Game Developer moves family from USA to Wellington

Jordan and Jo Leary wanted their children to become “citizens of the world” – so they left the United States and moved to Wellington for a fresh start.
Game Developer moves family from USA to Wellington

It is good to have a comfortable life, Jordan Leary believes. But that means you are not always developing as a person. Sometimes you need to “shake things up”.

He and his wife Jo were living with their two children in Utah, in the United States – in the city where Jo had grown up, and where they had met at university. Jordan realised it was time for a change.

I wanted to broaden our family’s world view. I wanted our children to think of themselves not just as citizens of a single country, but as citizens of the world,” he says..

Jordan, who works as a game designer and developer, applied for jobs in Germany, Australia and New Zealand. It felt like a particularly big step for Jo, but as she says, “We figured if we were leaving, we might as well really leave!”

When Jordan got a job in mid-2015, suddenly, everything changed. Over the next three months, they sold the family home and chose to get rid of most of their possessions, rather than send them in a container to New Zealand.

Children Lucy, 12, and Gabriel, 11, had mixed feelings about the move. “They were excited to see a new country, they had heard about it from their friends who had lived here, but they were also very sad to be leaving family and friends,” Jordan says.

Still, at least the kids didn’t have to organise the paperwork. “The visa application process was quite involved. There were a lot of different forms to fill out, medical examinations, background checks,” explains Jordan.

“It’s quite stressful because if any of these things falls through, or it takes too long, that holds up the whole process and delays your start date and flights. We were lucky it went quite smoothly.”

They landed in Wellington in October 2015. It was the beginning of a different, simpler way of life. Jordan and Jo decided not to buy a car, and simply rent one for out-of-town trips. Choosing the right place to live was vital.

“It was important to live near a school for our kids. We wanted to be near nature as well, somewhere we could get out into the bush, and have a bus nearby,” says Jordan.

Not having a car has been good for Lucy and Gabriel, Jo explains. “If they want to go somewhere, they have to get there themselves. They can’t just rely on somebody else getting them where they need to go,” she adds.

Jordan works as a senior game designer for PikPok, which develops games for computers and mobile phones.

“The culture at PikPok is great, it’s very laidback, and everybody is really excited about what we’re doing. There’s a lot of energy around the office.”

“At the end of the day, people switch off from work. You’re not getting emails from work all evening. In other companies I’ve been in, you’ll continue seeing emails at all hours of the day.”

Once she had helped the kids settle in to school, Jo found it difficult to be alone during the day.

“Getting involved earlier in things would have made things easier for me. I started volunteering at the community centre, and that was really nice because the people I was volunteering with became friends almost immediately,” she explains. She also volunteered at Lucy and Gabriel’s school, in the library.

Back in Utah, Jo had worked as a tax accountant. Early job research she did, which included contacting Wellington firm CloudTax, really paid off. Not long after arriving, Jo had followed up and met the director, and soon after she was offered a part-time role, helping manage the taxes of other American migrants in New Zealand.

The family lives in the suburb of Karori, and Jo loves the easy access to walking tracks in the bush.

“It is like you’re out in the middle of the forest, but you still have cellphone reception. We spend a lot of time at Karori Park, too. It has an area for exercising, and the kids can play in the playground. It’s also a great place to throw the Frisbee [a disc-shaped toy]. When there’s no wind, it’s just perfect.”

Yes, Wellington and its wind. PikPok’s human relations manager warned Jordan about certain things: the sun burns people quickly, Wellington is very hilly, and the wind can be very strong.

“But hearing about it is not the same as feeling it!” laughs Jordan. “When we first arrived here, we were taken up to Mount Victoria. I was stunned by the view but I was also stunned by the wind, it was quite cold and very strong. We’ve learned to get used to it.”

On weekends, the family gets out and about. Favourite destinations include the national museum Te Papa, for its many exhibitions, and a nature reserve called ZEALANDIA.

“They’ve fenced off this area, to keep out pests that kill birds, so the native birds of New Zealand can thrive. I enjoy watching the kaka, a type of parrot that makes a horrible noise, but they’re very intelligent birds. The tui make incredible sounds, like I’ve never heard before from a bird,” he says.

They were also warned about earthquakes. The Learys have already experienced several, including the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in November 2016.

“That was quite surprising, one or two minutes of constant shaking in the middle of the night. It can be quite disorienting,” says Jordan.

Lucy has been in a kapa haka (Maori culture) group, Gabriel does karate, and both have joined a theatre group. Jo says making new friends is a good learning experience.

“They know what it’s like to be the outsider, to be the person who is alone at first. I hope that will make them kinder and more empathetic in the future to other people,” she says.

"kids are only kids once"

The school system in the US has a much stronger focus on testing, Jo explains. Lucy is worried that when she returns to the US, she will be behind in her studies.

“But the positive side is, kids are only kids once. They only get one special time of life where they get to play and have all these other, unofficial learning moments, such as field trips and sleeping at the zoo,” adds Jo.

Returning to Utah is still a possibility, says Jordan. They will think about that idea once a year.

Community is a really hard thing to build, it takes a long time to do that. We’ve made a lot of great friends here but we still miss our family and friends back home,” he says.

Jo adds, “My mother-in-law knew we were missing the snow. So for Christmas, she sent us fake snowballs that the kids like to throw at each other and at us.”

Moving overseas isn’t for everyone, says Jordan. “If you like stability and comfort, and you don’t want to be shaken up, I wouldn’t suggest making the move,” he explains.

Then again, a move means that anything could happen, adds Jo.

“It might be an amazing, wonderful experience, or it might be a really hard, awful experience. If you’re OK with taking that risk, then do it. Jump in with both feet and see what you can make of it.”

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