Watching the All Blacks’ homecoming this week had me all choked up: three thousand people crammed into the arrival hall, a haka performed by airport ground staff right there on the tarmac, and tens of thousands lining the streets as the boys in black took their victory lap around the country.
It reminded me of similar homecomings of my own. Well, maybe not the victory lap and the 400 guys performing a haka for me on the tarmac, but you know, just the emotion. Richie, normally so understated, practically gushed: “Coming home is pretty awesome.”
It sure is.
For starters, you’re usually exhausted. New Zealand isn’t on the way to anywhere else. It’s the end of the line. You never really appreciate how remote our country is, until you try to get back here from the opposite side of the world. It’s so far it feels like a pilgrimage.
By the time you arrive, you’re awash with anticipation. The immigration guy says: “Welcome home. Where’ya been?” with a Kiwi accent so thick you do a double take. Is that really what I sound like?
Once I was so delirious with lack of sleep arriving in Auckland that I momentarily forgot where I was. I noticed the guy across from me in the Customs queue wearing a T-shirt with “Aotearoa” emblazoned on the front, so I waved enthusiastically and shouted: “Hey bro! I’m from New Zealand too!”
“True!” he said, trying his best not to make me feel stink.
Because that’s how we roll this side of customs. We’re paddling this waka back to shore together, and we’re nearly there. When the glass doors finally open, you’re sucked out into the bright light of day like a rock star in a sea of fans. A hundred expectant faces all on you. Thank God you have a trolley to hang on to, the attention’s too much.
Then all of a sudden, there’s a whoop from somewhere in the back. A wave of a hand, a smile or a tilt of the chin. People win the lottery in airport arrival halls every single day. There are hugs. Haka. Tears that spring from nowhere as you hold on, and hold on. You leave your trolley right where it is and make everyone walk around you.
There are many cliches that sum up this feeling, but when I think of them I always find myself getting snagged on the contradictions.
If home is where the heart is, then a lot of the time my heart is out there in the world. I’ve been leaving my country, often for years at a time, ever since I managed to get my face on a passport. I’ve been lured away on the outgoing tide by the promise of adventure and new words for familiar things.
Perhaps then, there’s no place like home is more fitting. It hints at the importance of whakapapa and culture, recognition and belonging. What is home, after all, if not the place where your identity is reflected in the people you call your whānau, the landscape that holds you, the language that connects you.
Home is your tūrangawaewae. The land of your ancestors. A safe place to raise your children. Like the tītī that flies away when it matures, but comes home to raise its young. Home is our shelter from the storm.
But to embrace this idea fully you must forgive the hint of arrogance that is implied — you know, your place is nice but my place is better.
I think the saying with which I most identify is home is not a place, but people. Or as the whakatauki states: He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata! He tangata! (What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people!)
I don’t go running through those arrival gates to hug a packet of pineapple lumps, after all — much as I miss them when I’m away.
Then again, I’ve met some pretty incredible people on my travels. People who have carried me in strange and unknown lands. People I count as family. By that logic, home could be anywhere — anywhere my people are. But that belies the significance of landscape and culture and language and how intricately those things shape us.
I’m not a staunch patriot, but there is something about me that is uniquely New Zealand. I don’t want to get caught up trying to define what that means. I just know that whatever it is, it’s a quality deeply rooted in people, place, landscape, language, history, family, politics and yes, even sport.
So why then, if I love this place so much, do I keep on leaving? The British novelist Louis de Bernieres knows why. He writes that “the pleasure of homecoming is more than recompense for the pains of setting out, and therefore it is always worth departing”. In other words, the best thing about leaving is coming home.
Because the tide may go out, but it always returns.
This article first featured in E-Tangata on 8 November 2015.