I think everyone who has moved countries remembers the first time they arrived. You just can’t help it. There’s something about “firsts” that stick in your memory– the thoughts, the smells, the feelings, the sights. You protect the memory with a mysterious jealousy, it’s your moment and no one else’s (unless you happened to move with your family or spouse)… and you talk about it with a hushed holiness that only matches religious devotion. It’s often coupled with a laugh, too, “I had no idea what I was getting into!” and accounts of first impressions entertain a whole room. But it’s the stories of pain that captivate your audience, that pull them closer to reality, and help them understand that one sentence: 

I moved to New Zealand. 

This is one such story.

“Friday, Friday, gotta get a plane on Friday!” I posted on Facebook, five years ago. Inserting my experience into a hilarious pop song was pretty normal, so was international travel. What wasn’t normal was that I wasn’t planning on coming back. Not until Christmas, anyway. The New Zealand university year started in February, so I wasn’t going back to my hometown of Kona, Hawaii until December. My next three years were excitedly mapped out for me: a Bachelor of Education  at Bethlehem Tertiary Institute (BTI), in the home country of my parents.

It was a brilliant blue Sunday morning when I arrived in Auckland, welcomed by my aunts and uncles and cousins. They had brunch prepared for me (can you smell the sizzling bacon?), I was shocked at summer and not the usual winter cold (can you feel the sunbeams freckling your nose?), I pinched myself that I wasn’t just leaving in a month but I was staying, this was home (can you remember a similar experience of yours?).

Then, crash, reality.

How do I get a tax number if I haven’t lived any amount of time here? And how do I finish my university paperwork without a tax number? (Hello, catch-22 scenarios). How do I set up a New Zealand bank account? I mean, being eighteen, how do I “adult” in general? 

As I navigated all of this (with my extended family helping me out that first week!)… there also came the heart reality. I mean, the pain only hit three months later. In my first set of holidays (you could call it “Fall Break” except it’s around Easter, when the leaves start to turn red), I was back up in Auckland, chatting to my auntie, exhausted and sick.

“You have moved countries, Kayla,” she commented, and I was taken aback. I’d been so consumed with how much I loved and belonged to New Zealand (finally, my heritage made sense!) that I hadn’t realised how hard it was to be there, too. It took finally having a pause on assignments that I understood.

Moving countries wasn’t as easy as jumping in autumn leaves.

Maybe your experience was the opposite. Maybe the culture shock hit in the first hour, even before you stepped off the plane. Maybe you only learned to love it three months in, not the other way around. Whatever your experience, I think that all of us who move countries come to feel grief and joy as two atriums of the same heart…

I never thought that I could still have pangs of homesickness when I glance at my painting of Hawaii that sits on my desk today. However, on the flip-side– I never imagined it how absolutely normal it would become to navigate the winding streets of Tauranga, and have layer upon layer of memories in every suburb (and know where I’m going, too!).

So, count this as a salute.

An awed, respectful, hand-to-the-forehead to you who have made other countries or states your home (because we all know that some states are as different as countries!). We may have shot our hand up long ago, crying out, “I volunteer as tribute!” clueless to the grief and joy awaiting us. However, we did it all the same. 

But remember the first time you arrived? I do, too. Sizzling bacon and summer blue and home. I’ve gone from being a teenager to a twenty-something, from a student to a teacher, from a teacher to a missionary– all in five years. You will have seen lots of changes in your occupation, too. Yet the change of my occupation is nothing compared to the change in the landscape of my heart. But our inner transformation is a story for another day, another blog post.

For now? I salute you.

Here’s to jumping in more autumn leaves in the future.

“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
-Matthew 28:20 (ESV)
Photo: Autumn at BTI, May 2012. By Michaela Whelan.