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Interview with Steph – an American expat living in New Zealand

Updated 5 Nov 2019

Steph left her 20+ year IT career and sold her cars, house and almost everything she owned to move to Costa Rica to work with wild animals. Somehow, it led her to New Zealand where she’s claimed permanent residency after 5 years. Follow along with her life in Waipukurau on her blog.

Read more about expat life in New Zealand in our Expat Arrivals New Zealand country guide.

About StephSteph_New_Zealand.jpg

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: San Antonio, Texas. But I was raised in Northern Virginia until I was 20 then moved back to San Antonio.

Q: Where are you currently living (city and country)?
A: Waipukurau, New Zealand, North Island in Hawke’s Bay.

Q: When did you move here?
A: 2014. I lived in Blenheim on the South Island for about 3 years.

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: No, I lived in Costa Rica for nine months and Panama for four months. I also lived on and off in Australia for six months.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: Solo traveller!

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I moved because I had always wanted to live abroad since visiting Belize in 1998 (specifically I wanted to live in Central America). It finally got the best of me in 2013 when I got the courage to just do it. I started my IT career in the early 90s and have created a digital agency called Warm Reptile Designs since living in New Zealand.

Living in New Zealand

Q: What do you enjoy most about New Zealand? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: I love the lack of traffic. NZ is mostly comprised of two-lane roads. I live in a town of a couple thousand people, so knowing your neighbour is very common. We also like to share when we have an abundance of food growing in our gardens or extra flower bulbs, etc.

The quality of life compared to the US is much better in terms of stress, lack of pollution, old ways of thinking, and repurposing instead of throwing away. It’s much friendlier too. We also don’t have the gun problem that the US does. You don’t feel the need to arm yourself and give into the fear that spreads so rampantly like it does over there.

In smaller towns like mine, it’s not uncommon to leave your house unlocked and windows open while you run an errand or leave your car door unlocked. People don’t seem to feel they have to “keep up with the Joneses” here which is refreshing.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: The cost of living is high here and I’m not so sure that wages have kept up with that. Most people living together are couples. It’s very hard for a single person to afford housing. It’s rare that anyone owns a clothes dryer. We all hang clothes outside as electricity isn’t cheap. Many houses aren’t well insulated so they’re very cold and drafty, as well as being mouldy since many don’t have extractor fans for bathrooms and laundry rooms.

Gasoline is expensive, so most people drive four-cylinder cars. You don’t see many huge trucks like I’m used to in Texas. Meat is expensive too. So, we rarely eat red meat anymore (it’s not that good here, anyhow). Many people have veggie gardens to supplement the high cost at the store and almost everyone has a citrus tree.

I miss the food from home, mostly (and my friends and family of course). It’s a very long, expensive trip to go back home (10-12 hour flight one way). Shopping at the grocery store or being able to buy things online is a joy when I go back for a visit. I also miss having things to do on the weekends. It’s pretty dead here in terms of entertainment. I live a good 40 minutes from a larger city, so I don’t make that trek more than maybe once a month. My partner works there so he has to drive it daily. We’re 40 minutes from the beach that you can’t even get into because it’s so cold. At least there aren’t many people there and the beaches are very clean.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: I was pretty used to going with the flow by the time I got here after living in Central America. It was pretty easy to fit in since it’s an English-speaking country. However, I sometimes feel judged by my accent. It’s not unusual to see people turn around and stare at me when they hear me talk.

One thing I had to get used to was my usage of electricity. Costs can get very high during the winter. We didn’t have heat in this house, save for some awful electric thing on a wall that wasn’t even in the living area. It also has no fireplace. We invested in a heat pump and I weather-stripped everything possible to keep the drafts from coming in.

Most homes are built to catch the north sun all day and ours is no exception. A lot of folks rely on the sun to heat the house in the winter or they burn wood, which causes a lot of pollution and breathing problems for people.

Also, the fact that the government insists on using banned (in most countries) 1080 poison to kill off animals they consider pests to the local wildlife, namely stoats, rats, hedgehogs, deer, possums, pigs, etc. This in turn poisons waterways and family pets and kills the very animals they’re trying to save. They refuse to do anything differently and the country is up in arms over this.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in New Zealand?
A: Yes, I touched on this previously. Food, electricity, gas, cars, furniture – just about anything costs more here. We’re a timber industry country yet wood for burning and wood items are very expensive. Everything gets exported so we’re stuck with either flat-pack furniture from China or extremely expensive ready-made pieces. I can think of nothing that is particularly cheap here.

We rely on food that’s in season. We have some beautiful avocados which are now in season and run about $1.50 each. I’ve seen them as high as $7 out of season.

Q: How would you rate public transport in New Zealand?
A: What public transport? I suppose in larger cities (of which, there aren’t really that many) you’d have some bus service. I think Auckland might have trains for public transport although I’m not positive about that. So basically, it’s pretty sad. Nothing compared to Australia where I relied on trains to get around the east coast and it was affordable and convenient. New Zealand has a long way to go to improve this aspect. Keep in mind there are less than five million people, most of whom live in Auckland. It’s a very spread-out country between two islands, so most of it is rural and sparsely populated.

Q: How would you rate healthcare in New Zealand? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regard to doctors and hospitals?
A: We have socialised medicine here so we pay a small amount to visit a doctor and typically, the rest is covered such as lab tests and x-rays. One good thing is you can go to a chemist here and actually get a prescription-type medication instead of going to the doctor, but you’ll pay about the same either way.

A strange thing is that you can’t get some things over the counter like you could in the US. For example, melatonin is a prescription-only item here. You can’t buy personal medication items off the shelf without having an embarrassing chat with the chemist (usually within earshot of everyone in the shop) before they’ll give it to you.

Aspirin-type tablets are very expensive and you don’t ever find a pack of more than about 20. Grocery stores usually won’t carry a large amount of these items either. You certainly won’t find the variety of make-up here either. You’re very limited for choice on just about anything you want to buy here, regardless of what it is.

I’m lucky to not have had anything bad happen while here and I’m honestly afraid of the healthcare system in regard to “fixing” things. Many of the doctors are expats because there’s a shortage here and they are overworked and underpaid. I’ve heard some bad stories about surgeries gone wrong or doctors simply not investigating your illness more and putting “patches” on in hopes you get better or go somewhere else. Botched surgeries and repeat surgeries in the same area are not uncommon. Waiting lists are very long if you need something done.

Dental is not included so people tend to let their teeth go. But keep in mind, our VAT is 15 percent and our income tax at the highest level is 33 percent (and that level isn’t all that high). Everyone pays for healthcare one way or another.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in New Zealand?
A: I feel very safe here. We have some gangs but I think they mostly mess with each other. If someone is killed by a gun, it’s major news. You’ll have the petty theft of things from properties and most recently, the theft of beehives that produce Manuka honey (and even avocado theft!).

The one thing I like about living in a small town is that on the local ‘garage sale’ Facebook page, people will call someone out and post their photo if they’ve stolen something or have done something wrong. Sort of like the Scarlet Letter. It tends to keep people in check.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in New Zealand? What different options are available for expats?
A: Housing prices started to explode a few years ago due to foreign buyers who had no intention of living here. A lot of folks with families were living in their cars because of this. Rent is very high. What my partner paid for this house we’re in could have bought a very nice, spacious house in Texas with land.

When we were looking for a home to live in on the North Island, nothing within the $250,000 range was even worth buying because there was at least $80,000 of work needed and the houses were between 70–100 years old. He purchased outside of the city because we felt in time, more people would move out this way and the prices would go up. Which they have. We’ve been here for about two-and-a-half years and probably have $100,000 in equity already.

So rent or own, those are your choices. They don’t really have ‘apartment complexes’ like we know in the US which seems dumb. I think they finally started building some but they’re not even close to the scale of the ones back home.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: It depends on what you’re doing for a living and where you work, I suppose. If you don’t need to live in a city, the outskirts will be more peaceful and cheaper. The average home price in Auckland is a million dollars. It’s warmer on the North Island than on the South and it’s also a bit more expensive on the South Island. Apparently, you need 30 percent down to own a home here.

I’d stay away from vineyards or large farming areas where they spray chemicals from the air as that will drift over to you and your food in the garden. There is a consensus that this is a cause of cancer.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in New Zealand?
A: It’s a tough call trying to nail down the percentage of people who are not tolerant of foreigners here. I feel that they really aren’t into becoming friends with foreigners, even though 1 in 5 are expats here. Most people I come across figure I’m visiting. We have a lot of Indian and Asian expats here and I rarely see them interacting as friends with locals.

We’re a very cut-off country, so the visitors we get are just that – visitors. Some people (mostly the older folks) seem to like Americans a lot (we helped NZ in the war). There’s a big influence because they do air American TV shows here. I even heard once that some kids are starting to take on an American accent due to this. Some people really like hearing me speak and others won’t mention a thing about it.

I can recall once in Australia listening to the radio and the DJs openly mocked the way Chinese speak English and laughed about it. That probably wouldn’t have ever happened in the US. I was pretty insulted and I’m not even Chinese! The whole “PC” thing hasn’t quite caught on here or in Australia yet.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: Meeting people in small towns is fairly easy as you have many neighbours and if you’re working outside and someone walks by, more than likely they’ll stop and talk to you. Same for grocery stores or other places you might be hanging out.

Being “friends” is something different. In the US, people have friends over for dinner or go out and have drinks/dinner. Here, not so much. I think one reason is the fact that food is expensive and so is alcohol. I have many acquaintances and a handful of people I can call “friends” but not in the sense of what I had in the States.

I felt for a while there that Kiwis don’t really want an expat as a friend. It’s hard to get accepted into their circle and it rarely goes further than chatting somewhere in public.

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: Yes, I’ve made friends with locals and I don’t know too many expats. I actually don’t know any American expats in my town at all. If you can talk about gardening, you’ll find a lot of people to talk to. Whether you consider them “friends” is another thing.

You just have to be open and friendly, really. The older folks are more tolerant of expats and seem to be kinder than younger people. I offer to do favours for them if they go away and we all look out for each other’s houses. I offer up flowers from my garden or oranges from my tree and other things I have in abundance that would otherwise go to waste.

Kiwis are pretty laid back and trusting, almost to a fault. They’re very down-to-earth and intelligent. You have to give it to the farmers here – they’re the hardest-working people I’ve ever met and rarely get to take a holiday or a break from work.

If you really want to learn about the culture, work on a sheep farm for a few months. It really puts your life (and the life you’ve known) into perspective.

Working in New Zealand

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I got a residency visa based on partnership. It wasn’t that expensive and very straightforward. I did it all myself.

Q: What is the economic climate in the city like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: There is a work shortage list here which encompasses many types of professions. It’s not unusual for a Kiwi to have to move to a completely different city in order to find a job (my partner had to do it). As long as you’re young (it works on a points scale) and you have a good work ethic, it shouldn’t be a problem to find a job here. You just have to keep in mind the cost of living and whether or not you’ll be able to even find a place to live. Also, where you work is important. Be sure there are enough jobs in case you don’t like where you are or you’ll find yourself having to move.

I have a client who runs a successful tile business and he can never find anyone to fill the position. It’s a great place if you’re an entrepreneur with something desirable to sell as there’s not much innovation taking place here. The NZ Immigration website had an overhaul recently and is a great source of information.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in the city or country? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Thankfully, I don’t work in an office for anyone as I have my own business. From what I’ve gathered, though, there are many lazy workers here who do the very minimum as it’s hard to fire people without going through a lot of red tape. I have a feeling if I did work in an office, people would resent me for trying to make it run more efficiently or getting upset over people not pulling their weight.

I’ve dealt with many design agencies on behalf of frustrated clients who are taking advantage of them and overcharging for things they shouldn’t. Honesty isn’t part of their ethos and I’ve called them out on it which didn’t go over well. The locals also don’t like to "rock the boat" in terms of standing up for their rights or arguing over things. They’re just not the confrontational type. I sometimes have to remember this and tone down my American ways.

I also feel like there is a child "explosion" taking place. There are a lot of families who have three or more children. They get six months of paid leave if they even work at all. The government helps pay for people who have kids but can’t afford to get by, so it’s taken advantage of. It feels like people just want to have more kids so they can get paid by the government (go on the dole) which is pretty disgusting.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to your city or country?
A: Do your homework. If you can deal with cold weather most of the year, lack of “things” to buy, expensive housing (small rooms, small refrigerators, small ovens), expensive fuel and cars, lack of things to do in a small town, old drafty homes, expensive groceries and generally being far from anywhere, then this place is for you.

It’s also expensive to simply travel within this country. Flights are quoted by one-way travel and can become very costly. Sometimes it’s cheaper to just leave the country and go somewhere else. Air New Zealand has a monopoly so there’s hardly any competition. There is rarely a straight road to be had here and driving conditions can be bad (although the roads are good) due to windy, mountainous roads and weather conditions (large trucks and foreign drivers who aren’t used to driving on the left).

Let’s not forget earthquakes! We’re in the ring of fire and live on some very active areas. Some towns can get completely cut off due to landslides which don’t get repaired for up to a year or more depending on the severity. This affects business owners since nobody passes through any more and the elderly who may need to get to a hospital but can’t.

Be sure to have some sort of windbreak if you live in an open area because the southerly winds that blow in from Antarctica are a killer. Be careful of living near the ocean as storms/tidal waves and earthquakes that cause tsunamis can devastate your home. Always have a plan for getting out and have a bug-out bag packed. You won’t always be warned in advance of something happening.
While it’s a beautiful country, especially on the South Island, sometimes it’s better to visit than live here. We do have water pollution, air pollution from wood-burning fires, lack of an ozone layer (huge skin cancer rates here) and not much of an animal population beyond sheep and cattle.

I won’t be living out the rest of my days here as I prefer the jungle, heat and wildlife. I’m happy I’ve gotten to see this side of the world, but it’s not for everyone.

► Interviewed November 2019

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