Recently, Alex Bennett has come to the startling realisation he most likely won’t be coming back to New Zealand.
The 52-year-old, originally from Christchurch, has lived in Japan for 32 years all up, since first arriving as a Japanese language student at the age of 17, when he discovered a passion for martial arts, and returning for stints throughout university.
He came back for graduate studies at 25, thinking he’d do another year or two, to get it out of his system. But it had the opposite effect, and he’s been there ever since.
Bennett, who lives in Kyoto and works as a professor at Kansai University, knows how fast the years go, which is why retirement is on his mind. He had always assumed this would be the natural time to return to his homeland.
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But now he’s started seriously thinking about it, Bennett has realised his whole life is in Japan.
There would be little left for him in New Zealand, especially after his parents are gone – in fact, after so long away, he might feel a bit like a fish out of water.
“It’s suddenly occurred to me that my home is not New Zealand anymore,” he says.
“Probably I’ll end up burying my bones in Japan, rather than New Zealand.”
With an estimated million Kiwis overseas, New Zealand is second only to Ireland in the OECD for our proportion of citizens living abroad.
Many depart with some sort of timeframe in mind – whether determined by the length of their visas, or a self-imposed deadline of “just a year or two”.
But some of these offshore Kiwis don’t plan to return anytime soon – if at all. That might not have been their intention when they left the country, but once overseas, they find opportunities and build lives that keep them there indefinitely.
A world of opportunity
“It would take a pretty mega work opportunity to attract me home at this point,” says Vanessa Abernethy, who has been in Dubai since 2005.
A corporate lawyer with her sights set on a jurisdiction where she could make her mark, she was headhunted for a job in the city-emirate, and flown over with her husband. It didn’t take long for them to see its potential as a long-term home, and a good place to start their family.
Abernethy earns “significantly more” than what she would in New Zealand, tax-free, while her husband is able to stay home to be there for their two children, aged 13 and eight. They live in a five-bedroom villa, with a pool, and have full-time help in the house.
“As a working woman, the idea of being able to have that while I had babies and toddlers was very appealing.”
They find the healthcare and education systems to be “much better” than what we currently have in New Zealand. In fact, while they initially thought they would return when their eldest was due to start high school, a big part of their decision to stay was so he could continue his education at a top British school in Dubai, which has a track record of its students getting into universities like Cambridge and Oxford.
Abernethy was also recently granted a special “golden visa”, a long-term residence visa that allows highly skilled workers and their families to stay without having to be sponsored by an employer.
“At the heart of it, the most important thing that keeps us here is the opportunities for me, financially and in terms of the scale of the work I do, and the opportunities for my children.”
Rochelle Angus and her family have found similar benefits in Singapore. Arriving in 2000, there were good opportunities for her husband, who works in IT, while she ended up buying an import and distribution business, which she recently wound up after 18 years. Their two children were also born in Singapore, attending an international school with 74 nationalities.
“You have kids, they go to school, then all of a sudden you’re like, ‘holy crap, we just live here’.”
Angus says in the early days, many expats were just there for work, but now, there were a lot more long-term residents like themselves who were choosing to be there. They enjoy being amongst these like-minded people, as well as the travel opportunities and the general feeling of being connected that comes with living in an international hub.
“Watching the news, it’s more global… whereas when you’re in New Zealand, it’s about whether the All Blacks won that day or not.”
The wonderful world of Oz
Others find those opportunities slightly closer to home. Australia is by far our most popular relocation destination, and Miracle Pourau (Tainui) is one of the roughly 700,000 Kiwis who have made the move across the ditch.
She and her husband arrived in Brisbane in 2001, shortly after their second child was born, intending to come home in two years. But a year-and-a-half in, they decided to stay for good.
While many New Zealanders in Australia are not entitled to the full range of social security payments, the Family Tax Benefit is one that all can access. For Pourau, this meant being able to live comfortably as a stay-at-home mum to her four children – two more were born in Australia – while her husband worked full-time.
“It was way more money than what you get in New Zealand… there’s lots of support here, they look after your children.”
Now the kids have grown up, Pourau works for an insurance company where she earns close to six figures, and has the flexibility to work from home.
“The work/life balance over here and the money is really good… I don’t plan on leaving here until I retire.”
Susan MacKenzie, another Kiwi in Brisbane who moved over in 2005, says the money she and her partner have made in Australia has set them up for life, with a decent nest egg in super.
Working as a corporate travel consultant during the mining boom, some years she was able to make three times what she would have in New Zealand.
“I would have never had that opportunity in New Zealand, that sort of job.”
Having made regular visits to her grandparents who lived on the Gold Coast, MacKenzie was already familiar with Australia’s drawcards. But she’s been surprised at just how big a difference the warmer climate has made to her quality of life.
“I’ve had arthritis my whole life, and every time I go back to New Zealand my knees seize up with the cold.”
‘No longer just in transient mode’
Sometimes what was meant to be a short-term adventure unexpectedly evolves into something more permanent. That was the case for Dean Hand, originally from Dunedin.
He met the Irishwoman who would become his wife in 2002, while she was travelling around New Zealand. She invited him to tag along on a trip back home, and he accepted, thinking it would be a good opportunity to take a year or two out and see more of Europe.
Two decades later, and they’re still there, living in County Tipperary with their two children, and running two supermarket businesses.
While there are few other Kiwis to be found in this rural part of Ireland – locals jokingly refer to him as “the Australian or South African or English bloke” – Hand says it’s not hard to feel at home.
“Irish people are genuinely lovely people and very friendly,” he says.
“You can certainly strike comparisons between the Irish and Kiwis, we share a similar sense of humour, similar ideals – if you take religion out of it – and we’re similar in the way we like to live our lives. There’s a pretty good outdoor lifestyle here, despite the weather.”
Josh Martin and his now-wife departed in June 2014 with two-year Youth Mobility visas in their passports, ending up in London, which they planned to use as a base to explore Europe.
In the beginning, they had thought even a year might be enough. But within six months of arriving, Martin had landed a well-paid journalism job (something of an oxymoron in New Zealand), and found himself enjoying the best of both worlds – able to save, while still making the most of the London lifestyle and travel opportunities. Now, they’re on residency visas.
“Suddenly eight years goes by and you have worked and lived the majority of your adult life out of New Zealand and have some roots down and you’re no longer just in transient mode,” he says.
“This part of the world just offers a depth and breadth of opportunities in most facets of life. Things we’ve done, places we’ve been simply wouldn’t have been possible from a New Zealand base.”
Earlier this year, amid increasing departures post-Covid, Kea New Zealand, an organisation dedicated to keeping in touch with expats, responded to concerns about the infamous “brain drain” by pointing out the “boomerang” nature of many Kiwis who head offshore means most do come back.
But even if they don’t, we shouldn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, says Kea chief executive Toni Truslove.
In fact, as a small country in a far-flung corner of the globe that is almost entirely reliant on exports, having so many Kiwis dispersed around the world is an “absolutely enormous asset”.
“These Kiwis are acting as natural ambassadors for us,” she says.
“They take our culture and our way of doing business around the world. They help drive our reputation – for example, we are seen as a really trusted country to do business with, and in a world of growing technology and data, that is incredibly important.”
That’s not something that is necessarily true for every country, Truslove says – she believes there’s something special about Kiwis that makes us passionate about home and willing to support our fellow citizens, even long after they’ve left.
It’s something she experienced herself, spending eight years in England.
“My observation was when you go overseas and you can see New Zealand from afar, you actually realise even more so how special the country is and how special the people are. That distance makes the heart grow fonder.”
A world full of homesick Kiwis?
Most of those spoken to for this article have maintained close ties with New Zealand in some way, whether that be making regular trips back to visit family, or staying connected with the Kiwi communities in their countries.
In Ireland, Hand even used to run an online store selling New Zealand products to other expats, until Brexit made it prohibitively expensive to bring the goods in through the UK.
“It was kind of a selfish reason I did it in the first place – I missed my Watties and I missed my Marmite,” he says.
“We still get enquiries about it nearly every week.”
Like the old Vogel’s ads used to say, the world is full of homesick Kiwis. So do they not feel the itch to return one day?
Pourau has only been back to Aotearoa once in 20 years – back in 2010, for a special family occasion – but wears her whakapapa and identity with pride. This year, for her 41st birthday, she received her moko kauae (lower chin tattoo), at a tattoo studio in Brisbane. She got it because her tūpuna (ancestors) had been “sending me signs”.
Australians now look at her and call her a “Mozzie” – a Māori in Australia – but the name doesn’t bother her, she says.
“It’s better than being called a sheep.”
Despite being away for so long, home is never far from Pourau’s mind. In fact, the main reason they have decided to stay in Australia is so they can retire to New Zealand, building on land she owns in Kāwhia.
“All the money we’re saving we plan on taking home so we can build.”
When it comes to retirement plans, others see the ideal as a hybrid living situation where they would end up spending part of the year in New Zealand, and part of the year elsewhere.
Abernethy says it’s unlikely they’ll stay in Dubai for retirement – but they probably won’t come back to New Zealand full-time, either. Their aim is to chase the summers, spending half the year in Northland, where they have a house on the beach, and half in France, where they have a country house, with stints in Dubai “or London, or New York, or somewhere the kids happen to be” to get their big city fix in between.
For Hand, it will also depend on what his children end up doing.
“We often fantasise about, ‘wouldn’t it be lovely when the kids are grown up to spend six months here, six months there’,” he says.
“I’d love for them to come to New Zealand and properly experience it – and if they do, and if they love it and stay, that’s the perfect opportunity for us to do the same. Those little things are always in the back of your mind.”
MacKenzie, who now has Australian citizenship, says once she and her partner retire, they may come back to New Zealand for the summers. “But never the winters.”
Visits back to Aotearoa will often prompt some soul-searching about what a life back home could look like.
Martin and his wife, who visited for the first time in three-and-a-half years back in May, found themselves constantly making “silent comparisons between then and now, here and there”.
They expect they will ultimately end up back in New Zealand, though the timeline keeps shifting.
“Whether it’s a shock event that prompts us to return or just a realisation that our priorities have changed and what New Zealand offers is more of what we now want, I don’t know,” he says.
“Likewise, we could wake up in 10 years’ time and still be here.”
Angus and her family recently spent a month in New Zealand, which had the effect of making them less drawn to the idea of returning one day. Emerging from Covid, with the country’s divisions on full display, the experience “wasn’t super positive”, she admits.
They’ve chosen not to become citizens of Singapore – to do so would mean relinquishing their New Zealand citizenship, as Singapore only allows the one – which means it would be difficult to stay put for retirement. But they’re not sure if New Zealand would be the right place for them, either.
“As much as New Zealand’s home, we don’t know lots of people… it’s quite hard to decide. We have conversations with people in the same boat as us, and none of us really know where we’re going to end up.”
Always a ‘Kiwi’
No matter how long they’re away, few Kiwis completely give up their New Zealand identity. According to the Department of Internal Affairs’ records, fewer than 500 citizenship renunciation applications have been approved since 2015.
That’s likely because in most cases they don’t have to, are able to remain in their chosen country on a permanent resident visa or, if they do become a citizen, they can hold dual citizenship.
But some countries, like Singapore and Japan, only allow a single nationality, which means a choice has to be made.
Speaking to Bennett, it’s not immediately obvious he’s lived offshore for three decades, his Kiwi accent is still so perfectly intact. He points out that could be because he’s almost never speaking English, so he hasn’t had the opportunity for it to be influenced.
Still, the way he does things tends to be “more Japanese than it is Kiwi”, he says. This is something he only really notices when he goes back to New Zealand, which he describes as a “reverse culture shock”. His mannerisms have changed, and he’s different in the way he interacts with people.
“As a very simple example, I’ll often find myself bowing to people instead of shaking hands.”
Even though he doesn’t plan on returning to New Zealand to live, just knowing it’s there offers him a lot of strength when he needs it – “almost like a spiritual crutch”.
Back in 2015, having grown frustrated with many aspects of his life in Japan, Bennett took a six-month sabbatical and returned to New Zealand, spending a lot of that time walking through the South Island’s mountains and reflecting.
He needed that time away to get some perspective – and to get back in touch with his Kiwi roots.
“Going back to New Zealand was almost like a detox, and it enabled me to recalibrate and find that passion again,” he says.
“I think I’m going to have to do it again at some stage. Once I’ve had that, I can come back and settle back into my life in Japan with ease and with a greater appreciation of what I’ve got.”
For that reason, he can’t ever see himself relinquishing his New Zealand citizenship. He considers himself a Kiwi-Japanese – first and foremost a Kiwi.
“The Kiwi identity is something that will never leave me, and that’s something that’s important to me, even if the reality of my existence means I’ll probably end up staying and dying in Japan,” he says.
“I’m still Alex Bennett – born and bred in New Zealand.”
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