The Kiwi Vagabond Travelers?


Kiwis and Aussies Travel Footloose Around the Globe, Right?
Not so fast…

A Surprising Read about NZ's OE

Young Americans on their trip abroad, usually see, in amazement,  the Aussies and Kiwis on their “OE” or Overseas Expedition, as they tick off another year, another country. It’s so different than the Yankee program, where we might take a semester abroad or a summer backpacking  and Eurail trip through Europe. The Australians and Kiwis really have it good. “How do that do that?” we ask ourselves.   The article below by Anna Hart gives a perceptive glimpse into the mindset of the Kiwis and how they value an overseas expedition. This story might surprise you as it did me.
Sunday Star Times Magazine

January 23, 11
By Anna Hart
This time last year, I decided to chuck in my job at a fashion magazine in London and spend a year in New Zealand. I wanted a break from the London Underground, I wanted an adventure and I wanted some sunshine. I chose New Zealand simply because every friend who had ever visited raved about the place. I was hopeful that I’d find freelance writing work over here, but if I didn’t, well, I could still remember how to froth a cappuccino. Yes, it crossed my mind that nobody would employ me, everyone would hate me and that I’d end up coming home early. But I wasn’t too worried – all I demanded from this year was a tan and some smug Facebook profile pics taken on deserted beaches.

It’s only now, one year on, that I appreciate what a privilege it is to have such a relaxed attitude to what I’ve learned to call my “OE”. I’d assumed that Kiwis flying in the opposite direction would feel the same way about a year in London; that they wanted a change of scene, the experience of living somewhere different, a break. Now I understand that the Great Kiwi OE is an emotionally charged, high-pressure audit of personal and professional worth.

The first thing that struck me about the Kiwi OE was how seriously this time-out is taken. Bex Gilchrist, director of IEP (a non-profit organization facilitating work, travel and volunteering opportunities for young people overseas) says,

“New Zealand is the only country in the world to give a name to the experience of working abroad – that’s how deeply ingrained it is in our national psyche.” While Wikipedia sits on the fence in the great “Pavlova: Kiwi or Australian?” debate, it describes the “OP as “a New Zealand term for extended working holidays”

My next OE revelation came courtesy of a wine-fueled chat with a friend. I was joking about what a bum deal Kiwis get, given that the UK’s damp, chilly climate is hardly a fair swap for the New Zealand sunshine. (I hadn’t yet experienced the monsoons and shoe mould of an Auckland July.)

I remarked that I didn’t understand why Kiwis didn’t flock to the South of France or Brazil instead.  “You mean you don’t know?” she asked, incredulously, before patiently explaining that visiting the UK – or Scandinavia or Eastern Europe, depending on your family history – is so much more than a change of scene. As you know, and I didn’t, the Kiwi OE isn’t about visiting the nicest country in the world. It’s about visiting the country of your ancestry, making sense of family traditions, folk songs, art that references the past. “Visiting England wasn’t just a holiday,” my friend says of her own sojourn. “It was the missing bit of the jigsaw in my life.” Christmas dinner finally made sense, after experiencing the sort of brutal weather in which a stodgy meal is a treat rather than a chore. She visited the Shropshire farm that her family had vacated four generations ago. She hung out in the Camden bars that her favorite bands sing about. She saw her time in the UK as a means of manually plugging herself into the culture to which she strongly related, but had never experienced first-hand.

This totally understandable desire to experience British/Scandinavian/wherever culture direct from the source, as opposed to the export variety, is one pillar of the Kiwi OE.  The other came as more of a surprise. I began observing that descriptions of time spent in London, Tokyo or New York all shared a common vocabulary. “London was tough, but I needed it to be tough,” came one answer. “Challenging, but I’m really proud that I made it over there,” was another. “Scary, but I’m glad I did it, otherwise I’d have felt like a loser all my life,” said a friend.

Without exception, the New Zealanders I spoke to saw their OE as some sort of aptitude test, a challenge, a necessary rite of passage. Meanwhile, Brits coming in this direction can just relax and have a beer in the sunshine.

The classification of the OE as a badge of honor on this side of the Tasman is something noted by Australian demographer and author Bernard Salt. “New Zealand has institutionalized the idea that you’re not a complete Kiwi unless at some stage in your 20s you go and live abroad,” he tells Sunday. To Salt’s mind, the compulsory nature of the OE is “the 21st century version of cultural cringe’,’ a hangover of the standard-issue colonial inferiority complex. “At Remuera dinner parties, there’s no greater boast fora middle-class parent than the words, ‘Mark? Yes, he’s in New York right now. Of course, he’d love to come home, but there’s simply nothing for him here,’ This is code for ‘Check me out: I’m such a fabulous parent that I’ve catapulted my gifted son out of this global backwater.’ Perversely, Kiwi parents have come to believe that the only successful child is an absent child.”

Doing well in Auckland, Wellington or Waipu isn’t good enough – you need to have made it in New York or London to be a bona fide success. A marketing consultant tells me that she’s currently banging her head on the “glass ceiling” and failing to get promoted at work – not because of her gender, but because she hasn’t done an OE. A lawyer friend reports that a respectable tenure in London is virtually a prerequisite to being made partner at her firm.

To this, Bridgette White, an Auckland-born lawyer working in London, argues, “I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a prerequisite. I think it’s more that everyone does it, so people expect it. It’s common, in law at least, for the firms to set up their recruitment and structure their teams in order to cater for the mass exodus that occurs in the third and fourth years.”

The irony of a career-oriented OE is that the work itself isn’t necessarily better experience than what’s available right here in New Zealand. All that matters is that it’s done overseas. “While the numbers are bigger, the work itself is much the same,” says White. “In fact, a few of my bosses told me to expect not to get as good-quality work as I got back home. This is true for a lot of lawyers I know.”

For White, and most young Kiwis abroad, an OE is much more than a notch on her CV But if work is the primary reason for a trip, so-so employment is a lot less palatable.

Wellington-based events organiser Kath Simpson says, “For years after graduating, I realised I’d never be taken seriously until I’d worked abroad. So I moved to LA. I had to take a drop in salary, it was tough living without my family and friends, and I actually didn’t like the company I worked for. Yes, I had some great weekends in New York, but generally my entire 16-month OE was a box-ticking exercise.’

Ambivalence about your OE is bad enough, but worse is the conviction that you’ve failed to make the grade. Six months ago I met a young business graduate who was nervous about her forthcoming OE in London. I took her for coffee, gave her a list of my favorite bars, clubs and Turkish restaurants, and assured her she’d have a great time. When I Facebooked her recently to see how she was getting on, she replied — from Brisbane, where she was working for her uncle as a receptionist in his car-hire firm.

After some gentle pressing, she confessed that she’d hated London. Job interviews proved fruitless, and as her confidence plummeted she began botching up every interview she got. She was living in a West London flat with seven other Kiwis who called her “Remmers” for being posh. She soon discovered that, without a job, her savings were dwindling fast and those dreams of weekends in Paris and Rome were unrealistic. Desperate to leave, she’d taken work in Brisbane for the winter, planning to return to Auckland in late summer, “just so I don’t have to explain to everyone what a loser I am.”

It all sounds reminiscent of the Victorian practice of packing off pregnant, unwed teenage girls to a distant aunt to avoid bringing shame on the family.

And it wouldn’t happen if the flight home had been in the other direction. While of course it would be tough for a Brit who’d failed to find work in Auckland or Sydney, the assessment back home would be much more generous. People would assume you’d been unlucky, they’d blame the recession, hell, they might even blame Australians for being a “funny bunch” Nobody would think you’d failed a test.

Then again, the flip-side of this is that in the UK, where the acronym OE means Outlook Express, a stint abroad is something to bury,

not showcase, on your CV. Attitudes are gradually changing, but on my return a prospective employer is still more likely to say, “Been gallivanting around the world, I see. How do we know you won’t leap on a plane to Thailand as soon as your tan fades?” than be impressed with my freshly broadened horizons.

To the older generation, my year in New Zealand seems frightfully indulgent and professionally reckless. This is because, true to egocentric form, Britain considers the rest of the world to be no more than a holiday destination. When I was young my family spent seven years in Singapore, and it drove my mum – who was working full-time as a doctor – mad that the standard response back home was, “Oh, Singapore, that must have been nice. For seven years? Lucky for some.” The inference being that we’d been lolling on sun loungers the entire time.

Perhaps the high-octane, New Zealand-style, 21st century OE is simply a victim of its own success. It’s only because so many New Zealanders thrive abroad that the standards and expectations have risen so dramatically.

The Great Kiwi OE might be demanding, it might be stressful and it might be getting a teensy bit coercive in nature, yet, despite all that pressure, most people speak positively about theirs.

All the same, I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that Kiwis can’t arrive at Heathrow with as light a step as I had when I arrived here in Auckland.

Although we’ve been in contact with the Sunday Star Times about this article, we are waiting for a response about how they’d like us to post this. We’d like to post just a portion of this article,  and then send the reader to a link at the newspaper. We’ve not heard back yet, so I thought I’d post this with a byline and credits at the top.

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