I’ve always been particularly sensitive about where I come from. New Zealander’s are proud of their country, we are sturdy and unquestioning in our loyalty to our whenua (land) and to our tangata (people). I left New Zealand when I was quite young, but have always been staunchly adamant that I was a proud New Zealander through and through. Even when I came back home for Christmas, like I did every year, and the man at the dairy asked me where I was from, I couldn’t help but take offense, and responded defensively, “Here. Why?”
I don’t sound like a New Zealander; I have an accent made up like a patchwork of nationalities. The international boarding school accent, thrown by the occasional Kiwi spanner; the South African affliction of “I” in the word “white”; the Australian shortening of the afternoon to “arvo”; the years I spent in London wearing off on me, making me enunciate more that I would naturally do. I don’t sound like a New Zealander, no, but I have always felt like one.
Perhaps it’s also the New Zealand narrative of betrayal surrounding my father – no Kiwi will forget the resounding national cry of “How could he?” when he “abandoned” Team New Zealand for the newer, richer, more exciting Swiss team. All Blacks come and go all the time to play for Japan, for France, and their decision is always met with a “Good on him. Make some real money.” For my father, it was different, and New Zealand felt that he had betrayed them, as if New Zealand wasn’t good enough. He has never told me, but I sense that has always worn on him. Some of you may say that’s old news, but just one month ago, my father was berated on live TV for once again working with the opposition, “Do you feel like, and do you get much grief, that you’re a disloyal New Zealander?” My father is the most loyal New Zealander I know.
New Zealand is my home. My family live here, my heart is here. No place will compare to the absolute natural beauty, the friendliness of the people, my friends and family who welcome me home with open arms once a year. The last thing I ever wanted to be was a disloyal New Zealander. Perhaps that’s why I never accepted Switzerland as my home, although I’ve lived there for almost twenty years. Switzerland was always something temporary for me, somewhere I was living at the time, even though my sense of belonging was somewhere else. I even wore a pounamu hei matau underneath my dress when I took my oaths at my Swiss naturalisation ceremony – a silent refusal that Switzerland would never be my true home, never be New Zealand, and it would never compare.
Today, when people ask where I’m from, I still say New Zealand. Because it’s true. But where you’re from is something far more complicated than I ever imagined it would be. After going to international schools and meeting people far more multi-cultural than I, I realised that where you’re from is a far larger conversation than a one sentence answer. Where are your parents from? Where did you grow up? Where were you born? What ethnicity are you? What languages do you speak? What country do you live in? What place do you identify with most?
As someone who struggles to put down roots anywhere, it’s hard to definitively say where I’m from. My parents and my ancestors are as New Zealand as pākehās can be, yet even when New Zealanders ask me where I am from, and I say “here,” they always look at me with uncertainty and disbelief. It used to crack my heart a little, until I accepted that I was also Swiss too, and the alpine mountains of the Bernese Oberlands will stand tall and proud in my heart right alongside the endless islands and oceans of New Zealand.
Switzerland will always be the new, exciting land of opportunity – in the middle of Europe, and ready for you to travel and conquer new cities and experiences – but it will also always just be slightly colder, slightly less welcoming than my home country. It won’t stop me from taking the deepest breath as soon as I drive up into the mountains and see the gradual change from deciduous trees into evergreens, and see the dusting of snow on top of the alps. It won’t stop me from feeling squeaky clean and new every time I swim in Lac Leman, and it won’t stop me feeling the bliss of a rotisserie dinner with my friends at our favourite restaurant, giggling about the previous week. But it will also never be the warmth and security blanket of home, knowing that whatever happens, my family and friends who see me once a year, will still embrace me like they saw me last week, will still invite me into their lives like I never left, and accept that what I’m doing, whatever part of my life I give them, is enough.
It begs the question: where do you come from? What does that mean? Do you have to belong to one place, or can you belong to multiple? Sure, that makes you more complex, but does that make you less of one culture to belong to another culture as well? Can you choose where you come from?
There’s an old saying, “Blood is thicker than water,” which people use to express that family ties are the strongest. However, the actual saying is slighter longer, and actually signifies the opposite. “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” which means that you have stronger ties to the people that you choose to have around you, compared to the kin you are linked to through family ties – and I think the land of belonging is the same. If you feel a strong connection to a place, you can’t just cast that aside; you have connected to that place on a deeper level than being born there by chance. Own that connection, bide by that bond – you are connected to that place for a reason; it’s got to be worth something!
I am lucky enough that when I travel through airport security, I get to look down at my hands and see my New Zealand passport and my Swiss passport side by side. I am lucky enough that I get to choose, and that Switzerland has accepted me as one of their own, knowing that I will always also belong to somewhere else. I may not ever wholly belong to one place, but I will always be grateful that the places I belong to are some of the most beautiful and soulful of all – at least to me.