keep big numbers under control, ply them with nightly homework and confine them inside because it’s always raining. He has come on leaps and bounds in the system here reaching a reading age of 13 in his tests. He has made friends with kids who prize individuality rather than peer pressure or “fitting in.” Kiwis are raised to think outside the box, aim high but be humble and have fun along the way; it’s everything you want for your kids really.



While living here is great, driving around can be a problem. It’s an in-joke in New Zealand of course, but honestly for a city where you can get between any two points in 10 minutes maximum, the road rage is shocking.


There’s also a real lack of consideration, they will happily block you in a side street sooner than wave you out. If you flash your lights to let them pass/drive out in front of you they think your car is on the blink! Perhaps back home is so congested that you just don’t get away with driving like that so people are forced to be more friendly. Which is funny because outside a vehicle, Kiwis are seriously polite and friendly!


But on a more serious note, apart from the things you can’t change – like time zones making communication home a challenge – the biggest issue for me is the price of travel, especially internally. Dunedin is still my favourite place in New Zealand and I’ve been to most big centres in the South Island as well as Wellington. But I’d love to see more of the country. Except getting to and from Dunedin to anywhere in New Zealand, and then out beyond New Zealand for a holiday or a trip home, is extortionate. They need more competition in their airlines. And some train lines would help too.


I also now live out on the Peninsula in Dunedin which, although stunningly beautiful, still doesn’t have high-speed broadband internet. We run on an ADSL connection (slow). So it’s a good thing I no longer work from home as Skype can’t function too well in meetings. It keeps us off Netflix though!


Visiting ‘home’

Going back to visit my hometown is not very expensive. As I said, the price is high, being based in Dunedin rather than Auckland or even Christchurch and flying back to Belfast rather than England. Plus there are three of us. So even booking a year in advance, we’re looking at 4 flights, 40 hours and about $8,000 to get home. I will definitely do it, but I don’t want to spend the money until I really miss people.


Luckily my Dad has been to visit and that helped us through the first year. It’s also a huge investment to travel somewhere that I don’t actually miss – as in Belfast itself. My son wants to see Japan and Italy and the new Star Wars world in America! These are all places that $8,000 could take us. And that is a dilemma I know many expats face when it comes to holiday expenditure. At the moment, my son doesn’t feel ready to face the long-haul flight back so we aren’t planning to return in 2018.


Missing home

I miss feeling at ease in a place. It’s a feeling you don’t notice until you’re gone and it’s apparent in the very smallest of things; not understanding how the bus system works, speaking slowly in shops so people understand you, knowing that you have to pay a private company to collect your black wheelie bin, fitting in by wearing the right clothes (and being over-dressed for about 9 months until you learn not to) and the fact that there were never any awkward silences or second-guessing in conversations at home.


Culturally, even English speaking countries like New Zealand are VERY different from the UK and Ireland. The Kiwis are friendly, but guarded. They’re laid back to the point you think you’re boring them (you’re probably not). They’re fun but not gregarious. They just aren’t as overtly emotional as the Northern Irish are and so you go through a period of feeling out of place. Like being back at school and not wanting to make a fool of yourself every day in front of new people who you desperately want to make friends with!


Slowly settling in

While that feeling is thankfully easing for me a year in – because I’ve made friends and I’m learning to “be more Kiwi” it’s strangely one of the hardest things about emigrating, yet the one I least expected to be a problem before I left! So that ease and comfort around people are what I still miss about home.



One advice I’d recommend is patience. I never have enough! But it’s so necessary for your first year. We have only just found our feet now – I got a new job in the last week. We found a better rental house in the last month. My husband finally has his BBQ. There are still things we need, like more than one drinking glass in the kitchen, or a mortgage on our own house! But it all comes together, it just takes time. Stop being so hard on yourself and give New Zealand and yourself the time. What you’re doing is HUGE but it can be done.


And don’t be fooled that the hardest part will be missing family. Technology helps you feel super connected to people at home and a year in I still don’t feel a huge pull to be physically present with people I left behind. People assume that’s because I didn’t have challenges, when of course I did. I was super close to my family


Leaving was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I literally felt my gut-wrenching as the plane left the runway. But it will never be as hard as it was the day you made the decision to go. It gets even easier when you land and every day after it, even through all the challenges of building a new life from scratch. Because there is so much more to be gained than anything we lose, no matter how valuable those losses are. I’m just so thankful everyday that I found the courage (or the craziness) to just do it, otherwise, there’d be a whole wonderful life for us here in New Zealand that would be waiting, undiscovered.