Rootless expat syndrome

20:37, Dec 04 2012

In San Francisco, I am an infant. In America, I'm a little over two-years-old. Sometimes it feels like when you move city, in the eyes of new people you meet you become, in essence, one-day-old.

This is an understandable human impulse, I guess. We all have slightly self-centred world views, naturally. It's hard for us to truly imagine the people we meet existing before we met them.

It can make me miss being somewhere where I have roots, though.

The slight rootlessness I can feel in America manifests itself in different ways.

For two days last week, I had three visitors from New Zealand. CJ, a very old friend of mine, was stopping through San Francisco en route to a wedding in London with his girlfriend and her sister.

I was tremendously excited about their arrival. But it also threw me into a tizzy of planning. I wanted them to have a good time, but I was not yet completely comfortable that my best two days I could give them were the best two San Franciscan days, period.


I messaged local friends for restaurant recommendations. I spent a lot of time on Yelp. LP and I were the tour guides but in some elements, I still felt as new in town as our guests.

Nevertheless, it was an extremely grand ol' time.

There was something magical about catching up, shooting the breeze and reminiscing with an old friend (I've known CJ for 11 years or so) - especially when so often I find myself spending time around new(er) people in my life.

It felt tremendously comforting to feel myself existing in both the current and historical sense, to know that to this old friend I am not just the person I am now, but the sum total of all the other variants of myself that I have once been (for better and for worse, I guess).

Which is not to minimise any friends I have made or people I know in America. It is just nice to exist within a deeper backstory.

This rootlessness also exists within smaller things - cultural touchstones and such.

I always think about this with cricket. I've written about this before. Cricket is as much a sport as it is a subculture; it has its own language and is about as hard to teach to an outsider to the game as it is to teach someone Spanish overnight.  

I love cricket but its role in my life has atrophied. It is not so much rejected in America, as it just doesn't exist at all within the cultural landscape. Inevitably, two years after leaving New Zealand I can now go for huge tracts of time where I really don't think that much about cricket.

But then last night, with LP away in Portland visiting a friend, I finally got to sit down and watch Fire in Babylon, the quite superb 2010 documentary about the West Indian cricket team's dominance throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.

The movie was full of cricketing lore and classic names and action that I could comprehend. It touched on a very sentimental part of me, bought part of my upbringing to life again - sitting around with Dad, or friends, watching cricket, New Zealand probably losing - that sometimes I don't think about that much. I found myself feeling like I existed along a longer plane of time, again.

Roots, I think, are about these people and the culture you grew up with, but also just... stuff.

After moving countries and then coasts and bedding down and then uplifting somewhere else, I'm more excited than ever to consume and accumulate.

LP and I bought a record player. We bought a new bedframe. I can buy books without thinking about how we're going to inevitably shift them thousands of kilometres away.

Sometimes people ask me, "How long will you stay in San Francisco?" My answer, slightly facetiously, is "forever."

I feel at the moment like I couldn't actually stomach shifting anywhere that isn't within a short drive in a moving truck from where I am now, for a very long time. At the same time as this, if LP and I wanted to move anywhere we're about as free as we'll ever be to do that.

Some of this is just laziness after two big moves. But a lot of it is that for right now, I just need to personally be somewhere, anywhere, for a fixed and extended amount of time. Because that sort of cultural and personal rootlessness I describe above, I think that the only antidote for it is time. You can't rush settling down.

Paradoxically, somewhat, being separated from where I grew up gives me a deeper appreciation and love for the culture that raised me, and how New Zealand made me who I am.

It just makes me miss that familiarity I had with New Zealand and a place like Wellington, where I lived for 10 years. The instinctive sense of a place that builds up.

I want that (eventually) in my life. 

Does this resonate?

The roots will come though. I know that. I'm okay with it.

Become a fan of Voyages in America on Facebook: you'll get blog posts to your news feed, some great photography, and some good chatter. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter, or send an email and share your thoughts.