BRING IT ALL BACK HOME

New Zealand Geographic, no. 107, December 2010 

At some level, our children have always known they were Maori. But it was a thin and abstract kind of knowledge, because until very recently everything they knew about New Zealand came from books and movies and TV. They had occasionally encountered other New Zealanders here in America where they live, but because of the way our lives have played out they had no firsthand experience of New Zealand. In fact, until very recently, the only other Maori they’d ever met was their father.

This past June, however, we embarked on what you might call a ‘corrective’ adventure, one that my husband and I hoped might begin to address this deficiency in our children’s knowledge of the world. Over the course of eight weeks, we travelled from Boston to Melbourne and back again, with stops in the Marquesas, the Tuamotu Archipelago, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Hawai’i, and New Zealand—a journey of some 27,000 miles—with our three teenage sons in tow.

The ostensive purpose of this trip was research for a book I am writing about the settlement of remote Oceania by the ancestors of today’s Polynesians. While I could, in theory, have undertaken this journey on my own, I much prefer to travel in the Pacific with my husband, who, being Maori, makes connections that are quite outside my range. That said, there was certainly no necessity to take the children on such a long and complex (not to mention expensive) trip. In fact, from a purely practical point of view, it probably would have been easier to leave them at home. And, yet, they are themselves Polynesian, whether they know it or not, and we felt that we could hardly make a once-in-a-lifetime sweep through their ancestral homeland without bringing them along. And so we cheerfully dragged them over ridges on Nuku Hiva and down into limestone caves on Tongatapu and up into the mape forest on Mo’orea in the firm conviction that, even if they failed to grasp the larger picture, they would at least remember what they saw.

There was, however, one stop on the trip that was always going to be important, and that was New Zealand. In a very few years my husband will have lived more than half his life outside New Zealand, and when he stepped off the plane in July it was the first time he’d been home in twelve years. He grew up in a small Northland community and has dozens, if not hundreds, of relatives who are all still there. For him it was a moving experience, challenging because there were so many people to see and so little time to do it, but poignant in the way that revisiting the past invariably is.

For the children, on the other hand, New Zealand was a curious mix of the unutterably strange and the welcome familiar. After weeks in the islands of tropical Polynesia, where everything had an unaccustomed feel —exotic and beautiful but also sort of sketchy, with pigs and chickens running everywhere and lots of little ticky-tacky shacks—New Zealand, with its gleaming airport and broad motorways and its recognizably suburban feel, seemed almost like home. At the same time, there were things that were definitely peculiar. I think it would be hard to overstate how odd a tree fern or a Norfolk Pine looks to a New Englander, or how much novelty there is in a landscape of conical hills or a coastline like that in the Bay of Islands.

But the main thing about New Zealand was that, despite having no memories of the place, they knew that it was, in some sense, their countrythat they were passport holders, citizens, natives. If tropical Polynesia represented some kind of theoretical foray into their ancient past, New Zealand was the home they’d never seen. Everywhere they went they were embraced by relatives—aunties, uncles, cousins of every degree. It was extraordinary but also slightly overwhelming, and months later our youngest son is still trying to figure it out. “Where any of those people my first cousins?” he asked recently, as if nailing down the taxonomy would help.

I don’t know whether it was this reception, or the fact that everyone spoke English and there were movie theatres and malls, or whether it was simply a matter of the climate—cool and crisp and obviously temperate—but the children were definitely drawn to New Zealand. What they will make of this new knowledge now that they are back in America, is anybody’s guess. But they all came back wearing greenstones which they have not taken off.