I’VE RECENTLY been reading a book by the English journalist A A Gill. The Golden Door is a book about America – a country that fascinates Gill, and in which he finds much to like.Gill’s observations about immigration particularly resonated with me. Writing about the great wave of humanity that left Europe for America in the 19th century, he cites some striking statistics.
Between 1800 and 1914, 30 million Europeans emigrated to the New World. If that doesn’t sound a big number, consider it in this context: Ireland lost one in four of its population, Sweden one in five. Five million Poles, four million Italians and three million Germans crossed the Atlantic.As Gill points out, “all entrances on one stage are exits elsewhere”. While we tend to think of migration to America in terms of what that country gained, Gill reminds us that it represented an enormous human loss for Europe. Every departure was “a farewell, a sadness, a defeat”. The Irish would hold wakes so that they could mourn those leaving.
He writes movingly of the “gut-wrenching finality of separation”. Those departing would hug their mothers, drink a toast with friends, take a last look at the old house, pat the family dog, and leave. Very few would ever return.Gill reminds us too that the people who left were usually the ones who could be spared least. “Like a biblical curse, the biblical land called the young and the strong from Europe: the adventurous, the clever and the skilled.”
There are clear parallels here with the New Zealand experience, because ours is an immigrant society too. We can’t be sure what motivated the Polynesian voyagers who first settled New Zealand; some suggest overcrowding on their home islands, depletion of food resources or warfare.Others theorise that they may simply have been driven by an adventurous urge to discover and colonise new lands. But whatever the explanation, they were obviously looking for something better – and perhaps they too were the young and the strong, the risk-takers.
My own forebears were certainly not prepared to accept the status quo in the countries of their birth. On my mother’s side they were Irish Catholics, economically disadvantaged and politically powerless. On my father’s side, they were getting out of a country (Denmark) that had recently been invaded by the Prussian army.Life in Europe held even less promise for my wife’s family. Her parents were forcibly transported from occupied Poland to Germany during the Second World War and put to work in an arms factory. At the war’s end there was nothing to go back to; their families had been wiped out and Poland had effectively been taken over by Stalin’s repressive Soviet Union. It took 20 years for them to find their way to a safe haven in New Zealand.
Every New Zealand family has its own immigration story to tell, but in every case someone made the risky decision to leave behind the known and familiar and take a chance on the other side of the world. It’s equally true of the many immigrants now arriving from Asia.But what occurred to me, reading Gill’s book, is that in recent decades the pattern has also reversed itself.
New Zealand has experienced its own exodus. Just as our forebears left Europe for a better life and new opportunities, so, ironically, large numbers of our own children have left New Zealand for much the same reason.Members of my generation have had to resign themselves to the likelihood that their offspring will end up making their future in another country. Even more ironically, many have gone back to the country their ancestors abandoned: Britain.
There are echoes here of the 19th century experience in countries like Ireland. We too have lost many of our youngest and most talented. The crucial difference is that, thanks to cheap international air fares, we are spared the unimaginably painful experience of saying goodbye knowing we’ll probably never see them again.My own situation is not unusual. Of our four children, three live overseas: two in Australia and one in California. Only two of our six grandchildren are growing up as New Zealanders. Many of my nieces and nephews, too, find life elsewhere more rewarding.
Will they eventually come back? We can only hope so.When the subject comes up in conversation with my kids, certain themes emerge. Whatever attachment they feel to the country of their birth, life is economically more rewarding for them elsewhere and the opportunities are greater.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that New Zealand is a low-wage country. My children say they could possibly live with that, but what they can’t accept is the severe disjunction between wages and the cost of living here.Alas, getting living expenses into line with wages, or vice-versa, is a challenge that seems to be beyond us.