Thinking about home

st. clair beachIt’s that time of year again when it’s bitterly cold and dark on the side of the world I happen to be on and warm, sunny and beachy on the other side – the side I think of as ‘home’. It’s summer holidays down under and everyone has Christmas fever – the shopping, the decorations, the parties, the boozing, the shirking of work. It intensifies my feelings of homesickness which usually simmer beneath the surface, but for these few weeks in December boil hot and almost force me to charge several thousand dollars to my credit card so I can be part of it, too. Almost.

This year seems to be a particularly poignant one for thinking about loved ones – friends, family, belonging. I feel the need to be part of a community stronger than I have in a long time. One that is so familiar to me, I feel it in my bones. A rough year abroad will do that to you.

Musing on this, I’m reminded of a situation I experienced some years ago back at the end of the world. It was cold, dark, in the midst of winter. My friend was graduating from university and we were celebrating with his family and their friends. It was a bohemian port town, full of hippies and working class wharf workers. The house we stayed in was an old wooden villa, cold and damp as only a house in New Zealand can be. The owners were artisans and we sat around their dimly lit living room swilling local beer and wine.

There was a man there, an older gentleman with beautiful toffee colored skin, the color that signifies he was of mixed Maori-Pakeha stock. He introduced himself and told our little group some of his story. It turns out he had only recently returned home after many years of living in Europe. Based in Milan, he was a clothes designer and dresser – he had, in fact, dressed Princess Diana. He relayed tales of his adventures in the high fashion world, all the while I struggled not to choke on my merlot.

Why, I wondered, would he leave such an interesting and glamorous life in the fashion capital of the world to return to the end of the world, a place that was so isolated, where there were more sheep than people, where you have to drive for five hours to get to the nearest international airport and where you have to fly for at least five hours to get to the nearest neighboring country? Ca-raay-zee, I concluded.

It transpired that as he aged, he felt a very instinctual and visceral pull back to his homeland to ‘discover his roots.’ It seemed bizarre to me – I, at that time, was extremely interested in doing exactly the opposite – running as far away as possible to leave behind my working class roots and the parochial, provincial, incestuous town I had grown up in. And indeed, months later I was on a plane headed for Japan.

Now I understand what he meant. To know where you come from, to feel that primal sense of belonging to a community. To be immersed in the banal and the familiar. To bump into old school friends while running errands on the main street. To walk for twenty minutes to reach a pristine, empty beach. To go to sleep at night in complete darkness and silence and to wake up to a chorus of birds singing outside of your window. To pull open the curtains and look out onto a large, green front yard with piles of flowers spilling over. To greet the neighbor as you walk to the mailbox to collect the newspaper. To have a petty argument with your sibling. To take the dog for a walk past kids on bikes and people toiling away in their vegetable garden. To have fresh seafood for dinner. To see your friend’s band play. To go to the public library and know how to borrow a book. To go rifling through second-hand bookstores and thrift stores. To walk through the art gallery and have a decaf latte at your favorite cafe next door, the one you got fired from because you were more interested in flirting with the customers than being a good waitress. To go to the independent cinema and watch old films. To drive out to your family’s cottage on the weekend and have a barbeque with the neighbors. To go to your cousin’s house for dinner and play with her kids. To go to a public lecture with a well-known local or international author. These are the things I associate with home. They linger in my memory and whisper to me that I should return.

Of course, it’s a common dilemma for any expatriate – the longing for ‘home’, for comfort and familiarity. It grabs my hand and tugs me towards it. As the years go by, the tugging becomes stronger and my resolve weaker. One day my feet will touch the sand of home again.

Made in NZ

Flaming-PohutukawaFor several years, I have listened to American radio, namely NPR, almost everyday while doing those unavoidable, banal chores like cooking, cleaning, laundry etc. I often struggle to find things that are interesting and relevant to my life as a New Zealander living in Asia. Sometimes, I find things that pique my interest, but often, I tune out with all the segments about American politics and economics which I understand about as much as the Mormon religion. Which is to say, not much.

Recently, out of curiosity and a lack of better options, I have rediscovered New Zealand’s very own public broadcaster, Radio NZ. Back in the day when I was a whippersnapper student living in a grimy, grungy flat in Dunedin where it was warmer outside than in, I used to occasionally listen to the station.

I was reluctant to go back to it. I imagined there would be a lot of interviews with farmers, rugby players and Shortland Street ‘stars’. How wrong I was. Diving into the archives has been pleasantly surprising to say the least. I am getting to know my home country all over again. I am dazzled by Kim Hill’s incisiveness. My frequently sleepy brain cells are raising an eyebrow as I come to terms with the new New Zealand. I hear tales of Man Booker Prize winners (Eleanor Catton) and stories of a gay American couple buying a farm, raising pet pigs and making olive oil. I am exposed to the wonderful writing of a former street kid turned diplomat turned poet and entrepreneur (Leilani Tamu).

All this has been going on while the Motherland basques in the South Pacific sun and I’m shivering amongst the falling snow in -8 degrees. Of course, I reminisce and feel pangs of longing. I would much rather have wet sand and freshly cut grass under my feet than mushy snow and dirt. But I cannot complain. I will soon be taking my Jesus wheels for a stroll along the famed shores of Ipanema and Copacabana. In my jandals, of course.



Hello Winter My Old Friend


The view from my window this morning

And so it is. The stunning oranges, reds, browns and yellows of the crisp autumn have given way (or more likely, been pushed aside – this is Korea after all) to the dull greys of the North East Asian winter, also known as Hell. Now that the sun has gone AWOL and there have been a few half-assed snowstorms, it’s time to hibernate.

I find myself contracting. I become anti-social (even more so than usual) in the cold weather. I don’t want to leave the house. I stop exercising and lose motivation to do anything except lie in bed eating Dorito’s and mindlessly surf the Interwebs. Or read memoirs about people giving up their corporate careers to train as chefs and open restaurants. These books are an escape into la dolce vita where a large part of the protagonist’s daily quota of mental energy is spent thinking about what kind of cheese to eat next. As far as work goes, I can’t wait for each day to be over so I can run home and jump into a steaming hot shower and stay there until my skin is pink like a pig’s (and the lack of exercise is making me chubby like one too).

And when I’m not occupied with the winter blues and/or cheese, I’m thinking about one of my former students in Cambodia who sent me a message the other day telling me how heartbroken she is because her secret boyfriend is getting married to another woman. I’ve also been vicariously experiencing Afghanistan through Marianne Elliott’s great memoir about her time as a UN peacekeeper in that country. More than the political aspect is the internal journey she takes into yoga, meditation and self-compassion and her descriptions are often so acute that I feel like she has been inside my head. Also, I can’t imagine how she endured such harsh conditions, both in her internal and external worlds. Inspirational? Littl’ bit.

In other news, my cousin sent me a Christmas stocking full of chocolate things that can only be bought in New Zealand. It arrived on the day I decided to give up sugar. And now I have to delay my plans for another week as I must dutifully consume all of it. It would be disrespectful not to. Can copious amounts of Chocolate Fish take make the sun come back? Let’s find out.



La Vie en Snow

For the past two days, it has been snowing steadily. Big, white flakes are falling from the sky and settling on the ground, roofs and trees. It’s as if the city has been covered in Christmas cake icing.

I don’t know what it is about snow, but it makes me really excited. I revert to my six year old self and run about gleefully, slipping and sliding, holding my mouth open to let the icy flakes enter and vanish.

Once, when I was about this age, my younger brother and I had had baths, washed our hair and then put our pyjamas on and were ready for bed. As we got ready to crawl under the covers, there was a huge blizzard, and within minutes our lawn was covered in snow. We were like cats and this was our kryptonite – we ran outside in nothing but our pyjamas and bare feet, giddily scooping up the snow and throwing it at each other. Before we knew it, we were dragged back indoors by our father who was livid. We were dried, yelled at for our stupidity and sent to bed. At the time we felt unfairly punished for having a good time and didn’t much appreciate the tough love.

Another vivid snow memory occurred around the same time, maybe a year earlier or later. It was school holidays. I was at my best friend’s house with her and her older brother. As the hail and snow pelted down, we had the brilliant idea of going for a walk to the ‘end of the road’ to visit my mother’s horse that was living in a paddock there. Such a mission would take a fit adult around twenty minutes. But we, in all our childish sluggishness and puppy-like uncoordination, took a lot longer. As our skin burnt from the cold, our fingers and toes turning numb, we persevered. I recall the physical discomfort being exacerbated as I wet myself – flood of warmth replaced by a nasty rash from chaffing. We arrived back safely but I can’t ever recall being quite as frozen and physically miserable as I was then.

Later, when I was about 16, snow again provided the backdrop for a memorable experience. My Adonis-like high school boyfriend and I were hanging out at his house (on a big, rich hill that was on the right side of the tracks). And it started to snow. Soon, it was inches thick and we got oven trays and ran to a nearby park and ecstatically slid down the hill, running up, and then sliding down. Over and over again. It was beautiful because we were completely unselfconscious, like two children innocently playing together – completely present. Then, the joy came to a halt when his father attempted to drive me home (to the other, less grand hill on the wrong side of the tracks). Despite putting on the chains used for their family skiing trips, we made it halfway to my house. Then I had no choice but to walk alone in the cold and dark the rest of the way. With good things come bad things.

Back to reality: the downside to all this white-winter-wonderlandness is that it is hella cold (around -10). Which means that life becomes pretty sedentary and I am beginning to make like a bear and hibernate.

The floor heating is on, an extra cover is on the bed, the fridge has enough food for a few days, my credit card is maxed out on purchases for Kindle. Goodbye world, hello snuggly cocoon. I am entering a bubble inside a bubble.

I have a list of things to do while I’m in this zone – books to read, movies to watch, languages to study, goals to write, weights to lift. No doubt, my archenemy Procrastination will rear it’s ugly yet familiar head and I will be distracted by Facebook or will start listening to podcasts about procrastination in order to convince myself that I am really learning something, rather than using these tools as an avoidance strategy. While I wait for Flashdance to finish downloading, maybe I will start cleaning my apartment, or just gaze out the window and take in the pristine, harsh beauty of winter.