Julie Middleton: Why the Long March series?

By Julie Middleton, Herald senior writer Julie Middleton reflects on the Long March series.

The plan was this: find a Chinese couple or family who wanted to migrate to New Zealand, follow them through the immigration process and, once their feet were on New Zealand soil, document the ups and downs of their first year.

The point was to tell a public largely ignorant of the realities of migrant life what really happens when you move halfway across the world to a country so fundamentally different. And now that Chinese culture is so visible in New Zealand, we wanted to explain some of it: prejudice, after all, is usually borne out of ignorance.

The New Zealand Immigration Service liked the idea and gave me the names of several people who had lodged Expressions of Interest as skilled migrants, and who were expected to achieve permanent residency.

Computer programmer Emilly Ji, then 28, was ideal: educated, one of China's growing middle-class, and very motivated to better herself.

Accompanied by photographer Kenny Rodger and assisted by the bridge-building Asia-New Zealand Foundation, (thank you, folks) I spent two weeks last year amidst the glitz and grinding poverty of Shanghai, finding out why Emilly was targeting New Zealand, what it was about China she wanted to leave behind, and documenting her life with husband Guang Min Liu, a Yamaha sales executive.

What did the experience teach me? That China is fascinating, with hospitable people, many admirable social values, and a rich culture. That China can be a hard place to live: crowding and pollution is widespread, and the gaps between rich and poor are widening. That people are chafing under the weight of an authoritarian regime that wants the benefits of western business - but none of the democracy.

I also learned that our immigration policy is quite a confusing and seemingly contradictory beast. After long months of form-filling and waiting, Emilly was declined residency because she ended up ten measly points short of the 100 needed, her China work experience denied credit because NZIS deems China to not be a comparable labour market. (I did challenge NZIS about this apparently discriminatory practice - you can see its response in the third part of the series.)

So the grand plan changed tack slightly, drawing in another couple from Shenyang, accountants Sean Wang and Susan Ma who settled on the North Shore in 2003. They described their first impressions, the shock of the new - and shared unanticipated discoveries about themselves.

Overall, it became clear that between a migrant and a Kiwi, aspirations don't differ much: good prospects, a good education for one's children, a clean, attractive environment, and some time to enjoy it all. And seeing things through migrant eyes showed that there is far more to unite us than divide us.

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