A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #10: Marie Szamborski of Shantiwallah

Welcome to the esteemed tenth expat interview in my series of a bazillion.  After a brief hiatus from interviews with human expats last week (hello Hector Lakemonster!) I’d like to introduce you to someone who has been with me (and this blog) since it was born a year ago today.

Marie Szamborski is better known to the internet universe as Shantiwallah— a purveyor of peace, a vendor of well-being, as it were.  She is the voice behind the eponymous blog, Shantiwallah as well as the  cunning culinary exploratrix behind Five Flavours. We met, as it were, as students. Sometime early last year, we were both enrolled in the MatadorU writing course and Marie was always there cheering me on, giving feedback on my writing and generally being an awesome person. Our student relationship spilled over into Twitter and Facebook and a general sense of having known each other a really long time. I’ve never met her but we get along fabulously in text.

For the past year or so I’ve been wrestling with my twin paths of writing and teaching (repeat the following argument in head indefinitely: teaching pays so much better and has so many lovely holidays but it exhausts me to no end and can be creatively deadening) and Marie has been an amazing coach by proxy. She has taught and she has written, both for a living. I’m still working on wrapping my head around the idea of being able to write for money– or at least enough money to pay for more than just a few coffees every few months.  Now that spring is rearing its sunny head again, I’m feeling optimistic about attempting to dive back into writing.  I’ll probably end up with a series of mostly unread fake interviews with water monsters and street cats but I think I might feel happy about it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the lovely and inspiring Marie (a.k.a Shantiwallah).

In Laos


I live in Auckland, New Zealand and my husband and I first came here in 1999 after travelling for a while in Asia. We had saved hard for a couple of years after our undergraduate days so that we could travel for, we thought, about 2-3 years on the money we’d been squirreling away.  That’s how it went back then. There was no, “Oh I’ll just earn a few dollars here and there from my website to keep me going”. It was all about budgeting…and sleeping in fleabag guesthouses or on the beach.

But then, after about a year, we realized that neither of us had any desire to go back to England at the end of all of this. So, we cut our time in India short and flew back to England to gather documents and generally try to figure out how we could work and live in New Zealand. We’d never been to NZ, but we had a feeling it was where we were supposed to be. We were sad to be giving up on travel in the short term, but we knew the long-term was going to be brighter if we took this step. I remember that we flew back to England on Royal Brunei. I remember this distinctly because we settled down into our seats, badly needing a drink only to find out that the airline was alcohol free. Leaving Asia, leaving travel, heading back to England, no alcohol. We started to doubt what we were doing.

We tried to apply for jobs by going into the Embassy in London and reading the newspaper classifieds and people just about put the phone down every time we said we were ringing from England. It became clear that nobody was going to hire anyone who wasn’t even in the country for an interview. So, we picked everything up and took off to New Zealand.  Stress, bureaucracy, more stress, money worries (NZ was MUCH more expensive than Asian countries at that time) and then finally it all came together. We’ve since become permanent residents and then citizens. Seeing it written out in two short paragraphs now is nothing short of amazing to me.

We wanted to have a base somewhere with a more laid back approach to life than we had in the UK or the US and we eventually want to own some land to grow things on. New Zealand fits us very well in that respect.

Ready for the big curry sale

I’ve never been stable (Ha!) or settled. I grew up in a family who moved house every two years on average which, although these moves did not become inter-country until I was 18, provided for many a new cultural experience. Before New Zealand I lived in England for 10 years in various parts of the country and since moving here in 1999, I have been back out to live in Vietnam and Japan.

I’m so used to moving to new places that I tend to just enjoy the experience, except for the packing. I hate the packing. One thing I hated about being a teenager in the US was the lack of public transport (ie. freedom) and so in coming to New Zealand, that has been the worst readjustment to make. Here you must also rely on your car which means planning ahead if there is a party or an event involving NZ wine (which is all of them!), and having the budget for upkeep, petrol and parking. I just think it is a huge waste of resources. I think Auckland would be perfect if there was good public transport and safe places for cyclists to ride. But then, nowhere is perfect.


Nile Guide Marie

We’ve been back in Auckland since 2008, first in the city and now in the suburbs. I think we will stay for a couple more years before probably heading off again somewhere but it all depends on how things go.

We were shocked at how expensive things got here while we were away. It used to be very affordable to live in New Zealand and now, on local wages, it is not. It also used to be that Kiwis felt they had some sort of right to eventually own a house, and currently this is out of reach for most people.  This includes us.

We had grand ideas of coming back and buying our land so that we could grow food for a while and then rent it out while we are abroad.  That will simply not be possible unless we go abroad again and earn the money first. It’s a sad reality for New Zealand and we do have a “brain drain” where lots of qualified graduates go abroad to earn more money.

We had some projects that we wanted to do that we could not do in Japan and so we came back in 2008. And now we are sort of financially stuck here. We know that we can go abroad again and start earning, but we have a couple of projects on the go that we’d like to finish up before heading off again.

I’d rather be free to move after a few years as that has been the momentum in my life, but I’m OK with it in the short term. And I will always see New Zealand as my home base.

I find the lack of income opportunities stressful here. I was a teacher (ESL/EFL) for many years and the pool of jobs is small. It can be good because people your own particular industry will get to know you and we all help each other out with job finding, etc. But, in the end, we are all competing for the same few jobs. Lots of people are overqualified for what they are doing. Lack of job choice coupled with low salaries makes for a lot of stress. If you can get a good income, New Zealand is the proverbial paradise, but for most people it can be hard going.

I think there is something to be said for having family support around you. People who live abroad aren’t able to just borrow their brother’s car one day if theirs breaks down or get a hand-me-down sofa out of Mum and Dad’s garage. So, I often wonder what that kind of life would be. But I do think of my friends as family. Auckland is a very cosmopolitan and transient place for such a small city (1.4 million) and so it seems most people my husband and I know have had similar histories of moving around the globe and setting up and breaking down shop over and over again. That’s probably why we feel so at home here.

I get more culture shock when I go back to the US. I’ve been outside of that country for more years than I’ve lived in it. I think culture shock comes when you have expectations that aren’t met. It’s not that I expect everything to be the same there when I visit, but it’s more about the fact that some things change and some things don’t. So, I’m constantly trying to make sense of what’s what.

My husband is British originally (now a dual national, like me). I think we’ve adapted similarly in that we were both young and gormless when we arrived in New Zealand so we didn’t know any better. We just came to start a new life and didn’t have any expectations other than, if it’s better than the last place…we’ll stay. We both seem to have a good feeling for places in that we can guess before we go if we will like a place or not. Not that we’ve been anywhere we haven’t liked, but there are certainly places we wouldn’t want to live.

Maintaining Stability

My husband and I both thought we were coming back to New Zealand (from Asia) to settle. We planned to buy a house and land and it just may have been lucky that we couldn’t afford it in the end. I have to admit, just the idea of choosing an area to buy in makes me feel tied down and stressed. It’s like someone is saying, “Choose carefully because you may live here FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIIIIIFE!”.  How ridiculous is that? I do want to have our own space because, after 20+ years in transience, you do kind of want to be able to paint your own walls or rip out the cupboards to make the kitchen more suitable. But I want to be able to come and go as and when I choose. I think that’s the difference when you are a person who has never been truly settled.

I went through a phase wondering if I would’ve liked to have had a hometown when I was an undergrad and all my friends went home for the holidays. I went wandering round the UK instead. But I’m pretty happy with my life. I feel like I’ve gained a perspective that I wouldn’t have had if I’d have lived in one place my whole life. Hopefully I’d still have been a nice person, but I think I would see things differently. It’s helped me realise that things are never what they seem on first approach. I feel immensely privileged. I wish everyone could have a chance to live outside of their comfort zone once or twice and see life from other people’s perspective.

[About the choices she has made] Happy! But sometimes I feel far from my family and various friends dotted around the world.

Someday I’m going to have a commune in the South Island so everyone can come and go as they please (as long as they help feed the chooks!).

The Future

Who knows? I am certain we will go back to Asia at some point. We both pine for South East Asia and miss our friends in Japan. I want to go back to India, too, possibly longer term. I could easily see us pinging out from New Zealand for a few years at a time for the rest of our lives.

Oh, and um…I’m building a social network.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.