“Oh, isn’t that the place where they filmed The Lord of the Rings?”
“Yes, New Zealand is the country where Peter Jackson filmed Lord of the Rings, and no, I will not be living in The Shire.”
I was asked that question all too often before my departure to the Land of the Long White Cloud, and I have to say, it did become rather repetitive. If I had an American nickel for every time somebody asked me that, I could have probably paid for my trip entirely.
I began preparation for my five-month-long journey to New Zealand nearly 12 months before I was to step foot anywhere near an airport. But the time more quickly than expected. I kept busy with school and projects and friends and such, and had little time to think about actually leaving. Before I could say Middle Earth, I was suddenly on a plane on my way to New Zealand. After the longest flight of my life, I was there. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, I was there. I stepped outside onto New Zealand soil for the first time – I breathed in the humid, sub-tropical air, felt the warmth of the summer’s-end sun, and welcomed myself to this new country. “This will be my home for the next five months,” I thought. This is home…
Home. What an odd concept. I knew that geographically speaking, New Zealand was going to be my home for the next five months. But was my idea of home limited to just longitude and latitude?
Home. “Will it be defined as the country itself? Wellington, the city I live in? Will it be the street I live on or the address of my dodgy, claustrophobic student flat?” I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I knew it was home for the next five months, but it was. That much I knew.
Only hours after my plane landed, I found myself in a classroom with my fellow abroaders. We were at an orientation meeting in which our advisors briefed us on what to expect throughout the upcoming journey. They taught us Kiwi traditions, cultural taboos, and how to maximize potential for the best experience possible. Additionally, they trained us on how to prepare for culture shock, and more importantly, homesickness. It was basically a crash course on how to avoid an emotional breakdown. Personally, I thought it was all too dramatic.
I was in New Zealand and having the absolute time of my life. How can you not have fun adventuring, river rafting, volcano hiking, drinking, tramping, backpacking, skydiving, bungee jumping, swimming, exploring, and meeting new people? I was living my dream – hell, I was living everyone’s dream. I took a two-week long South Island road trip during my spring break – it’s safe to say that it was the best two weeks of my life. I lived off of peanut butter and jelly, apples, water, and adrenaline. It was a nonstop, blockbuster-esque voyage that was jam-packed with jumping off of cliffs, hiking mountains, playing ultimate Frisbee, and taking a total of three showers. It was the epitome of adventure. We were a day away from making it back to Wellington. I had never looked forward to being back at my small, cold 10th floor flat in the windy city. I can’t remember a time when a shower ever sounded better, and I was almost willing to club a baby seal for a hot meal.
I arrived back to my flat, dropped off my things, showered, and took a deep breath. I reassessed my surroundings and found that I couldn’t have been more disappointed. This is not how I expected to feel. I thought arriving back at my flat would feel more… satisfying. I mean, I finally had everything I had longed for: food, cleanliness, a bed, and a small sense of familiarity. But I was still upset. My expectations were shot straight to hell. To sum it all up in retrospect, I wasn’t looking forward to returning from my road trip for the proper amenities. Instead, I was looking forward to coming home. It was quite the rude awakening to realize that New Zealand wasn’t living up to my expectations of home.
I was right about one thing: that orientation speech on homesickness was a bit of an over-exaggeration of reality, but it certainly had some truth to it. I had finally admitted it to myself – I was homesick.
Could I even call it homesick, though? I’m not sure that I missed “home.” I mean, sure I missed America. I missed California. I missed the weather, the smells, the sights, the restaurants. I missed fast, wireless internet. I missed the American accent and I missed driving around in my car. I missed my friends, roommates, familiar faces – I missed my girlfriend. But I wasn’t homesick… was I? I missed close friends and little aspects of familiarity, but is that what being homesick is supposed to feel like? What is home?
On the most basic level, Merriam Webster defines home as “a house, apartment, or any other shelter that is the usual residence of a family or household.” It is “the place in which one’s domestic affections are centered.” In some respects, this is home. Going home is going back to your room, your house, your bed. Or according to Metallica front man James Hetfield, “where I lay my head is home.” So there is certainly an element of truth to this surface-level idea of home, but any ex-pat or person abroad would tell you that there is much more to home than a pillow and a full refrigerator.
Most people who know me are keenly aware of the fact that I am a diehard hockey fan – more specifically, a San Jose Sharks fan. I’ve been known to be rather obsessive about the sport – ranting on about how the ref totally blew that one call, or how if our star player wasn’t injured, we’d be going to the Stanley Cup Finals. I found out very quickly that Kiwis don’t give a damn about hockey. They care about one sport and one sport only: rugby. To call it a passion or even an obsession would be a severe understatement – it’s more of a religion. A good Kiwi friend of mine told me that when he was traveling Southeast Asia for a year, the one thing that would have brought him the comfort of home was a rugby match. That’s all he needed to feel comfortable, happy, at home.
So I decided to give it a try. I met up with my best friend, a New England native, and we purchased an online pass that allowed us to stream NHL games live. We woke up at the crack of dawn (because of the time change), grabbed our jackets and laptops, and headed out into the city. We walked through the streets until we arrived outside of the Vodafone Building – the only place in Wellington that offered free, unlimited, wireless internet. Of course, we didn’t have a key that allowed us into the lobby, so we would wait outside in the cold for five, ten, sometimes forty-five minutes for someone to walk out of the building, in which case they would kindly hold the door open for us as we stepped inside. We sat on the lobby couch, plugged in our computers, and voila… hockey. It was wonderful. It was the closest to home I had felt since I arrived in New Zealand. The only thing missing was a carne asada burrito… (Sharks fans will get this).
Despite the fact that streaming hockey games brought me a sense of being at home, the feeling had a very short shelf life. During the time I watched the game and for a few hours that followed, I was content. I had my little dose of home, and the high was exhilirating. But, naturally, all good things come to an end, and the euphoria of watching hockey was no exception. By the end of the night, I felt something missing again, so I began to search for the next little piece of home…
Sometimes, the key to feeling at home was Skyping my girlfriend, sending her an email, or just chatting with her on Facebook. Other times, it was a spontaneous, random conversation with a fellow American traveler I had met in the city. The idea of home changed, morphed, evolved, and it was always a variable for feeling perfectly content. But the more I searched for that one thing that made me feel at home, it became more and more apparent that I would never find it. Not because it didn’t exist, but because I didn’t know what I was looking for.
In writing this post, I reached out to a few of my friends who also studied abroad. I wanted to find answers to this question about home. I know that home is subjective to each individual, but maybe there’s a little more to it. Maybe there’s some universally binding principle that represents home for everybody. My good friend David described home with one word: constancy. Home to him is the quality of having a resolute mind, purpose, or affection; steadfastness. It was a sense of feeling grounded with the freedom to live within stability. To David, a fellow experienced traveler, home was nothing more than a state of mind. It was nothing tangible, it was simply an outlook – a perspective on what already is. A more tangible perspective of home came from my dear friend, Gabe – a world-traveled backpacker with an insatiable thirst for adventure. When I asked him what home was to him while he was abroad, he stated, “Home was the few belongings I had on me. It was the pack on my back and the friends in my company. Home was a nomadic place – for two years, I had already been away from the place I grew up in, returning for only brief moments at a time, so the concept of home was always at arms’ reach. This feeling was only amplified while I was abroad, switching from bed to bed, one city to the next. Home became my friends, my fellow travelers, and the only item that could mark this claim of home was my backpack. It was my home base that served as a flag for the frontier, marking my space shared with my friends.”
The last person I approached was an American friend who is currently living in Australia. Her concept of home is one that I find very interesting. In her opinion, home is looking back to a previous chapter in your life in which you became yourself. For example, her childhood and all of its associations were huge contributing factors to making her the person she is today. Similarly, she will always have a home in Orange, the city where she attended university, as her college years will eternally remain a definitive aspect of her life. Although she didn’t say this directly, from our conversation, I inferred that her perspective of home is fleeting – it’s pure nostalgia. Her sense of home is never in the present, instead, it’s the idea of returning to a personal, unique, shaping point in time. As interesting as I find her perspective, it does not completely satisfy my search for meaning. By her definition, I would never be able to feel at home.
I concluded my trip abroad with a bang, spending a week exploring Fiji before returning to the United States. On the airplane, I was ecstatic to return to America. I was ecstatic to return to my girlfriend, return to a familiar routine. I was thrilled to be back with old friends in Southern California, and I was dying to eat In-N-Out Burger. In a word, I couldn’t wait to be back home.
It’s been six months since I was last in New Zealand, and it’s safe to say that I am still unable to figure out what home really is. It almost feels wrong to end this post so inconclusively, but I’m okay with not being to able to nutshell this complex idea. I am certain, however, that my idea of home will continue to change, grow, and evolve over the course of my life. In my travels throughout New Zealand, I became a better person – I broadened my horizon, escaped my comfort zone, and experienced new ways of thinking. I realized that sometimes, in order to truly find yourself, you have to get away from the place you call home.