The Long March: Closer to the promised land

By Julie Middleton, Julie Middleton
Readers' Views: Click on the link at end of story.

Sean Wang and Susan Ma, both 33, have decided that they are going to quit China's grind, pollution and crowding to start afresh. Sean in particular wants to learn the Western accounting systems they have been encountering at China Telecom as the nation's economy opens to the world.

One day, Sean says, he wants to have the letters CA - chartered accountant - after his name. Susan wants a cleaner environment and less stress.

They plough into research. Canada is too cold, Sean says, and Australia a little bit too hot.

New Zealand's cleaner environment and more relaxed lifestyle seem just right - and it's an easier immigration process.

All they know of New Zealand, Sean says, is what they remember from schooldays - "sheep and spectacular scenery" - and from The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. They buy or download everything they can find about the country and quiz contacts who are already there.

Migrants are screened for general skills criteria. When the couple started their search they were working with rules that applied until November 2003.

Sean needed 24 points to apply for permanent residency. He worked out that he had 27 points for qualifications, work experience in China, English language tests, and age.

They have been helped by a friend who works for an immigration agency. It took about a year to gather all the information; a long time because most of their time is spent at work.

Emilly Ji and Guang Min Liu, who are applying under the more stringent skilled migrant system in place since December 2003, are in for a shock once they start reading the small print.

They have good jobs but none of their Chinese work experience can earn the vital points they need for New Zealand residency. It's just policy. Under the new system, China is not a comparable labour market.

It also doesn't seem very fair. China is indeed a developing country - but Emilly's work and her company's output looks like any other successful Western IT business. Emilly, a perfectionist who knows her worth, is dismayed: "My work here is as good a standard as if it was in the UK."

Guang Min has a different reason to feel miffed.

The policy says that because he doesn't reach the English requirements - his English is very basic - he can't get points for his chemistry degree from Beijing's Tsing Hua University, one of China's best.

What really bugs Guang Min is that if he worked for Yamaha in its home country, Japan, he'd get the points, because the NZIS (immigration department) views Japan as a comparable labour market.

"They care about the little things but not the big picture," grumbles Emilly. "It makes no sense."

They find this out after paying $315 and sending an online, 36-page "expression of interest", the first step in the migration process which asks for a resume of their lives, but not, at this point, documents of proof.

It also poses some questions that seem unlikely to produce an honest answer, such as: Have you been a terrorist?

A call from NZIS relays the news about Guang Min's lack of credits but reassures Emilly that they appear to have enough points - the magic 100.

Emilly casts her mind back over the expression of interest, on which she is listed as the principal applicant and Guang Min as a dependent.

She does the new tally in her head: 30 points for being aged 20 to 29. (The points reduce after 30 - those aged 50 to 55 get only 5.)

For a recognised post-graduate qualification: 55 points for her master's degree.

A qualification in an identified future growth area or an area of shortage: 5 points.

Relevant work experience: 10 points for two years of part-time and holiday work while she studied in England. Tally: 100, the minimum required.

It's too close for Emilly's liking. She knows that threshold might rise. There are further questions she wishes she could have answered differently.

Do you have a job in New Zealand? 0 points out of 60.

A job offer? 0 out of 50.

A job or an offer in regions identified as being in a skills-shortage area? 0 out of 5.

A job offer outside Auckland? 0 out of 10.

February rolls into March, and Shanghai is cold and misty as Emilly waits.

Expressions of interest sit in a pool and every two weeks a certain number are chosen and applicants "invited to apply" - make a formal application, with NZIS examining every claim in detail.

At first Emilly rushes home every day after work to check her status on the NZIS website. For several weeks there's nothing. She starts feeling impatient.

It's not until six months later - early August - that Emilly is invited to apply for residence. This means that she has to back up, with the right documentation, everything for which she claims points.

She tries not to get too excited - "this is just the first exam" - but finds that hard to contain when she receives an attractive folder from NZIS called Living in New Zealand.

Gorgeous pictures show the promised land. Two boys play under a sprinkler's spray ... a man trims his lawn atop a ride-on mower ... migrants talk enthusiastically about their new lives. There's advice: how to open bank accounts and the meanings of abbreviations in "houses to rent" columns. The advice is honest: "Parts of New Zealand can be cold," she reads out to me, "and houses that do not get a lot of direct sun may have problems with dampness during the winter months."

Emilly is disappointed to read that the Chinese unemployment rate is 9 per cent, nearly three times greater than the general population.

"But I want to try by myself, and see what's going on. People have different situations. I'm not going to give up easily."

The chapter on the Treaty of Waitangi doesn't make sense to her, nor the bit about parliamentary democracy. The idea is academic - she has only ever known one-party rule.

The final chapter offers tips on social etiquette. New Zealanders like people to wait their turn in queues, ask if it is acceptable to smoke, and not make uninvited sexual advances. And "it is not considered polite to spit in the street or to blow your noise on to the pavement".

Kiwis "are passionate about sport and have a firm belief in social equality" and "a standard and rather charming feature of working life in New Zealand is 'Friday Fives', which generally involves management and staff sharing drinks together in the office".

I've never heard end-of-week drinks called Friday Fives and Emilly finds it weird. In China, management and staff have formal relationships and socialising is limited.

Emilly and Guang Min intend to arrive in New Zealand with about two years' living costs in a lump sum. "The first thing I worry about is jobs," says Emilly. "I don't know how hard it will be."

She has started investigating New Zealand's IT scene but she's read about the obstacles facing migrants and doesn't hold much hope of landing a job from so far away. However, she will start applying. Emilly is outgoing and social. She laughs readily and she and Guang Min are evidently a happy couple. But, she says, "I also worry about acceptance by others. Can you make friends, close relationships?"

Emilly hopes that maybe religious groups will introduce her to people. She is curious about Western religion. When she arrived in England to do her master's degree she joined a group for migrants run by Jehovah's Witnesses which discussed British culture, and, for the first time in her life, the Bible. She was amused when the Witnesses said the internet was evil. Emilly has always felt that there was some higher being out there - "I don't know, but I am wondering about that" - but growing up in an officially atheist country has left her without a spiritual vocabulary. "The Party told us there was no God."

NZIS gives Emilly three months to provide the necessary paperwork. Phone calls are made from Shanghai to Beijing and back again. The officers, says Emilly, are "helpful". She doesn't need to do an English test because when she studied for her master's degree she used English.

Guang Min, rather than failing a test in China, which he fears would be likely, is allowed to opt for pre-paid intensive lessons should the couple be admitted to New Zealand.

Emilly and Guang Min both have chest x-rays and spend an hour in a top-to-toe medical test which records everything from their pulse rates (normal) to how much alcohol they say they drink (very little - give Emilly a beer and it lasts all night).

The couple also need to prove their good character. A certificate from the Chinese police costs each of them $170. And Emilly needs to get one from Britain, another $26.

Immigration asks for the couple's passports. Although that seems a hopeful sign, Emilly knows an "invitation to apply" isn't a firm nod - NZIS has made that clear.

The process to date has been faceless, carried out by letter, email and phone call. Chinese prefer to build relationships face-to-face, Emilly says, and developing trust is crucial.

Eventually, a letter does arrive: "Application 5937088," it reads. "Before we can proceed with your application we need to arrange an interview with you and your spouse."

Great, she says, a chance to impress. "Migration is such an important decision in people's lives. Whatever the result is, we want to meet the people who decide our fate." The email also clarifies how crucial the meeting is. "This is the only interview," says the officer. "I am not able to tell you the decision for your application right after the interview. The decision can be made within one month ..."

On the 12-hour, overnight sleeper train that covers the 1300km between Shanghai and Beijing, Emilly has a dream. "I am on a New Zealand beach," she says. "It looks very beautiful, but I can't find Guang Min. I go looking for him and at last I find him - he has gone to get an icecream for me. So, a good dream."

The officer is a pleasant Chinese woman. It is agreed that she will speak with Guang Min in Chinese and Emilly in English, and they will respond likewise.

There are three possible outcomes, explains the officer: permanent residency, a two-year work visa, or rejection. Her questions over much of the next hour probe their working lives. Emilly senses that her answers are on the right track.

But there is some doubt whether Emilly's part-time and fulltime holiday work in Britain, maintaining IT networks for a garden centre, strictly qualifies for the points she has claimed. She really needs the equivalent of 24 fulltime months. The officer says she needs to discuss the issue further with her boss.

Emilly keeps her attentive, smiling face on, but inside something is doing somersaults. She mentally subdues the irritated voice reminding her that if the couple's Chinese degrees and work experience were eligible for points, as they were under former policy, she wouldn't be scrabbling.

The officer says it would bolster their case if Guang Min could pass an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test in the next month and gain 10 more points.

It sounds to Emilly as if her British experience might be discounted and the officer is trying to help them compensate. But the required pass mark is 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 9, with 9 being fluency.

The pair feel exhausted as they board the train back to Shanghai. "We think we did OK," says Emilly. "Not excellent, but good."

They decide Guang Min is unlikely to pass the English test so quickly and decide this is a time to touch their foreheads - the Chinese equivalent of crossing fingers for luck.

Back home, it's Guang Min's turn for a dream. He imagines that he and Emilly have good jobs and a nice lifestyle; that the two-year work visa they were granted was converted to permanent residency.

Emilly tells me about this one grey Sunday afternoon as we leave the couple's upmarket apartment. Tonight, Guang Min is planning pasta shells with dark green Chinese cabbage and mushrooms, accompanied by a fish and tofu soup - but we need a fish head.

There is a vast amount of food on display in the covered market, from pickled greens to baked goods, to pig snouts and sacks of rice. And live frogs. Emilly hurries by. Frogs make her squeamish. Even she marvels at what's for sale: "It's incredible there is so much to eat." she says. "Food is important to Chinese people."

She remembers eating dog-meat as a child - "tastes like pork" - but wouldn't repeat the experience.

Suddenly, she turns to me with a look of mild shock: "Is there Chinese food in New Zealand? Are there markets?" I am able to reassure her that, yes, there are lots of supermarkets and restaurants.

Later on in the Gushan Rd apartment, sitting on the couch drinking peanut-flavoured soy milk, Emilly daydreams. Five years from now, she sees herself working in IT from a home with a garden, one or two children at her side. There's a big dog for Guang Min and two cars. He's running an import-export business between China and New Zealand.

"In five years we will have gone through the hard times," she muses. "Things will be better than now. We will have a brand-new life."

There is only one thing standing in the way - an immigration office in Beijing.

* Julie Middleton and Kenny Rodger travelled to China with the support of the Asia-New Zealand Foundation. 

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