Americans in New Zealand talk about life in the aftermath of Trump and Covid

Not long after leaving managed isolation, American immigrants Dr Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell attended a rugby game at Wellington’s Cake Tin, a venue with a capacity of 34,500 people.

“It was fantastic but at the same time my ‘fight or flight’ was on the whole time,” says Mitchell, of being in close proximity with so many excited, shouting sports fans when a virus known to spread via spit droplets was scything through the world’s population.

This was back in August of last year and, while Mitchell understood he was safe in New Zealand, with its internationally lauded Covid-19 response and low infection rate, it took a while to let go of the fear. The survivor’s guilt remains.

Mitchell, a writer, and Melinek, a forensic pathologist, who together produce bestselling crime novels (their latest, Aftershock, is out now), were understandably scared. In her role at the sheriff coroner’s office in Oakland, California, Melinek had seen how ill-prepared the US was. She couldn’t get the protective gear she needed for her staff and was constantly worried she would bring the virus home to her family. She watched with horror as President Donald Trump repeatedly dismissed the danger.

When a recruiter got in touch about a job in Wellington, Melinek jumped at the opportunity to experience what she considers an “A-plus, gold standard” public health response, and to see her daughters, aged 17 and 15, able to attend school in person and hang out with friends.

The family feel very welcome in New Zealand and hope to stay for many years but are aware of a slight simmering tension below the surface.

“People hear my North American accent and then they kind of feel me out about politics a little bit to see if I am going to be a MAGA-hat maniac of some sort,” says Mitchell. “And if I’m not, they’re like, ‘Oh okay, you’re one of the good Americans.’ I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t consider Trump voters ‘bad Americans’ but Kiwis do tend to slot us into one of two categories, and I very clearly fit one of those categories.”

Says Melinek: “If anything, people treat us with empathy, kindness – and a certain amount of pity.”

To be an American living in New Zealand right now is to feel lucky, guilty, sad (and probably embarrassed) all at once. When the last census was taken on March 6, 2018 there were 27,678 people in New Zealand who were born in the United States and 16,245 people who identified themselves as American – just 0.35 per cent of the population. We tend to stand out.

I was born in California and first lived in New Zealand aged 3, with my Kiwi dad and American mother. We moved frequently throughout my childhood and my schooling was about evenly split between the two countries. In the United States, people didn’t know where New Zealand was or particularly care.

In New Zealand, though, everyone not only knew about America but had strong, often negative, feelings towards it.

I have a squirmy childhood memory from the mid-80s, blurry on the details but sharp on the emotions, as these things often are. I am being challenged by children on the playground at Gisborne Central School: Why are Americans trying to bring their nuclear ships here? I remember the hot flush of self-consciousness and also irritation.What authority do I have?

I don’t remember what I said but, as I was newly arrived from California, I am guessing it was fairly star-spangled. I was a patriotic little kid, used to pledging allegiance to the flag every morning – standing beside my desk, placing my right hand on my heart and reciting: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I have now lived in New Zealand long enough – more than half my life – to no longer feel the need to explain the United States to people or to defend it. But the past five or so years have been challenging. When you have grown up believing in the sheer elegance of the three-branch Federal government, with its checks and balances designed to dilute executive power, it is heartbreaking – and frightening – to see the system unravel at speed.

Sandy Graham, co-owner of Martha’s Backyard, an Auckland shop that carries American products, says she meets a lot of Americans who came to New Zealand to get away from politics – although she likes to say she came here for love. From New York State, she met her Kiwi husband while travelling and moved to New Zealand in 1997.

“It took me coming here to find out Canadians don’t like us,” she laughs. “People hear my accent and ask, ‘Are you Canadian?’ ‘No, I’m American.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ they say.”

She has lived in New Zealand through 9/11, the Afghanistan invasion, the war against Iraq and the reality TV disaster that was Trump’s presidency. During the Bush years “you were almost afraid to be American” and during the Trump presidency it was “an embarrassment”, she says.

“You were the butt of many comments and jokes. I wasn’t a Trump supporter when he got elected. I thought, ‘Okay, let’s give him a chance.’ I actually had someone say to me, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’ I have never felt ashamed but when they said that, it was a stab to the heart.”

Graham was offered Trump memorabilia while on a buying trip. Customers had been asking for it, so she stocked some, just as she would fulfill a request for Pop-tarts (moreish breakfast pastries you heat in the toaster) or seasonal M&Ms. The complaints started immediately: “How can you sell Trump items? How can you support him?

“I dumped a whole bunch of it and I kept some so when people asked I could go get my special box. I didn’t buy any more. I did not want to go down that road again. It was bad. It’s hard not to take that personally.”

Graham’s last buying trip was in March of 2020. She knew border closures were likely so planned an extended stay in the US, to stock up. As she packed, her husband said, “I feel like I’m sending you off to war.”

Graham was so unnerved by the long lines outside supermarkets and locals’ obvious unease that she came home after less than a week. “I was on the ground and I saw how things were falling apart.”

Melinek believes that if Trump had won a second term and the Senate majority had not shifted to the Democrats, there would have been a massive brain drain from the US as doctors and other scientists fled to countries where their expertise was valued.

The election of President Joe Biden has offered significant hope – even to see him role-modelling mask-wearing is comforting – but, says Melinek, “the United States has suffered due to political decisions, not lack of science or know-how”.

There have been 560,000 Covid-related deaths in a year. Says Mitchell: “It’s not just half a million people, it’s half a million families and all their friends, a traumatic event at a scale that hasn’t been seen in the US since the Civil War.”

On election night in 2016, as Trump declared victory, American travel blogger Liz Carlson, aka the Young Adventuress, wrote an impassioned post that quickly blew up: How to Move to New Zealand as an American. She began, “What a sad day, guys. I have never been more ashamed to be American than I am today.”

Carlson was genuinely alarmed by Trump’s rise – but she also knew she was on to a traffic-generating idea. In the 12 weeks following that election, US-based applications for New Zealand citizenship jumped by 70 per cent. (In the uncertain days following the 2020 election, when it wasn’t clear whether Trump would manage to hold on to the presidency, tens of thousands of Americans visited the government site New Zealand Now, which describes the entry requirements and the “warm welcome” awaiting foreigners.)

Carlson, who comes from Virginia and has lived in New Zealand for a decade, ended up on Dateline NBC, talking about life as an American expat. “I got a lot of hate,” she says of the local reaction. “It brought out some really negative attitudes of ‘we don’t want you here’.” She senses “weird stuff running under the surface” now too.

“I feel like Kiwis have always looked at Americans with scepticism and trepidation and Trump solidified those fears,” she says. Now running a highly instagrammable houseplant business in Lyttelton and still blogging, Carlson says she makes a point of pitching herself in a non-threatening way to Kiwis, who can baulk at the confidence and noise-making capacity of your average American.

“I am self-deprecating, I try to present myself in a way that doesn’t ruffle feathers.” It would seem to be working. “Someone told me once I was smart for an American,” she laughs. ” I feel more Kiwi than American in a lot of ways. When I go home people say, ‘You talk funny.’ I am in a weird in-between limbo.”

California native Kagwa Kironde, the managing director of Dream Config, a web design and marketing agency in Auckland, can no longer imagine living in the United States after 10 years here.

“During the Trump administration, I was probably less patriotic than I have ever been. Over the past four years I’m like, ‘This is me. I’m never leaving this country.’ You see things like these mass shootings and think, why would I ever want to go back? It’s difficult to imagine ever going back now.”

Kironde has a Kiwi partner and has never felt unwelcome. He notes that before people assume he’s American, they ask if he’s Canadian, to avoid offence. “I can easily make jokes about being loud or whatever.”

“Being half Ugandan, people know I’m American but they can see something else is going on as well. The initial reaction would be more curious.”

Unlike some American imports, Kironde enjoys wide-ranging political discussions with Kiwis. He says they help him work out his stance on issues. “When I am home, it’s all you can talk about. Here, it helps me process what’s happening in the States.”

Covid, while keeping him apart from family, has paradoxically also drawn him closer. There is a lively family chat group and weekly Zoom calls. “They were locked down for a year,” he says of his family. “Their daily reality was more like a movie, the sadness and trauma. But there’s some beautiful resilience.”

He hopes to see them in person at the end of the year. Carlson, whose stepfather, died unexpectedly last April, has been unable to return home to grieve with family. “I am really angry, and the more I think about it the angrier I get,” she says. “I love the way New Zealand has handled Covid but managed isolation makes me angry.” She goes online everyday to look for flights that are then cancelled and to book MIQ spots that don’t exist.

Mitchell and Melinek miss their adult sons in the States terribly. They crave hugs, time spent in the same room. Graham, who used to fly to the US every three weeks for work and lost her mother last January, is settling into a new kind of life. She has done this before, but it’s different now.

She says: “The world has changed and I guess we all have changed as well.”

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