I hadn’t long been in New Zealand when I was confronted by the sight of sheep on the school field.
Walking amongst them was a surreal experience. Adding to my surprise was the fact that none of the other children were wearing shoes. Neither did they seem bothered about stepping in the ever-increasing quantity of dung.
I’d found it strange enough that there were no uniforms at my new school, and that classes finished half an hour earlier than they had in England, and that there was no fence around the school, and that everyone had a meat pie and a chocolate milkshake for lunch, and that they all thought I spoke posh even though my Retford accent was as broad as a donkey’s backside.
Now the school field had become a farmyard.
It was Calf Club Day, an annual event that had been part of rural New Zealand primary school life since the 1920s. Each kid got given their own lamb, or calf, or – err – kid to raise, and then they’d bring them into school and show them off. Then they ate them.
I wasn’t against the killing of animals. I just wasn’t used to children my age being so blasé about it. Typical bloody townie, I suppose. Still, the experience did nothing but add to my impression that the plane which had brought my family to New Zealand had also taken us back in time.
It was as though chaos, the world of the animals, was encroaching upon order, the world of the school. I didn’t like it, but I knew I should have done.
Despite feeling a little left out, I had no desire to raise a farm animal of my own. At that stage, I had no desire to take part in any aspect of New Zealand life.
Those first few months in New Zealand, I felt like I was in a dream. I kept expecting to wake up back in England. I’d write and write until my immediate surroundings disappeared. I’d wish my characters were real, so I could be friends with them.
One day, I ordered a pie and a milkshake from the school tuck shop, but they made me feel sick. The pie was like warm, wet cat food and the milkshake was revoltingly sweet. I didn’t regret the experience, however. Ordering something from the tuck shop, rather than bringing sandwiches from home, seemed to me a sign of integration; of getting into the swing of my new life.
That was over half a lifetime ago. Surely, I’m fully integrated into the culture of New Zealand now? Well I was reading something about ‘being British’ the other day, nodding along as I conformed to trait after trait. Slowly, however, I realised that I was no longer British in at least one respect: I no longer gave a fuck about formality. That’s very Kiwi.
But I’m still not a Kiwi. It’s impossible to feel like one when every new person I meet assumes I’m on holiday, or I’ve just moved here and am therefore ignorant. (Or worse, depending on the individual’s prejudices regarding the English.)
“No, I’ve lived here since I was a kid,” I say.
“Oh, you’ve still got your accent,” they say.
But I haven’t. I no longer sound like a Retfordian. How could I when I’ve spent nearly twice as long in New Zealand?
So, what is my culture? I was thinking about it last night. (I couldn’t sleep.) I may not be entirely Kiwi; I may not be entirely British. I’ve agonised so long about not fitting in, but I have friends. I have lots of friends. And they’ve all got one thing in common.
I have a culture.
I am a nerd.
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