The changing ways we think about home

23:47, Nov 08 2012

I had an interesting conversation this week, which highlighted for me that as we grow up and move in and out of the orbit of our country of origin, how we think about home is constantly evolving.

I have just, as I write this, returned from spending five days in Los Angeles, staying with my old friend Jon. I've known him more than 10 years. He was the best man at my wedding in May and decided to stay on in the United States for the six months following, working remotely from Los Angeles for his job in Auckland, travelling when he can and living the good life.

Jon, however, is going home tomorrow. Throughout my visit, the impending realities of New Zealand life were looming large in his mind. He seemed excited to see both family, friends and girlfriend, but also completely aware that there was going to be a lot to get used to about being back in New Zealand. He was slightly mournful about having to give up some of the comforts of his life abroad and assimilate back into the smaller and familiar terrain of home.

On one of my evenings in LA - a warm, balmy night - we decided to take a long way back to his apartment and walk off our burgers. We ended up getting into Jon's return a little bit, as we strolled the streets of his pleasant Los Feliz neighbourhood. There was a laundry list of small concerns. Jon is vegan and in New Zealand he won't have so many, or really any at all, restaurants that he can eat in. Outside of that singular concern, there was the basic idea that New Zealand just can't be as metropolitan and varied as Los Angeles. He admitted to having become a little spoiled by the weather. In LA no one thinks the world is ending when the temperature is in the mid-30s in the middle of autumn.

Jon had been looking for a second-hand car to buy when he moved home and had some issues about the selection on offer at home. He wasn't looking forward to engaging with New Zealand's national propensity to fixate itself with small-minded concerns. He was not looking forward to being reintroduced to broadband caps and planned to ignore our print and broadcast media for a time when he was back. He'd decided that New Zealand's young people aren't as driven and singularly focused as Americans and that we're a bit drunker as a country. At one point Jon also referenced that the music we play in retail shops and cafes isn't as good. He also enjoys the American aesthetic a little more.

He wasn't being pretentious and he wasn't being a national traitor. I told him that in my eyes he seemed to be suffering a little from the returning home blues.


I think New Zealand is a tough country to see straight. For much of my life, how I related to my home country was defined mostly in opposition to my stage of life and mindset.

As a country, we're tinier than most and far away from a lot. If I had been home in New Zealand for a long time and planning a trip abroad, my attitude was dictated almost entirely by itchy feet and a bristling to get into the wider world. Once away, in my rear-view mirror New Zealand always seems much, much smaller than it did previously (and it never seemed very large to begin with) and the great beyond takes on its own intoxicating luster. Within a global context, New Zealand can then appear amazingly small to go back to.

In the past I have been prone to either thinking about New Zealand in these terms of limits and escape, or consciously romanticising our beauty, smaller size and comparable lack of people (this usually happens when I'm out of the country, or just returned).

I sometimes think that I never like New Zealand more than when I arrive home into Auckland in the early morning from Los Angeles: the streets seem simply empty, everything, everywhere, (even in the city!) is green beyond imagination and the airport barista's Kiwi-lilt sounds magical.

Historically, my internal barometer for national sentiment has been firing all over the place.

As Jon and I walked and talked the other night, I identified closely with how he was feeling.

We're a country with a unique combination of traits that can provoke such understandable dread and reluctance. New Zealanders are smart, we have big dreams, grow up with an eye on the horizon... but then we're geographically constrained to a small space and globally isolated. We are capable enough to do anything... but then many of our options are naturally limited by geography.

But these responses to home change over time.

After assuring Jon that I understood where he was coming from, I expressed to him that I had started to think recently that with two years of distance from New Zealand I've become less reactionary in how I think about it.

I think time away from New Zealand has made me more accepting of its limits. Our size and isolation restricts us. It impacts upon everything, from what is covered in the media, through to our political discourse.

I find myself increasingly zen about our foibles when you can see the root cause. They come from a root cause. We're just small. (But beautiful!). I wish we wouldn't fight against this so much and be a little bit more self-aware. But that's okay. No country is perfect.

So I wonder, how does living and abroad change how you think about your home country?

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