The perplexing constant of change

19:56, Oct 25 2012

As an expat, I'm constantly grappling with the idea of change.

The notion of change as it applies to our lives is both literal and countable, but at the same time not; it's part of a wider narrative that only opens up with hindsight.

I can itemise my own changes: I changed my country of residence, I moved to Boston, I got my Master's, I moved to San Francisco, I got married.

These I can keep track of. It has all been big, occasionally dizzying, stuff. But, they're all my decisions. The control I have over them leads me to little psychic angst.

The change I think most about, stashed away in San Francisco, is the stuff I'm missing out on at home. I think that when you move away from your country of birth your mind splits on to two tracks, and you exist both in the here and the there.


In the two-years plus that I've been abroad, my sister has conceived and later given birth to a boy who will turn one at the start of November. My formerly nine-months-old niece will soon turn three. My nephew that could barely walk and talk when I left New Zealand will start school next year. 

My Dad has changed jobs. My parents have moved house three times. Both of my grandparents died. Three friends have got married and a seemingly infinite number of newborn babies have cropped up in my Facebook feed. Friends of mine have graduated, split up from partners, got new jobs, started Master's courses, and found new loves. As of this past weekend, I've had my last three birthdays overseas.   

A lot of big stuff has happened. I have to reconcile myself to missing a lot of it. But the thing with all of this change is that I really do find that the more things change, the more they really stay the same (as evidently trite as it is to use that exact phrasing).

Somewhat self-consciously maybe, I used to worry that my own changes would fold awkwardly with all of the changes that I would miss out on and leave me cut adrift from time and place.

This doesn't concern me anymore. Maybe it's that past a certain point people don't really change that much, no matter what happens. Or maybe with the closest people in your life, you carry them with you even if you're abroad, and you go through those changes together. 

The shock I'm waiting for, though, is for when New Zealand itself changes, outside of the pocket of people there that I'm confident I will always have in my life.

I have an idea and an ideal of New Zealand that I carry with me, which by laws of progress and history has to at some point be punctured. I don't know whether it will be the country that changes first, or me, or whether it will be a gradual series of imperceptible shifts that will leave me in some mysterious number of years' time unable to connect with the geography and culture.

I know New Zealand has changed some in the time I've been away.  

I can take a look at the fundamentals and find examples of this. For a start, 4.43 million people live in New Zealand now, 50,000 more than there were two years ago. The cost of living has got 5 per cent more expensive, but people earn $31 more on average each week. Unemployment has climbed fractionally from 6.4 to 6.8 per cent. 

But focusing on these numbers is fiddling in the margins; it is a small set of modulations, with real individual consequences for whole sets of people I don't know, but nothing that will alter the course of a nation.

Of course, there's been the Christchurch earthquake(s)... a devastating and deadly series of events that has irreparably devastated and altered a major portion of New Zealand, and of which will drive and accelerate another series of still unforeseen changes.

But aside from this, how much really changes in two years?

On a geographic and cultural level, change sneaks up on you: over many years Wellington goes from grey public service town to cultural hub, New Zealand gets a film industry.

Sure, there are new headlines of the day and different considerations, which seem emphatically vital and weighty now, but most developments of this day, and the next, will prove to be relatively inconsequential, doomed to fade from memory like skywriting.

And even though the subjects of discussion change, in two years away I can still see that the tenor (the unique mix of fair, compassionate, hypersensitive, parochial, loyal, hysterical) hasn't.

And so I wonder where this change will come, when my home country will turn away from me, and what direction it will come from.

Peter Jackson has to run out of Tolkien books to adapt at some point, right? 

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