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July 17, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Motumaoho

When I’m on the waterfront, I’m never really in Wellington anymore. The waterfront is the edge of Wellington and reminds me that 521 kilometres north, over Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe, through Cambridge and left from Hamilton East, straight across the bridge that cuts the stream, past two farms and one lifestyle block, and down the round driveway, there’s a giant pair of gumboots by the door and the kettle is on for the second time because my dad, still in his thick gumboot socks and dirt smudged across his cheek, has fallen asleep on the couch and missed the first time it boiled. He’s tired because he’s woken up at 4.00am almost everyday since 2000. 521 kilometres to the heart of rural Motumaoho, takes you to the place where the Piako swamp was drained for farmland by Pākeha. Motumaoho is similar to other parts of rural New Zealand, with Keith Hay prefabs and old villas in the middle of paddocks and drains that run deep along the roads. The light is soft and the air is fresh; it’s quiet but you can hear the state highway. Nothing bad but nothing good happens in places like Motumaoho. You drive through them and that’s it. It’s what people call the regions.

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I’ve always had a difficult relationship with place, never feeling comfortable because I always seem to find myself at a crossroad. The year was 1999 and my future of being obnoxious and singularly English was set. We lived in a Georgian terrace house in Bristol, a city in the south-west, near Wales, famous as the film location for Skins. Unless you’ve been to a Catholic school, the importance of the following sentence will hit home a lot less but, basically, in Bristol I would have had a different life. There I would have been a big shot — I played Mary in the Christmas nativity play. That’s the kind of social capital and promise my future had. The confidence that the certainty of your place in a community affords is huge.

The narrative arc in this story is that my parents, my Putāruru born and raised Kiwi dad and my Irish mum, decided to move to New Zealand. I don’t know the real reason why, but it appeared to be a search of a better, cleaner, more wholesome outdoor life. My dad was a New Zealander on his way back home, so we didn’t face any of the tests and calculations that people have to undertake if they’re applying to immigrate through the system. It’s funny the way that English people, and I certainly felt English when I moved, are a significant portion of new residents, but for whatever reason — either they’re white, or they’re skilled, or we feel some sort of colonial connection to them — we don’t associate them with stealing jobs or failing to assimilate.

But boy did I struggle to assimilate, even with my New Zealand dad and my New Zealand wider family. The first place you move to sticks with you and we moved to Whatawhata, where loamy hills unfurl themselves in between Raglan and Hamilton. I was afraid of the countryside. The river at the back of the farm was the quickest I’d ever seen and we were so close to it. I’d never lived so close to the outdoors; the UK isn’t really an outdoors place. It was unusual to take my shoes off inside, and then the idea that you could take your shoes off outside was just ridiculous. Trees brushed against my bedroom window in the middle of the night, and the night was the darkest I had ever seen. We were in a place that was too close to nature, and once I’d gotten over the thrill of splashing in puddles with Wellington boots or climbing through hay, all that was left was the feeling that we were far away.

We were so far away that there are no Catholic schools in Whatawhata. I was too late to get into the closest Hamilton Schools so we took two buses through Melville High School, then Sacred Heart, to get to the Hamilton East Catholic School (Marian), the biggest in the diocese. I hated it. I have three memories from that first year: I broke my collarbone because I was pushed off some monkey bars (a bone which incidentally never heals completely); the girl who was supposed to be helping me settle in climbed out of a window and ran away; and I got laughed at for my accent and that I wasn’t use to not wearing shoes. My mum struggled too I think. She broke her ankle and couldn’t drive while trying to look after my brother and sister, in the middle of the countryside, while my dad was in the shed or out in a paddock trying to figure out how dairy farming worked.

Not only was I trying to navigate feeling English while having to become a New Zealander, I had a halfway life of living rurally and going to school in the centre of the city. I missed my friends in Bristol, I missed my Gamily and Grandad in Dublin, and most importantly I missed the white chocolate mice that my dad would buy me. In some ways I missed him too because he was working so hard.

After a few years on Karakariki Road, 40 minutes from the city, we moved to Motumaoho, a triumphant 20 minutes away. But we still lived in the countryside, and I still hated it. To get to high school I had to take a bus ride with girls who had all gone to school together, girls who knew each other since birth, who had these very complicated and large Dutch Catholic farming families. They were small town and defensive about it. I was jealous — they were consistent in who they were, they had all of their feet in the one place. They grew up on farms and unlike me in my ineptitude, they actually felt belonging in rural places. They knew each other; I was the weird girl, who wasn’t from there. Similarly, when I meet people who are from Wellington and are a part of Wellington, I get envious; they don’t seem to ever have to engage in that very New Zealand hand wringing, where you’re unsure if you ought to be proud or ashamed of where you’re from.  

It’s worth noting that I didn’t feel halfway between countries anymore; I was well and properly a New Zealander, to the point that I would sometimes forget that my mum was Irish. When people asked where I was from, I would say Hamilton. I still say Hamilton. I am a New Zealander I think — I’ve lived here for 17 years, I’ve got a passport — but sometimes when people say that I have an accent, or they ask where my fair features are from, I feel like the girl who got abandoned by her assigned first-day-at-school assimilation buddy. I feel like my status as a New Zealander is being questioned. And I’m white, so these experiences don’t even come close to the curious questioning and rudeness that non-white New Zealanders must face.

I think all these complicated feelings came to hurt the most when my grandparents in Ireland began to get sick, because they really did mean a lot to me, and I couldn’t be there. I was the first grandchild, and my grandparents represented the first time that I realised people could love you, for no reason, just that they did. If my family had had the hindsight to live all in the same place, or at least the thoughtfulness to live closer, I could have gotten my grandad a rasher of bacon and some eggs before the kidney cancer. We got to see my Gamily before she died. She had motor neuron disease, and we went over for six weeks in my first year of high school. Motor neuron is where you’re still yourself inside, but your muscles disappear. On our last night I fell apart. I wanted to stay in Dublin because I knew when we said goodbye to go home, it meant goodbye permanently.

For the first time instead of feeling confused or uncertain about place, I became angry. How dare my parents make us live far away. Far away and having people you love between two places sucked. We still flew home though.

So now 521 kilometres away, once the kettle has boiled for a second time and a cup of coffee has been made and drunk, it’ll already be time to head back to the farm for afternoon milking. The soft sun through the willows, across the driveway, while my dad leans against his dusty ute and waits for our farm dog, Blue, to complete his routine of sniffing every tree in the garden. New Zealand, but more specifically across the stream in rural Motumaoho, is my dad’s home. When he was in England, he was far away from home too. I’ve always had a difficult relationship with place, but migrating somewhere when you’re young teaches you that home can be mostly wherever you want it to be, so you might as well try and make it not feel far away.

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