Yesterday I had to answer this question: out of a list of a dozen countries, rank in order of preference those which you’d be happy to be living in this time next year.
This was not one of those Facebook quizzes which tells you the seventies song that most reflects your personality or who you were in a past life. This was a real question which tells me where I may well be living in a year’s time.
How do you answer a question like that? There were some obvious non-starters: South Africa and Romania, for example. I suspect the queue to get into Romania is quite short. India, China and Japan: fine countries but a bit too much of a cultural (and linguistic) leap with the four children and all. Germany: I spent two years working in the Jewish community and no. Josh keeps trying to tell me they’re very sorry and all but still no. I was keen on France because of the five years I spent hearing about le boulangerie in high school French but it turns out they only want people who can parlez-vous Francais which puts le spoke in le wheel for sure. I’m awesome with the Mon Dieu! and the oh la la! but Josh is the one with le earning capacity and voila, that’s the end of that.
Which leaves Dublin, Vancouver and Edinburgh. They all speak a variety of English and Josh and I have been to all three over the years and liked them. Vancouver is my favourite city of all time with its mountains and beaches and the Sea to Sky highway to Whistler where you get pancakes and mulled wine. Edinburgh has castles and is in the same country as Perth which has a tea shop where you eat cakes for charity which is a Nobel prize-worthy concept if ever there was one. We’ve lived in Dublin and have at least some familiarity with the strange traditions like everyone wandering around all day with a big grey dab on their foreheads. That one was quite a puzzler and we just assumed that aliens had landed until the Irish flatmate got home and explained Ash Wednesday to us. Plus we know the location of the Marks and Spencer chocolate department, home of the also Nobel-worthy lemon meringue bar. And we have an anchor baby, an Irish-born child which back in the day guaranteed the whole family residency and may still for all I know.
Why, you may be asking yourself, are we planning our family’s future by throwing a dart at a map? Well. It all started back in January. Josh and I were sitting in a cafe in Whatawhata drinking Che Guevara Revolutionary Cola
and Josh got an email notification from a recruiter from Amazon. He ignored it because it was basically spam. The guy had Googled for programmers and come up with an old LinkedIn profile that Josh set up a couple of years ago and hadn’t looked at since. The recruiter, Todd, said that he could see that Josh does object-oriented programming and would he like to interview for a job at Amazon? Now, seeing as pretty much all programming since the turn of the century has been of the object-oriented variety this is like saying ‘I see that you own a pair of sports shorts. Would you like to try out for the All Blacks?’ So we didn’t give it another thought and carried on our merry way to the beach.
Josh, though, had been a bit bored and frustrated at work so he eventually replied to Todd and asked for more information. It turns out that Amazon, based in Seattle, are looking to expand by hiring people from Australia and New Zealand. Because they have been expanding for twenty years already they have used up all the programmers in North America and need some colonials to pad out the numbers. So Josh agreed to a phone interview with Todd, which lead to a technical interview and then an invitation to their three-day long ‘recruitment event’ (because, Americans – why hold more interviews when you can have an Event?) in Auckland in February.
After the first conversation with Todd Josh asked Uncle Google what it’s like to work for Amazon. It’s a huge company and there are websites dedicated to ex-employees telling their stories. As with diagnosing your own illnesses on the internet it might have been better not to go there. The general consensus seemed to be that it would be preferable to have no job at all. In fact one lady who’s now homeless says she’s much happier than she was working for Amazon. The phrase ‘soul-destroying’ came up quite a bit.
This gave us pause. There were very clear themes coming through – long working hours, unrealistic expectations – and it seemed like a big risk to take given that it would mean complete disruption for all six of us. All of our children have wonderful friends, they’re all in good school situations, we’re living the life we wanted. You’d need a good reason to leave that.
So when Josh went to the Recruitment Event he was ambivalent. It was a free night in a posh hotel with an open mind at best. They insisted people were to dress casually and not wear a suit, which helped. And then he was converted.
The first evening was a series of presentations by some of the twenty (twenty!) Amazon employees who were there. They talked about the projects they’re working on, the teams the new recruits would be joining, life in Seattle and working conditions. Most of it was confidential but Josh told me what he could remember, safe in the knowledge that I don’t understand a word he says. This happens a lot when we talk. It might even be a metaphor for our whole marriage. Anyhoo, he was very excited by it all. The recruitment team were clearly well aware of Amazon’s reputation as the world’s worst employer and went to great lengths to assure everyone that the issues had been addressed. Some of the people presenting were Kiwis and Aussies – always a good idea to bring people who can communicate with the natives – who talked about relocating. They covered a lot of ground.
The next day Josh had a five-hour long technical interview. They spent five hours giving him problems to code the solutions to on a whiteboard. He was mostly dead by the end but managed to drag himself home with the free petrol after the free dinner and tell me he hoped he got the job.
A week later they offered him a job in the team that he’d liked the sound of, along with a salary that equates, in New Zealand dollars, to more than twice his current salary. There was a lot of fine print to read through because, compared to Americans, we’re kind of spoilt in terms of labour laws here. We’re used to the idea of someone needing a reason to fire you, and giving you warnings and notice and similar. Americans don’t believe in that sort of molly-coddling. Like most jobs there, this one is ‘at-will’ employment: you can be fired at any moment, effective immediately, without any reason at all. If Josh were to leave before two years were up we’d have to repay the money they spent on relocating us (and we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars) and the signing bonus which makes up a hefty chuck of the salary. So we didn’t just type YES in 32-point bold and press Send so hard the bottom fell out of the laptop, although it was tempting.
The truth is, for the last few years Josh has been earning at the top of the salary scale for what he does in Hamilton and we still have the Pioneer Woman lean times despite our best efforts. I’ve been doing a lot of relieving this year and by the time we were into week four and I’d already had to cancel several days of work due to sick or injured children it had well and truly confirmed that even a part-time permanent job isn’t an option for me just yet. We have enough children that there’s always someone needing me for something. Josh could earn more in Auckland but we can’t afford a house there – I don’t understand how anybody can, unless they bought it a really long time ago – so it didn’t look as though anything would improve in the forseeable future.
It was a lot to weigh up. A settled life which is a known quantity versus an adventure, a gamble: if all goes well we’ll have a great time and never have to worry about money again and if it doesn’t we’ll lose our house here and end up with debts we can’t repay. Fifteen years ago Josh and I took a backpack each and went to the other side of the world without a thought, and it was great, but four children is a big responsibility when you’re talking about changing pretty much every single thing about their lives.
We talked to people who have taken children to live overseas and they were all encouraging. The consensus was that kids are resilient and the experience outweighs the disruption by far. So we said yes. We will keep our house to come back to in a few years and in the meantime we’ll take whatever adventure is going.
Even with a signed job contract Josh still has to go into the lottery to get a U.S. working visa. They say he has a 70% chance of success in which case he’ll be going to Seattle in October – visa processing takes six months because they have to make really sure they only let nice people in; they don’t need any more terrorists as they already have a police force – and we’ll all follow after Christmas.
It’s the other 30% that gives rise to the question of whether we prefer the lemon meringue chocolate section in Dublin or the cake-eating for charity in Scotland. If the visa is not approved they will employ him in one of their other locations and try again for America the following year. Josh’s pick if this happens is to stay here and work for the Seattle team remotely, which would give us the American salary without the pesky business of having to go anywhere. While I do love the idea of paying off the mortgage a bit faster I’m also very taken by the prospect of being somewhere else. Who turns down the chance to live in a new country for a year? Not me, that’s who. Unless we get to the Romania and South Africa end of the list. I think they probably don’t do a lot of eating cake for charity there.
Until mid-May, then, when the lottery results are announced, your guess about where we’ll be next Easter is as good as mine. This makes things a bit difficult to plan. I’m constantly having thought sequences like this: ‘I’d better go and tidy up the garage a bit. But hang on, if I’m going to have to chuck it all out in six months anyway I might as well not bother. But I don’t know for sure and it would be handy to be able to get to the car without having to take a running jump. I think I’ll go and read a book and eat some cake’. You can see the problem.
The biggest issue, as you’ll no doubt have realised, is that I don’t know whether or not to put the ram in with the ewes. If we’re going to be here a bit longer I want to be able to keep eating roast lamb. If we’re not, there’s no point in letting Big Mama get knocked up. It’s a real puzzler and I don’t think the U.S. Immigration Service quite understands the urgency.
I won’t say I don’t have qualms. Last time we were planning a future by throwing a dart at a map we made a decision not to live in America while George W. was in charge because most of what he did was so objectionable. That’s no longer a problem but it’s been replaced by another concern: the moral issue around choosing to live in a country knowing that as foreigners we’ll be treated better than a large proportion of the existing population because we’re white. I do have a problem with that. New Zealand is far from free of racism to be sure but we’re not even close to being in the same league as America. Recently the media has reported several stories about people being killed by police for the crime of Being on the Street While Black. Do you know how many people have been killed since January 1 this year by law enforcement officers in the U.S? Over three hundred. Three hundred, in three months. Last year’s total was 1,100 that we know of but because each of their 18,000 police departments is autonomous and none are required to keep count it’s probably higher. It seems to me that a country whose police officers are not required to keep even a rough tally of how many people they’re killing has some very serious problems.
Seattle is a relatively safe city where 55% of residents aged over 25 have university degrees. We’ll be able to turn a blind eye there to all the bad stuff just as most other white Americans must be doing and it bothers me that we’ll be among the privileged in that respect. If we were not white we would not be considering going to live there and it doesn’t sit right with me that we can choose to take up an opportunity for adventure and greater financial freedom because of the fact that Josh and I happen to have been born, to no credit of our own, with the colour skin that people shoot at less frequently.
I suppose that’s a worry for another day. We’re in the hands of fate now. Que sera, sera. I might as well go and gaze at the ewes and weigh up the lambing question because that, at least, I have some control over.