Susie Busby says her friends in the United Kingdom still ask her when she is moving back.
“I’m not. Right now my life in New Zealand is great. I live in a lovely seaside community and I am well-connected. We are at the beach every day; we are really happy.”
But Susie did not always feel that way; it took persistence and a children’s playcentre to feel at home.
Susie, her husband Pete – a New Zealander - and their two children live in Lyall Bay in Wellington. They moved to New Zealand from London in 2014 to be closer to Pete’s family and to give the children “a safer and more carefree upbringing”, she says.
Susie had visited New Zealand as a 21 year old and loved it. Years later in the UK she met Pete at a party. “Moving to New Zealand was always something that we discussed right from the beginning.”
Because Pete is a Kiwi, she knew what to expect in terms of living standards and the cost of living. “I knew about the uninsulated housing stock, I knew it was expensive to get milk and bread and butter in comparison to where I am from.”
But making friends and feeling at home was far harder than she expected. “I have lived in different countries and I expected it to take at least a couple of years before I felt truly settled. For me that meant networks, friendships, work, a sense of belonging in a place. I struggled more than I thought I would.”
Susie’s children were both under two when the family moved and Susie took a break from her career to care for them. At home with two small children, she felt isolated and frustrated.
“I am the sort of person who needs people. I need to connect. The first winter was pretty awful. Our house was cold, my family, who were my main network, were away for six weeks, and one week my husband was away too, so I did not speak to another adult for a whole week.”
Susie was researching childcare and kindergarten options when she discovered Playcentre, an organisation where families work together in their communities to provide early childhood learning experiences. Playcentre immediately made a huge difference, she says.
“I found a community I went and experienced with my children, and learned with my children, with families in my neighbourhood who were like-minded. I was emotionally and mentally stimulated and connected.”
The Playcentre community became a useful source of information and connections, Susie says. “I got into netball teams [through Playcentre], I found out where you might want to go for a holiday or what people do if there is a problem – like when to go to the doctors. All of these things are very different and it is quite hard to navigate because it is not made clear to you when you arrive.”
A year after joining the Playcentre in the suburb of Hataitai, Susie became its President. She is still the Treasurer even though she is not actively involved in running the Playcentre at the moment.
“We were part of the Playcentre for about two and a half years. But the contacts I made in that time have endured and I am still very good friends with a lot of the people I was there with.”
The Playcentre was also a fantastic learning environment for her children, and has set them up well for school, she says. “They were supported. The other parents knew them as individuals and what they liked and what they did not like. When [my son] went to school, the transition was effortless. He was able to realise the teacher was someone who would work with him and help him and engage him.”
Pete, an audio engineer, also found it difficult to make friends after spending many years overseas. He was still in touch with highschool friends, but had to re-establish those friendships and find new ones.
“It’s difficult when you have a young family and you’re trying to support a household on a single salary. That is your focus. You don’t have a lot of time left for socialising.”
People in their mid to late 30s often already have friends and are not necessarily looking for new ones, he says. He found friends through work, hobbies and family, but it took time. “You can’t force these things.”
Susie says migrants to New Zealand need to be prepared to put time and effort into making connections and friendships. “You have to be brave; you have to put yourself out there. Join the local groups, find out where your community boards are, approach people.”
Making friends can be like dating, she says. “Be prepared for rejection and be prepared to pass your number out and maybe not get the call from someone. Keep going and be yourself, try not to take it personally and you will get there.”
Friends can also be made unexpectedly, she says.
Susie met one of her closest friends when she posted on Facebook looking for a photographer to help out with some part-time work she was doing. “Now we are really good friends and it makes me happy, that’s what I was missing.”
Susie and Pete spent two years researching and thinking about the move before they decided to immigrate. They were determined to make it work.
She knows of families who have moved back and forth between the UK and New Zealand many times. “They go to New Zealand because they want that quality of living and they stay for a couple of years but find it too hard and they are homesick. So they go back to the UK and then say, ‘Oh, it’s really fast-paced here and it’s stressful’, so they move back here. For us, it was a one-way ticket.”
Susie, who now works as a communications advisor for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, says she has worked hard to secure a feeling of belonging and is now enjoying the rewards. “The [Lyall Bay] community is fantastic. Everyone walks to and from school, we go for coffees together, I play netball, I work not far away from our house, which has a nice bit of land around it. We really could not ask for more, but it took a while to get there.”
“I went back to the UK recently and New Zealand felt like home. I wanted to come home and I was very proud to say that.”