Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Making moves, making mischief

What fun to host a virtual book tour; I might have to do that myself one day, when I churn out the book-length version of this question of kiwifying your overseas-born children. Or not kiwifying them, as the case may be. See, one of the things that makes New Zealand both endearing and maddening is the myth of Godzone. You know, the half-gallon quarter-acre pavlova paradise that is God’s own country, perfect, beyond critique and certainly beyond compare.

As the black preacher once allegedly said when asked if there was indeed such a place as Hell, “No; the Lord would not repeat himself, having already furnished us with the state of Georgia.” (One might add, after watching Spike Lee’s devastating documentary When The Levees Broke, the states of Louisiana and Mississippi after a category 5 storm). Conversely, we tend to think that nowhere else, not even paradise, could be quite so heavenly as little old Aotearoa.

It’s a sustaining notion, with elements of truth to it; but one often has the suspicion that it helps salve the ache of being truly the last place on earth, the end of the line, the bottom of the very world. Who are we really trying to convince, for example, with our 100% Pure ad campaign? When you think about it, isn’t our century-long exercise in clean green beautiful tidy Kiwi propaganda sort of like an affirmation pasted above the bathroom mirror, evidence that we’re not altogether sure that every day in every way we’re getting better and better?

So it was rather bracing to get this message from Sharon, describing some of her far-flung whanau who might never come home:

Dad is a Canadian-born Irish-cross ex-pat Pom and Mum is a Kiwi who's lived in Europe for 20 years. They live with their two boys in Barcelona, which is now home. The boys are tri-lingual - English, Catalan and Castilian. Kiwi roots are fostered by regular visits from grandparents, and occasional trips to the other side of the world.

The most amazing thing about Home sweet Kiwi Home as far as these two were concerned? Tides! Living on the Mediterranean coast, coming face to face with a lagoon at the end of the garden of a bach in Golden Bay that you could walk across at low tide and had to use a kayak to cross just a few hours later was a source of constant amazement.

Theirs will be an interesting, on-going experiment in homeland. Their English is of a fairly cultured British variety, but produced with typical Catalan chest voice and inflections. Catalan is first language for them, because it's what they use with their friends and at school ... and it enables them to have a laugh at their parents' expense every so often, because their grasp of the vernacular is so much more acute than the olds can ever achieve.

Kiwi roots are nourished with books of Maori legends that are eagerly pursued ... but in much the same way as we would once have read fascinating tales of foreign climes and far-off times. They'll find their own way in the world, but I doubt it will ever be back here except as an exotic holiday place.

You never know, though. Paul wrote with a riveting account of how it feels to move an entire family home after twenty years away:

We've always described the strange situation our kids are in as being '2nd class NZ citizens' - it's really quite bizarre and quite counter to what people normally think about nationality, self, family, lots of usually unspoken things... but we're going to fix that.

We landed up in the US and spent 20 years there. When the kids were born, we vowed that when the oldest hit high-school we'd move back home so they could 'grow up in both countries.' It was an easy vow to make when they were babies, but luckily we told enough people over the years that we were doing it that we'd basically boxed ourselves in when the time came.

Moving back home after 20 years is REALLY, REALLY hard. You go off to see the world with a suitcase or a backpack and come home with half a container full of crap - and that's after selling the house and car, giving half your stuff away (not a bad thing in itself), leaving friends and schools and family you've accumulated over the years... in our case at least it's definitely been worthwhile. We're very glad we did.

We moved from one university town to another, which helped. I've kind of described it to friends in the US as being like "moving back to the mid-west." Our kids have landed on their feet; the only thing they complain about is the lack of the same range of stuff to buy. We'd taken them out of school at the end of the school year here and then on a trip around the world for 3-4 months before washing up in NZ, so they were pretty starved for kids their own age by the time they started school at the beginning of the NZ school year.

We'd deliberately chosen a year that meant that they were starting 1st and 3rd form respectively, so everyone was new at the same time. My daughter expressed a desire to get rid of her US accent before starting school, she was so scared of being different. But I think they were treated well because they were different rather than the other way around. My son is in a school next to the University, where there are kids from all over, so he's certainly not the only one with an accent, nor the only Yank. My daughter was invited home on a play date on the third day at school, and my son did almost as well.

In fact, the kids seem to have settled faster than we did. So much has changed but our mental image of the place hadn't, and we didn't have a lot of the stuff you learn as a new parent – like how do we register them for school? sign up with a doctor? pay taxes? rates? get a license? etc etc. I even went down to Immigration to see if they had some sort of pamphlet for new migrants. No such luck.

18 months on though, we've settled, it's home again and the kids are well on their way to becoming first class citizens. The world's a smaller place than it used to be. We moved our US phone number 'to NZ' (well, it rings there, anyway) so our friends can still call us and we them. I can keep up with people on-line and visit more than I should (I still consult for a company in the US).

It's nothing like when I moved to the US 20 years ago and from my point of view NZ dropped off the face of the earth.

So it can be done. And even families who are still on the fence about returning, or not, are doing their best to raise bi-or-tri-or-more-cultural kids. Jenny counts herself an accidental immigrant to the US (she fell in love, stayed, and found herself with a co-op apartment, two kids, and a job that she mostly really likes – you know how it goes). She had a different take on the trappings of kiwi-ness, one that I really like:

I live in New York with my American husband (originally from Jamaica), and my two Brooklyn-born-and-raised teenagers. I love living in New York, but I have been having lots of conversations recently with an old friend who is trying to decide whether to stay or move back. What we decided we would miss most is the energy when we walk out onto the street- all those people just walking around doing their thing. Of course there are lots of other things too, but I love all the incidental human interactions that take place just by walking out the front door.

It was fascinating reading other expats’ thoughts on raising children far away from “home.” I noticed that the writers mostly had younger children, and I too remember stocking up on Hairy McClary books, custard powder, buzzy bees etc.

But to me, New Zealand is more than its symbols- as fond as we are of sports teams and kiwis. I have been in New York for eighteen years now, and I love it, but there are some things that New Zealand does way better - and I don’t mean the footie or climbing really big mountains. New Zealanders are a friendly bunch, and are willing to make connections with many different sorts of people and put our minds to all sorts of tasks.

Our own stories have a lot of power - and over the years my kids have absorbed stories about me, my family and good old NZ. My children know about the goat we kept in our garden in Ponsonby when I was a student, and how it once escaped and we had to chase it around while wearing our late seventies punk outfits (ready for a night on the town.)

They know about the wars my brothers and I had with the bully who lived up the road, and the go-carts and tree houses we built. Vacations in funny old baches with “long drops.” What it was like for their grandparents growing up in the thirties and forties. The Springbok tour. Huge school playgrounds. How Peter Tapsell (the minister of internal affairs) declared 1990 The Year of the Public Toilet. “Wagging” school and going to the beach. Wonderful New Zealand music. Greenpeace and France. The sublime beauty of a scone with jam and cream. Winston Peters and his spider bite. The healthcare system and public transportation in New York and NZ. And so on.

(And don’t worry, my children can hold their own with their stories too- this is a conversation we have had for many years, not a series of lectures.)

I found this incredibly moving. My last post on the subject suggested that overseas New Zealanders are a consumer culture: you are what you eat (and read), and if it reminds you of home, you savour it all the more and happily pay the shipping charges. But there’s something even more heartening in the idea of a truly oral culture, passing down the treasured stories of home, which might overlap in content from one family to the next, but remain particular in the details and vivid in the telling.

Naughty stories are especially fun to tell, like Jenny’s mad goat chase through the streets of Auckland. Coincidentally, Busybro (on the verge of turning five) has been asking us lately for “funny stories from when you were little and you did something naughty but not too naughty but quite naughty and a lot funny.”

We find that these stories are redolent of local culture in surprising ways. Like the time Busybro’s Dad (aged about five) discovered how jolly easy -- and satisfying -- it is to push over a ponga tree. So satisfying that, with the help of a friend, he methodically toppled an entire fence-line of ponga between his house and the neighbours.

Everything you need to know about the tactile pleasures and shallow roots of ponga trees can be learned from this story, as well as a new reminder that good fences make good neighbours and even the best ponga make crap fences.

Speaking of neighbours, I have very fond memories of the day we discovered, while sneaking through backyards in Papatoetoe, that some of our neighbours liked to skinny-dip in their pool in broad daylight, unaware that there were gaps in the fence just large enough for small wide eyes to take in the view. I still remember the aha! moment, when I realised that wasn't an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny fur bikini she was wearing on her lower half after all.

(Why this was such a revelation, when I'd grown up in a house where a fondness for casual nudity extended to the odd week in naturist holiday camps, is a mystery. I guess other people's are always more interesting than your own).

As if the peeping-tommery wasn't fun enough, on one of our return trips hoping to catch an eyeful, we noticed a heavily laden lemon tree right next to the fence. How high was the fence? Exactly high enough to provide an excellent challenge in the inaugural All Papatoetoe Lemon Lobbing Competition. Brilliant. One point for getting it over the wall at all. Ten points for every satisfying splash. A hundred points for the time we did it without checking whether the skinny dippers were at it before starting the competition.

"YOU BLOODY KIDS!" roared an enraged male voice. In five seconds, we'd jumped the creek, scurried through the vegie garden, hurtled in the back door and settled in front of the TV as if we'd been innocently watching Vision On for the previous half hour. No-one could pin anything on us. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would pop through my T-shirt.

And then there was the time my brother Greg and his friend Bruce (also aged about five) painted a car.

Not a picture of a car. Bruce’s Mum’s car, parked handily under the pole house on the hill in Naenae, right next to the workshop handily stocked with half-used cans of sticky brown house-paint and, joy, a screwdriver to take off the lid, and – hooray! - a bucket of brushes with which to apply the sticky brown housepaint. Which they did, to all of the parts of the car they could reach.

It was a Mini.

After painting the windscreen, they decided they couldn’t reach the top of the roof, so they painted each other.

Ah, the golden days of rampaging unsupervised through the bush, up and down the neighbourhood, in and out of other people’s houses. A lemon in one hand, a paintbrush in the other. An authentically New Zealand childhood, no?

So what did you do when you were five, that was a little bit naughty but not too naughty but quite naughty and a lot funny? Tell!

And feel free to write under a pseudonym, if the objects of your mischief are still looking for you.


PS Our little film made it to Telluride!!!