Familiar weirdness of home

After a long and harrowing journey, I was finally home.

Three flights, two stopovers, two metal detectors set off, an array of lukewarm, unappetising plane dinners, 28 hours spent in a cramped seat beside two snoring young men, and I was finally home.

I stumbled off the plane and into the arms of my family; the usual rag-tag bunch of children proudly brandishing home-made signs with the words ''Welcome Home Jean'', and ''I'll Wait Forever But 429 Days is Long Enough''.

It was glorious to see them all again; my scatterbrained mother, the myriad children running around her feet, and the constant chatter, even at 4.30am on a frosty June morning.

On the car ride home, I found myself watching out for the usual signs and shops - the Pink Pig in Maramarua, the faded old billboards lining State Highway 2 in the Hauraki Plains, the beautiful array of palm trees lining the main road into Waihi.

But we weren't heading to Waihi; instead, we were heading in the opposite direction; up north to the sleepy little rural village of Wellsford.

Wellsford is a little town on the Northern Peninsula, the northernmost major settlement of the Auckland region. According to local tradition, the name Wellsford is an acronym based on the surnames of the first families who settled in the region. The names were Watson, Edger, Lester, Levet, Simpson, Foster, Oldfield, Ramsbottom and Dibble. It's a pleasant enough place, with miles of countryside for the children to roam, and quiet parishioners for my father to visit.

But I find myself feeling strangely unmoored; untethered, adrift. When I am in Oxford, I find myself missing the New Zealand bush and the dusty old main street of Waihi. Yet when I arrive home in New Zealand, I don't know exactly where I belong.

This feeling is quite understandable given that for many, life in the host country is perceived as temporary, however, as time passes ''home'' in the native country becomes more distant.

I've watched as friends back home have married, borne children, graduated, bought houses, found jobs in the big city and paid off their mortgages. In contrast, I feel something like Peter Pan - an adult child, still drifting around the world, trying to make something of myself, but never putting down roots. I will soon be in my ''late twenties'' with nothing tangible to show for it, apart from a half-finished Oxford education and a collection of postcards from various little towns and cities across Europe. There is a certain dislocation - milestones missed and events skipped - birthdays, weddings, births, and funerals. I'm not really sure where ''home'' is any more.

My first taste of culture shock hit me as I embarked from my Emirates flight at Auckland International Airport. I stepped off the plane while a distinctly Kiwi voice wafted over the PA. It felt simultaneously foreign and familiar. Then, I noticed a young man in rugby shorts and jandals, and began to feel more at home. I strolled through the airport, soaking in all the familiar sights and phrases.

I always find it slightly odd moving back into the bosom of the family home. Even though I have traversed the world; even though I am about to embark on a PhD; even though I have been wholly independent for at least eight years, I find myself regressing back to a moody, often-sullen teenager.

I have to bite my tongue, and restrain myself from slamming my bedroom door. I find my independence restricted; my father pours the milk over my breakfast cereal, and I find myself shuffled hither and thither, from church, to home, to the supermarket, and back to church. I miss the freedom of living alone; I miss being able to speak my mind, sleep in the afternoon, and eat Coco Pops for dinner.

It seems like I have been away for an age, but New Zealand hasn't changed. It's helpful to focus on the old familiar things, such as my Dad's lopsided smile, the ancient bench press in the garage and the usual mess in my brother's room.

We may have moved across the country, but some things remain the same. There is also a solid, concrete joy in telling my little brothers and sisters about my life abroad, and all my strange travels and adventures. Many of them have never left the country, and to them, I am a window to the outside world.

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

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