A shameless rip-off, I realise, of Gertrude Stein, but occasionally it hits me that, well, I’m actually in New Zealand. This, I do understand, might seem a slightly odd remark, but hear me out.
I spent ten years, give or take a month or two, living in Japan. And when I was there, I was struck, pretty much daily, by how terribly foreign the place was. Every time I looked out of my front door, whenever I walked to the shops, certainly any time I went down the pub, I couldn’t escape the terribly foreign nature of the place (and yes, it was the place that was foreign; I’m not foreign, I’m British).
From Japan I moved to Florida. Once again, but for very different reasons, I was acutely aware, on a daily basis, that I was in a foreign land. And anyone who thinks that American and England are in any way similar hasn’t spent eight years living in Florida, where, as soon as you leave the Greater DisneyWorld area, you start hearing the banjos playing and towns have half a dozen surnames, and fewer teeth, among the entire population. It might not have been a good thing, but it was, nevertheless, a thing, a way of knowing that I was abroad.
And then I came to New Zealand. And, three months on, I have to remind myself, occasionally, that yes, I actually am in New bloody Zealand. The reason is simple, of course — I could almost as easily be back in England.
There is, I hasten to add, as I point out to any Kiwi with whom I share this insight, no higher praise. But the reality remains that I don’t find especially much to remind me that I’m in a foreign country on a day-to-day basis. Accents, are, of course, rather different from what I was used to, many years ago when I still lived in England. Attitudes and ways of thinking frequently mirror what I’m used to. Towns and architecture look familiar.
One of the reasons, I suspect, is a lack of readily-recognisable landmarks. Yes, I know, Auckland has the Sky Tower (which I visited at the weekend and scored, I thought, some pretty decent photos), and Wellington, for reasons that escape reason or logic, has the Beehive. But there’s nothing as immediately recognisable as, let’s say, Sydney’s Opera House (and I can only imagine how many Kiwis I’ve upset with that reference). I’m even going to go so far as to say that the Auckland Harbour Bridge is — let’s be blunt here — a rather uninspiring structure, a triumph of function over majesty. Not for Auckland a Golden Gate or a Brooklyn Bridge; each city gets the bridge it deserves, and while London has Tower Bridge, Auckland has the Nippon Clip-Ons.
Part of the joy, though, of New Zealand is the comfort to be found in that very familiarity. Yes, I do feel very much, at times, as though I’ve gone back to England the long way round. But, much as I enjoyed my time in Japan, I found it in many ways to be overwhelmingly foreign, and I knew I would never, ever fit in. The same was true of the United States; for all Americans’ talk of diversity, Americans ultimately want the immigrants they’re willing to tolerate to become American. That simply wasn’t going to happen; I’m British and always will be.
And that’s fine here. In America I knew I would, I could, never be American, but I felt pressure to assimilate. Other immigrants I met, Brits included, were so enamoured of their new homes that they embraced not only America but American-ness. I was happy enough to be there, but I couldn’t let go of who I was.
And so I came to New Zealand. I know — and I’m perfectly happy with the idea — that I’ll never be a Kiwi. I can’t — I wasn’t born here, I didn’t grow up here, it’s not who I am. But that’s OK. New Zealanders seem perfectly happy to welcome their immigrants for what they are — I live among Kiwis, and feel welcomed by them, but I don’t feel pressure to become exactly like them. I can fit in here, but still be me.
And that’s worth an awful lot more than a bridge.