Monday, May 08, 2006

Lincoln Tan: How a trip to the zoo sealed a deal to stay in New Zealand

Just as we were contemplating a move to Auckland from Christchurch last summer, I got a job offer in Singapore.

"Take it!" my wife Bee said immediately, tempted at the thought of finally getting some stability back into our lives.

Since our move from Singapore to New Zealand in the late 90s, we had been unable to find work in our respective trades - me a journalist, she a teacher - for our lack of "Kiwi experience" and "Kiwi qualifications". So we ran a cafe in Ponsonby, managed a hotel in Mt Hutt and set up a food court in Christchurch.

While the various businesses kept us afloat financially, they were a far cry from what we could have earned in Singapore.

After Bee bowed out of business following the birth of our second child, she supported my dream of starting my own newspaper so I could continue doing what I enjoy doing in New Zealand, and hopefully make a buck.

Just as she was getting settled in Christchurch with new friends, and with our two kids, Ryan, 6, and Megan, 4, at Cathedral Grammar School, I came up with the idea we should move back to Auckland so my Asian-focused newspaper iBall could stand a better chance of making it big.

"Are you crazy?" Bee said when I first suggested it. But after much convincing, it reached a stage where she was ready to entertain the idea.

Then came the job offer. Stability or no stability, I was not prepared to give up what I had started. We made a deal.

We would make a three-day trip to Auckland and, in that time, if I could convince her that a move north could be better for us, she'd agree - otherwise I'd accept the job offer and head back to the land of our birth.

This was my toughest challenge. If you knew Bee, you might say it was mission impossible.

I've always believed that if you put your heart and soul into doing something you strongly believe in, it will succeed. I was determined to show her that New Zealand was where dreams could be turned into reality - and Auckland was the place.

From the moment our plane landed at Auckland, I started my game plan.

Day 1: The way to an Asian woman's heart is through her stomach. Since we'd left Auckland six years ago, there'd been a boom of Asian restaurants and supermarkets. Food is an Asian obsession, so much so that a usual greeting is, "Have you eaten?"

We went on a food tour - the Asian food courts, restaurants, supermarkets, culminating with dinner at a Japanese restaurant in Parnell.

"So?" I asked , hoping I had won her over. She replied there would be more restaurants, and they'd be cheaper, in Singapore.

I looked to my son Ryan for support: "I prefer McDonald's."

Day 2: Home is where the heart is. I knew she liked the beach, and we had lived at Browns Bay before our move south. I took her for a drive to see coastal homes, but being a pragmatist Bee knew we would not be able to afford these houses, so why bother?

We sold our Browns Bay house in the mid-$300,000s before moving to Christchurch, and to buy it back would cost more than half a million dollars.
Day 3: This is one battle I was clearly not winning. Today the plan was a trip to Auckland Zoo for the kids before we headed to the airport.

I was already dreading the fact that the next time I went to the airport would be to quit New Zealand.

We stood looking at the parrot enclosure, watching the parrots feed while sparrows were flying in and out pinching nibbles.

I sighed and told Bee, "We will be just like the parrots if we went back to Singapore. With all the security, food and shelter, we will be caged in with all the restrictions and controls. Here, we are free like the sparrows."

We moved to the chimpanzee enclosure and I commented that this "could very well be me" back in Singapore, having broken some of Singapore's draconian laws during my time in New Zealand. Organising an anti-racism march in Christchurch, facing up to the mayor for calling me naive and extreme for organising that march and even launching a newspaper could have easily landed me behind bars, or at least facing major lawsuits.

Singapore is run like a great five-star hotel - but sometimes I find it hard to call it home because home is also about emotional ownership, which comes only when one is allowed to speak out - something I have been able to do here.

I was speaking for myself, but as we looked at the cages Bee was seeing it from a mother's perspective. Did she want to deprive our two made-in-New Zealand children, citizens by virtue of birth, of everything that is New Zealand?

On the drive to the airport, we were having a singing competition with the kids. They were singing God Defend New Zealand and we Majullah Singapura (Singapore's national anthem).

As we were parking Bee said: "It's funny how it took animals to help us see the treasures that are New Zealand, treasures that go beyond financial stability. It would be wrong to take the kids out of New Zealand, or New Zealand out of the kids. This is where we belong. You win."

Now is the beginning of a new chapter of my life, and I have my children - and the animals at Auckland Zoo - to thank.

I didn't choose to be born a Singaporean but I did choose to put my roots down here. Sink or swim, our fate is now tied to New Zealand's.


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