Accepting New Zealand as Home

I did not immigrate to New Zealand willingly. When my parents informed me they were dragging me to the other side of the world – in an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh when I was nine years old – I threw a tantrum and threatened to run away. I’ve already told that story in Last Night of the Poms: The Story of Our Move to New Zealand. In the end, I say I’m glad now that we moved; that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Clearly, I’ve come to accept New Zealand as home.

But when did that happen?

I pined for England for years after moving to New Zealand. Only recently, I uncovered a video diary I made when I was seventeen. Just the one entry. In it, I’m sitting on my uncle’s old bed at my grandma’s house, and I’m crying my eyes out.

It was the first time I’d been back to England since emigrating, and I was flying back to New Zealand the next day. I’d been staying with my grandma for three weeks. It wasn’t enough.

“I’ve just done something I haven’t done for seven years,” the seventeen-year-old me says, showing the pretentious dramatic flair that, apparently, my whole career has been built on. My nose is pink; my eyes glossy. Above my left eye is a fresh, red scar. (I’d fallen on my face at the school ball a few weeks earlier.) My voice is a blubbering whisper:

“I’ve just sobbed into my pillow.”

After a brief hesitation, during which I no doubt I felt very silly, I continue:

“It didn’t even feel like me sobbing… It… There’s something so deep inside me I can’t even reach it. Every sob was wrenched out of me… I was just clutching the edge of the pillow and I was trying to imagine it was someone’s hand… It’s just… It’s like I’m ten years old again, about to be ripped away from everything I’ve known, and my home, and I… I don’t want to leave. I really don’t want to leave.

“Elizabeth’s here.”

A selfie I tried to take of me and Liz

Elizabeth was my best friend. After moving to New Zealand, I never found another friend like her. I have never been as close to anyone, except my partner, Tim. When I returned to England at the age of seventeen, I was terrified that we wouldn’t fit together anymore. But we did. Things immediately snapped back into place, like I’d never left.

“She came round this afternoon, when I was packing. We made a video of us singing Mamma Mia together, and I’ve just watched it, and we’re both pissing ourselves laughing and falling about on the bed. It was wonderful, and I started laughing watching it, but then I started crying as well, and I just… I cried so, so much and now I can’t stop.

“I hate this. This is my home and I don’t want to leave it. I mean, obviously, I want to see people in New Zealand, but I want to see the people HERE as well. I just… I don’t… It’s going to be another few years – YEARS – before I’m back here. Before I can afford to come back here, and… and when I’m in New Zealand, yeah, it’s a home, but it’s not MY home.”

At this point, I become incomprehensible. The next thing I can make out is, “I need to blow my nose,” and, “Some video diary this is.”

My final view of Grandma’s house… from the pavement beside Uncle Damon’s car

After a somewhat mucousy interval, I continue: “I can just imagine it tomorrow. We’re going to be standing on the pavement by Uncle Damon’s car, just like last time, and Gran will be there, crying her eyes out, and I’ll be trying not to cry, but inside I’ll be so sick – it’s like my stomach’s tearing itself apart and my chest is breaking and my heart’s just… going down a whirlpool… that’s full of thorns… What the…? A whirlpool full of thorns – where did that come from?!

“I’m seeing Liz again tomorrow. It… It was like, even though we hadn’t seen each other for seven years, even though we’d missed out on everything, like puberty and all that stuff, it was as if no time had passed. But now, the next time we see each other, we’ll be adults. It’s like… this is the last time I see my best friend as a kid… like… like…” And, in the video, the seventeen-year-old me cringes at my choice of phrase here. “Those blissful summer days are gone.

HISTORY!

“It has been a good summer. And every day since I’ve been here, I’ve been so incredibly, incredibly happy. And now I’ve got to go back.

“Mum and Dad think I’m unhappy because I have to go back and immediately start revising for exams. I don’t mind exams. Once you’re inside, they’re quite relaxing. You just sit there, and it’s nice and quiet, and you write down what you know for a few hours. I don’t mind going off to uni either. Not really. It’s just… I don’t want to get on with my life and get stuck there. I want to come back here. I want to do comedy. I want to get my books published. I want to make history documentaries.

“My worst fear is I’ll wake up, early thirties, and still be living over there.”

Wow. So… I said that. Huh. I’m in my mid-twenties now. Umm…

“I’m going to stop this now, I think,” the seventeen-year-old me says. “Yep. Maybe I’ll look back at this one day and be inspired to write new material. Maybe. I’m dreading tomorrow. I need to sleep now, or when I get back to school I’ll be so, so jetlagged that I won’t be able to catch up on my work. But, at the same time, I’m scared that if I fall asleep I’m wasting the precious hours I have left here. So… Goodbye.”

And the video ends.

The next day happened exactly how I imagined it. I flew back to New Zealand (on my own) and I never saw my grandma again, because she developed Alzheimer’s and died before I could get back. (Incidentally, I tell that story in Saying Goodbye.)

I went on to ace my exams and spend the next four years at the University of Auckland, where I developed severe depression. A uni counsellor told me that it’s not unusual for immigrant kids to develop depression, (and you can read more about that in The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child,) but I don’t know if moving to New Zealand is solely responsible for my mental health issues. I mean I find it extremely difficult to interact with people, but that might have happened anyway as I grew up. Even when I lived in England, before the age of ten, I was the sort of kid that wished other kids would leave me alone so I could read. (Except Elizabeth.)

Maybe I was always destined to never fit in anywhere.

Obviously, I didn’t accept New Zealand as home back when I was seventeen, but I’m twenty-five now. I’ve lived in New Zealand for three fifths of my life. If I can’t call New Zealand home, I can’t call anywhere home. And I do like living in New Zealand. Everything I’ve written in this blog is true. It wasn’t New Zealand’s fault that I didn’t accept it as home. It was just that my heart belonged to England. Now, however, my heart belongs to Tim.

Port SunlightI met Tim in my final year of uni. I was a post-grad; he was a third-year. (But we were the same age. I started uni when I was seventeen.) I’d never met anyone like him. He thought like I did. We fit together. I hadn’t fit together with anyone since Elizabeth. This was what I’d been missing. For ten whole years of my life, I’d been missing someone with whom I could share my life.

It’s such a terrible cliché. It really is. But when I’m with Tim I feel whole.

We’ve been together five years now. We’ve known for a long time we’ll be together forever. We might still go and live in Europe for a bit, but we want to settle down, raise a family and grow old in New Zealand.

The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child

A couple of years ago, when I was in my third year of uni, I was crippled by anxiety and depression.

I was terrified of everything, even descending the stairs to leave my flat. I actually sat crying at the top of them, shaking and gasping and clinging to the banister, certain I would slip and break my neck if I stood up. Totally alone.

I started sweating whenever someone talked to me, avoiding eye contact, convinced I wasn’t worthy.

mirrorlightblackMy heart was perpetually agitated. I couldn’t sleep and when I did I had such nightmares that I woke up with my heart racing, feeling like I hadn’t had any rest at all.

Things that I used to enjoy – acting chief among them – now made me miserable. It wasn’t fair. Throughout high school acting had been my escape from the misery, not just experiencing someone else’s emotions, but the adrenaline of performing. Now there was no refuge left.

All I could do was wrap myself up in my duvet in front of my laptop and watch endless episodes of some TV series or other in an effort to distract my brain from berating me, if only for a while.

Eventually, sick and tired of being relentlessly miserable, I gathered what little courage I had left and went to the university health centre. The doctor immediately prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills and referred me to a counsellor.

It was hard opening up to the counsellor – I don’t like “bothering” other people with my troubles – but she pieced together my problems, deducing that they probably arose from the awful bullying I’d received between the ages of ten and fifteen, and the fact that I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere.

She went on to say that it was very common for the children of immigrant families to experience what I experienced. Immigrant children are often bullied when they first arrive in their new country, bullied for being different – perhaps their accent or way of dressing – and for reasons that have nothing to do with inherent xenophobia and everything to do with ten-to-fifteen-year-olds being nasty, peer-motivated adolescents who like to put each other down.

I sometimes wonder if I was bullied because some New Zealanders still see English people as rich, imperialistic, “you ignorant colonials belong to us” royalists, but, despite the fact that when I first arrived my classmates assumed I had a butler and drank tea with the Queen, I never really got that impression. As for the feeling that I don’t belong… well it goes deeper than your typical young person angst. Deeper than not having many friends.

The fact is I have lived in New Zealand for over half my life and I still don’t feel like a New Zealander. Maybe this is because, not having many friends, I spent more time than the average teenager with my parents, watching DVDs of British comedy series. I have not lost my English accent, and of all the qualities that the New Zealand media proudly boasts are Kiwi – such as the do-it-yourself attitude, the love of rugby, the hatred of Australians, and general toughness – I have none.

I am English. I glory in our history, our countryside, our multitude of hilarious accents and our sense of humour! But that’s just it – do I have the right to say ‘our’ anymore? I’m not up with the current trends in England. I’ve set foot there once in the last twelve years. English people think my accent sounds slightly Australian.

When I was talking to some English people I was friends with at primary school, I mentioned going to the dairy to get some milk. From that, they thought that in order to get milk New Zealanders walked down the road to a dairy farm and got it directly from a cow. I had to explain that in New Zealand a dairy is a corner shop, or convenience store. I had said dairy automatically.

I’m not really English anymore, but I’m not a New Zealander either, and that sense of not belonging anywhere is really depressing. In fact it can shake you to the core.

Not to sound overly dramatic, but when my parents decided to emigrate, they destroyed my life.

All my friends, my hobbies, my other relatives, my culture – the only place in my life I would ever fit in because I was born to fit in there – it was all ripped away from me.

I don’t know if I can describe the total loneliness I felt without sounding whiny, but, according to that counsellor, it was the sort of loneliness that can fester and manifest itself years later as clinical depression.

To be fair, my parents must have felt lonely too. We all clung desperately to our Englishness, be it with BBC DVDs or watching the football in the middle of the night. I remember when the English comedian Bill Bailey came to Auckland with his Tinselworm stand-up show: he asked the audience whether they’d heard of ASDA, (a massive supermarket chain that doesn’t exist in New Zealand,) and every expat Brit in the audience, including us, cheered, to which he responded, “You’ve been away too long.” We should not have been cheering for ASDA. Even if it does sell such a variety of food that we can only dream of in New Zealand…

So desperate were we for a little piece of home that when we were travelling around the South Island in a campervan, for example, and we came across a sign for a place called Sheffield, we pulled over excitedly, clamouring for a photo.

173 Back in Sheffield

(In England, the town we lived in was quite close to Sheffield, but, unlike Sheffield, it does not have anywhere else in the world named after it. Either nobody ever left before us, or they were so glad to leave it behind that they never wanted to be reminded of it. Either way, extremely sad.)

So there you have it: my personal existential crisis, and the crisis of all immigrant kids. I wonder how many children of immigrant families actually develop depression as a result, but at the end of the day I’m still glad we moved to New Zealand.

You might be happy to know that in the last few weeks I’ve managed to wean myself off the anti-depressants and only occasionally start sweating when someone talks to me. Or you might not care. But I’ve learned that you shouldn’t be ashamed of taking anti-depressants – they work, and it’s better than being miserable all the time.

UPDATE: It’s been two years since I wrote this. Recently, I’ve written a more detailed account of what it’s actually like living with depression and anxiety. You can find it on the The Writers’ Labyrinth.