‘Free healthcare, bad Mexican food’: what life is really like for American expats in New Zealand | New Zealand


LLike a law of nature, every political crisis in the United States precipitates a wave of desperate Americans to emigrate to New Zealand. Disenchanted liberals are flooding internet forums with inquiries, flocking to expat social media groups and pushing immigration websites to the brink of crash.

“Are you happy living in New Zealand? I am a 27 year old male. I want to settle in Canada or New Zealand. New Zealand is like a peaceful paradise in the corner of the world,” reads a nostalgic survey.

‘Trying to convince my friends that we should all move to New Zealand and live in Hobbit houses,’ said one social media user – one of hundreds to tweet the sentence as the Supreme Court announced its decision to remove the right of American women to abortion.

“So: are we all moving to New Zealand? Hobbits? Sheep? Access to basic human rights? tweets another.

“The ‘I want to move to New Zealand’ of the news cycle,” says a third.

The phenomenon has become regular to the point of being predictable. In the days following Trump’s election, visits to the country’s immigration website increased nearly 2,500% and the number of immigrants from the United States soared 65% a year later. After the Supreme Court ruling, US visits to immigration sites quadrupled to 77,000, local expat groups on social media rebuffed a surge of applicants, and local recruiting agencies in the field of health reported an increase in inquiries from US medical personnel.

For most, “I’m moving to New Zealand” remains an expression of frustration rather than a life plan. But what about those who follow? Many of those Americans who fled after Trump’s election have now spent several years in the country — and life in a liberal paradise, it seems, is not without its tribulations.

“I was not prepared to live without Amazon Prime”

“The main thing that surprised me was probably how hard it is to find good Mexican food,” says Hawaiian creative director Chad Kukahiko. In a Facebook group for American expats that Kukahiko helps run, “it’s like topic number one,” he says, with desperate members circulating a shared spreadsheet of passable restaurants.

“I wasn’t prepared for life without Amazon Prime,” laughs Madeline Nash, a Texan who moved in with her family in 2018. “Which is a total first world problem, but just the approach to goods and consumerism here…I really don’t realize that not everything was readily available at all times.

Chad Kukahiko chose the warmer climate of Aotearoa before Norway to resettle. Photograph: Paul Kennedy/Alamy

The two count themselves among the wave that made the step after Trump came to power. “We joked that on election night 2016 we were among the people who crashed the New Zealand immigration website – except we did,” Nash said.

For Kukahiko, Donald Trump’s 2016 election left him disgusted – and worried that the country was on a dark course towards conflict. “For me, it was visceral,” he says. “I was so shocked when over 60 million people voted for this.” He was impressed with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, he said, who – particularly after the Christchurch mosque shooting – seemed to be the antithesis of Trump. He and his wife weighed Norway, but Aotearoa’s warmer weather sealed the deal.

For the Nash family, the decision to leave the United States came when their son turned five and began school tours.

“We went to our local elementary school and they spent 20 minutes of the 60 minute visit on their active shooter protocol. My husband and I just looked at each other. We were like: there has to be a better way to do this. In November, the Nash family completed the paperwork for New Zealand visas. “In sight,” Nash says. “Actually, we had never been here before.”

“We can never imagine going back”

For some immigrants, New Zealand’s social problems may come as a surprise. On online discussion forums, expats note some of the downsides: a housing crisis, low wages, painful gas prices, and a shortage of high-quality dill pickles.

“We were aware of the housing issues, but didn’t really realize the problem until we started looking for our first rental,” Nash says. “There were houses we went to that I felt like I needed a hazmat suit.”

Even New Zealand gangs are
Even New Zealand gangs are “so friendly and normal”, says Chad Kukahiko. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

“I was surprised there were gangs,” Kukahiko says. “But then I met a bunch of them and was surprised they were so friendly and normal.”

For the most part, however, the country lived up to their hopes. The Nash family initially promised to give him a two-year probationary period. “When two years came and went, we were like – we can’t imagine going back,” Nash says.

Even the sting of losing same-day delivery softened into an appreciation, she says, for “a much less stressful, ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ lifestyle”.

Most of the scarecrows are overshadowed by more consequential differences: free health care, gun control, a safer place for children. “We had our baby and at no point along the way did anyone give me a $10,000 bill,” Kukahiko says. “I still feel emotion thinking about it.”

“Then, the lack of weapons everywhere. The fact that he won’t have to learn nursery rhymes…in the United States, children of friends have to learn little nursery rhymes that have mnemonics that remind them of what to do in the event of an active shooter,” says -he. “No way my child would do that.”

“It’s not perfect. I know it’s not perfect. I know it’s not,” Kukahiko says. “But I hear the things that my friends here are complaining about and I’m like, ‘Oh honey. That’s sweet.'”


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