Victoria Brownlee on the tough decision – to stay or to come home?
Victoria Brownlee is Kea’s ambassador in the United States, who until recently was based on the ground in New York City advocating for Kiwi success in the US. Once Covid-19 hit, her life changed dramatically and she was forced to rethink her plans. Now that she’s back in Auckland, Victoria writes about what it was like being in New York when Covid-19 broke out, and how she made the tough decision to come home.
A couple of weeks ago, President Trump issued a proclamation banning certain types of visas from being issued, including mine. This means that I can’t enter the US until 2021. Today I’m going to tell you how I’ve been feeling about that. I’m going to reflect on everything that’s happened these past few months, from the first whisperings of coronavirus in NYC. I’m doing this because I want to live in a society where it’s okay to be open about how you feel, even if that isn’t always pleasant. There have been some days where I’ve been able to stay positive and look on the bright side. But there have also been days where I’ve felt too depressed to do anything. If anyone else out there is riding that rollercoaster, I want you to know that you’re not alone. This post is for you.
What it’s like being in the heart of a global pandemic
In the beginning, everything happened slowly. It wasn’t like in the movies where impending disaster is obvious. The general feeling in New York during March was that coronavirus was overblown and everything would calm down in a week or two. My best friends were due to visit me from Down Under in April. One evening, we called each other to discuss the trip. I was walking through the Upper East Side in Manhattan and the luxury stores had been boarded up. It was eerily quiet, but it didn’t feel overly unusual. We discussed whether Qantas would cancel their flights and quickly wrote that off. The possibility seemed remote.
Mayor de Blasio announced a one-week lockdown of the city in mid-March. In my mind, this solidified the belief that coronavirus was only going to be a short-term problem. My colleagues and I decided to take the opportunity to head upstate for a few days to do some strategic planning we’d been meaning to get around to. We thought that maybe we could even make bit of a holiday of it.
Once you start driving north of NYC, the landscape becomes extraordinarily beautiful. The skyscrapers give way to rolling green hills and it’s easy to pretend that everything is fine. I woke up each morning surrounded by tranquillity and felt peacefully removed from the growing tensions in the city. There was never really a moment when the pandemic started to feel ‘real.’ I watched the COVID-19 case numbers in NYC increase from 300 the day we left to over 10,000 by the end of the week. I saw Central Park and the Javits Centre – places I visited often – turn into temporary hospitals. A doctor shared a video of body bags piling up in a basement.
People I knew got sick, but it didn’t fully connect. I understood that terrible things were happening and yet at the same time I didn’t know how to process it. There was no playbook for how to react. It was all totally unprecedented and dissociation became necessary to stay sane. As the number of infections continued to grow, the truth became harder to avoid. The restrictions on public life meant that I couldn’t do many of the things I enjoyed and I worried about the future of the live events industry that I was working in. Gradually, my sense of stability disappeared.
I think I was subconsciously waiting for someone to tell me what to do. Jacinda Ardern announced a total lockdown of New Zealand and I assumed decisive leadership would be coming in the US too. Surely Congress would figure out how to manage the situation effectively when so many people were dying. But that did not happen. Instead, the President told people to drink bleach and the federal government delegated responsibility to individual states. This led to a fragmented approach where stringent lockdown laws were offset by half-assed recommendations. While responsible leaders like Governor Cuomo shut down New York, states like Florida reopened their golf courses.
The consequence was that some people didn’t take the pandemic seriously. For every person who diligently followed the rules, another flouted them. Wearing a mask became a contentious political issue rather than straightforward medical advice. It wasn’t long before the US became, and still is, the world’s leader in COVID-19. For a long time, it felt like I was in limbo. I wanted to believe that everything was going to be okay, even though reality suggested otherwise. I spent weeks grappling with how bad things would have to get for it to hypothetically be the right time to go home.
As the weeks wore on, I realised that there was never going to be a ‘right’ time. There is no justice in a pandemic. I had to make the best decision I could in the circumstances, even if that meant choosing between multiple undesirable options. That was the only way I could face it.
Why I decided to leave New York
New York was my dream. After setting a goal of moving there, I spent two years pouring everything I had into making it happen. I’ve chronicled the highs and lows I encountered on my blog. There were plenty of times I wanted to give up. But I didn’t, and by February 2020, I was finally starting to find my feet. It felt like a world of opportunity was opening up in front of me.
When I contemplated going home, I felt a great sense of loss. I didn’t want to leave behind everything I had worked for. Even though I knew the pandemic was outside my control, it still felt like I would be failing. I was adamant that I did not want to make a crisis decision I’d later regret because I wasn’t tough enough to wait it out. At the same time, I longed for New Zealand. There was fantastic leadership and I would have access to healthcare as well as strong support systems. I felt ashamed for craving security when I knew I was in a fortunate position compared to other people. But that seems silly now. I think almost everyone is drawn to the familiar in times of uncertainty.
There were ultimately three main reasons that I decided to come home. I’ve thought carefully about whether to make these public. There is a lot of debate in New Zealand questioning the validity of people’s reasons and I don’t want to be attacked. But I’m going to put mine out there because I think it’s important to challenge the narrative that repatriates are selfish traitors who should’ve come home earlier. I believe Kiwis should be supporting one another (here’s a Stuff article I wrote touching on that).
My first reason was plain and simple. My visa was due to expire. I was already going to have to exit the US in June. While I was planning on applying for a new visa, I would still have to be in New Zealand to get the final paperwork signed off and go to a Consulate interview. To this extent leaving was unavoidable. I thought it made sense to bring the date forward in the interests of my safety. While I was lucky to be in a safe place at my friends’ house upstate, I knew that I couldn’t stay there forever. I would eventually have to go back to the city and was concerned about catching COVID-19 there.
Masks were practically impossible to come by. Even a simple trip to the grocery store would be risky because NYC is too densely populated for proper social distancing. I lived in a small apartment with four roommates, who were often coming and going. My travel insurance (which I was forced to buy as part of my visa) did not cover pandemics and I was scared of not being able to access the notoriously expensive healthcare if I got sick. My mental health was also a factor. As someone who has previously struggled with this, I worried how I would cope with being confined to my closet-sized bedroom. Working would also be difficult without the space to fit a desk in there. I was well aware of my own limits and did not want to put myself in a position where I would feel at risk.
The final reason was financial. Without wanting to go into too much detail on this, I didn’t think I could sustain the cost of living. I was burning through cash upstate while still paying rent on my apartment in NYC. I had been through that kind of stress before and did not want to do it again. If coming home was the only way I could live a dignified existence, then I was prepared to do it.
My first few weeks in NZ
Arriving in New Zealand was a relief. I had a good experience with managed isolation and couldn’t believe how much calmer I felt in the Grand Mercure than I did in New York. I knew moving home was going to present some challenges, but those paled in comparison to the stresses of being in the epicentre of a global pandemic. My overwhelming feeling was of gratitude to be welcomed back to a country where the government cared about me.
I was super excited to be released at the end of my 14-day stay. After a year abroad, I couldn’t wait to catch up with my friends and family. It was a bit surreal at first to actually be home but I soon slipped into a routine. I worked remotely during the week and spent the weekends hanging out with my mates. When the lockdown rules were lifted, it was a novelty to be able to resume some semblance of a normal life. But I was secretly worried. I followed the American news closely and the coronavirus situation did not seem to be improving. COVID-19 numbers were at an all-time high and people were rightfully taking to the streets in protest of a system founded on oppression.
I observed the Black Lives Matter protests erupt all over the nation. I believed in the cause and felt inspired by the mass participation. But the lack of change also made me feel powerless. I read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and the impunity she described in Nazi times didn’t sound very different from America today. I felt torn between missing New York and trying to accept that the city I love no longer existed as I knew it.
In mid-June, I started seeing rumours that President Trump was going to ban immigration. I tried not to panic. Similar rumours had circulated in April and the final proclamation was watered down from what was initially reported. I had to hope for the best.
A change of plans…
Trump issued Proclamation 10014 on 22 June. It was technically an extension of his announcement in April, suspending various kinds of visas from being issued until January 2021. The proclamation also contained a power to be extended further. Not only did this affect the J1 visa application I had submitted, it also covered every other type of visa that I could feasibly apply for. Going back to the US was no longer an option.
I didn’t really grasp the proclamation’s full weight at first. After so many life changes, I didn’t have the energy to confront another one. I went an entire week without thinking about it. I worked extra hours and spent a busy weekend with friends. It was only when I sat down at my desk the following Monday with this vast expanse of time in front of me that it sunk in.
I was devastated. I had no motivation to do any work and the worst part was that I felt guilty for even being upset. I kept telling myself that I had a lot to be thankful for, especially when people were ill with COVID-19. Six months in New Zealand wasn’t even that long! But deep down I knew that extension was likely. The proclamation meant the end of my dreams as I knew them, at least for the foreseeable future.
Making the best of things
Once I had digested everything, I called my team at work. The boys did the best thing they could have possibly done and told me that everything was going to be alright. They even cracked a few jokes, suggesting that maybe I should start the company in New Zealand. I left the call feeling a lot better. I felt glad to have their support. Later that day, I reflected on what they had said. Launching the business in New Zealand was a crazy idea, but the more I thought about it, the more it actually started to make sense.
New Zealand is often used as a test market for American technology companies. Historically, it was the first country to get Eftpos and it was also an early training ground for Uber. I think this is because it’s culturally similar enough to the US to gain valuable insights while also being small and isolated enough that the cost of mistakes isn’t sky high. There is comparatively far less red tape.
Plus, there is the added bonus that New Zealand is in a pretty unique position with zero community transmission of COVID-19. It’s one of the only places in the world where companies can operate with fairly few restrictions right now. Kiwis are open to innovation since coronavirus has disrupted our usual ways of doing things. This makes it an exciting time for anyone in business. So I’m now undertaking some market research. I’ve just signed up as a member of a co-working space and it feels really good to have a fresh sense of purpose. I can’t even begin to explain how revitalising it is to be in an office again. I miss my team in New York, but I’m excited to see what I can achieve here.
I think the next few months of my life are going to be interesting. There will probably be some days that will still be hard; where I grieve for the life I had in NYC. But I think there are also going to be good days. Those will be the ones where I feel driven about my work and grateful for the chance to reconnect with my country.
The one thing that’s struck me since I’ve been back in Auckland is how much it’s moving forward. With the opening of Commercial Bay and the entry of major companies like Google, AWS and Disney, it’s becoming a more global city. It feels like a good time to be here. Although I don’t know if or when I will be able to return to America, I’m happier in New Zealand than I thought I could be. I think that counts for something.