Monday, 11 June 2007

Country road, take me home…

New research to help "repatriates" face "transitional distress"
When nzedge speculated in 1998 that there were a million New Zealanders living internationally we wanted to shift the focus from banging on about "brain drain" to something more positive. We wanted to break the three-part guilt trip put on "expatriates" – "whyda leave", "whenya coming back" and "watcha doing back?", and build some connective tissue that enabled a more intelligent and dynamic conversation about New Zealand’s relationship with its international population. We posited "the NEONZ" – the "network of overseas New Zealanders" as a way of building new forms of value; a "brain exchange".

This dialog tapped a stream of stories from global New Zealanders – what they missed about nz, what they didn’t, what they loved about overseas and what they didn’t – and significantly, stories from OE returnees that were not altogether rosy about the experience of coming home. "'Re-entry' is an nzedge online story-telling initiative. Return to Aotearoa-New Zealand invokes all kinds of emotions - some expected, some not - some short-term some lasting. Hope, excitement, anticipation, frustration, exaltation, isolation, anxiety - a new kind of culture shock."

The issue was highlighted in 1999 when Richard Poole initiated the "Generation Lost" debate by placing a full page ad in the NZ Herald which stimulated responses from over 900 young New Zealanders, over half of them overseas and almost all of them tertiary graduates or students in their twenties and thirties. The immediate benefits of this effort got lost in some political furore at the time, but the University of Auckland Business School published a comprehensive research paper The Concerns and Issues of the "Generation Lost": Beyond the Brain looking at concerns about departing New Zealanders, why they go, what issues are being overlooked, what single change in government policy the respondents advocated, and without change, what long term future did the respondents see for New Zealand?

The emergence of the business sector-initiated Kea from the Knowledge Wave conference is the most significant effort since 2001 to create value and connections with overseas New Zealanders. Given the multi-billion dollar value of this population to domestic New Zealand, it is incredulous that there is no focused or integrated Government policy of encouraging greater connectivity between diaspora and home-base. The Department of Labour's New Zealand Now website is a good effort, but overall the funding that is voted to diaspora-formation is the equivalent of lifting a little finger off the table.

The process of going and coming from New Zealand is, therefore, a very individual one, absent of much nation-building context. The process can often be fraught, as new research by Naomi Walter of Waikato University reveals. Her paper An investigation into travellers repatriating to New Zealand, having completed their OE, was presented at the Tourism & Hospitality Research Conference, University of Otago, in December 2006.

The purpose of the research was to "investigate the in-depth personal experiences of returned OE travellers in terms of their transition to home; explore possible explanations for the varying levels of distress among repatriates; and consider how the transition from overseas to home can perhaps be made smoother for future generations of returning OE travellers."

Selected excerpts from the report: "Repatriation, return migration, or re-entry is the transition from a foreign country back to one's own after living abroad for a significant period. Repatriation is not an isolated event, but part of a continuous phase of transition, and previous empirical research consistently reports high levels of repatriate distress upon returning home."

…"Reverse culture shock is "the psychological, physical and emotional symptoms of feeling like a foreigner in [one's] own country" (Hurn, 1999, p.227), and is generally unanticipated by the returnee and those at home. Building on this concept, the transitional theories propose various phases of repatriation. One such theory, which provides repatriates with "conceptual handles… to anticipate the re-entry 'dip' and develop a plan that will reduce its depth" (Freedman, 1986, p.25) is the W-curve theory, first hypothesised by Gullahorn & Gullahorn (1963). This theory describes fluid phases of shock, recoil, adjustment, adaptation, and synthesis or integration with the home culture (see Figure 1)."

…"With comparisons between home and overseas, returnees experienced a period of questioning their decision to return, questioning the value of the OE, and ultimately having to decide "What to do next?" The OE had been a part of respondents' lives for so long, from saving for the OE to planning their trip and eventually leaving, that when they got home, many felt they had nothing to look forward to or plan for. Indeed, many respondents had not decided what to do when they got home or even which city to live in, and now that they were home they had to start thinking about the next phase of their life.

"This was the most challenging phase for most respondents, and some felt lonely and isolated due to the lack of support and understanding from friends and family. Additionally, the expectations of those at home put pressure on the respondents who were not used to people expecting them to "sort their life out", as these comments demonstrate: Moving on with the next phase of your life can be pretty hard to deal with, especially if people around you have expectations on what you should be doing… All of a sudden you have to cope with people's expectations on where you should be with your life, and you're not there yet."

And…"Understanding repatriation, the effect travel has on the return home, and the phases of repatriation transition is important for not only policy makers, but also those at home, and returnees themselves if repatriation is to be eased for future generations of returning OE travellers."

Getting good research data is vital for policy-makers and entrepreneurs wanting to build the "greater New Zealand" aka population five million. Massey University is a new online study underway to explore the variables that influence "self-initiated mobility and the motivations of New Zealanders to work offshore." The research aims to inform policies and management practices that will in a more desirable environment to which people wish to return. The research aims to inform policies and management practices that might result in a more desirable environment to which people wish to return.

Massey U Management and International Business department lecturer Kaye Thorn said that up to 24 per cent of New Zealand-born people lived in another Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country. The online survey takes no more than 20 minutes, and is seeking at least 1000 participants. Respondees so far have included New Zealanders living in Bermuda, Indonesia and Kenya.

Kaye Thorn says "Most research focuses on just one key reason for mobility - economic motives. This is a simplistic view. The reality is that factors influencing a decision to live and work in another place are multi-faceted and complex. The factors involved are career, economics, cultural and travel opportunities, the political environment, quality of life and relationships.” has several resources related to New Zealanders living overseas, including a list of 800+ locations, a thousand or so comments about the experiences and feelings coming/going/ staying/leaving/commuting etc, news about the achievements of contemporary New Zealanders internationally, and speeches about ideas for building a globalized New Zealand.
I have long proposed that full-on engagement with the world will put New Zealand into a better place economically and emotionally. This is happening in a multitude of individual ways, but in no way yet has this yet been elevated to a national political priority.

Osmosis and natural flow might yet carry the day, if Saturday in Wellington was anything to go by. After three weeks in the USA, a bustling, balmy southern capital city in pre-All Blacks test mode was a fine welcome. Cuba Street was its grungy best and the arrival of Hamish McKay’s new gallery in Ghuznee Street and the new Ernesto’s tops an edgy cake in this quarter. The creative energy of Wellington was apparent in conversations with people about international film, literature, food and software projects. The 61-10 win at the Wellington Stadium was a tasty show. Everything felt pretty fine indeed.


brenda said...

One thing that might shed some light is the emergence of blogging is a means of sharing experiences and getting reassurance from unexpected quarters.
I have recently returned to NZ after 5 years living in Amsterdam - I've been blogging the experience and getting good feedback, hints & tips, shared experiences from all sorts of people.
I'm amazed how many people find my blog by searching for "immigration stories" or "nz living blog" or something similar - blogs give us this opportunity in a way that one-way communication of magazines or standard websites never did before.
And for the record, "coming home" is bloody difficult!

Stephen said...

As an added reference there is a Diaspora Knowledge Network 'out there', decidedly academic but with papers worth reading such as: The Brain Drain is Dead, Long Live the New Zealand Diaspora . Grist to the mill!

Roger Dennis said...

Interesting post. After six years in London I returned to Christchurch two years ago. I became what I termed - 'a stranger at home.' Reverse culture shock indeed.

My response - I setup an online 'support group' with Google Groups.

If you are facing life as a recently returned expat (I call the group Repat), and want to join the group then drop me a mail (now *at* )

Cheers, Roger