Two years ago, Sook Ping, a tiny girl with an enormous personality, took the leap of moving to New Zealand to be with her boyfriend Dennis. Born and bred in Kuala Lumpur, she saw the move as an exciting opportunity to experience something new.
“New Zealand was one of those places that was never on my map to visit, much less stay. You know how people get excited if they move to Tokyo or New York? Nobody ever talks about New Zealand because it’s Middle Earth. That’s all people seem to know. They go, “Ooh! Lord Of The Rings!”
Moving here needed adjustment as it wasn’t a country that we often hear about. It seemed more foreign than say, Australia.”
One of the first questions Sook Ping is inevitably asked is how life is like living with sheep.
“There are only five million people here. It also really doesn’t help that the tourism board keeps advertising sheep in all their advertisements. There are no sheep in Auckland! Stop asking me about sheep! The only sheep I know is the one in the plate right in front of me.”
Um, all right! What is it about New Zealand that she adores?
“It’s the breathtaking view and scenic walks that never got old. If you’re a coffee lover, you’ll love it here. I’m a convert, soy latte please, though nothing beats Malaysian MILO! There are also free endless activities to explore here.”
A lot of the people I know are often worried when it comes to making a decision of moving for a partner. There were plenty of reasons to support their worries – the relationship was relatively new, they were not sure if they are ready to make such a big step, and for some of my girlfriends, they felt like moving might make them very much the dependent one and they would ‘lose the power’ in the relationship.
“Dennis and I started our relationship doing long distance. That’s a factor to take into consideration, because it’s different when you’ve been together for a while, say 2 years, and then someone moves. We started off apart, and that’s how rolled for the next 3 years. The only thing that’s new for us is actually being together! We had never experienced being together in the same place before. I would say, if you’re really serious about your partner, and you see potential in being long term, or if you have your own personal agenda of moving overseas – ha ha, no, don’t put this in! If you feel like this is the person for you, and you don’t want to look back thinking of the ‘what ifs’, then just do it. What’s the worst that could happen? You fail? You go home then. There are plenty of jobs in Malaysia. It’s difficult to get a job here, if your job skill doesn’t fall under the ‘skilled migrant’ category. If you get a job, it’s an ultra big bonus. If the relationship doesn’t work out, then balik je (go home, in Malay)! If you break up without even trying, you’re not giving yourself a chance. If you break up after you’ve already tried, you have better closure.”
How tough was it for her to find a job in New Zealand?
It took me one full year of job hunting to finally get a job.
“Really tough, if you don’t have a permanent residence. I had started off with a work holiday visa, which I then converted to a partnership visa. Then they gave me an open work visa that was renewable. But even then, it was really difficult. I applied for more than 40 jobs, and all I got was rejection replies. After that stage, I went to a recruitment agency. I was attached to five agencies before I got a job. It’s better to let them look for a job for you, because they’re more reputable and the companies know them. But then again, you have to follow up yourself because they have so many clients, and if you’re not a priority they won’t put you through, or they’ll forget about you. So, it’s really difficult, and it will get to a point where you will be very frustrated. You really have to persevere. It’s also based on timing and a sprinkling of luck. It took me one full year of job hunting to finally get a job.
Before that, I did Casual in retails. Casual is a part time job that doesn’t have a fixed schedule, so you can come in anytime you want. I worked as a Casual for six months in retail, and that gave me a few opportunities to talk to people and understand local culture better. Even if you speak proper English, it’s different. You need to know the local jargon. You need to understand the accent, and it took me a long time to understand it, especially through the phone. The pronunciation is so different from what we’re used to. We Malaysians grew up watching American TV and being exposed to American culture, so our ears are not trained to listen to a Kiwi accent. For example, the word ‘seven’ is pronounced as ‘see-ven’. Dennis is ‘Dee-nis’. And it’s funny, because although we speak the same language, there still is a language barrier at times because of the words we use. Sometimes we use very Americanized slang, and they don’t understand us. Once, I heard someone saying ‘Sweet ass!’ to me. I thought, “Ah. He’s saying my ass is nice?” But actually that person meant ‘Sweet as (something)’. It’s one of the more popular common local slang, among many others.
So, yeah, there are a few words. After a while, I found a job as a retail store manager in Karen Millen and I thought, okay, this is great because I get a fixed Monday to Friday schedule, it’s easy peasy and it’s a different experience because you meet new people. I also had the opportunity to lead a team. There’s only one Karen Millen in New Zealand! I worked in that role for one year.
Most Kiwis are not materialistic or brand conscious at all. They’ve got a very laidback and chill persona vibe.
I say working in those sort of roles are easy because it’s not stressful and you have plenty of time on your hands. I learned the art of doing absolutely nothing, and learned not to feel guilty about it. I began to appreciate ‘me’ time. You can think, reflect, and even look for another job while getting paid. I saw this as an opportunity of, why not? You can even get free clothes! But it gets to you after a while, because you’re not wired that way. I’ve realized that a lot of people here are happy with their job, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You know how in Malaysia, our parents have drilled into our heads, “What? You’ve studied so hard just to become a salesgirl?” But when you come here, you realize a lot of people are happy with their jobs. They’re contented. It pays them, and gives them time to do what they want. There’s so much family life. Most Kiwis are not materialistic or brand conscious at all. They’ve got a very laidback and chill persona vibe. That’s why I think you don’t find many big brands, not even Zara, although that’s rumoured to be coming, joy! They’re happy with their jandals, shorts and T-shirts in the summer. It isn’t good news for retailers, but due to the vast amount of nature here in New Zealand, everyone is usually out on the beaches, surfing, trekking, doing bushwalks or doing just about any outdoor sport that you crave. I personally enjoy going to farmer’s markets here where you get good coffee, fresh pastries, homemade pates, hummus and all kinds of local handcrafts. My favourite is going to oyster farms and having fresh oysters by the beach! It doesn’t get fresher than that! So it really just depends on what you want. For me, after a while I didn’t feel challenged. I wanted to do something different!”
How did Sook Ping deal with the frustration of getting rejected over and over again?
“Um…you drink, and then you go out and eat. Ha ha! No, after a while, you do get really frustrated. Here I am, new, starting afresh, with no family or no connections. I tell myself I’ve done well for today. Let’s try it again tomorrow. And I tell as many people that I meet that I’m looking for a job. Maybe they have a job for me. Also, I get to learn local culture and understand their shopping behavior. That would be beneficial for me in interacting with local or potential employers!”
Sook Ping managed to go for a few interviews, although they didn’t pan out.
“There was a role for an assistant brand manager for a local skincare brand. It was really interesting, and I got along really well with the brand manager. We had a lot of things in common. Then came in her marketing manager, who was this frumpy old person, and the next thing you know, “You didn’t get the job.” Ha ha!
I’m a little confused, at this point. How can she still laugh?
“What? I used to work in this big MNC and now I can’t even get a job in a small company?”
“You get immune to this. When you get the first rejection, you’re like, “Why? What happened?” and they tell you things like, “We are looking for someone more collaborative.” Or, “In your previous role, you sounded like you were very independent.” Or, “You come off too driven, too strong.” I was wondering how this was a bad thing. So then I figured I have to try a different approach, and not be so gung ho about things. I needed to sound more collaborative. I went for three interviews in the last two months, and I didn’t get any of it. They were not even multi national companies. They were all small medium companies. I was like, “What? I used to work in this big MNC and now I can’t even get a job in a small company?”
At the same time, it’s a very good thing because it makes you feel so much less entitled. It really did get to me. After that, I didn’t even go for assistant brand manager roles anymore, and I went for coordinator roles. I couldn’t get those either. Sometimes, they say they are looking for someone with Kiwi experience. Or they can be very honest and say, “You seem to be overqualified.”
After a while, I came across a really good recruiter. She told me straight up, “Look, your CV is amazing.” I said, “No, it’s not, because I’m getting so many rejections.” She said, “No, it’s the market here. Not you.” And I thought to myself, this sounds too good to be true. I asked her what I could improve. She said there was nothing to improve. After I went for all three interviews and didn’t get them, I asked her what happened. It had seemed so promising that even the general manager came out to say hi. And she told me that it wasn’t me, but it was the market. The market in New Zealand is so small that it gets really competitive. Between me and the next person who has Kiwi experience, they will pick her. She told me not to worry. She said, maybe they want to pay less and you seem a little bit overqualified. I think, it’s like paying you fairly what you should be paid. If you’re overqualified, they don’t want to pay you too little. I was really surprised with this – such nice people actually exist?
Coming here has made me realize that growing up in a multi-cultural society really helps you adjust and be flexible with people. There are many things people here are oblivious to, which you just don’t think about. And I think when you don’t understand something, that’s when you’re confused and irritated and that’s when hate and racism come through. But you know, in Malaysia, how we are trained to adjust ourselves in any situation? For example, I’ve realized I have a very strong Malaysian accent. When I speak to a local, I automatically change my accent so that they understand me. But Dennis, who has been here for 7 years, doesn’t! He just speaks like a regular Malaysian and somehow they still understand him! I tried doing this. Working in retail afforded me a lot of social experiments. I tried speaking with a full on Malaysian accent and nobody could understand me. In fact, they thought I was speaking a different language. They kept saying, “Pardon? Pardon?””
“So then I tried to alter it, to what I call my ‘international accent’, which means I speak slower and ensure all my words are well pronounced coupled with the accent I’ve picked up from watching Disney and Backstreet Boys. What I always get from locals is, “Oh, how long have you been living in New Zealand?” and I would say “About two years this upcoming October.” Then they would say, “Oh! Your English is really good! You don’t have an accent!” I guess they’re referring to a Chinese accent or wherever they think I’m from. Then they ask me where I’m from, and I proudly say, “Malaysia.””
Since Sook Ping made such a huge life decision to move for Dennis, I wanted to know more about what he was like.
“Well, Dennis is someone who always puts others before him. He genuinely enjoys caring for other people. He has a really kind heart and has a soft spot for animals and elderly people – and I don’t mean this in a creepy way.
I wish I was as passionate as he was about his hobbies. I’ve never seen anyone as passionate as he is. He has this hobby that he really loves, cars! He loves cars so much he talks about cars in his sleep. I’m serious. He’s also a really good salesperson. He knows how to make money out of anything, which I think is a skill. He often trades cars. He buys and sells, often making a profit from it! He’s really skilled at building and fixing cars for personal use or for potential sale. In the 2 years we’ve been here, we’ve had a total of 12 cars!
He’s so passionate about it, that it makes me wonder what my own hobby is. Do I have one? No, not really. My hobbies are all scattered everywhere, whereas he is really focused. He wakes up, and he tells himself, “Today, I’m going to fix a car, and I’m going to get paid. Or I’m going online, getting cheap stuff and then selling it.” It’s a good side income. I wish I had that.”
I asked Sook Ping to rate herself on her happiness level, from a scale of 1-10. She chortles loudly before she replies.
“Well, if I won the 40 million dollar Lotto it would be an 11, but someone already won it last night. I’m so materialistic, it’s terrible! Okay, I’m an 8.5. I think a lot of things make me happy. I’m quite easy to please. Talking to you makes me happy. Being with close friends, especially old friends, and just catching up make me happy. Sometimes you can go 2-3 months without talking to a friend because life goes on, but when you do catch up again, you just pick up where you left. That makes me very happy. It makes me appreciate my friends and family much more when I’m abroad.”
For this little bundle of energy, what would she envision her ideal life to be like?
“I’d be going to Hong Kong for dimsum, then I’d stop by Tokyo to visit you and do some shopping! If I feel like having Korean, I’d fly to Korea! I like to makan (eat) and explore. I like good food. I’d be country hopping, baby!”
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