The Final Chapter – Working Holiday New Zealand

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How should I begin with something that I don’t want to end?

This may possibly be my concluding post for my Working Holiday New Zealand chapter and perhaps the only one that I drafted notes of what to write. It has been 11 days since I’ve returned from New Zealand and 3 more days till I end my unofficial ‘Stay Home Notice’, so my freedom to do nothing at all will be ending soon as well. For the past 11 days, I have yet to step out of my house, surviving on blogging, Netflix, baking and sleeping. As much as I am excited to have my life back (though it won’t be awesome as we still have to practice social distancing and avoid less essential travel), I am also bogged down by the big question on ‘When will I get a real Job?’ Whatever it is, I got to treasure my final three days and perhaps complete this ‘9-month career break’ chapter of my life.

So today I was wondering how boring this ‘9 months career break’ text looks on my resume and I tried brainstorming for cooler description to explain my hiatus. ‘My Self-discovery Adventure’, ‘Falling in love with life again’, ‘The pursuit of stress-free life’, ‘My Journey with Nature’ and the list goes on but I still can’t find the right words to summarize my 9-months in an attention-grabbing manner. Yes, I am indeed worried about my job search and potential unemployment in this uncertain and downward spiraling economy (due to cov-19). After all, it’s my first time ‘quitting without a job’ 11-months ago and this puts me in a voluntary unemployment scenario which I am responsible for myself; but at this stage right now, I do not regret the decision as I believe this mini adventure I had was far richer than any other corporate jobs I could have been in; at that point in my life. Still, no regrets but let’s reflect.

Despite wrecking my head on how to create a proper structure and flow for this finale, I am still clueless about delivery. Thus, I’ve decided to opt for the casual (or perhaps spoken style where my ex-colleague once said that she can imagine me speaking every single word out loud when she reads) style which is kind of like a reflection of my thoughts, a summary of events, learning themes and also a bit of longwided story-telling, as I haven’t found the ability to reduce my words.

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Before the beginning

Before I left, many people have asked me what I wanted to achieve for this trip. I remember someone telling me that her friend went on a similar career break with the purpose of ‘Finding Yourself’ and she returned home without achieving the purpose as no one realy understands the true notion of it; were you even lost to begin with to need to find something? Well, I wasn’t a fan of setting noble and unachievable goals so I decided that the purpose of my trip was to ‘experience a stress-free life’. I’m proud to say that I fulfilled this agenda (in fact, it happened very early in the trip) and I did return home feeling pretty wholesome. Looking back, I had been pretty much stressed up my whole life. From young, I was an above average performer in school and it was stressful for me to maintain that status quo. Even after all that academic life, the first few months of job search as a fresh grad had been rather stressful. The stress level only increases when you hop over to adulthood. In my last job, I couldn’t let go of my work at all. I was checking work emails the moment I wake up, reading relevant articles at night and even on my days off, I’m thinking of improvements and suggestions for our consumer product. Even on vacations, I opted to bring my work laptop overseas so I can be on stand-by at all times. I also reply to my colleagues so quickly that they would even forget I’m on leave. Sadly, most of these stress had been self-inflicted and the only way I could let-go was, to quit. Some way or another, the working holiday option falls quietly in place as I remembered that I have always wanted to work overseas. The timing was right and the push factor was somehow getting stronger and viola, I made that tough decision reinforced by a quote that I read from a blog somewhere, “If you do not have the courage to quit your job, you don’t deserve to travel.”

The Unnecessary Preparation

Being a planner, it was only natural for me to embark on my extensive research on job opportunities, housing options, and the country in general and this was what happened:

  • I wanted to work in a ski resort and applied for every single one.

did not get any offer, but somehow an opportunity sprouted nearing the end of season

  • I thought I would get the job as a sales associate at a fruit shop after a very pleasant interview.

did not get the job; they said I was good but someone else was better and I was just on the waiting list

  • I bought a brand new Superdry jacket before I depart, thinking that it would be sufficient against the cold

I had to buy a warmer Kathmandu jacket eventually

  • I bought a new pair of waterproof Timberland boots for hiking and snow.

My boots were stolen on the first day at the ski resort

  • I bought a car at a premium from a car dealer (instead of a backpacker) for that extra guarantee and assurance.

I ended up spending $1.8k on car repairs after the warranty period

  • I chose a hatchback car, thinking that there may be a chance I get to sleep in it.

Never happened because I had too much luggage and did not own a sleeping bag

  • I was expecting myself to stay only for six months.

I extended my visa because I was eligible and I wanted to work for the cherry packhouse

  • I wanted to work in a cherry packhouse as it was supposedly a dream job, as described by past alumni

I wanted to quit after the second day

  • I hated the sun and I never wanted to work outdoors

I had 2 outdoors jobs – apricot thinning and vineyard work

Well, there’s this famous saying which had been very apt, 计划永远赶不上变化 which can be translated to: (your) plans will never be fast enough for the changes.

Adjusting & Adapting

It wasn’t difficult for me to adapt and adjust my habits as I told myself everyday that I was only a temporary visitor; and no one here will change their habits because of me. If I was going to be uncomfortable in an environment, I only had two options – to change myself or leave. I did eventually move out of one apartment after 3 weeks as I couldn’t adapt to the cleaniness and consideration level for one particular housemate, who did not wash the dishes after each meal. The other thing I couldn’t really accept (but I realised was the norm) was that they like to wipe their dishes dry after washing with a dish cloth. Everyone uses that same dish cloth to wipe their hands, and sometimes even use it to clean the table accidentally and god knows how much germs and bacteria lies within the cloth.

The other thing I found very hard to adapt was.. the lack of plastic bags. The New Zealand government banned one-time use plastic bags from 1st July 2019, which meant that supermarkets were no longer allowed to issue them (apart from the ones for fruits and vegetables). This meant that I had to remember to bring my recycle bags out of the house every single time I wanted to do grocery shopping, or risk doing a balancing act with all the purchases. Anyway, I ended up bringing my backpack out of the house with me everyday, especially after I sold my car.

Similar to Japan, the people here are very particular about trash and they have different bins for it. The type of bins and what goes inside varies across towns and it can be pretty annoying. In Christchurch, there’s a green bin for food trash while in Auckland, they ask you to grind the food trash down the sink. In Clyde, my landlord had a composting bin (for organic waste to be turned into fertilizers) where onion were not allowed. In Wanaka, there was a special blue bin solely for glass but in Christchurch, you put them together with the recycling yellow bin. To add on to the confusion, the bins are cleared once every two weeks (except for the green bin in Christchurch) and it is your responsibility to remember which day of the week the rubbish track is coming. If you forget or perhaps put the wrong bin out, your rubbish will not be cleared and the next time, your bin will be 4-weeks full. You will also have to position your bin at the edge of the pavement as the collection is done automatically via an extended mechanic arm. If it’s too far in, the arm can’t reach it and your trash remains. Complicated and Confusing; deal with it.

On a side note, I did write a post about the Environment Sustainability in New Zealand. Do give it a read if you have not.

Independence; and the price to pay for freedom

Back in my home country, I still live with my parents (this is usually the norm unless you get married), which means that I don’t have a lot of bills to pay every month. In return for this comfortable life, I do give up on some aspects of my freedom like.. getting interviewed (e.g. where I was going and blah), not deciding what I’m having for meals (assuming I’m at home) and constant amount of nagging. In New Zealand, I had the absolute freedom of controlling all aspects of my life including, sleeping and waking up at irregular hours without any nagging, deciding that I just want to eat chocolates for dinner, drinking alcohol every night, choosing to wash the laundry as and when I wished to and the list goes on.. I do admit that sometimes I do miss the extra help I could have gotten when I’m at home, but the freedom and independence somehow made me powerful. I had to be responsible for proper time management and set aside sufficient time to wash and dry my clothes. If I decide to wake up late, I will not have time for a good breakfast and survive on energy bars. If I choose to reach home past midnight, I will not be able to wash my hair as the hair dryer would wake my housemates up. And the price I paid for this power.

My first rental car broke down on my 7th day in New Zealand. The engine lights all came up and I was stuck on a 1-lane road near the hills. I felt so alone as there was no one else I could call or seek advice from, but the car dealer which rented the car out to me. I was panicking and I didn’t have any friends that I could ask help from as I didn’t know anyone at all. I was at a loss and my mind and emotions went mad; was I really ready to own a car? Everytime I had an issue with my car (which there were two more occurrences), I do wish that my family or close friends was around to comfort me. However, being in New Zealand meant that your nearest friend could be at least 30 mins drive away.

Furthermore, I chose (or perhaps it was the circumstances) to embark more than 80% of my trip alone. This meant that I had to buy a car and bore all the costs and risks on my own. However, traveling solo and owning a car meant that I was free to decide on my next move. I didn’t have anyone else to worry for and I could visit the grocery store 4 times a week; because I can. In the last 2.5 months where I did not own a car, I could only depend on others to bring me to grocery shopping (which resulted in the lost of enthusiasm in cooking) or venture out using the inconvenient public transport (if it exist). Without a car, I also had to plan my days, catering to the bus schedules, and check the time to ensure that I wasn’t going to be late. It was nice to experience life with and without a car because I only realised the inconvenience after I did not have a car. However, my car ownership journey was a very pricey one.

Building my social circle and comfort friends

Although I traveled alone, there were three times where I settled down more than a month in a town and.. I managed to build friendships and hang out with the same group of friends on multiple occassions. How did it all these friendships begin? Before going to Christchurch, I found an online forum and joined some group chats and found this girl who stays in Christchurch. I connected with her and spent a few weekends with her as I had nothing else to do. She added me to some other group chats (mainly on LINE and WeChat) and I joined a gathering and got to know another girl who I remained in contact even now. Also, I connected with a girl who introduced to me the concept of ‘sharehouse’ and how sharing a room wasn’t that bad after all. I moved to the sharehouse because I couldn’t stand the previous house where my house mates don’t wash dishes, and it was where I found my first family in New Zealand. There were 9 people staying in this sharehouse and I was staying in a 3-bed ensuite room. I had house mates who worked the same job as me, so we could carpool to work. Everyone was inclusive and we spent most weekends together, going out on road trips, having steam boats and I was very happy. Even when I moved out 5 weeks later, I still kept in contact with the girls and met them multiple times across the various cities.

My second ‘family’ was in Wanaka where I didn’t stay a long time but the friendships lasted a really long while. Despite being somewhat of an intruder to the community who had been formed right at the start of the ski season, they invited me into their activities, which I attended almost everyone. Before I know it, all my off days and ski resort closure days were occupied. I was house-hopping to each free dinners and playing card games till late at night. Even today, I am still chatting with my friends from Wanaka. I don’t know the reason for the connection but that’s something splendid about relationships; it just happens.

My third home was in Clyde/Alexandra, where I stayed the longest, for 3 months. As I wasn’t staying in a sharehouse, the friends I had were mainly from my work. Weekends were spent going to Queenstown and random off days were spent just ‘hanging out’ in town, at a cafe or climbing the Alexandra clock, the only attraction in Alexandra.

Like the saying goes, 出外靠朋友, I truly only understood the importance of this phrase when I’m overseas. When I first started out, I was afraid to ask for help, afraid to be imposing on others and I didn’t want to be a burden if it is not ‘on the way’ for my friends or not. After a while, I realised that you just have to be shameless and accept all help from strangers, friends and anyone that’s willing to help you. It won’t be easy to return the favour to the same friend but you can always pass on the kindness, to others. As I continued in my Working Holiday journey, I ‘pay it forward’ by helping the new comers and that’s how you spread the love and ‘return’ the favours.

Of all the experiences that I’ve encountered, this is the one that I treasure the most, the friendships that I have forged over the span of 9 months. Can’t wait for them to visit Singapore someday so I can bring them around to eat all my comfort food 😉

Home to beautiful mountains; but also natural disasters

There are many beautiful sights in New Zealand and the number one on my list would be the Hooker Valley Track at Mount Cook; on a good weather day. The first time, we were so amazed with the splendid view that we spent 5 hours for an otherwise 3 hours return loop track, because we stopped too often for photo taking. The second time, it was raining and we only walked to the first suspension bridge. Sad to day, the scenery in New Zealand is extremely weather dependent and you need to pray for blue skies whenever you are there. The next favourite view on my list was the opportunity to see the southern lights, not once but twice. Well, it actually happened three times this year but for the third time, it was too cloudy to even figure out what we were looking at. Before I went on my trip, I knew that southern lights was a possibility but I did not want to be too hopeful as it was very rare. I guess lady luck was on our side, and viola, I had my cameras feasting on the colourful lights. Just a disclaimer, it is almost impossible to see the colours (like those you see in photographs) with your bare naked eyes. You could see tints of greyish lights and that’s about it. I’m not sure if you could see more colours for the northern lights but I’ll find out one day when I’m there.

New Zealand is a beautiful country, which you should know by now, but did anyone remind you how this susceptible this country is to natural disasters? I experienced my first earthquake in my second month when I was in Christchurch. As I kind of experienced quakes in Japan before, the shakes felt familiar and the next thing I did was to google and confirm my suspision. It was a Saturday night and there was another quake the following Monday at work. I felt it another time in Clyde (Central Otago), Christchurh again in Jan 2020 and again in Motueka. The locals deal with earthquakes very calmly. It would be a, ‘oh, that’s an earthquake’ comment and then it would be business as usual. The next disaster that struck me was the massive mid-December rainfall that divided the South Island. I wasn’t affected by it directly but it did cause a power shortage to some cable lines and the entire spark/skinny phone network was broken for more than 12 hours. I panicked as I was unsure how long the downtime will take and I spent the evening watching videos from my hard disk and played candy crush to sleep. In January, another massive rainfall came and the southland and Milford area was greatly damaged. People who had planned months and years for their great walks couldn’t proceed and the entire Milford Sound was out of business for a long while. The situation was later on aggravated by the non-natural COV-19 outbreak and.. the tourism industry is almost dead now with the lockdown.

Work-Life Balance, it really does exist

The pursuit of a stress-free life; that was what brought me to New Zealand. The people here truly value the concept of work-life balance. They put in their best at work (not all but most), and strive to go home on time, returning to their families and pets. There’s no such thing as your supervisors disturbing you on days off or after work hours. I used to have a superior that likes to joke with me that Work = Life = Balance. Yep, that’s the type of atmosphere you have to deal with when you’re in stressful Singapore. For all of my short-lived careers in New Zealand, I was never disturbed during my hours off work and I never had to bring any work home. Then again, you could say that it was due to the nature of my job, that I do not deny. I came here to experience the concept of it but I know that this was not going to be the life for me, in the long run. I tried very hard to imagine the concept of true Work-Life Balance existing in Singapore but I just can’t. Anyway, I will get to restart myself in my new job so I’m going to see if I can enforce high efficiency and no overtime for myself. Let’s see.

The learning never ends

There are many life skills I learned through my stay in New Zealand. The first skill I learned was about cars, the year, model, make and engine size. I did not know the difference between 1.3L and 2.4L and what does ‘cc’ mean for the engine. After two breakdowns, I finally learned how to open my car front bonnet and where to check the engine oil and top up water for the wipers. Also, I realised that tyres do not have anything stuck to it. I also had visual experience in pumping air using the traditional air pump. Also, I figured out how to pump petrol on my own (in self service kiosk) and make payment without entering the shop.

Apart from all that car knowledge, I also mastered quite a bit of cooking and baking skills which comes after rounds of trial and error practice. To be honest, my teacher is ‘Google’ and you just got to follow the recipes and steps. I’ve learned to plan my meals around the promotions and I can be eating asparagus, eggplant or corn the whole week; just because it’s on offer. I also started to bake simple things to past time, and also to save money on desserts.

Apart from like real skills, I’ve also learned to be patient. In New Zealand, the minimum wage results in limited manpower and often, you will find yourself waiting. There can only be one waitress manning more than 20 tables in a restaurant. In my jobs, I’ve also learned to accept and not question. I’m not sure if this is a positive quality or not but I realised that sometimes I’ve been too outspoken and overbearing and love to impose my opinions on others. In New Zealand, I had to learn to be humble and to accept that I am not always right. Even if (I think) I’m right, I’ve to acknowledge their seniority and that this was their method for the past many years and that I have no right to question.

I’ve also learned to find meaning in the boring tasks. I may be spending 8 hours a day plucking away excess apricot growth but without people like me doing the jobs, there wouldn’t be those large and beautiful apricots for sale. Without people thinning the shoots of the vineyards, you won’t be able to get the high quality required for grapes and without mussel openers, you won’t be able to get half-shell green mussels in your supermarket. Every single job has a purpose and it is meaningful; but of course, it is up to the individual to discover the meaning from within.

I’ve also learned a lot about the environmental consciousness of the new zealand people. I’m not sure if it is possible but at least I’ll attempt to shop lesser because, there’s nothing that I really need. In New Zealand, I saw how people do not go chasing after brands or premium products. I hardly see branded bags and watch around and people tend to buy a good bag and use it for a really long time. I will also be more conscious on recycling efforts and not opt for a plastic bag if there isn’t a need to. It might be a small effort but I hope that I will be able to raise the consciousness bit by bit. I’m still a straw-lover but I’ll try; and it will be hard.

Lastly, it is about the people and their acceptance. I’m not sure about you but in my entire 9 months, I did not face any racism from anywhere. At times, there were comments but I think it was more of an ignorant question like ‘Is Singapore in China’ or that most Asians have slitty eyes but nothing was harmful. Most of the New Zealand people I’ve met are very accepting of foreigners and towards us, working holiday individuals, who are here to earn a living. In fact, some are even thankful for us to take up the jobs that their locals do not wish to do. I do hope that many tourists will learn about the beauty of New Zealand, and be willing to part with their money to buy their local goods. The fruits of New Zealand are always more premium than Australia, because the quality tends to be higher and stricter.

Final Thoughts

Today is the 14th day that I’m back from New Zealand. The voluntary self-isolation has kept me at home, giving me the time and space to think about my 9-months journey in New Zealand, and the thoughts I have for the future. Right now, the future is bleak – for the economy and the job market. I’m glad that I have a shelter over my head, my own bedroom with my comfy bed. 2020 is nothing within my expectations (I was supposedly looking forward to attending 9 weddings this year and a couple of concerts) so far and to be honest, I don’t know what the future brings. I love to start traveling again, write and blog more and perhaps connect with more of my readers in some way or another. I also hope to do some learnings online and perhaps find out what are the skills that I am lacking of.

Thank you for reading and thank you for accompanying me for the past 9 months in the pursuit of a stress-free life. If you’re having thoughts about going on a career break (like I have done), my advice is.. go for it! I had a lot of uncertainty about my decision and I am feeling helpless about my career prospects but I know things will be okay in the end. This 9-month working holiday had taught me more than any other coroporate job will ever would. If you need someone to chat with, I’m always around. Over the years, many of my readers have contacted me privately via email, instagram, facebook page to seek advice and tips on my travel and.. life. Don’t be shy if you need help. You can always pass the favour on in the future.

Stay Strong, World. We’re gonna evolve to be something better and greater.

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