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“Why did you move to London?” has been the question of the last two months. “Wellington was getting very small” is the fallback, along with something about using an EU visa before Brexit. Although these responses are prepackaged, there is something to them. (And “I wanted to stay with my girlfriend” seems all a bit much for the guy next to me at the bar). Having spent the best part of the last 24 years in Wellington, the city had become very familiar. It began to feel small beyond it’s-nice-to-walk-everywhere. There are only so many times you can walk down the same street without getting bored. It’s not meant to be depressing, just kind of inevitable.
London, in all its newness, feels simultaneously massive and claustrophobic. With a group of friends, all new to the city, we went into the Boxing Day sales. The ridiculousness of it all made it seem like it had to be done. We knew it was a bad idea. Soon we were ants in a crowd with no sense of cooperation. We were split up among 500,000 Londoners, spat out from Uniqlo to Muji to H&M. At this point I was a teenager going to their first film without parental guidance, or Winston Smith going to work. The number of people, the history and architecture of the buildings, the taste of expensive fashion, all work to make the city feel very disorientating. How calm Wellington must seem to all those backpackers on Victoria Street and Cambridge Terrace.
The choice vs. the necessity of living in another country is a great delineator of our world’s inequality. The expat’s experience — as opposed to the immigrant’s experience, or the refugee’s experience, or the asylum seeker’s experience — is imbued with Western privilege. For one, the expat always expects to be able to return home. The O.E. is finite, and we are happy for this as the world’s borders become increasingly hard to navigate. The expat’s justification is that the experience might ultimately teach kindness and open-mindedness. “Maybe it is here I will really be able to find myself.” Yet we still flock to Melbourne, London, and Berlin, where, if you are lucky enough to speak English, you can. A Contiki is still the quintessential O.E., and no one finds themselves while comatose in the back of a tour bus.
When writing this column on ‘the expat experience’ I don’t want to shy from the fact I am writing from a privileged position. I’ll forever be asking myself why I moved to London. I answered it again last week, though. I had my first ever conversation with a women in a niqāb. She liked English Breakfast tea.