Even a life-long nomad feels the significance of moving

Home doesn't have to be one exact place. Photo: Getty Images
Home doesn't have to be one exact place. Photo: Getty Images
Whenever I am asked where in New Zealand I am from, I do not know how to answer.

Am I from Papakura, where I spent the first two years of my life in a small clapboard house with my young and harried parents? Or am I from Waiau Pa, where all I remember is racing around on my tricycle in the sunshine?

Am I from Browns Bay, where my mother dropped me off at school for the first time? Am I from Mangonui, where my father and I would trawl through the muddy estuary for cockles, or am I from Mangatangi, where I first broke my arm, tumbling from the apple tree?

I could equally be from Milton, where I first ran away from home, or Waihi, where I spent most of my teenage life, or perhaps Dunedin, where I learned how to drink like a true scarfie and scrape my way through university.

I am used to uprooting myself, to fitting my whole life in a duct-taped cardboard box and driving across the country to another house, another school, another set of friends. But even so, the news that my family will soon be moving from Waihi and heading up north to Wellsford has come as a shock.

I live on the other side of the world now, exactly 11,878 miles away from my flesh and blood, but the idea of them leaving the dishevelled, worn-in manse to move 140 miles north unsettles me in a curious and surprising way.

This is not to say I am ungrateful for the nomadic nature of my childhood. In a sense, I had the opportunity to ''re-set'' my life every few years. I could reinvent myself each time I started at a new school, and with each move, I grew in confidence. My sense of self became more solid and defined, and as I travelled more of our beautiful country, my opinions, experiences, mannerisms and beliefs were irrevocably changed.

I am lucky to count at least 10 ''homes'' across New Zealand. From each place, I took something to shape myself into the young woman I am today. But I also left something behind as well. In carving our names into the old oak tree in the middle of our farm, my brother and I indelibly signed the landscape. But I also left behind my friends and family each time we packed up and moved. I can remember often feeling a peculiar sort of ache in my chest as my classmates would chatter on about their best friends from kindergarten, or how their mothers went to high school together.

And so now, even though I haven't lived at ''home'' for six years, it still feels like home. Waihi is where I have lived the longest. It is where I went to high school, and where I discovered my love of writing and arguing with my father.

My brother is buried there, in the little cemetery beside the highway. I have worn the branches smooth on the kowhai tree in the front garden, and I have slammed my bedroom door so often it barely hangs on its hinges. I had my first alcoholic drink at a house party up the road, and my first kiss on New Year's Eve down by the beach. I should be used to up and leaving by now, but I'm not.

When I was 18, self-righteously angry and rebellious, I enrolled at Otago University because Dunedin was the furthest I could get away from home, short of leaving the country. I relished the freedom of not having to attend church, or bite my tongue when my father launched into one of his lengthy sermons.

I loved being able to walk around the city, and not have people know that I was just another member of the messy, sprawling Balchin family. I thought about the future - about flitting around the globe from one city to the next, never putting down roots or starting a family. But I have been a nomad for 24 years, and quite frankly, it's exhausting. I don't know what the future will bring, but I know that I am lucky to have travelled the length and breadth of our beautiful country, even if there is no-one exact place I can call home.

-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago, and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University.

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