Thursday, October 23, 2008

who am I?

Now, a title like that can't be encouraging if you're looking for a breezy, lighthearted blog post. Rest assured I'm not going down an existential path here... more a geographic one.

As I said several posts before, I've been craving the mountains. Specifically, New Zealand mountains. I couldn't stop thinking about them while I was away from New Zealand last year; sometimes I felt like being away from things that felt the same way as those mountains made it harder and harder for me to do the ordinary things like breathe... Sounds dramatic when I write it like that! As beautiful as Australia is, and as good a time as I had there, it is just so completely different to this country. I felt oppressed by the heat, by the redness, by the smallness. That doesn't make a lot of sense because Australia is vast and empty whereas New Zealand is small and a lot of Australians feel quite claustrophobic here, apparently. But being in Australia felt, for me, like everything was on a tiny scale, vertically. You could drive for hours without approaching any sort of gradient.

Anyway, this is a tangent. What I mean to say is that I know I am a New Zealander because of this, my love for the land and the seas of New Zealand that make me miss them desperately whenever I'm away for long. At risk of going overboard, I feel a connection to the environment around me. And also to the people - I feel I belong with them and I understand them, even if I don't always get along with them. We are all equal.

I think this is quite recent among New Zealanders. Not that long ago - one or two generations - Pakeha* New Zealanders still talked about Britain as Home, and felt completely out of place in New Zealand. One of my favourite poets, Allen Curnow, wrote in the 1930s a poem that expressed this, ending with the couplet:
"Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here."

In a detective novel I've been reading, written by New Zealand's Ngaio Marsh in 1943, this is expressed as well, in a suspicion of the natural environment.
The main character is looking at a poster of the English Cotswolds.
"It made Dikon, the New Zealander, ache for England. By shifting his gaze slightly, he saw, framed in the sitting-room window, a landscape aloof from man. Its beauty was perfectly articulate yet utterly remote. Against his will he was moved by it as an unmusical listener may be profoundly disturbed by sound forms that he is unable to comprehend. He had travelled a great deal in his eight years' absence from New Zealand and had seen places famous for their antiquities, but it seemed to him that the landscape he now watched through the Claires' window was of an early age far more remote than any of these. It did not carry the scars of lost civilisation. Rather, it seemed to make nothing of time, for it was still primeval and its only stigmata were those of neolithic age. Dikon, who longed to be in London, recognised in himself an affinity with this indifferent and profound country, and resented its attraction."

Well, Curnow's prediction seems to have come true. I feel able to "stand upright here", sure of myself and my surroundings, with the result that a lot of Ngaio Marsh's book just annoys me, with all of her references to the "terrible New Zealand dialect" and all the people longing for England and all of England's constraints. It's not against my will that I love the New Zealand landscape as my own landscape. There are still issues - it's difficult now to be unaware of the cost to the Maori of European settlement, and I recognise that the Maori have a claim on the land that goes deeper than the European claim. I will never be quite "indigenous".

Here comes the problem. I was talking recently to my supervisor, who is Welsh, who is extremely well-travelled, and who knows I want to see Europe someday. After asking me about my passions, which all turn out to be cultural - music, literature, drama - he said to me, "you know, you are actually a product of Europe. When you get there, you will understand what I mean." And he also said, "when you are in England or in Europe you really have a sense of walking on the bones of your ancestors."

Suddenly I'm aware of this tension. Maybe it was easier to be one of those past New Zealanders who never really settled down here, always looking back "Home", never becoming anything other than British. I am, I think, as much a New Zealander as it's possible to be, and I am part of the landscape now, but I am also drawn to Europe, to where my roots are, to the culture that has influenced me the most. And I'm not quite sure if I'll ever balance this. Maybe, after all, I haven't quite learnt the trick of standing upright here yet. If I'm here, maybe I'm not fulfilling myself in a cultural sense. If I'm away, I'll be longing to come back and be where I belong, physically and geographically.

We are still a young country, obsessed with these questions of nationhood. Maybe we all feel this tension; after all, the places we talk about as our nation's roots are on battlefields far away - Gallipoli, the Somme, North Africa, Crete, Monte Cassino... Who are we? How are we different from Europe, from America, from Australia? (Especially Australia!) Why is it that everyone else seems so secure in their nationhood and we are still confused? If anyone else can tell me exactly how long it will take, that would be great!

* Pakeha = of European descent

3 comments:

E. said...

Wow. Pretty, pretty post. And it's funny; I've been thinking along the same lines recently, but with America. And I think that maybe it's something I might never figure out---I feel too much a product of the entire world to ever quite stand upright anywhere.

Sarakastic said...

Just yesterday we were talking about places where I wouldn't be afraid of frostbite in October. My brother mentioned that New Zealand was the perfect place to live even though none of us have ever been there.

I've struggled with this too, but more in the sense that I live in a very conservative state but I am not very conservative. I wonder if somewhere else would match my personality & being better, but I can't shake the feeling that this is home because it's where my family is. I think "home" is a very hard place to find. I don't know a lot of people who have, so I just try to be happy with the adventure.

~Virginia~ said...

it's hard finding a place where you fit emotionally, mentally, spiritually...i think you just have to figure out what drives you. what you're passionate about. what your dreams are. and then try to put yourself in the best environment to cultivate all those things.