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.


“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.

From the Diary of an Immigrant Child

I’m rubbish at keeping diaries. Only once in my life have I kept one successfully: my first few months in New Zealand. I was ten years old, friendless in a brave new world, and I wrote. And guess what? I recently found that diary in the bottom of my old toy chest at my parents’ house.


The ten-year-old me

I’m twenty-four now, so reading through what the ten-year-old me had written was both hilarious and heartbreaking. I was absolutely obsessed with Harry Potter. I know we all were at that age and still are, but the number of Hogwarts-based dreams I recounted is ridiculous! The number of times I reported my little sister Lucie hurting herself is also ridiculous. I remembered her being a clumsy child, but not that clumsy!

Anyway, I thought I’d take the best bits from the ten-year-old me’s diary and share them here. If you’re planning on emigrating with kids, you might find it enlightening. Or mildly amusing, at least. I was surprised how few spelling mistakes there were, but I’ve kept them for authenticity’s sake. I’ve also – would you believe – removed a lot of my Harry Potter-related ramblings.

So, here we go. (I’m going red as I write this.) Presenting the diary of an immigrant child…

Sunday, 29th July, 2001

My name is Abigail Jane Simpson, I am ten years old and this is my new diary. I’ve never kept a diary before. I’m only going to write in it when I feel like it. I’m going to name it, though. As I’m Harry Potter-mad, I’m calling it ‘Hermione’. I’ll write all my poems and stories in it, and my secrets too. I love new notebooks. This is a Harry Potter notebook. I can’t wait until the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone comes out. Everyone says I should be Hermione…

aircraft-435656_640Well, I’ve just moved to New Zealand. Last Friday. We were all really tired, my mum, my little sister and me, as we were flying for over twenty-four hours and had a stopover in Singapore. I bought some really pretty clothes there. Then my dad picked us up at the airport and we went to the oldest pub in New Zealand to meet my dad’s new friends. (He’s been out here six months already. I almost forgot to cry when he left us at Manchester Airport.)

Yesterday we got new bikes. Mine is cool. More like a boy’s bike. Then we went shopping for some homely stuff. Dad didn’t have very nice stuff living on his own. Except the seti [sic] and the television. It’s bigger than the one we had in England. New Zealand is a nice place, but the house we’re living in at the moment is grotty. Dad took us to the beach afterwards with our new wetsuits, but it’s winter in New Zealand so the water was freezing. Lucie’s lips went blue.

Auckland Museum

It was to Auckland today. We went round the harbour and part of the museum. When we got back, we rode our bikes up and down our street. (My sister Lucie and I.) Mum went to bed early, so Dad, Lucie and me played Mystery at Hogwarts, which is like Cluedo, but better because it’s Harry Potter. When we’ve moved house, I’m aloud [sic] a kitten. I’m going to call it Crookshanks. (Hermione’s cat.) I’m also going to collect different editions of Alice in Wonderland, as I already have four.

I should be asleep now. I’m going to email my friends tomorrow…

Tuesday, 31st July, 2001

Dear Hermione,

I’ve been at the playpark today. On my bike. We went to the supermarket in the morning and then I went to pick up our library cards on my own. The playpark is by the library. I was there a long time. I met a twelve-year-old girl with long, blonde hair named Emily. We found that we both like Harry Potter. She has a younger sister too. She guessed that I was English because of my accent. Maybe we could be friends. I hope we meet again…

Wednesday, 1st August, 2001

The air raid siren has just gone off again. Dad says it’s not an air raid siren. It’s for the firemen. But it sounds exactly like an air raid siren, like the one that used to go off and Gran had to hide under the table when she was a little girl. It goes off and the firemen have to just drop what they’re doing and go. They’re just volentry [sic] locals. I have a lot to learn about Kiwis and Mauris [sic]. The Mauris [sic] hunted the moer [sic] and it went extinct. Dad thinks they should do a Jurassic Park on it.


Awhitu Beach

Sometimes I get annoyed with my mum. She nags me and just stops in the middle of something. Today it was doing my hair. She talks about the last time I did this and the last time I did that and I get so frustrated listening to it and try to get away as quickly as possible.

We went to another beach today. The sand was so soft. We tried to play pettonk [sic], but the balls kept getting buried. I got into the bath as soon as we got home.

Thursday, 2nd August, 2001

Dear Hermione,

I’ve just written a postcard to my friend Ashleigh. My sister’s just watched Jurassic Park for the fourth time in a row. We rode our bikes around the grounds of Waiuku College, waiting Dad for come out. We got separated and Lucie had a moody on the way home. We need to be up early tomorrow because we’re visiting Sandspit School. The last few days have been okay, but I’ve been a bit down as well.

LittleAbbyI’m going to tell you a secret now, Hermione. Back in England, I have this friend called Luke and guess what – he hugged me twice before I left. Twice! In front of everyone! My best friend Elizabeth only hugged me once.

I’m looking at the photo of me and her now. (She gave me a photo of me and her as a leaving present, in a nice frame.) I miss her.

Friday, 3rd August, 2001

We walked to Sandspit Road School today. We talked to the headmaster. It looks like a nice school. I’m starting in a week. It’s better than Bracken Lane, my school in England, because it doesn’t have a uniform. It also has a jungle gym and a swimming pool. And school finishes earlier in New Zealand. I wish I could go to Hogwarts instead. I’d be in Ravenclaw.

Sunday, 5th August, 2001

We bought a house yesterday. The bedrooms are massive.

Today we went to another beach. Lucie was trying to throw a big stone into the water and it my head. I’ve got a nasty bruise. There was sheep shit everywhere.

Thursday, 9th August, 2001

Dear Hermione,

Lucie’s making me read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to her until my throat hurts. It was absolutely boiling this afternoon. It’s supposed to be winter! I fell off my bike because a butterfly went into my eye.

Saturday, 11th August, 2001

I feel nervous about Monday. I’m starting school on Monday.

Monday, 13th August, 2001

Dear Hermione,

witch-hat-309449_960_720Today was my first day of school. I felt sick last night. I looked in the mirror and my face was white. Then I thought about Harry getting nervous before the Sorting Hat put him in Gryffindor. I’ve got a picture of him playing Quidditch. He’s got this really determined look on his face. It made me feel a bit more determined. But I still didn’t sleep well. School ended up being great. I think I’m going to really enjoy it.

Saturday, 25th August, 2001

About school: I like it, but I’m not being stretched enough. I’m bored at the moment. Yesterday I taught some of the girls how to play High Low, a skipping game I played with my friends in England. Miss Charteris wanted a go, but she only lasted a few seconds! Then there was a long line of people wanting a go. They all tried together, but it didn’t work, so we had a girls on boys tug-of-war. The first round, we let go so all the boys fell over. The second round, the rope snapped so we all fell over.

Monday, 27th August, 2001

I saw Emily again, but she ignored me.

Turei, 4th Hepetema, 2001

Dear Hermione,

I’ve written the date in Maori today. Mum’s really annoying me. I’m preparing my school speech.

On Friday night, we went round to our dad’s teacher-friend’s house. He’s got twin six-year-olds called Abigail and Elizabeth – what a coincidence!

wavesOn Saturday, we went surfing. The waves were brilliant. In fact, they were quite dangerous. I could have drowned! Grandma was scared when I told her about it on the phone. But we stayed at the beach a lot longer than planned. It was a boiling day. Dad had the car key around his neck. He was passing the key to mum, but he dropped it in the sea and it disappeared. He searched for it frantically, but there was no hope. How were we going to get home?

Mum went up to the lifeguard. He tried the old bent wire trick in the car door, but we’ve got a Japanese car. A bit of wire snapped off inside the door. It’s still in there! Then the lifeguard offered dad a lift home to get the spare key. Dad said he’d rather break a window of our house than break a window of our car. We’re moving house in two weeks anyway. So Mum, Lucie and I were left sunbathing at the beach while Dad and the lifeguard went home.

Dad said he was there trying to break in through the window in his wetsuit and this old lady came and Dad said, “Don’t call the police! It’s my own house!” and the old lady said, “No, I just wanted to see if you wanted any help.”

Mane, 24th Hepetema, 2001

Lucie was playing in the creek and she slipped and cut open her ear. There was blood everywhere! She had to be taken to hospital. Her ear has a bandage on it now. She looks like a pixie.

Tuesday, 25th September, 2001

It was hot in the morning and most of the day. We were in the garden just about all day. Not bad for the equivalent of March, eh? I wrote a poem:

Warming sunlight streaming through the
Twisted shadows of flowering plants
A sapphire sky
Driftwood and pine cones
Neatly arranged rocks
Enclosed by sweet blossoms
Creating a beautiful picture that can’t be painted.

Saturday, 30th September, 2001

oyster-576545_640Lucie was playing at the beach and she slipped and cut open her hand on oyster shells. So that’s another bandage. She’s grounded until she’s fully healed. We were at the Geelen’s bach. I got bitten to death.

Sunday, 7th October, 2001

Lucie’s not been very well. She threw up last night. She’s so hot that she feels cold. She thinks evil shadows are climbing up her bedroom walls. Mum did tell her not to put her head under water at the hot pools.

Sunday, 14th October, 2001

THE SHIPPING HAS ARRIVED! It’s starting to feel more like home now.

Wednesday, 31st October, 2001

Dear Hermione,

What a day to be poorly! I had to come home from school. I’m not going trick-or-treating tonight. It’s not like Gran lives around the corner anymore anyway.

Thursday, 8th November, 2001

Today we got the afternoon off school because there was a storm yesterday, which made one of the drains overflow and the whole school stinks! Luckily, Shrek just came out on video and Mum bought it for us.

Saturday, 1st December, 2001

We saw the Harry Potter film today! I drew a scar on my forehead with Mum’s lip liner.

Thursday, 6th December, 2001

People were teasing me for having hairy arms, so I put hair removal cream on my left arm, but it burnt all the skin really badly. I had to take a day off school because I couldn’t move it. When I went back to school, people kept squeezing it and made it worse.

Saturday, 8th December, 2001

Yesterday was the Waiuku Santa Parade and today we had our first Kiwi barbecue.

Sunday, 9th December, 2001

I spent all day writing my novel today. It’s about a girl called Sarah, and her friends, and an evil wizard.

Monday, 24th December, 2001


A sunny New Zealand Christmas…

I can’t believe that it’s Christmas Eve! This year has passed by like a rocket! Dad coming over here… My last few months with my friends… Saying goodbye to Grandma… Shopping in Singapore… Seeing Dad again after six months… Starting school… Moving house… Settling into the Kiwi lifestyle… Now we’ve got our Christmas decorations up at the same time as the paddling pool!

It just feels wrong.

Christmas won’t be the same without Nana, Gran, Grandpa or Uncle Damon. I really miss my friends too.

Lucie slipped and cut open her face.

Monday, 14th March, 2016

I’m not crying after reading that. I’m not. I’m not!

If you want to read what happened in the lead-up to me starting this diary, see Last Night of the Poms: The Story of Our Move to New Zealand. See also Why New Zealand Made Me Write and The Existential Crisis of an Immigrant Child.

Featured Image: “Girl Writing” by Berthe Morisot (1891)

Across the Sea: A Brief History of Immigration to New Zealand

When I was eleven, my class studied a topic I’ll never forget. At least I’ll never forget the image of a dead baby being thrown overboard wrapped in a Union Jack. The topic dealt with the history of immigration to New Zealand.

Each member of my class had to write a pretend diary from the perspective of an English immigrant making the long and perilous voyage to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. As I was an English immigrant whose family had moved to New Zealand only a year previously, I found the topic particularly affecting.

Of course, my family had not come to New Zealand by ship, but by plane. And it had taken us twenty-four hours of travelling, not six months. And none of us had died on the way. Still, I understood the heartbreaking enormity of leaving your home for a strange country on the other side of the world.

Maori Chief with Facial Tattoo from the 18th Century

An 18th-century Maori chief

Well any history of immigration to New Zealand – however brief – should begin with the Maori. The ancestors of the Maori came to New Zealand from Hawaiki, a Polynesian homeland that has passed into legend. They came in canoes, guided by the stars. No one knows exactly when they first arrived, but archaeological evidence seems to suggest that it was during the thirteenth century.* To put this in perspective, at around the same time as the Magna Carta was being signed, as European knights were crusading their way across the Middle East, and as Braveheart was yelling “FREEEEEEDOM!” in a totally non-anachronistic way, New Zealand was only just being settled.

Europeans didn’t discover New Zealand until the seventeenth century. The first, that we know of, was Abel Tasman in 1642. Tasman’s first meeting with the Maori did not go well. He anchored in what is now Golden Bay in New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park, and sent some of his crew to find water, but they were immediately attacked by a group of Maori in a waka, or canoe. This led Tasman to sail away rather quickly, and to name his place of anchorage Murderers’ Bay. (But Golden Bay sounds much better to tourists.)

A drawing one of Tasman's crew did of "Murderers' Bay"

Murderers’ Bay, as depicted by Tasman’s ship’s artist

Golden Bay Abel Tasman National Park New Zealand

Golden Bay today

European immigration to New Zealand didn’t begin until the nineteenth century, although trade between Europeans and Maori had been gradually increasing throughout the eighteenth century. During that time, New Zealand had become very popular with European and American whalers, (and escaped Australian convicts.) Their favourite port of call was Kororareka, a settlement which would become known as Russell – and the hellhole of the Pacific. This wretched hive of scum and villainy had been commended by James Cook as a “most noble anchorage” and, since his 1769-70 voyage around New Zealand, had become a haven for entrepreneurial Maori. European goods such as muskets were traded for Maori goods such as women. Needless to say, this behaviour shocked arriving missionaries.


Some random colonial men

British immigration to New Zealand began in earnest with the formation of the New Zealand Company, whose main mission was to acquire as much land from the Maori as possible – fairly or otherwise. The British government stepped in to regulate this, and other “lawless” behaviours by the immigrants, in 1839. This led to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which gave the Maori the same rights as British citizens – in exchange for ceding their sovereignty to the British Crown. At least that’s what the English version says. The Maori translation of the treaty isn’t perfect, so it’s possible that many of the Maori chieftains didn’t have a full understanding of what they were signing. Besides, even if the Maori and the British were on the same page, it’s not like every Maori chieftain in country signed it. The document remains in dispute to this day.

Irish immigrants

Irish immigrants

Other Europeans continued to arrive, but the bulk of immigrants were British and Irish. Maori chiefs in the Waikato became alarmed at the rate at which their land was being taken over, and came together to resist further land acquisitions by the government. This led to the New Zealand Wars, which ended in the early 1870s with the victorious government confiscating huge areas of Maori-held land.

In the 1860s, New Zealand experienced its own Gold Rush, resulting in the arrival of many more immigrants, including a significant population of Chinese prospectors. The government attempted to limit the number of Asian immigrants and, in 1881, imposed a poll tax on all incoming Chinese citizens. It wasn’t repealed until the Second World War. The war, of course, brought a few thousand European refugees to New Zealand.

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook claimed New Zealand on behalf of Great Britain in 1769

Following the Second World War, skilled immigrants from the British Isles and Northern Europe were encouraged to come and settle in New Zealand. Many Dutch people arrived at this time, including one of my family’s greatest friends when we first arrived. I remember being fascinated by his story of coming by ship in 1950s – a journey that took five weeks.

From the 1960s, large numbers of Pacific Islanders began to arrive in New Zealand. In 1987, the government stopped choosing migrants based on race, opting instead to assess individual skills.

The last twenty years have seen a huge increase in the number of Asian immigrants, but the influx of British immigrants remains high. A few years ago, there was concern over the number of New Zealanders leaving to live in Australia, seeking higher wages, but the rush seems to be slowing. In 2006, 23% of New Zealand’s total population were people born overseas, and the number of incomers continues to rise. Though there’s a lot more frustrating paperwork these days, moving to New Zealand is a lot easier now than it was in the nineteenth century.

An immigrant ship

An immigrant ship

The New Zealand Maritime Museum on Auckland’s harbour front has a fantastic exhibition detailing the experiences of those early European immigrants. As a kid, I was particularly affected by it. It has a reproduction of an 1840s steerage cabin, so you can get an idea of the frightful conditions that people had to endure for months to reach New Zealand. Many of the immigrants kept diaries, which, I suppose, was the inspiration for the school project I did. Here’s an example of one. It’s by someone called Hannah Butler, who sailed to New Zealand in 1840. At least seven children died during her voyage.

I remember being bewildered, when I was a kid, as to why so many immigrants would take the risk. Surely a new life in New Zealand wasn’t worth at least one of your children dying on the way? But then, I suppose, it wasn’t unusual for large numbers of children to die back then anyway.

Cook's ship, HMS Endeavour

Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour

I’m very glad my family came by plane.

* This date is highly disputed. Researching it is frustrating, as every thing I read seems to say something different. Could be a few hundred years earlier.