A love song for Aotearoa

Dear Sophia:

Today is Waitangi Day in New Zealand. It celebrates the Treaty of Waitangi, which was between England and Maori folk. It’s caused a lot of problems, particularly in light of the fact that there are two versions – one in English and one in Te Reo — the language that is still spoken here today.

It seems the two versions are not quite the same. My admittedly limited understanding is that it boils down to autonomy — who is in charge? The English had a document that said they were, Tangata Whenua (People of the Land) had a document that said they had not ceded their authority over the land.

They have been working that one out ever since.

It got me thinking though.

I came to New Zealand 15 years ago – in the first few years it didn’t even dawn on me that they spoke a different language here. After all, it’s English. But everything is different here in so many subtle ways. Beyond carpark (parking space or parking lot) Bench (countertop) Dropkick (loser) and Jelly (Jello) New Zealand has a terror of very direct or emotive language. I’m still not sure why, but being really direct is not on. I’m always learning how to be more polite.

Live from the Uber

The first thing that people ask me when they get in the car for a ride is where I’m from. When I say the United States, 3/4 of them will say “yes, yes, but where” because at least 3/4 of Kiwis know quite a lot about the US, have been there, have contacts, maybe did some uni or other work there, etc.

They know a lot. They love the US. They have high expectations of Americans. At the same time, they have some serious stereotypes too.

They love the freedom, the anonymity, the free breakfasts, the achievers, the dark bars where anything can happen and no one in NZ will ever know.

But they know that the freedom has a price – the freedom to fall so far, the lack of support, or caring what happens to you. They know that too.

They say “It’s a cool place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. It’s too hard”

Americans come to New Zealand and say “It’s too small, everyone knows everyone. I don’t really understand the workplace, it seems you have to know someone.” Which is true I think. Americans can move to a new city, start a new life, change everything – because ultimately everything is disposable. Here, everything, and I do mean everything, is recycled. Friendships, connections, clothes, gear, everything. It’s too small to do otherwise. It is the basis for the language, for the behaviour and well, everything. If you know that you are going to have to find a way to reconcile every connection you will want to forestall the social anxiety that will happen when you meet someone again. It’s the Reader’s Digest version of Karma.

We come from a long line of restless people. It skipped you, but it really bit me. Some people in our extended family move in each generation – for freedom, for money, for new family — for lots of reasons. But what if the reason we’ve moved is more because we need to claim our place fully. What if moving to a new country is some of our family’s way of claiming our lives instead of letting our accident of birth decide that for us?

You stayed home and I left. You grew where you were planted and I grew on the air. Your roots are deep and thick and I am a bromeliad.

Isn’t it funny that I ended up in a country that is basically a small town where cooperation is so important?

I love this place. I also love the place I left. But the place I left isn’t there anymore.

It’s in my heart, in our father’s voice, in your art, in the eyes of your children. But in reality, that place is gone.

Thank you for calling out to me Aotearoa.

Thank you for raising me New England.

Love, Lilo