Plotting Lifestyle Migration V: When Austrians move to New Zealand

Freedom, lifestyle and opportunity

By Johanna Stadlbauer (University of Graz, Austria)

In 2007 I spent three months in New Zealand to live and talk with Austrians who made this country, situated on the opposite hemisphere to their birthplace, their new home. What I found were stories about their “newly found sense of freedom and possibility” and “the better lifestyle here”. It seemed that most of my interviewees experienced their move to New Zealand as an opportunity to act out certain aspects of their personality and design a new lifestyle which they felt was not possible in Austria.

Not wanting to “get stuck”

After having been on round-the-world-trips with their whole family twice, Karin and Alfred, an Austrian couple in their forties, decided to go to New Zealand. The main reason for this decision was, as they told me, a wish “not to get stuck” in a situation where many of their friends had midlife and marital crisis. They wanted a new challenge.

Karin and Alfred have four children and used to work as a teacher (Alfred) and a nurse (Karin) in Austria. In their cases these were very secure positions in which they would have worked until they’d have got a good state-funded pension. But, as Karin says, being attached to such securities can hinder you to take up possibilities.

They made the big step of transferring their whole family to New Zealand, of going through the strenuous process of applying for permanent residency and trying to have their occupational qualifications approved so they could work. In the process, they started to feel a certain disillusionment about life in New Zealand, for a number of reasons. Alfred, for example, wasn’t able to fulfill his wish to become a Montessori teacher in a New Zealand school, although he had put a lot of work into it and risked a lot as he described it. But in the end he failed the compulsory English test he needed to be able to work as a teacher at all. At the time of my visit, when they had been in New Zealand for six years, Alfred still worked hard on negotiating his desire to find an occupation that was “meaningful” to him, while also being forced to earn a living somehow. In his plans for the future though, all his options were open: he already contemplated a new start in another part of the world, a small South Sea island perhaps.

A Short History of Austrian emigration to New Zealand

Before New Zealand became a popular tourism destination with its images of untouched nature and pristine landscape spread around the world most Austrians weren’t even aware of the country’s existence. One of my interview partners had in 1953 heard of the opportunity to help build state financed houses in Porirua near Wellington. He decided to take this chance and along with 193 others and lots of Austrian timber wood embarked on a ship journey around the world. But first he had to consult an encyclopedia to find out about the country. Those of my interview partners who followed him in the years to come all arrived in New Zealand after detours via Australia or South Africa, where they had spent some years working before they decided to try their luck and start businesses in New Zealand. Between 1951 and 1966 the number of Austrians in New Zealand had risen from 454 to a 1000.

The economic situation in the aftermath of World War Two made many Austrians consider emigration (which was state-subsidized until the 1960s). 1955 and 1956 saw the highest numbers of people leaving the country in the post-war era, the most popular destinations at that time being Australia, South Africa, Canada, the USA and Brazil – not often New Zealand. Word of mouth, special work opportunities offered by foreign governments or arrangements by the Austrian government to send work-seekers to selected European countries lead to the decisions on destinations for emigration.

From the 1980s on Austrian migration to New Zealand was often the outcome of touristic explorations. It might have been the combination of the “far-away Island” location, the sparsely populated and beautiful landscape and the comparatively easy opportunities to establish a business that envoked a sense of freedom and possibility in the people who decided to immigrate. This sense of freedom and possibility is a central feature in the narratives of Austrians who spoke to me during my three-month fieldwork in the country in 2007.

Continuously working on the project of a “better life”

Migrating for the people I met who came to New Zealand since the 1980s can be described as a project that aims at self-realization. I use the word “project” because it implies the continuing work I saw people putting into making a success out of their migration. While “success” for the earlier immigrants meant mainly economic success, the dearest wish of many recent immigrants is to have a meaningful life in New Zealand – for their migration story to become a success means to shape their life according to their sense of self.

There are different factors that make New Zealand the ideal destination for those projects of self-realization. According to my interview partners the following things are easier there than in Austria: Starting your own business; changing your occupation/job;  living an outdoor life close to nature; providing for your food yourself by going hunting, fishing or growing it; being able to afford to enjoy outdoor sports, etc. When talking about the freedom they experience in New Zealand and when referring to “the better lifestyle in New Zealand”, this is what my participants gave as examples; of course, everyone gave a different example.

This sense of freedom, I think, might come less from actual differences between here and Austria, but from the initially marginal position as a new immigrant. For my interview partners, their “knowing themselves” and their “being known and acknowledged by others” (see Greverus 1995) is put into question, is being adapted or newly created in the course of settling into New Zealand society. The sense of freedom therefore comes from not knowing how certain things are being done in the new country and from not being aware of having those judgmental neighbours that you seem to find in Austrian villages and from having no family near you that can restrict your ideas about how your new life should be.

Individualized decisions

Having to find out which lifestyle expresses your own personality best, then having to find a way to realise your ideas, plus having to put all the blame on yourself in case you fail – these are the characteristics of time and place in which my participants have started on their migration projects, according to Ulrich Beck and other Individualisation theorists. Leading a very own life in a world full of choices is your only choice today it seems.

Flexibility and “open options” as they are evident in the example of Alfred the teacher are typical for many lifestyle migrants. Most of my interview partners, regardless of how long they have been in New Zealand, have at least contemplated another move, returning to Austria or maybe another far-away island. Some even lead transnational lifestyles, with businesses and connections in a number of countries. Some made only very short term plans and their stay in New Zealand seemed to be just a temporary solution of the need to decide on something.

While working on their projects of self-realization, my interview partners were confronted with the risks that individualisied decision processes bring with them. They were working constantly to create and shape their very own lives. For their projects to become a success, they had to make compromises. Financial security or very low expectations are asked for, and a talent for designing lifestyles and for improvising, also a routine in building and maintaining always new social relationships.

Among other questions, researchers of lifestyle migration focus on how people create a stable identity for themselves in such circumstances. There are fascinating strategies for “being yourself” in a very mobile world.

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