Coronavirus has forced New Zealanders abroad to choose: do I stay or do I go?

Elle Hunt in London
Photograph: Ollie Millington/Getty Images

Swapping in “aubergine” for “eggplant” and “pepper” for “capsicum” – when you remember. Watching two clocks, one 13 hours fast. Smugly renouncing Boris Johnson as “not MY prime minister”.

To some extent, the experience of being a New Zealander in London has always been one of being split between two places. Now the coronavirus crisis has forced us to pick one.

The “big OE” (overseas experience), a few years spent living and working abroad, has long been a rite of passage for young pakeha (white) New Zealanders. Many leave home on the long, expensive journey with no return ticket, no work lined up and no housing more formal than the sofa bed of a friend of a friend in Hackney or Clapham (it is always Hackney or Clapham).

Moving overseas is of course a privilege, not a right – but that does not mean it is always easy. It can be hard to find work, especially without taking a step down in pay or seniority. The culture shock of moving to a city of double New Zealand’s national population, underground trains and pharmacies that sell sandwiches is disorienting. And homesickness is real, and seemingly felt proportionally to distance.

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New Zealanders in London could hardly be further away from home – yet we move, in our thousands, all the same. In 2002 sociologist Claudia Bell, in one of the few academic examinations of the OE and its significance to New Zealand culture, identified these young traveller as “secular pilgrims … collecting narratives of adventure and returning with tokens of place”.

Cemented in the 1990s, the open-ended journey – from one of the world’s most remote countries, to places familiar from popular history and culture – is key to the construction of New Zealand’s national identity. Low travel budgets test independence and initiative, acclaimed as Kiwi characteristics, while myths and symbols of home intensify at a distance.

As a ritual, Bell ranked the OE alongside graduation, or marriage: “The aim is to see what is ‘out there’ before settling down,” and returning to New Zealand permanently to live. Until then, we Kiwis abroad knew we were lucky to have the best of both worlds, experiencing the world’s great cities with regular visits back to “Godzone country”.

But that rite of passage is made possible by air travel, open borders, and receptive economies – all of which have been disrupted and dismantled by the sudden onset of coronavirus, for the foreseeable future and perhaps for good. The impact was immediate in London’s Kiwi enclaves, where the question crystallised as go home prematurely – or stay indefinitely.

As a dual citizen of New Zealand and the UK, my lifetime split evenly between the two, I was lucky to not have to think twice about staying put. For many New Zealanders, their ties in London were called into question, the roots they had put down exposed as lacking.

Faced with potential redundancy, weeks of self-isolation in insecure or unfriendly housing, and the threat of not being otherwise able to return for months – many bolted for home. (Not to mention, a government response befitting of the crisis.)

One friend was back in Wellington before I could even wish her a safe flight, and spoke of international borders coming down behind her like dominoes. Another returned to Auckland just a few months after arriving in London from Berlin, and before that Sydney, for the third chapter of her OE.

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She had agonised over whether to go on her two-week trip home as planned, knowing that she would likely not be allowed to return to the UK if she did. In the end, she opted to be where her support network was strongest: she went home.

As Anna Silman wrote for The Cut: “The pandemic has punctured the illusion of self-sufficient adulthood that those of us in our 20s and 30s have worked so hard to cultivate. You can have a job and an apartment and a social life … and still find that, when crisis hits, you want nothing more to be in your childhood [home].”

Over recent weeks the New Zealand diaspora, thought to total one million around the world, have resisted that temptation – or succumbed. My Facebook feed has been punctuated by hasty, regretful goodbyes as Kiwi friends in the UK, Europe, Canada and the US have heeded Jacinda Ardern’s call to come home.

Even some in Australia, relatively close, have skipped back across the ditch, excluded from financial support by their non-citizen status.

Some have left behind partners for whom home is in the northern hemisphere, with no clear picture of when they will be reunited. Lives that were worked for have been uprooted, suddenly and painfully. Pilgrims have been returned before their time, their past a foreign country.

On the scale of tragedy we are seeing, these will, rightly, register as minor – my friends would agree they are lucky to have options, not least an irrevocable claim to one of the world’s safest countries. But as Bell writes, the ritual of the OE is “as much about returning home” as it is about the departure: for many New Zealanders, that choice has been made for them, and they will mourn what they have lost.