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The OE

August 18, 2012

I applied for a job here once and one of the questions on the application was ‘Have you been on your OE?’  I guess my response of ‘My whole life’s an OE, man’ was not what they were looking for.  Or maybe they wanted someone with relevant experience in the field of whatever it was I was applying for–I can’t remember what the job was, but I know I didn’t get it.  (it was the summer, when I was out of school for a few months and discovered that while the government paid me nicely to be a full-time student, they did not extend such welfare to full-time students who didn’t feel like working on the two month break.  It was a mad scramble for employment–applications went everywhere).

But the OE…  Sorry, my OE.  Since I guess that’s supposed to come with a possessive determiner.

But my OE, or your OE, or his/her OE…  It’s so New Zealand.  From the concept of it to the shortening of it into a jargon-esque acronym.  What it stands for, and this will all make perfect sense in a second, is Overseas Experience.  As in travelling and living abroad.  Not in Australia, either.  That totally doesn’t count.

The vast majority of OEs, let’s say 90% (which I think is probably low–I know of precisely no one who did this another way), are done in London.  There is a standing army of youngish New Zealanders living in London on their OEs.  If you wish for evidence of this, go to London on the 6 of February (of on the closest Saturday) and hang out in Parliament Square for the afternoon.  You’ll see.

The reason for London, I think, is because of infrastructure.  Working visas are given to anyone who sneezes in a kiwi accent and the network of people from here, living there means that finding housing and friends and jobs is much easier than it would be anywhere else.  And from London, the rest of Europe is accessible.  So yachting around Croatia and drinking Oktoberfest and chasing rainbows in Ireland becomes a fun weekend trip for you and all your friends.

And if you do it backwards, like me, the OE involves driving around and seeing no one. Lots of sheep fences though.

I think that’s what happens.  I’ve never been to Europe so I don’t exactly know.  What I do know is that is it gosh darn nice to live in a culture that venerates travel and living abroad like it’s a college degree.

When I was finishing college, and planning on moving to Asia, I spent some time working at a pizzeria in upstate New York.  Some guy came in one day, to pick up a take-out order, and we made some small talk while his food was being boxed up.  He guessed I was a college student and wanted to know what my plans were after graduation.  I said the bit about moving to Asia, and he rolled his eyes in the way I would have expected him to had I said I was moving to Hollywood to become a big movie star.

‘I don’t know what people like you think they’ll learn overseas that you can’t learn here.’  Is what he told me.

I looked behind me, where my coworker was just finishing up his order.  A few minutes before this, she had been telling me about how when she working in one of the factories–the one that made plastic forks–that lined the small town we were in, a disgruntled coworker used to pick up every twentieth or so fork from the conveyor belt, stick it in his pants, scratch his genitals and throw it back on the line.  She refused to eat with plastic cutlery for that reason.  Yes, there was much to learn at the pizzeria.

But there is also much to learn overseas.  And the lessons are different.  Doesn’t really matter where you go, you will get a lot from being forced outside your comfort zone for an extended period of time.  Probably, you’ll learn more formative lessons than what really goes on inside plastic fork factories.

I think it’s neat that New Zealand, as a country, seems to get that.  I have never once been told by a New Zealander that there’s nothing to learn from travelling.  No one has ever questioned my impetus for living far away from where I was born.  Incidentally, and I’m fairly sure there’s a correlation here, I’ve also never been told by a New Zealander that ‘Vietnam is the name of a war, not a country’ nor to ‘be careful: there are people in Vietnam that sit in trees and shoot Americans’ nor that ‘I think Russian should be easy for me to learn, since I’m part Russian.  It’s in my genes.’  True quotes, all of them.

Most likely, the cultural values resulting in the OE come from being on an island in the middle of nowhere, one where everyone knows everyone.  The appeal of escape and anonymity are strong.  But I don’t think it matters so much why it is the way it is.  It’s just nice that it is.  I’ll take anything that adds to my employability.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. LEIGH permalink
    August 20, 2012 5:32 am

    Oh, yay I’m in the 10% who don’t end up in London first. Although I wouldn’t recommend my first stop in an OE as the best way to go:-)

    And is there a limit for how long and OE should last for? Because after 12 years I’m still traveling and even when I do head home to NZ it has changed so much that I’ll still be traveling. So far, all my adult life has being an OE – long may that continue.

    • August 20, 2012 1:52 pm

      That’s true! You probably have the most original OE of anyone I know. Though I think you might be right about there being some kind of time span for a proper OE… Like, at some point I think it just becomes an E. And I think you’re right too about coming back… I feel as much a foreigner in the US as I do anywhere else. Not that it’s a bad thing–it’s like an endless vacation. Long may that continue, indeed.

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