2 October 2015
Since we married over 30 years ago, we have lived in 11 different houses in three different countries. That is fewer than three years in each place. Where then is home for me? My parents lived in the same house for nearly 50 years and I spent the first 20 years of my life there. But home now is not the home of my childhood, long since sold and probably changed out of all recognition. Though my memories are of a happy childhood, my ambivalence about the country in which I was born and brought up overrides any incipient nostalgia. Our children were born there too but were so small when we migrated to the other side of the world that it hardly features in their lives.
Both the girls are true-blue Kiwis. We are New Zealanders too according to our passports but we are newcomers with accents evocative of another country. Yet I am profoundly connected to those beautiful islands in the deep blue south Pacific. This is partly because it is where we brought our children up and where they still live. But it is also because I identify so strongly with New Zealand’s landscape and natural environment. When I long for home I dream of the footpath along Tamaki Drive with the silhouette of Rangitoto as the backdrop, the green paddocks of the Hauraki plains dotted with black and white dairy cows, lines of waves breaking on the point at Manu Bay and the grey-brown sand among the boulders at Whale Bay, the clicks and squawks of the tui among the kōwhai trees and the loud fluttering of the kererū overhead.
Now we live thousands of miles away in the tropics of Asia. It feels like we’ll never truly settle in partly because of the climate, which is hot, humid and the same day in and day out. The only variations come with the rain or the dry or more recently, the haze. We are told this is due to fires in Indonesia, which are an illegal way to clear the jungle for palm oil plantations (which may or may not be financed by Malaysian and Singaporean companies).
So we live an artificial kind of life, staying indoors to escape the haze or the heat with the ceiling fans and/or the air conditioners on. We live in what is called a golf resort – a variety of housing (in our case, a rented condominium or flat) built around a golf course, which is secluded from the city surrounding it. There is a guard house at the entrance to the resort and another at the entrance to our condominium buildings – the haves protecting themselves against the have-nots. Our neighbours play golf, drive expensive imported cars, run businesses and travel overseas frequently. Indeed some of the flats are owned by people who keep them only for the occasional weekend of golf and they visit infrequently. It is a curious mixture of ostentatious display and protective isolation.
It is the isolation that appeals to me. When I drive through the main entrance, past the guard house, along an avenue of tall trees towards the condominiums, I feel that I have entered an oasis. This is particularly so when Ipoh drivers and motorcyclists around me seem intent on carrying out their death wishes.
The flat is cool and tranquil. The glass doors to the balcony are always open when we’re home and the sounds that float in are birdsong and the occasional thwack of a golf ball. The living room was freshly painted white before we moved in and all the furnishings are ours (we’ve stored the landlady’s furniture behind a screen in the third bedroom). We walk in to see our comfy sofas and much loved dining table, our china and glass on display, our stacks of books and CDs, our paintings and prints on the walls where there were existing nails. It feels as much like home as we are likely to experience here and we are grateful.
But there is no escaping the reality that we live an artificial life in other people’s country. We don’t speak the language, we have no real friends among the local people, we find the culture alien and aspects of it difficult to understand, and we battle with the climate. If we are to stay much longer, we’ll have to find a way of dealing with these things. And that really means me. I’m the one with the time to take language classes, pursue opportunities for community involvement, explore further and read more about the history and culture of this country. But first I need to dispel the lethargy induced by the heat and haze and homesickness.