It’s just past midnight as my plane approaches Auckland airport. I lean over the man sitting next to me to look out the window at the lights of the city. If it was daylight, I’d see the sparkling water of Weymouth estuary, the iridescence created by distance and sunlight belying the grottiness of the Manukau harbour on ground level. This is home. I haven’t been here in five years, and that last trip was only for two days for my grandmother’s funeral. This is home, where I’ve come to reconnect with myself.
I arrive at my brother’s house feeling strange, not quite believing that I’m actually here. Within a day, I can hear my vowels flattening and my speech returning to the idioms of my youth: I call my brother “bro”, “bra”, “eho” and “ao”. I say “choice” constantly, meaning “excellent”, and the Maori words and place names roll off my tongue with an ease I haven’t experienced in years. I see my mother, who is suddenly old. I see my nephew who is suddenly 16 and tall and skinny, and I feel all of my 37 years with a sense of finality. I remember things: the reason why my hair was so fluffy as a teenager (Auckland is bloody humid); how to take off on a hill with the car in first gear (you have to put on the hand brake, then give it some gas to stop the car from stalling); the taste of New Zealand milk, ice cream, and lamb; kumara chips; driving at 50km/h, which Auckland roads seem to demand; the hills, all the undulating hills.
I think I expected a feeling of relief being here. I’ve always considered that home is where one can stop for a moment and take a breath, where one can relax a disquieted mind. I was quite depressed when I left Australia, and I expected New Zealand to lift me. It does, after a fashion, but I think it’s more to do with spending time with my eldest brother and his girlfriend, and hugging my mum than it does being physically present in this country. It’s not the country of my youth anymore. My family members live in suburbs far removed from Manurewa, where I grew up. There’s no click of recognition as I walk the streets of Ponsonby and Northcote Point, I don’t feel that “phew, I’m home” feeling. I’ve always idealised New Zealand, I know that, as I suppose a lot of expatriates do. I am immensely proud of being born and bred in the little country that could, the nation that legalised same-sex marriage and where the indigenous culture is not only represented but fully integrated into every day life. I’m proud of the culture, the common sensical ingenuity of the average local, and of course, the physical beauty of the land of the long white cloud. There is something deeply spiritual, even magical about certain parts of New Zealand, and I feel a connection to the earth here that I don’t feel in Australia. I ate dirt and sand when I was a toddler, my mother tells me. New Zealand is in me, flowing through my veins.
So, why don’t I feel like I’m home? I put it down to still being a bit depressed, but then I’m having a conversation with my brother about petrol prices (Auckland prices were $2.19 per litre. Atrocious!), and I said “yeah, they’re much cheaper at home.” Melbourne. Not New Zealand. My heart breaks a little – only a little – as I come to the realisation that Melbourne is my home now. It could never replace Auckland, but it has given me opportunities that Auckland never could, and I find myself telling my mother that I can’t make a life here. She frowns. “You mean acting?” she asks. “Yes,” I reply, but that’s only part of the reason. It’s too small here. As my brother says, it’s small-minded. As my cousin says, it’s boring. I don’t tell my mother this, but as much as I love my family, and miss them intensely, that love isn’t enough to keep me here. I begin to get really honest with myself, and I admit that my memories of this country and my childhood here are not entirely pleasant. A lot of trauma happened to me here, a lot of innocence was lost. I finally realise that my aroha (love) for Aotearoa is based on the romanticised version in my head, not on the reality I now experience.
You can never take New Zealand out of this girl. I will always be a die-hard, up-standing and proud Kiwi. As I walk towards the departure gate to get on the plane that will take me back to Melbourne – home – I weep a little. I weep for my mother, who I fear I may not see again any time soon. I weep for my nephew, who will spread his wings and fly away from our little country at the arse end of the world to go find opportunities not available where he was born. And I weep for my country, the place of my birth and I say goodbye to the shining ideology of what it means to be home.