Story: Creative and intellectual expatriates

Page 1. Why people become expatriates

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What is an expatriate?

Since the 19th century, many intellectuals and creative people born or educated in New Zealand have chosen to go to other countries to study or work. Some, such as novelist Jane Mander and space scientist Ian Axford, have spent much of their productive lives overseas, returning to New Zealand to retire. A few, such as opera singer Īnia Te Wīata and journalist Robin Hyde, may have intended to return but died prematurely while away. But a large number have quite deliberately never come back to live in New Zealand, thus becoming permanent expatriates.

Limited opportunities

In 2014 US-based medical engineer Catherine Mohr pointed out that New Zealand could never ‘be like the US where you can choose what you want to work on and might have a choice of seven or eight different places where you can do that’. She herself identified as a proud New Zealander, eager but unable to return: ‘The kind of work I do would be pretty much impossible to do anywhere else in the world, let alone in New Zealand’.1

Reasons for expatriation

People who depart overseas for creative or intellectual reasons have different motivations from those who leave to seek adventure, a better lifestyle, or more money (though they may share those goals). They often need to test their skills against international standards of excellence in their chosen field, and to learn from and compete with the best of their peers. They may want to exhibit their talents to a wider audience than is available in New Zealand, or obtain greater recognition for their achievements. Many go to join an intellectual or artistic community that is located in a specific place, but they may also move between such communities in many different countries.

World-wide expatriation

Creative and intellectual expatriation is a world-wide phenomenon. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, for example, English poets Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning opted to live in Italy; Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen spent many years in France and Italy; German poet Heinrich Heine chose Paris and French philosopher Voltaire went to Prussia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries American artists and intellectuals such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein relocated to Europe. Closer to home, many Australian creative people and academics have departed to live elsewhere.

Expatriates in New Zealand

Global expatriation can work in New Zealand’s favour. The country benefits from an influx of talented expatriates from other countries, such as US-born political scientist Stephen Levine, Malaysian plastic surgeon Swee Tan, Dutch photographer Ans Westra and Finnish violinist Vesa-Matti Leppanen. Such people are often drawn to New Zealand because of its relatively unspoiled environment and relaxed lifestyle, its anti-nuclear stance, its unique Māori culture and its ties with Polynesia and the Pacific.

A big fish in a small pond

When internationally successful singer Lorde was harassed by media on her return to New Zealand in 2014 after winning two Grammy awards, former Crowded House singer Neil Finn advised her to move to New York. He commented ‘it wouldn’t be a bad move to get among the centre of operations’, and suggested she would do better if she was a smaller fish in a bigger pond.2

Why people leave New Zealand

These attractions also often lure expatriate Kiwis back home. Nevertheless, there are some specific reasons that drive creative and intellectual expatriation from New Zealand.

The country’s geographic remoteness from other major centres contributes to a sense of isolation from current ideas and movements. The internet and modern communications and travel have lessened but not entirely eliminated this problem.

New Zealand’s small population in comparison with other countries of the same size has consequences including:

  • tiny audiences for some art forms
  • fewer peers and therefore less local competition for gifted people
  • a less highly developed cultural and intellectual infrastructure
  • less public and private funding for artists and researchers.

Many New Zealanders (including influential leaders) continue to place higher value on practical pursuits and outstanding performance in sports than on creative or intellectual achievement.

Footnotes:
  1. Karl du Fresne, ‘Beyond No 8 wire’, New Zealand Listener (1–7 February 2014), p. 32. Back
  2. ‘Lorde should leave NZ – Neil Finn’. TVNZ, 7 February 2014, http://tvnz.co.nz/entertainment-news/lorde-should-leave-nz-neil-finn-5826031 (last accessed 26 March 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Creative and intellectual expatriates - Why people become expatriates', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/creative-and-intellectual-expatriates/page-1 (accessed 15 December 2017)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 Oct 2014