In 1900 Auckland was home to five hundred gas lamps and fifty thousand people. A city in name if not yet in earnest, it was barely past its frontier beginnings. A canyon of robust stone buildings now hinted at permanence. Astride a lumpy isthmus, lapped by the tides of two large harbours, this unpretentious outpost of Britain remained wedded more to nature than man. 1
AUCKLAND, NZ. Like many other colonial cities, Auckland is a place that was once invaded, displaced, colonized and subsequently, reborn into a community built on the backbone of immigration. Walking around, you notice the world, bustling here and there, sometimes together, often alone. In its homogeneity, you notice a clear sense of community; the desire to belong forging acceptance, the wish to preserve an identity becoming the thing that allows us to celebrate it. It’s funny, I think, how people come from such far away places, mainly hopeful, mostly scared, and just like that, leave everything to start a new life, in a place that is a twenty-hour plane ride away. There is something romantic about it, braving a new world. This thought is echoed by many early explorers, who too, saw Auckland as an exquisite, far away place of refuge, where the weather is calm and peaceful, the sun only sets when hidden behind the sparse clouds, and the grass is somehow greener, far away on its volcanic peaks.
Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart —
On us, on us the unswerving season smiles,
Who wonder ‘mid our fern why men depart
To seek the Happy Isles! 2
I don’t think I’ve ever got acquainted by this desire for expatriation more so than in Auckland, and that speaks volumes given that I come from Canada and lived my whole life surrounded by immigrants. Whenever I stepped into a shop, I would get greeted with a usual, “Where are you from?” to which I would bounce the question right back, only to get surprised by a similar, familiar story, a reoccurring theme of moving away and seeking home.
“I am from Brazil, and she is from Argentina. We met in the airport, actually. I am only here for four months, I was in Wellington for another two. We are here for a year on a working visa, but I really want to stay!”
“I am from Colombia but study International Business here. I’ve been here for a year already. Auckland is so beautiful, it’s such a lovely place; I hope I can move here.”
“I moved here from Korea on a working visa. I need management experience so I got to be a supervisor for this sushi shop. I hope it gives me some experience so I can find a permanent job and stay.”
Only one French lad told me he was not looking to stay, mainly due to the fact his family and friends would be so far away, but he was still looking to move, somewhere else.
‘I’ve been here on a work visa for a year. It’s so easy to find hospitality jobs here. I’ve travelled all around.’
‘Where to next? Going back to France?’
‘No, I am actually thinking of moving to Canada.”
‘Oh, I am from Canada. Where are you thinking of going? Québec?’
‘You know Vancouver? It looks stunning there and it’s closer to France than Auckland!’
Ah, Vancouver. Of course I know it… If he only knew…
I can’t really blame him, can I now?
After all, if I could choose to live in one city for the rest of my life, it would probably be either Vancouver or Auckland. Many say they are quite similar; I guess there is some truth to that after all.
I keep thinking about what it means to be an immigrant and the frightening experience of settlement. Fundamentally, we are all immigrants, albeit temporarily, throughout certain points in our life. I remember how scary it was to leave the comfort of home and my community to move away to university. Perhaps you also had to live with another family member who was from further away, or go to boarding school on another continent. Maybe you fell in love online, with someone who lived thousands of miles away. Emigrating from your daily experience and into his life, seeing what he sees, sharing his daily struggles from his tiny house in the suburbs. Through Google Maps, you knew his neighborhood, although you’ve never been. When he mentioned the bubble tea place, you knew exactly where it was; it almost felt like you’ve been there together many times before. You got to Skype with his family, they could precisely recognize your voice, and overcoming all language barriers, you felt welcomed into their home. How beautiful it is, that even love allows us to transcend all boundaries of physical space, and emigrate into an emotional journey while settling into a new world.
The experience of immigration is not unique to Auckland, or Vancouver, or a tiny village in the mountains of Lebanon accepting refugees. All around the world, at some point, we all become immigrants, finding ourselves stumbling into a new land. Walking on the streets of Auckland is a reminder that just like on a colony from a far away planet, groups of people are coming together every day, the bare bones of their individuality cohesively integrating into a chant of unity. They are scared, hopeful, but their undying desire to seek their place in the world, will always push them forward, until they find home.
© 1. Auckland, 1900 Maurice Shadbolt | 2. The Song of the Cities, Rudyard Kipling, 1922. Verse: 1885-1918
© Cover Photo: Michael Yuen, Flickr (@mikeyyuen)