When an Expat Comes Home
Recently I was asked where I was from. Taken by surprise, I quickly answered I was “half Kiwi, half Austrian”. Of course, I am 100 % Austrian, but from time to time I instinctively feel different. For the last three weeks, I was based in my dreamy hometown in Tyrol and explored if it stills feels homely after three years of living in New Zealand and travelling abroad.
Feeling like an insider looking in from the outside, I discovered many apparent differences between the Austrian and Kiwi way of living. Being the sucker for alliteration I am, I call these points of difference the Three C’s: Conservatism, Culture, and Career.
While travelling has taught me never to rely on social prejudices, I must admit that Austrian society only lives life in a more conservative way than New Zealanders do. I believe this can be explained by looking back at how the two countries evolved. Longer history goes hand in hand with more traditions, deeper religious beliefs and stronger conservative structures. On the contrary, New Zealand was the last country to be settled by Europeans. The mix of European, indigenous Maori and Asian influences over the past 150 years means the outlook of New Zealanders is dramatically different to that of Austrians. Having fought long and hard for their homeland, Austrians have a tendency to be slightly more inward looking and protective of their heritage and traditions. A lifestyle infused of different cultures makes the New Zealand community a more vibrant and liberal one. For instance, many Kiwis appreciate and make a clear distinction between foreign cuisines, such as Japanese, Vietnamese, or Chinese. In Austria, these types of foods like to be (literally) all thrown into one pot and called ‘Asian’. However, the level of willingness to adapt to or simply to be more aware of cultural and societal differences is now on the rise in Austria.
New Zealand culture is just like New Zealanders themselves: quite straightforward and loyal to the success of Kiwis, whether this is in sports, history, or innovation. We are talking rugby, military triumphs in the past, and success stories started in your neighbour’s garage. Austrian culture is, on the other hand, more focused on appreciating historical arts, celebrating traditional festivals, and showing a strong sense of nationalism. This translates into some of the world’s finest museums, the Vienna Opera Ball, and the prominence of right-wing politics. The significant amount of theatre, exhibitions, and concerts on offer in Austria was a nice change after living in New Zealand, where I feel the arts are often undervalued. In contrast, Austrians tend to value the material far more than the average down-to-earth Kiwi. Showing off a label or being “labelled” plays on the mind of many Austrians, whereas New Zealanders are more concerned with the pronunciation of said labels.
As I have slowly adapted to bits and pieces of a Kiwi way of life, returning home to quite a different environment also became apparent when faced with the expectations around education and career. In Austria, strong emphasis is placed on a well-rounded higher education leading into a highly structured, hierarchical career path. Universities are mostly free of charge, overcrowded, and very competitive. While some New Zealanders feel the same pressure, generally education and career paths are more flexible and cater to the individual. I have found that experience is often valued more than education. A creative and innovative mind is appreciated more in the land of the long white cloud than in the land of mountains by the stream.
In spite of all this contrast, many parts of Austria, such as the hills, the food, and, of course, my loved ones, reminded me of why homesickness occasionally overcomes me. I now have two homes, which is probably why I blurted out I was half Kiwi, half Austrian. While this is not technically correct, this is what my heart says, and I should never second-guess my heart.
The three C’s are intricate, constantly changing, and very much up to personal preferences and individual backgrounds. The last few weeks showed me once again how no two countries are the same, which makes travelling so intriguing and exciting.
What are your thoughts on coming home as an expat?