My eyes were struggling to stay open. The sunlight was beginning to peek out above the tall trees that decorated the otherwise bland, flat dairy fields. Tendrils of light shone through the windshield, causing me to turn my head and look out the passenger window.
Dad was driving us through the winding, narrow roads of Taranaki, barely obeying the speed limit signs he hurtled past. He was taking me on a tour of all the marae and urupā in the area. We were elevated on a cliff; the sea crashed onto the rocks below us.
There weren’t very many cars around at this time of the day. It was dangerously dark thirty minutes ago.
‘We had to save some beached whales around this bay a few months ago,’ he said, breaking the peaceful silence.
‘How did that happen?’ I asked.
He shrugged. ‘We don’t know. We found all of them on the beach one morning. It was tragic. None of them survived.’
‘The smell was awful,’ he continued. ‘If you got any of their blubber on you, you’d have to throw your clothes out.’
Several iwi around Taranaki came together to clean up the whale carcasses on the beach. It took them days to get those whales off the shore. They took the whales’ jawbones and buried them. The blubber was stripped off their bones, and sold to a company that makes perfume.
‘Iwi made a fortune off that,’ he added.
The jawbones are meant to stay buried until a certain amount of time. That’s tika. My iwi currently has four of them. They’re still trying to figure out what to do with them.
The beach that those whales ended up on had been closed to the public for quite some time. The whale carcasses poisoned the beach, contaminating any of the kaimoana that could be harvested from the sea nearby.
I looked ahead, through the windshield. My dad glanced sideways at me and spoke again.
‘You better wear your jacket. Looks warm, but it’s going to be cold up on the mountain.’
A ‘third culture kid’ is a person who was born in one country, then moved to another during their childhood. The third culture comes from an amalgamation of those two countries.
The term was coined by John and Ruth Useem in the 50s. Their research began when they went on a year-long trip from the United States to India with their three children. They noticed that multi-national kids were performing and behaving differently to kids raised in one country alone.
Third culture kids are, according to people smarter than me, more advanced with cultural integration, more open to new experiences, and better at picking up new languages than single-country kids. The university graduation rate for third culture kids in America is eighty-five percent—four times higher than the national average. We’re more likely to travel as adults and choose careers that allow us to travel often. We’re apparently more mature than other children in our cohorts. Until we reach our twenties. Then, we become stunted by our cultural allegiances, confused about our place in the world, spending most of our time trying to figure out where we belong after we’ve spent most of our lives not quite fitting in.
In a funny twist of fate, my sister and I are second-generation third culture kids. Our mum and aunt were the first in our family. Their family moved from South Africa to Invercargill in the 70s while escaping apartheid. My mum hasn’t told me much about that process, but she’s told me about the freezing temperatures her family was subjected to, unprepared for Aotearoa’s climate after coming from a much warmer South Africa. Her sister, then still a young child, cried from the cold. My grandmother experienced ‘frozen shoulder’ because she wasn’t used to the temperature.
True to the statistics, my mother, my aunt, my sister, and I have nine university qualifications between us. We can speak up to four languages, if you combine our varying degrees of fluency and linguistic knowledge. My aunt held jobs that took her all over the world. My mum travelled back and forth between South Africa and Aotearoa regularly when I was little. My sister and I had lived in two countries and been to four more before we turned thirteen. There is an insane level of privilege in being a third culture kid. I’m thankful for that.
There are a lot of South African immigrants in Aotearoa now, but I avoid most of them here. My skin colour is easily handwaved away when I tell them that I’m Māori, so it’s easy to dodge them. My repatriation into Aotearoa society would’ve been easier if I’d found fellow South Africans, but the more I spoke to them, the less impressed I was by their worldviews. They’d all seemed to ‘escape’ from South Africa, and had mostly negative things to say about it. I felt differently.
The sun was still steadily rising as we approached Taranaki Maunga. It highlighted the snowy peak, and nothing more.
We approached a tiny seedling of a town, which had two takeaway shops, something that resembled a Four Square, and one dairy. My dad slowed down as we crawled through the empty roads.
‘That house over there,’ he pointed out, raising his eyebrows and nodding his head to the right, ‘was your great-grandmother’s house. She lived in Taranaki her whole life.’
The house was painted a stark, bland white. There was one car in the driveway, parked in front of the shed, and next to the clothesline. The curtains inside were still drawn.
I sipped at my travel mug, half-full of coffee. ‘Good to know,’ I said.
He slowed to a crawl as we passed through the town. No one was awake yet.
‘Did you bring Dithare to Taranaki when she was here?’ I asked. My sister came back for a month-long vacation the year before. It was the first time she’d been in the country in ten years.
He nodded. ‘Of course. That’s why I’m taking you.’
Dad spoke about the concept of being called to one place. I didn’t know then where I was being called to. I thought it was Hauraki, actually, because one of my middle names is Hauraki. Still, I felt displaced in my own whenua, unsure where I truly stood. I didn’t bother to tell them that.
I shook myself out of the memory, focusing ahead on the widening road. My dad sped up again as the town melted away from view, replaced once again by large, open fields.
Despite the massive leg-up we get from our jet-setter statuses, third culture kids often struggle with emotional development.
Again, according to people smarter than me, we have less emotional stability than children who grow up in single-culture households and societies. Because we’re so focused on adjusting to our new environments, we’re less focused on developing strong relationships with our peers. We’re used to the idea of abandoning our homes in short amounts of time, which means we can’t really afford to spend too much time getting attached to people, otherwise it’ll hurt more when we leave again.
We struggle to define what ‘home’ means to us. This feels especially ironic to me, considering my first name means ‘home’. I spent most of my time in South Africa wishing I was back ‘home’ in Aotearoa, and when I got here, I didn’t feel like I was at home. I grew more and more homesick for South Africa. I flicked through memories as if they were pages in a picture book. One page contained the photos of the time I went up Table Mountain with my mum, dad, and sister. Another served me snapshots of the times I hiked through the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens with my South African family. I didn’t realise that I had grown attached to my friends and my life there until it was too late.
When a third culture kid can’t put down strong roots in any one location, some researchers refer to us as ‘culturally homeless’. This phenomenon comes up most frequently if we can’t adapt to our new or old homes while we’re growing up, which explains why we feel so out of place in our twenties when we’re trying to stitch the patchwork that is our geographical history. We lack that sense of belonging that most kids develop when they’re busy building their national identities, figuring out how their country fits onto the international stage.
I was taken aback by how little I knew about Aotearoa, and my Māori heritage, when I came back. I was surprised so few people were supportive of bilingual education. It was mandatory for South African kids to graduate high school knowing at least two languages. I felt isolated from Māori communities, embarrassed about how little reo I knew, or that I didn’t even know my iwi off by heart. My new Kiwi friends were confused about the slang I picked up while living in South Africa, to the point that it caused offence in the wrong contexts.
I was definitely taken aback by how racist Aotearoa could be, which is really saying something when you come from South Africa. The racism is different—it’s difficult to explain. Here, it’s more common to be casually racist; it’s okay to campaign politically on the basis that Māori get ‘preferential treatment’ from the government. People get taken seriously for views like that in Aotearoa. That viewpoint about black and coloured people is definitely present in South Africa, too, but it would be political suicide to even attempt to campaign on that basis. You wouldn’t get much mainstream support if that was your political campaign strategy.
I found it particularly off-putting that Kiwis were more than happy to joke about racist South African immigrants or be proud of protesting against the Springbok Tour in the 80s, when they were just as happy to turn on Taika Waititi when he publicly said that New Zealand was a racist country.
My hair whipped around my head as I stepped out of the car. The wind immediately chilled my fingers. The sun had fully burst into the sky by the time my dad and I reached a walking trail. ‘That’s not really normal,’ he said, gesturing to the snow on Taranaki’s peak. ‘It usually melts off by January.’
He pointed to a trail that disappeared into the trees. ‘This way,’ he said, as he started down the trail. To Dawson Falls, the sign read.
The forest was much quieter than the carpark. Several tūī sang, hiding near the top of the trees. The wind wasn’t able to pass through here. Dad and I remained quiet as we walked onwards, him leading the way to the waterfall.
‘These forests protected our ancestors during the Taranaki Wars,’ he said out of nowhere. ‘They retreated here in the 1860s.’
The Taranaki Land Wars are something most Kiwis know about in passing. It wasn’t until I walked through that forest with my dad that I realised the gravity of them. It felt different when I realised that my own ancestors were involved, and had to retreat to the only sanctuary they had once land confiscation became prevalent. In a strange way, I felt more connected to them as I walked amongst the bush. I didn’t know what it was like to be forcibly displaced, but I knew what it meant to feel displaced.
‘How long did they stay here?’ I asked. ‘Is this the part of the forest they lived in?’
‘No. That’s much further in,’ he said. He paused, carefully stepping over dead branches that littered the floor, and sighed. ‘They lived here for ten years. When they returned to their land, it had already been taken.’
We fell silent again as we descended down the withered stairs towards the waterfall.
My ex-boyfriend once said to me, ‘You know, when we’re hanging out, you’re physically present, but you’re never really there.’
‘Huh?’ I replied, although I was aware of what he was saying. I was trying to stall.
We were sitting at a table in the backyard of our flat in Tāmaki Makaurau. It was late at night; we were shooting the shit with our flatmates, but he and I had lapsed into our own quiet conversation together.
‘It’s like you’re checked out, or something. Sometimes it’s hard to reach you.’
I shrugged. ‘I’m just thinking. You guys are reminiscing. I don’t wanna disturb you.’
My ex and our flatmates had all gone to the same high school together.
‘You can still say something. You’re their friend, too.’
‘Eh,’ I said, and shrugged again. I pulled my blanket tighter around my shoulders. ‘I’m enjoying the stories you guys are telling.’
I was actually thinking about my own high school friends and our experiences. I didn’t think I could contribute anything funny, or useful, or insightful. None of my flatmates could relate to me. Every time I shared what I thought was a funny story about high school, they mostly moved on to their own high school memories, so I stayed quiet when they got into these conversations. It made me feel even more lonely than I already was.
I tried to keep in contact with my high school friends after I arrived back in Aotearoa. That contact has had limited success. I’ve stopped talking to the majority of my friends. There are some I check in with every few months. I get up at 3 or 4 a.m to video call them, spending hours catching up and figuring out what’s going on in their lives.
I get lonely listening to them sometimes, too. I realised that as the years stretched out between us, and my physical presence became more of a distant memory, the level of involvement I had in their lives was slim. They told me about funny events they went to together, and I sat and listened to them, laughing at their actions.
I remembered the streets they all live on. I checked them constantly on Google Maps to see if their neighbourhoods have changed at all. But I felt like a ghost, haunting their screens and their streets occasionally, then disappearing into my own world again once our hours were up.
Te Rere ō Nokē, or Dawson Falls, was at the bottom of the staircase. The wind rushed through my hair again. The water crashed down onto the rocks and into the pool, which trickled down into a rocky river. I automatically flinched away from the waterfall every time I felt some water touch my cheek.
‘Come here!’ Dad called. He was standing right by the water’s edge. I had flitted off to the side. I was more interested in staying warm and dry, and taking pictures fit for an aesthetically-pleasing Instagram feed.
‘Why?’ I asked, squeezing my hands together and blowing on them.
He gestured to the pool of water right in front of us. ‘We’re baptising you. Put your hand in that.’
He laughed at my expression. Gingerly, I dipped my fingers into the water. I mimed a little skit, pretending that my hand had frozen and flopped off into the water, carried down the river, lost forever. He rolled his eyes with a smile, cupped his hands, and placed them in the water, too.
I took my hand out of the pool. He splashed the handful of water against my (thankfully waterproof and knee-length) jacket. He flicked a few droplets onto my hair and my forehead. I blinked rapidly when it made contact with my skin.
‘That’s a reminder,’ he said quietly, ‘of your heritage. All your tūpuna did this before you, and now you have, too.’
I know now that my dad was trying to give me something I desperately needed at the time. A place to call my own.
I will never feel truly settled in one specific place, but I’m comfortable with that feeling now. It’s not the same as feeling culturally homeless.
When I’m meditating and calling on the guidance of my tūpuna, I think about Te Rere ō Nokē. I imagine the sunlight drifting through the trees, filtering down to the pure pool of water at the base of the waterfall. I hear the gentle trickle of water down the river. I feel the hands of my tūpuna holding my head and my body as they lower me into the cold waters, protecting me and immersing me with their wairua.
I think about what it would be like to retreat to the forests of Taranaki on my own for a few days. I picture the tūī singing above my head, beckoning me to sing with them. I walk past lush, dark ferns in my meditations, making sure to touch every natural surface I can put my fingers to. I breathe in the earthy scent of the rich soil and the brown leaves on the tracks.
I dream about Cape Town often. The last time I did, I dreamt that I was walking down Long Street, the city’s equivalent to Wellington’s Cuba Street. It’s vibrant at all hours, host to a multitude of famous and long-standing businesses. I dreamt that I looked up at the skyscrapers as I was walking down the street with my friends. I squinted at the sunlight that was pouring into the city, surrounded by the picturesque mountains. I inhaled the sea salt scent of the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans.
The dream morphed, and I was standing in Groot Constantia, nestled amongst the vineyards that stretched far into the valleys. Green grapes looked ready to pick off the vine, swollen and plentiful. I heard my friends call my name—one of them was wearing a straw sunhat, waving me over to where she was standing.
I emerge from these night and daydreams at peace. There used to be a sense of painful longing when I pictured these locations. These days, I’m mostly grateful that I was able to have all those experiences in countries that I can call mine. Being a third culture kid is a blessing, once you figure out all the murky shit that comes with it. My third culture is no longer formed from uncertainty, and shame, and insistent hunger for something I didn’t appreciate at the time. Now, it comes just as easily to me as air does to my lungs.