Thursday, March 20, 2008

fringe dwellers

At the end of my first year at university I started going out with a guy who could not be categorised. He’d gone to the same popular boys school in the years that most of the men I hung out with had but he wasn’t part of the pack. I knew him more obliquely, through a female friend’s brother, our paths had crossed increasingly over the previous year or two through a different network of parties to the ones the other guys attended. His white hair and peculiar sense of humour made him stand out. He was different, yet still familiar.

So we began to orbit each other and after a bit of reluctance on my part, we hooked up. I knew he had plans to leave the country and he was loosening his connections with home. Though totally sane, that is unless a love of Frank Zappa excludes that diagnosis, there was a touch oddness about him. Some would say the same about me. That’s probably why we got on.

Cutting to the chase, the move across the Tasman happened on schedule, after a bit of hesitation I came too for a semester. Then a year or 2 after my return home he headed off further across the world. His first stop was Japan to earn lucrative yen to fund his travel but never made it further. What struck me about his choice of adopted home was that he was always a fringe dweller, even in his own land. In New Zealand, he looked part of the place but at some vibrational level didn’t feel that he entirely fitted in. In a country like Japan, where he could never blend in, difference is more acceptable.

Perhaps it would have been easier for me if I’d chosen to relocate to a country where the cultural differences were more obvious. In England the remnants of the class system were still apparent. I was a colonial, however jokingly the word was used, it belied the need for many of the Brits to elevate their own status by finding a way to denigrate that of others. Though the attitude was largely benign, however condescending, it was my first experience of looking the same, sharing a native tongue, being historically connected but still not belonging to a place. Like many others have found, there is an interesting kind of freedom this can deliver. It bought out another, and I sneakingly suspect a better or at least more fun, part of me. I could be even louder, more opinonated, funnier, cuter or whatever it was that made some of the locals want to adopt me as a kind of mascot. I could get away with saying things that they self-censored. I never really tried to blend in, though I made many English friends and choose not to live in the antipodean ghetto. After 18 months I knew something within me would have to shift if I chose to stay longer. There would have to be some degree of conformity to obtain and maintain a professional job in the field I was in at the time. I flirted with the idea but even if I could cope with yet another endless, grey winter in London, I didn’t want to attempt to be one of them.

While travelling I met my fair share of Aussies and Kiwis. The gentle ribbing between the two nations quickly subsided when faced with a common enemy, the hapless Brit. With only the Tasman between us there was a ridiculous rivalry over sports and accents, which lessened as the distance from home grew. But moving to Australia was another thing. In the first year I lost count of the number of times I was asked to say “6” or “fish and chips”, the locals jumping on vowel pronunciation to claim some weird kind of superiority. Unfortunately there weren’t many South Africans around at the time, as their mangled way of speaking English would surely have taken the heat off. But having experienced some degree of camaraderie with my fellow Antipodeans while on the other side of the world, I took it in my stride. The real differences between Australians and New Zealanders were subtler yet more profound I discovered. I found men and society generally more sexist. Even the lefty blokes I hung out with had the social-political sensitivity of Neanderthals by comparison to my peers at home. It was these points of separation that reminded me that I too was a fringe dweller. I found in Melbourne (surprisingly more than in London) when I took on mindless temping assignments to earn some money, an appalling level of racism and sheer ignorance in my colleagues. Unlike England where I never intended to stay for the long term, such attitudes challenged my desire to assimilate in my new homeland. Even 20 years on, these differences are still apparent, it is just I’ve grown used to them. When I binged on “The Flight of the Conchords” this summer, I felt a real ache for those gentle, kiwi men of my teens and early 20s.

My ex still lives in Tokyo. He’s as local as a gaijin can be, even more so now with a Japanese son. These days I travel as an Australian, no longer holding a New Zealand passport. We still visit our hometown but harbour no true desire to live there, choosing instead to dwell on the fringes of other shores.

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