For the love of language
Ethan Jones has always been interested in languages. He studied Mandarin and Spanish at Victoria University and worked in Shanghai for several years afterwards. In 2019 family and the Kiwi lifestyle beckoned him and his Chinese partner back to New Zealand, where he figured he would put his Mandarin to good use, starting a tourism business for Chinese travellers, then the pandemic hit.
After studying Mandarin at Victoria University in Wellington Ethan was offered a one-year scholarship to continue his language studies at a university in Eastern China. One year quickly morphed into two, and then as he was preparing to fly home he attended a networking event for Kiwi in Shanghai. That event led to him being offered a role helping a fortune 500 company set up their craft beer portfolio in Shanghai. After several years working in Shanghai Ethan and his Chinese partner Zoe decided in 2018 to make the permanent move back to Aotearoa. However moving home wasn’t as easy as Ethan had imagined.
“I found it really tough to return and I think that part of that was expectations. When I left I was in my early 20’s I was free, off on this big adventure and I was expecting the Chinese culture to be vastly different. What I wasn’t expecting was New Zealand being so different on my return. For me it was a shock that it was so hard to get a job, and so hard to settle back in. On top of that I felt responsible for making sure my partner was adapting to Kiwi life as well, she had moved from a city of millions in China to a small dairy farm an hour and a half north of the nearest city, Whangarei, it was a big change for her as well.”
The couple had the idea to start a tourism company offering authentic tours in the Far North in Mandarin. Ethan got a job as a tour guide for a different company to build up his experience, while his partner started a digital marketing campaign. Then Covid started making headlines around the world.
“Because Covid hit China first we were lucky enough to see the writing on the wall, and while we had put a lot of time into our businesses we hadn’t yet started spending serious cash to purchase things like vehicles so we were incredibly lucky to be able to see what was coming and avoid too much of a financial hit. We had designed and imported a coffee van to complement the tours but we were lucky to be able to sell that once it arrived in New Zealand.”
With Covid spreading and Ethan and his partner both out of work they did odd jobs picking Kiwifruit and freelancing while they tried to find their feet. Ethan says convincing people of his offshore experience was often difficult.
“It feels like you have gone off and you have done all these different things and you have had all these experiences and you’ve developed so much and then you come back and it feels like people treat you less professionally as though you have taken five years off, not as though you have been growing and bettering yourself. It felt like I was starting all over again.”
The downtime however did give Ethan a chance to reflect on the changes in New Zealand and the one thing that surprised him was the prevalence of Māori culture, a language that is part of his identity but that didn’t speak.
“I am Māori but I grew up without the language, it had died out on my father’s side of the immediate family, but it had left a sense that something was missing. Shortly after I returned I was fishing at the lake and my nephew called me on the phone and he said catch some ‘tuna’ and I said oh there is no Tuna in this lake, and he said no ‘tuna’ which is the Māori word for eel. That really struck me that there is a whole generation growing up now where Te Reo is prevalent in their world much more than it was for us and other generations. And that hit me more than anything just the prevalence and the growing appreciation of Te Reo and I realised I had been all over the world and could speak several languages but my own language was not one of them. I had always wanted to speak Māori but I never learnt and I realised I had to change that.”
Both Ethan and his Chinese partner decided to learn Te Reo Māori. Ethan says his background in studying languages definitely helped, and he’s grateful that returning home has given him the opportunity to better understand Te Reo me Te Ao Māori.
“Language is a window into a culture, you can try and understand a culture but if you don’t have the language you will always feel like you are looking at a world through a window. Whereas when you have a strong grasp of a language you can open that door and be involved rather than just observing it. The feeling of it is very different, for me that is definitely the drawcard.”
Ethan says he can now hold his own in Te Reo and practises the language whenever he can. But for now it’s his fluency in Mandarin that is helping him settle into his new role.
“I was lucky enough to land a role working for the Asia New Zealand Foundation supporting NZ businesses to better understand the markets in Asia. There are a few focus sectors where we see good opportunities for Kiwi so I am focused on getting market knowledge into areas like the creative industries and the tech sector, areas where New Zealand has a lot of value to add.”
While Ethan and his partner have settled back into New Zealand he says he does think about how his years away changed him as a person and how they have allowed him to bring a different view back to Aotearoa.
“I’ve changed in so many little ways, there have been so many little learnings, it’s like that saying, drop by drop a bucket is filled with water. It’s the random conversations you have with people that make you think in a different way or realise a viewpoint you had never thought of. All of that can only make you a better person, and I think that acceptance, understanding and different viewpoints are all great traits that returning Kiwi bring home.”