‘Free healthcare, bad Mexican food’: what life is really like for US expats in New Zealand
As the overturning of Roe v Wade prompts a wave of interest in Aotearoa, Americans who made the leap post-Trump reveal the reality of their new lives
Tess McClure in Auckland, @tessairini Fri 1 Jul 2022 15.00 EDT
Like a law of nature, each political crisis in the United States precipitates a wave of Americans desperate to emigrate to New Zealand. Disenchanted liberals flood internet forums with inquiries, flock to expat social media groups, and drive immigration websites to the brink of crashing.
“Trying to convince my friends that we should all move to New Zealand and live in Hobbit houses,” a social media user said – one of hundreds to tweet the phrase as the supreme court announced its decision to remove American women’s right to abortion
“So: we all moving to New Zealand? Hobbits? Sheep? Access to basic human rights?” tweets another.
“The ‘I want to move to New Zealand’ time of the news cycle,” says a third.
The phenomenon has become regular to the point of predictability. In the days after Trump’s election, visits to the country’s immigration website rose almost 2,500%, and immigrant numbers from the US spiked 65% a year later. After the supreme court decision, American visits to immigration sites quadrupled to 77,000, local social media expat groups fended off a wave of applicants, and local health recruiting agencies reported a spike of enquiries from US medical staff.
For most, “I’m moving to New Zealand” remains an expression of frustration, rather than a life plan. But what of those who follow through? Many of those Americans who absconded after Trump’s election have now spent several years in the country – and life in a liberal paradise, it seems, is not without tribulations of its own.
‘I was not prepared for life without Amazon Prime’
“Probably the main thing I was surprised at is just 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, “that is like topic number one,” he says, with desperate members circulating a shared spreadsheet of passable restaurants.
“I was not prepared for life without Amazon Prime,” laughs Madeline Nash, a Texan who made the move with her family in 2018. “Which is a total first world problem, but just the approach to goods and consumerism here … It didn’t really dawn on me that not everything was readily available at all times.”
Both count themselves among the wave that made the move after Trump came to power. “We joked that the night of the 2016 election, we were some of the people who crashed immigration New Zealand’s website – except we actually went through with it,” Nash says.
For Kukahiko, the 2016 elections of Donald Trump left him feeling disgusted – and concerned that the country was on a bleak trajectory towards conflict. “For me it was visceral,” he says. “I was so shocked when 60-plus million people voted for this.” He was impressed by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, he says, who – particularly after the Christchurch mosque shootings – seemed like the antithesis of Trump. He and his wife weighed up Norway, but the warmer weather of Aotearoa sealed the deal.
For the Nash family, the decision to leave the US came when their son turned five, and began school tours.
“We went to our local primary school, and they spent 20 minutes of the 60 minute tour on their active shooter protocol. My husband and I just looked at each other. We were like: there’s got to be a better way to do this.” That November, the Nash family put in paperwork for New Zealand visas. “Sight unseen,” Nash says. “We had actually never been here before”.
‘We can’t ever imagine going back’
For some immigrants, New Zealand’s own social problems can come as something of a surprise. On online discussion boards, expats note some of the downsides: a housing crisis, low wages, painful petrol prices, and a dearth of high-quality dill pickles.
“The housing issues were something that we were aware of – but did not really sink in until we started looking for our first rental,” Nash says. “There were some houses that we went into that I felt like I needed a hazmat suit to be at.”
“I was surprised that there were gangs,” says Kukahiko. “But then I met a bunch of them and I was surprised that they were so friendly and normal.”
For the most part, however, the country has lived up to their hopes. The Nash family initially promised themselves they’d give it a two year trial period. “When two years came and went we were like – we can’t imagine ever going back,” Nash says.
Even the sting of losing same-day delivery has mellowed out into an appreciation, she says for “a much less stressful, ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ lifestyle”.
Most of the bugbears are dwarfed by more consequential differences: free healthcare, gun control, a safer place for children. “We had our baby and at no stage along the way was anyone giving me a $10,000 bill,” Kukahiko says. “I still get emotional thinking about it.”
“Then the lack of guns everywhere. The fact that he’s not going to have to learn nursery rhymes … in the US, friends’ kids are having to learn little nursery rhymes that have mnemonics that remind them what to do in case of an active shooter,” he says. “No way in hell is my kid going to do that.”
“It’s not perfect. I know it’s not perfect. I know it’s not,” says Kukahiko. “But I hear the things my friends here complain about and I’m like: ‘Oh honey. That’s adorable.’”