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The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Pete McKenzie, a New Zealander based in New York.
When Tyla Stevenson, a 23-year-old from New Zealand’s rural South Island, applied for a job at an Australian cafe in New York City, the first thing her manager said was, “Oh, it’s great to hear your accent! It’s been so long.”
For years, a steady stream of young New Zealanders trickled into cities like New York and London to experience culture shock, homesickness and a very foreign world. Border closures during the pandemic stymied that flow. At the same time, many in New Zealand’s diaspora rushed home, where, with quarantining and lockdowns, people could live free of Covid-19.
But after infectious variants and restive populations forced the country to lift its last restrictions, young New Zealanders are venturing back out into the world.
Stevenson is one of these young New Zealanders, I’m another. I moved to New York in late July to pursue a master’s degree, and I find more New Zealanders everywhere: in a bar serving half-liter margaritas in Spanish Harlem, in a Blue Bottle in Morningside Heights, on a rooftop in Brooklyn.
This is a return to normal for New Zealand, which has the developed world’s third-largest diaspora per capita. Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders live abroad for graduate study or work. And before the pandemic, tens of thousands more traveled each year on working holidays that typically involved making flat whites — the perfect milky coffee — in cafes or pulling pints in pubs.
These “O.E.s” — overseas experiences — became a middle-class rite of passage. The pandemic dealt a blow to the practice, but government data show an apparent comeback: The number of New Zealand citizens leaving in 2022 through June was 11 percent higher than the year prior, with departures concentrated among people aged 20 to 29.
Many New Zealanders laud O.E.s as an informal professional development program for the country, bringing overseas experience and perspectives to an otherwise isolated archipelago. More fundamentally, though, traveling to bigger countries and more frenetic ways of life is an exercise in deliberate culture shock.
Despite studying alongside people from across the world, other students find my half- mumble the most difficult accent to understand. I miss New Zealand’s native bush. I’m incapable of the American assertiveness that New Zealanders see as puffery. I almost became a New York stereotype as I walked down 32nd Street the other week: My parents called, and I started choking up at the sound of their voices.
Those struggles are the point. New Zealanders abroad get to revel in this homesickness. It’s a reminder of home’s appeal, which was easy to forget when I was there.
It’s a strange privilege: We are choosing to experience something that, until recently, other New Zealanders reluctantly endured. From October 2020, spots in New Zealand’s limited quarantine facilities were only available via lottery. Citizens who wanted to come home found they couldn’t. The result was anger and protracted legal battles, as homesick New Zealanders abroad fought to return.
Now, however, New Zealand is no longer a pandemic oasis. There is less urgency to return. And there’s reason to wonder whether, for the young New Zealanders experiencing the wider world, the appeals of home and its quiet, peaceful community won’t be enough to make them come back again.
Luke White, a New Zealander doing an internship at the United Nations, is a good example. “Whenever I start to feel homesick,” he said, “I always call a friend and ask, ‘What’s happening back home?’ The consistent response of ‘Oh, nothing’ is my motivation to keep going.”
Even for people who feel that way, there’s something special about being near other New Zealanders. In New York, New Zealanders have no geographic core like Chinatown or Little Italy. But we can’t help but stumble across each other. And when we walk into a crowded cafe and hear another New Zealand mumble, there’s something magnetic: We gather, mourn the lack of flat whites and talk, inevitably, about home.
Here are the week’s stories.
Vivienne Westwood, Who Brought Provocative Punk Style to High Fashion, Dies at 81. The London shop she ran with Malcolm McLaren defined an era. “I don’t think punk would have happened,” the vocalist Chrissie Hynde said, “without Vivienne and Malcolm.”
What’s Gone at Twitter? A Data Center, Janitors, Some Toilet Paper. Elon Musk has reduced the company to a bare-bones operation, and employees are under a “zero-based budgeting” mandate to justify any spending.
A Year of Being the Most. This year, partygoers were ready to get out, get together and get dressed.
How the Buffalo Blizzard Became So Deadly. The storm raged for days, dumping four feet of snow and unleashing winds as high as 70 miles per hour, an unusually catastrophic combination.
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