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August 13, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

My Romanticised Oasis

One evening, after everyone has sprayed their legs and arms with Aeroguard for the tenth time, all my people will be gathered under an open fale, their stomachs and hearts full. The sun will be sinking, the sky alight with fierce fire. The ocean will be peaceful, less than 50 steps away our group. The air will be charged with hope, laughter, and Vailima beer. My cousins will be there from across the sea—one strumming a guitar, the familiar melody of an old love song: Sau ou Moe, a favourite. Everyone will be a beautiful golden brown, noses peeling, skin glowing. Natural and our own. Our signature wavy hair will be thick with salt and sand. Someone—probably me—will then turn on Samoa’s favourite duo and we will dance to see who is more graceful. Or maybe just for fun, who knows. At a certain point, everyone will respectfully give in to the quiet that spreads, first amongst the elders and then to our parents, and so on. Any restlessness or unnecessary anxieties will evaporate along with daylight. I will breathe it in deeply. The scent of Earth, the smoky aroma that still lingers after the long process of the umu. Embracing. The sweetness of frangipani, the comforting scent of coconut oil, in our hair and on our skin. The salt of the ocean and gentleness of the evening air. First a shaky female voice will lead, and then others will follow in various tones. Lifting as one in gratitude, in praise, in love.

I hate the cold. When it’s winter here, my skin dries up and loses its natural shine. Sometimes I think—maybe it would have been better off if we hadn’t migrated here. Our skin. Our opportunities. Our surroundings. The way we live. The land of sour milk and honey that no one wants to eat.

Have you ever been homesick for a place you’ve never been? Longed for a moment that you can visualise so strongly in your head—but have no record of? I think about the Motherland often. I paint this moment often, as a mural; a giant wall dedicated to what should be my life’s greatest memory. The wall projects every detail. Only to have it removed by the government of life, repainted with the selfish persistence of now. Today. And the never-ending list of things to do. The idea of visiting home is far on the horizon.

We’ve never had a family holiday. A proper one, where we all come together and take a break—especially from Auckland’s ridiculous traffic. So much time sitting in traffic lights. Before school, after school, to early morning trainings and meetings, late-night commutes and weekend tournaments—all the while MAI FM on lock, and later, Mum’s old-school mixes when our radio finally broke down. Black Beauty really went the distance for us. Mum coined the name of her baby Holden, insisting her horsepower was the reason why she lasted so many tournament road trips and our crazy schedules. She brought us from North Shore to West Auckland on some days, and from Mt Wellington to the city on others. When my mind wasn’t on the tasks that lay ahead or engaged by the soothing harmonies of 90’s RnB boybands, I became invested in a romanticised tropical oasis in my head.

Growing up, my family would take turns, usually in pairs, visiting aiga in the Motherland or in Australia for the odd important occasion—weddings, funerals, graduations. But never a proper family holiday. We would be outside all the time, as nature and each other’s company were all we could afford. And needed. Chicken nibbles with Nana at the local park, Long Bay Beach trips with half the fridge packed in the boot, random train and bus rides exploring wider Auckland. Games with random kids at the park, lemon Frujus from the dairy on the corner, and the garden hose—our very own outdoor shower. Unlike a normal shower, routine and confined, these outdoor showers were a summertime thang. Softer than rain, freeing. What I imagined the islands to be like.

Back-to-school saw young me being dropped off by her grandparents. This was before college, and before the painful commutes. Papa was known for his road rage; the school zone didn’t mean much and neither did the mothers in their massive black tanks who tried to overtake him. Most days, he would be outside at least an hour before the three o’clock bell, park secured and ready to get out of the after-school mess. Arriving at school, my nana’s parting words would always be the same: encouraging obedience, and in some ways undermining the power of my own voice—“Always listen to the teacher.” Sharing circles, show and tell, and storytime. I remember in primary school coming back from summer holidays—even the regular two-week breaks—to a classroom of kids with braids from Fiji. Detailed accounts of Movie World, a trek in the middle of some faraway jungle or sights of New York’s cityscape. Family holidays. I remember taking it all in with wonder… And yet my heart always returned to the same hope, already fixed on what my own dream family holiday looked like.

As I got older, the idea of a family holiday fell off the table. Each year would roll around and I would still secretly hope for the same dream, until I reached the senior years of high school. I tried my best to accept our situation and our financial means. Some days we would stay home because we couldn’t afford petrol or bus money to get to school to “listen to the teacher”. My tolerance for my surroundings grew weary. Ungrateful even. The sameness of Three Kings and tired Auckland’s buildings, awkward and ugly,became unbearable.

Where I live in Central Auckland is on the line. Our mail says that our suburb is Mt Roskill, but we live off Mt Eden road and behind Three Kings park. Three very different suburbs. The proximity between all three would make you think they would be similar. When you drive down my street and up the one next to it, the line slaps you in the face. ‘Hello! I’m here,’ it says. State and owned. Fences, hedges, privacy. Some basic pieces of wood chucked together, or no fence at all—no privacy. There’s a house on the other street that was selling a few years back, advertised as ‘Tropical Oasis’ or some shit, boasting your typical grammar school zones, prime central location and links to a vibrant neighbourhood—whatever that means. All it took for it to be a tropical oasis was a frangipani tree. Throughout my childhood, my house had at least five hibiscus trees, an avocado tree, an apple tree, lilies, orchids, a banana tree, a bountiful taro patch, and my Papa’s vege garden. Nurtured by my nana’s arthritic hands, our oasis was lovingly cared for over the years.

State or owned, I guess the land we occupy in Niu Sila is all stolen anyways. It’s not our, soil but our roots have been planted here. This realisation was made only after I took flight. Being separated from my nest has challenged the idea of what really makes home “home”—especially as a New Zealand-born Pacific Islander and proud descendant of migrants. Instead of an increased longing for the place that has housed myself, my grandparents, various cousins and aunties and uncles, my mother, my sister, guests, and long-lost relatives… I feel even more separated. The question planted itself and grew from the back of my mind—if not here, where?

In my dream, we are on time. Tropical Oasis yes, but not perfect like the way Papa mows his lawn or the straight trimmings of Mama’s overgrown hibiscus branches. Paradise is unkept, free-flowing and abundant, drowning in heat and moving through time on its own terms. Island time. Not an escape but rather a history book, the stories in the divisions of land and the health of water. Every aute and pua, every stream and natural garden with a purpose. In all its abundance, a gift—honoured and preserved in the actions of preservation and stewardship. In the action of love. Home.


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