Most people living in Southern California don’t leave. Most people don’t marry Kiwis (people from New Zealand) – there’s not enough of them, for starters! Most people don’t take up jumping out of airplanes or into canyons for fun. Most people wouldn’t raise a baby half-way around the world. In short, most people do not completely reinvent their lives. My friend Tiffany Hodgson is not most people. She has done all the above and more. Inspired by her life philosophy and very adventurous lifestyle I was really happy when she agreed to be interviewed.
Here’s the Q&A:
How did marrying a non-American influence your life decisions about where to live and work?
Russell, my husband, was born and raised in New Zealand and although he has done a lot of traveling and living abroad, he was pretty set on raising a family in NZ. We looked into getting him a visa for the US so I could start working as physician assistant when I graduated but the process is rigorous and expensive. Russ was also just starting to follow his dream of owning and running a canyoning company here so we decided to take the risk in hopes I would get work here.
What kind of risk?
There was good chance I wasn’t going to be able to use my very expensive degree to work as a physician assistant here. PAs were non-existent in New Zealand four years ago. No one knew what they were but there was talk at government level of trialing them here because of the doctor shortage. Soon after I arrived, Russ had work in Wellington (the Capital) and so I rode the 6 hours with him down there, found my way into the city with all the government buildings and knocked on the Ministry of Health’s door to let them know I was a PA living in NZ and keen to help in any way possible. I had this pipe-dream before I moved here that I would help set up the trial and become one of the first PAs here. Long story short- that’s what happened.
Did you have family push-back on your decision to make the jump and leave the US?
Of course my parents were a bit sad but they couldn’t really say much because in their early 20s they left their families in Michigan and moved to Alaska. I know that’s not international but it might as well have been in the 1970s without Skype and mobile phones. They live in Hawaii now so that’s just a hop over the ocean to NZ.
How do you answer friends and family that question your decision to move abroad?
My grandparents think I pretty much moved to the moon and it’s impossible to come visit me but thanks to Skype and Google-voice we keep in touch more than when I lived Stateside. Not many friends or family have questioned my move. Most have heard that New Zealand is lovely and if they have been here, they usually agree that this is a great place to live. I could understand if I had moved to a war-torn country or a South American jungle, that I might get questioned or worried about…but New Zealand is pretty harmless.
What advice do you have for young professionals who are frustrated in their stateside lives and are thinking about moving abroad?
Do it! I won’t say the world is a “big place” but it’s a diverse place and just because you were born in one country, doesn’t mean that’s where you belong. I went to 4 different universities for my degrees in the US and only felt like one of them was home. It was the same with traveling. When I visited New Zealand 10 years ago, I knew I wanted to live here someday. It just felt right.
I took a year off from college after my freshman year to volunteer in Australia. It was amazing but but when I hopped over to NZ, it was love at first sight. I think a lot of us get the travel bug but sometimes we feel we aren’t even living in the right place. Up until three years ago I always had the urge to travel and move- that itch you can’t shake. It would settle for a while with each flight, holiday, or move but it would come back. Since I have been here, I can’t say the itch to travel is gone but I don’t want to live anywhere else.
What’s the most surprising thing about living in NZ?
It’s a melting pot of different cultures and nationalities. I think NZ is primarily thought to have Maori and European New Zealanders here but there are a lot of Chinese, Indians, Fijians, Samoans, Tongans, South Africans, Sri Lankans, etc.
Another thing is college degrees aren’t valued here the way they are in the US. When Russ and I were dating, I asked once if it bothered him that I have a masters degree and he didn’t go to college. He laughed at me. Once I moved here I realized that the most successful people I knew hadn’t gone to college (a lot are farmers and entrepreneurs like Russ). University degrees aren’t mandatory to have a high status in this society.
What is expected here is an OE (overseas experience). Most people will leave New Zealand sometime after high school and live overseas for the minimum of a year. Russ did his OE in Italy and Turkey. You don’t have be 18 to do it either. We have a lot of married friends in their late 20s and mid 30s that have gone for 2+ years to travel and live overseas. They leave good-paying full time jobs here to go experience another country. I think it’s amazing!
How does work in NZ compare to work in the US? If possible, be specific about your own career and then branch out to broader comparisons between the overall work environment in NZ compared to the US.
As a PA working in general practice I would say there are countless differences between working in the US medical field vs. NZ. The biggest being you can’t sue doctors or PAs here, so liability insurance is a lot cheaper, plus we can focus on treating the patient rather than piles of paper work required to cover ourselves in case there was a lawsuit. The work environment feels more laid-back here. Docs don’t wear white coats (even in the hospitals) and most prefer to be addressed by their first name.
New Zealand as a whole, values humility, hard work, and a sense of humor. One of the biggest things I notice here is the feeling of equality in the work place. The receptionists, cleaners, managers, middle-men, etc. all inter-mingle in conversation, social life, sports, and work. People don’t complain as much. They have the mentality of, “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” or just “harden up”. I’ve never met a group of women as tough as Kiwi women and it’s rare to see a Kiwi male at my medical clinic unless he has been dragged there by his wife or is near death.
How do salaries in NZ compare to pay for your work in the US? (Don’t worry, I am not asking for figures here, just a comparison… )
I think most salaries here look the same on paper compared to the US but once you do the conversion, we would be making less here. The NZ dollar has been getting stronger lately which makes paying my US loans a little less painful.
Where can you save more, NZ or the US?
Definitely the US. The cost of living here is high. Honestly, I don’t know how people below the poverty line get by. Because we are so far away from other countries and so much is imported, the prices go up. Also because we are small we don’t have a lot of competing companies to drive prices down. Monopolies are an easy thing to have here. I wanted to paint a few doors in our house and a small can of grey/blue paint cost me $64! When Russ took me to the grocery store for the first time, I was physically gasping at the prices.
In saying that, if you grew up here, a university degree doesn’t cost nearly as much as in the US and the government gives you student allowance to help pay for your education so it’s a lot easier to come out of school debt free or with very little debt.
How is your lifestyle in NZ different from what it was in the US? What are the key differences, if any.
When I left I was living near Los Angeles so moving to a small farm town on the north island of NZ was a massive culture shock. Of course we have cities here if you want an urban lifestyle but most of NZ is made up of rural landscape dotted with small towns. The lifestyle here is relaxed and most people place value on spending time with mates and being outdoors. The feel I get is what I imagine small town America felt like when my grandmother was a child. I’ve seen semi-truck drivers pull over to help a farmer chase his cows back in the paddock. “Kiwi Ingenuity” is a real thing and nearly all babies are delivered by midwives here. Most people have a veggie garden or know how to grow one (I’m still learning) and kids can still go barefoot to school. Public holidays are taken seriously. Most businesses are required to close (even the clinic I work at closes) and people take the time off with friends and family.
How do you feel as a mother raising a child overseas?
I love that we will raise our kids in New Zealand. For Russ and I, this is the ideal place to be with a family. The only down-side is being far away from my parents, sister and friends in the States. One day, I’ll persuade my parents to move here…it might take another grandchild but we’ll get them. In the meantime visiting friends and family gives us an excuse to travel.
How do you travel with Alaska? What are the main challenges? How do you overcome them?
I’ve only just come back from visiting family and friends in Hawaii with Alaska (my daughter). It was my first trip alone with her as Russ had to stay for canyoning’s busy season. I was a bit worried beforehand but I found that so many strangers are helpful and understanding when you are traveling alone with an infant. The 9 hour overnight flight was the hardest. I was juggling her and making sure she was comfortable and able to sleep which meant I didn’t get any. Coming home was also a challenge. I took advantage of the cheaper prices in the States and ended up with two big full suitcases, a car seat, a backpack full of books and a baby strapped to my front. I’ve never been more thankful for those trolley-carts at the airport and the kindness of strangers. Even the guy behind the computer, scanning my bags, in Customs got up from his chair to re-load my enormous bags on the cart for me. Every baby is different so I can’t tell you how to travel with one but my one suggestion would be, try to go with two adults.
What do you say to people that claim children put a stop to overseas living? (I get a lot of this feedback to CultureMutt posts so I would LOVE to hear your take on this.)
Children are adaptable, especially when they are younger, and they tend to mirror the attitude of their parents. So if you are open-minded and positive about going to new places, they are likely to be the same. Plus, just think about how much more well-rounded your world view is after you travel and if you expose your children to it, they are likely be more understanding, confident, well-rounded individuals. Take them to a country that doesn’t speak your native language and they will pick it up faster than you will. Isn’t that a dream for most parents, to have a multi-lingual child?
One of the PAs that is here for two years came over with her husband and two teenage boys. They had to get use to a whole new school system and culture but they are learning so much more about life and people than you can get in a classroom or staying in the same comfortable place. Have you ever talked with a kid that has traveled or lived overseas? Usually they are quite mature and confident for their age. What parent doesn’t want that?
What do you miss most about life back home?
You mean, What do I miss most about life in the United States? I consider NZ home now.
My close friends.
The variety of stores and products.
Central heating and air-conditioning.
Are you going to keep moving around the world?
I can see us living for a year or two overseas but we would always come back to New Zealand. We will definitely keep traveling and take Alaska to see other parts of the world but I think this will always be home.
Would you ever move back to the US?
No. Ha…that’s the short easy answer.
What advice would you give someone that is reading this and wants to live a similar life?
Positive thinking is key. I could have easily gone down the path of “I’ll never get work as a PA in New Zealand. I’ll always be homesick and never make friends here. I won’t be happy because it’s different than what I’m use to.” Instead, I only imagine what I want my life to look like and then I try to go for it. So here I am, married to the man of my dreams that I pictured marrying 10 years ago, living in the country I want to live in and working in my profession that didn’t exist here 4 years ago. Haha…I’m embarrassed for making that statement. I would get slammed here for “self-nomming” (self nomination) because Kiwi’s don’t like a “noter” or someone who brags.
But I honestly believe you have to think that it is possible to have the things you dream of and keep those thoughts in the front of your mind. Also, if you believe in a higher power like I do, than I would say He makes all things possible if we ask Him…as long as we aren’t being the fence that’s holding us back.
Tiffany was born in Alaska and lived all over in the US before she moved to NZ. Russ and Tiffany live in Te awamutu on the North Island of Aotearoa (New Zealand). They co-own a canyoning company with another couple and run one of the most adventurous tours in the country near Auckland. You can check it out at www.canyonz.co.nz. Tiffany works part time as a PA in a family practice and the rest of the time she gets to be home with Alaska, her 6 month old daughter. Her days off are spent outdoors, exploring and enjoying all the natural beauty NZ has to offer.