AT 13, I MOVED FROM ENGLAND’S MIDLANDS TO WAIPU, a small coastal farming community in New Zealand. The region of ancient kauri forests and hidden bays is among the most naturally spectacular in the country, but also one of the poorest, with chronic unemployment and under-employment. There was no bus service. The two-screen cinema — 40 minutes away in Whangarei — showed movies six months late. Even episodes of Home & Away and Neighbours aired months after they did in the UK, despite Australia being just ‘across the ditch.’
Back in Leicester, a mid-size English city, I had been a 13-year-old with freedom. I had been allowed to get the bus into town every weekend from my village in the outskirts to go shopping with my friends for cheap market fashions. I had been able to go bowling and to the movies; to do the kinds of things that teenagers the world over take for granted.
It wasn’t easy being an English transplant in a town proud of its 19th-century Scottish heritage. Rehearsing bagpipers imposed their drone on the town’s airwaves in the evenings. I was personally berated the day we watched Braveheart in Social Studies class. My protestations that half of my family is Welsh didn’t raise my pariah status though, and I spent my teenage years being verbally mimicked. I could rarely open my mouth without a parrot-call response.
Having a fair, easily-burnt complexion was the height of unattractiveness in that beachside town. The boys would pretend they’d been blinded by the glare of my bare legs when I walked past.
I was called a ‘pom’ or ‘pommy’ with everything from derision to affection (and arguing that this ‘insult’ stood for ‘Prisoner of Mother England’ and applied just as much to New Zealanders, who also retained the monarchy, didn’t help me much).
I loved the beaches of the Bream Bay area though — Uretiti Beach, known as a local nudist spot; Waipu Cove, which was ‘world famous in New Zealand’ and featured in the jingles of TV ads; Ruakaka Beach, just up the road from my high school, to which kids often snuck away in the day. All practically empty, save for the week between Christmas and New Year. After heavy rains, the roar from Uretiti could be heard from our garden, several kilometres away.
To claim that the fresh air, open spaces and small-town, everyone-knows-your-mother vibe engendered a wholesome teen lifestyle would be false. But developing a weathered familiarity with the elements is part of a rural New Zealand upbringing, and it’s an education that sets kids from these regions apart. Descending into the underground Waipu Caves with no more than a single battery-powered torch, because everyone born and bred in Waipu knows the route through the dark, dank, tight passages. Pipi hunting at the beach in the winter, digging toes into the compacted wet sand at low tide, feeling for the hard shells that could be wrenched open and flesh removed for barbecued fritters. Hiking to the frigid Piroa Falls — which nobody called by that name because neighbouring Waipu and Maungaturoto vied for naming rights — and swimming out to the far end of the plunge pool to sunbathe on a smooth, slippery rock. Jumping fully clothed into the Waihoihoi River from the road bridge because the boy I liked thought I wouldn’t dare. Parties in farmers’ paddocks, fuelled by watered-down vodka and rum procured by an older brother. Rolling in the cold midnight sand, waking up the next day with grains in scratchy places. Camping weekends, in which tents were pitched when the sun was rising because sleeping was an afterthought.
I can forgive the snubs that came from my Englishness, and I have, because all teenagers’ lives are full of epic miseries and neurotic highs. Mine were not exceptional.
Harder to forgive is the rural, small-town conservatism, the type that has a place and a script for each gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, and that only individuals with an impenetrable skin dare work against.
Drunken, fumbled sexual assaults laughed away with ‘she probably enjoyed it,’ or ‘what a legend he is.’ Teachers embroiled in sexual scandals with students. Homophobic attacks that kept people closeted until they were at a safe physical and emotional distance from their own hometown. Now, years later, not knowing what’s worse: that these things happened, or that we dismissed them, considered them normal.
It causes one to flee where they love and never return. I went to university in Dunedin, a small student city at the far end of the country, freer of country attitudes. Nobody noticed my accent there, and I passed as a real Kiwi. I thought of myself as one because I had come to know the country. I had learnt its history, I understood its colloquialisms and its nationalist hang-ups, its geography, its pet peeves, its achievements and sources of pride. I was truly a New Zealander for those five years.
But I left in 2007, and although I had no plan to return, neither did I have a plan not to return. Eighteen months teaching English in Japan. Five years of post-grad study in Australia. A year’s work experience in Nepal. The career-break job in the USA. At first, I visited every summer, in the heavy days of January, when the only relief is to give oneself over to the Pacific Ocean. I never grew out of the beaches of Bream Bay. Floating on my back with the waves lapping my ears, sound surging and ebbing, feeling like a child, I asked myself how I could have strayed so far from this simple pleasure. Every time I would devise unfeasible plans for returning to this version of home, however out of place I knew I would be there. But then, the sudden death of my mother. The idea of home retreated further and further, until it no longer existed — until the visits became once every two years, then three.
With a tiny population of only 4 million, job opportunities for me and my partner in our field are almost non-existent in New Zealand. To be ambitious means to leave. I read about New Zealand now and I don’t recognize it. I look up historical, geographical or political facts that a New Zealander is supposed to know. Not because I never learnt them, but because I’ve forgotten. I struggle to call it home, yet I cannot call anywhere else that either, politically disenfranchised and at jarring right-angles to the cultures I’ve ended up in. I miss New Zealand because I am a hungry ghost, never fully sated in my grasping for the whole world. But one cannot hold the world in oneself, chunks fall away. New Zealand has fallen away from me. I miss it like one misses one’s childhood, an old friend, a long-deceased relative. However much I might want it back, it is gone.