“People talk about New Zealand calling them, and it did, me”
When I noticed the Instagram handle, @operationemigration based NZ I immediately followed along to see whether there would be some shared vibes with Lost in Silver Fern. I am glad I did because this has led me to connect with brilliantly inspiring Leanne Ross, a digital professional and mother formally from Ireland who has kindly let me interview her here for the fourth UBER INSPIRING, Ireland to NZ Migrant story here on the blog.
If you are thinking about moving to New Zealand, you need to read this interview, it is an honest, real and inspiring account of what it is REALLY like to make the move. No rose tinted glasses, no horror stories!
Leanne moved from Belfast to Dunedin in December 2016 with her husband Bronson (originally from Omaru) and their 8 year old son. Coincidentally, the family have just celebrated this momentous one year in New Zealand milestone, with a black and green themed bash in their garden.
There have, of course, been ups and downs with their move and Leanne is not afraid to be real about this. Although becoming expats has not been without some struggles and some hilarious experiences with Kiwi’s driving, NZ life for Leanne and her family including her son, who has Autism, has been mainly positive. Recently landing her dream job that is not even available back home in Ireland, has been a bit of a cherry on the cake it seems…
So sit back and enjoy this Migrant story. Thank you so much for sharing, Leanne!
What inspired/prompted your move to New Zealand and who did you come with?
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 NZ 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 NZ 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).
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. We had a wing and a prayer basically. 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.
Coincidentally, my Dad had wanted our family to emigrate to the South Island when I was about my son’s age. So perhaps there was always a spark in me somewhere that wanted to know what life I would have had in NZ.
What is your visa story? Which visa do you have now?
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 NZ but we are still in the 2 month wait for a case worker 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.
Was this an easy or difficult process and why?
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 NZ 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 Xmas. By which time all our stuff was already on a boat to NZ. And Santa was already delivering to NZ too.
It remains the single most stressful period of my life – I wouldn’t recommend it! But we wanted to give ourselves time to settled in to life during their Summer holidays (December-January) before a new school start, 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 on 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 an NZ 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.
Tell me about your work in digital and social marketing?
I help businesses to market themselves online, through content like blogs, through PR like online media coverage and through social media. I worked in organisations and agencies for most of my career in Belfast until I went out on my own in 2015. I ran a Marketing blog (www.acupoflee.com) which became fairly well-known. I then turned it into a best-selling book on Amazon and I started to speak at conferences and guest lecture to students. My career has sort of naturally progressed in that sense.
Is this what you have always done?
Pretty much. I did a degree in Communications and Marketing because I wanted to work in PR but I ended up managing Comms in big charity organisations where I started to train myself in digital marketing (because Facebook didn’t exist when I went to uni!) I’m not sure that I’d know how to do anything else… but I suppose the training, mentoring and lecturing came afterwards and once I released I enjoyed it I knew that was the end goal for me.
Was it easy for you to find work in this field in New Zealand?
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. 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.
Why did you choose to live in Dunedin?
We were originally going to go to Oamaru, Bronson’s home town. Partly because we could live anywhere at the time with me working from home and we had family there. Plus Bronson knew the schools were good as he had family working in them. Moving your child at that age to a new country and a new school is one of your biggest concerns compared to younger folk who emigrate as a couple. But Bronson started to feel that maybe moving from a city like Belfast to a rural town would be too much of a culture shock for me! So since he had studied in Dunedin, as many young Kiwis do, that it might be a better bridge between the world I’d known and the one I wanted to get to know.
Of course the obvious issue was I had been to neither town before agreeing to move there. But there’s plenty you can do online in terms of research. And it was a short drive to Oamaru if we wanted to visit. I anticipated that Dunedin’s setup of beach and city would give us the best of both worlds (which it does) as well as the Celtic heritage of the original Scottish settlers making me feel a bit more at home (which it does). And the constant influx of students to a university town gives the place a buzz, so I knew from the UK that those kind of cities appeal to me.
Did you bring belongings with you or just pack up a suitcase and go?
We’re probably more on the suitcase end of things! We did ship 8 cardboard boxes; one each for Winter clothes and boots, one each for personal belongings, photo albums etc, and an entire one for my son’s computer consoles and figurines (priorities!) But other than that we left everything we owned behind to start again, from our car right down to our knives and forks. We had one large suitcase each and one hand luggage each (one of which held only a Playstation 4 – again, 8-year-old-priorities!) The boxes took three months to arrive so we had the clothes on our back as they say.
We used Seven Seas Shipping and thought they were very good, keeping us informed along the way. Everything arrived safely and on time. Although they did add on extra charges to cover additional NZ transport costs after the earthquake closed the usual main road in Kaikoura shortly before we arrived. I thought that was unfair as our quote had been given before then and I felt it should have been honoured. But it wasn’t a huge amount and by that point you’re just so glad to be reunited with your worldly possessions that you don’t want to argue!
Looking back I wish I’d shipped more clothing, as those are the things that ended up most expensive to replace here in New Zealand. I also wish I’d shipped less of the “things.” Toys, ornaments, etc., are all things you get used to living without. And we filled bags for the second hand shops (Op Shops) after our belongings arrived. The experience does encourage you to live a more minimal life.
What are the greatest advantages of living in NZ for you? / And the things you enjoy the most about living here?
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.
“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.”
And the biggest disadvantages?
The way they drive! It’s an in-joke in NZ of course, but honestly for a city where you can get between any two points in 10 minutes max, 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 NZ 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 NZ, and then out beyond NZ 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 (fellow geeks will understand the gravity of that sentence). 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 the Netflix though!
How easy is it for you to go home?
Not very. 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.
What do you miss, apart from family and friends?
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 NZ are VERY different to 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!
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 is what I still miss about home.
“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”
If you could give those moving to NZ one tip, what would it be?
Patience. I never have enough! But it’s so necessary in the 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 NZ 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 – living with my parents for all but 3 years of my life as an adult! My parents had just separated a year before I left. I had a son with special needs (their only grandchild), who had a birth father who had every right if he wanted to object to our move (but thankfully didn’t). And I had never lived anywhere but my home town.
But what always angers me when I watch “Wanted Down Under” (which I LOVE to watch the re-runs of now that I’ve emigrated myself!) is the part where the relations and friends guilt the family with sad messages and you see people visibly crack under the pressure of just the idea of leaving.
Yes it’s hard. 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 NZ that would be waiting, undiscovered.
Don’t waste it. Just do it. And be patient 🙂
Such a beautiful and hopeful story about becoming an expat. Perhaps the most simultaneously exciting and hard thing you can ever do. If you liked this story or found something valuable, do let me know in the comments below. Its so important to share stories like this and know we are not alone and that the struggles and joys are all real.
You can check out Leanne’s blog here: www.acupoflee.com and check her out on Instagram @operationemigration
Thanks for reading and come back soon!
You might like to check out previous Migrant Stories with