Where is your home when your heart is in so many places? Seuta’afili Dr Patrick Thomsen on returning to New Zealand after more than a decade away.
The adage that “you can never go home again” is adapted from the title of a 1940 Thomas Wolfe novel which suggests that nostalgia can make us view the past through romantic goggles.
It’s a fair observation. If we’re too married to an idealised version of our personal history, what space do we leave for ourselves to live in the moment, fill in the cracks, and to build new foundations?
But this can also be problematic if you’re not a Pālagi. As Sāmoans, like many other Pacific peoples, we say that we walk back into the future, and forward into the past. Our conceptions of time and space aren’t expressed in linear forms. We take our ancestors with us, and they live through us as their descendants.
As a sensible Piscean (I tell myself), I am the notorious dreamer. I’ve imagined new worlds, old ones, people I’ve never met. I speak to ancestors in my sleep, and have been comforted in burying my tears in their images.
For me, whatever home is, it’s never been just a place, or a time. It’s also been a relationship to the past, to the lands I’ve walked, to the people I’ve met, to the communities I’ve been a part of and ultimately had to leave.
And it’s a relationship and commitment to the future, to those who will come after me. This home I hold now will be theirs when the time arrives for me to become one of their ancestors.
When moving homes, I believe that the stakes can be higher for Pacific “expats” or contemporary Pacific voyagers, as I like to call us. I have a sense that other Indigenous peoples may find some parallels here, too. Our worlds are mobile. We’re mobile not only because exploration is in our blood, but because the lands we built our homes on have been destabilised by the forces of colonialism.
As Pacific Islanders, we’ve been framed and frame ourselves readily as family-oriented people. Our communities are built on our families — the pooling of our resources, our labour, our histories, our genealogies. We claim them loudly, proudly and boldly in defiance of our marginal positioning, here and abroad.
Our families — wide, inclusive, porous, malleable, and overflowing with love and loyalty — are our first homes. But often, too, our families, like so many homes around the world, are where colonial violence manifests. They can become sites of trauma that can take entire lifetimes and generations to heal.
Although I’ve written many pieces that speak to the importance of my own family, I have never intended to romanticise my home. Mine was also a hub of many misfortunes, the root of my own pain, where I first felt the heavy hand of a Sāmoan brand of family “love” thrown at me, laden with sharp and fiery edges.
There was a time where I just wanted to get away from “home”. As much joy as it brought me, it was a devastating, suffocating, violent place at times. It was also a financially poor home, which was ultimately what drove me to leave in search of a way to break free from the deprivation in which I was raised.
Unlike Pālagi expats who write about New Zealand lovingly and wistfully from locations like London, New York, or Southeast Asia, I’ve never fully felt that Aotearoa was “my” home. Living on stolen lands as a Sāmoan presented a tension I couldn’t work through as the younger version of myself.
So when I moved to South Korea to take up a teaching contract, I carried a New Zealand passport. But, in my heart, my home was always located in Sāmoa, while the people who loved me most and contributed the most to my development lived in Auckland.
In the first six months of living in a South Korean island that was still very insular, I hated everything about the place. It was sold to me by the recruiter as an island — so, as an Islander, apparently, I would love it there. But, when I arrived, this Sāmoan didn’t recognise anything Pacific Islanderish in the place at all.
Obviously, there were no palm trees, but I was also taken aback by the massive shipyards that polluted the harbour and gave off a permanent foul stench. Instead of white golden-sand beaches, this island’s shores were covered in rocks and boulders. It had obtrusive highways, buses, trucks, taxis and motorbikes which ran riot, kamikaze-like, across its topography. There were endless densely built highrises that people lived in, piercing a permanent grey haze that they promised me was the sky.
But after those first six months of total culture shock, I began to like the place a little more each day. Things became complicated because I built new relationships, transient ones mostly, as befits the life of an “expat” working with an immigration system where visas were only for fixed terms.
I moved cities and jobs, and, eventually, I made new friends from around the world. Perhaps more crucially, though, I built community with other displaced Pacific Islanders.
However, it was the relationships that I built with South Koreans themselves that changed my life and orientation toward home forever. If home is also about who you relate to, the lands you walk on, and the stories that are carved into the soil your food is grown in, the least any of us can do as visitors and guests is honour foreign hospitality and histories through learning their story.
With the support of my sister and scholarships, I was able to go to graduate school in Seoul where I studied Korean society, language and history from Korean professors.
In doing so, I found a land whose economic miracle and contemporary prosperity masks a brutal experience with colonialism, pain, and struggle. That experience shapes the dynamism behind the current South Korean energy and style that the world has come to admire.
As I learned, I began to explore the streets of South Korean cities on my weekends.
Often, I’d try to imagine what the ancestors of those lands must be feeling now, watching from the Korean version of Pulotu as their descendants try to heal their own trauma.
I came to realise that my monthly salary was paid with money that Koreans had earned through a long history of suffering. The grandparents and great-grandparents of the children I was teaching had lived through the horrors of Japanese annexation and the forced prostitution of Korean women for Japanese soldiers. They had watched millions perish in the Korean War, and witnessed “dissidents” made to disappear by a military dictatorship backed by the US. Their parents had lived through the financial crisis of the ‘90s that nearly sank Korea’s Miracle on the Han.
I also wondered whether the ancestors of the Korean peninsula wept for their homeland and people, who remain divided to this day because of foreign influences.
I often thought about whether my ancestors wept for me, too, knowing how displaced and lost I felt at times in a foreign place so far from their lands. Could they still hear me now that my feet no longer touched the soil of islands that were connected to our ocean?
During this time, I fell in love.
I fell in love with the breathtaking cherry blossoms of spring, the magical way the first snowfalls of winter turned the city into a Christmas postcard. I came to love untold numbers of delectable Korean dishes eaten in the heat of summer, and the pulsating energy of Gangnam, Itaewon, Sinchon and Hongdae’s nightlife.
But I also fell in love with a Korean man. It was the first romantic long-term relationship I’d ever committed to.
Being gay anywhere is no easy thing. Being gay in Korea can be downright dangerous, but in complex ways. I wasn’t allowed to say I was gay to anyone in case I’d get fired through creative and imaginative means.
Through K-pop, South Korea may have recently captured western androgynous aesthetic imaginations, but on the issue of same-sex relationships, it’s still a very unstable place to be in a visible gay or queer coupling.
Ours struggled through cultural misunderstandings, but, tellingly, also fell victim to familial pressures on his side when he ultimately gave in and followed their wishes to marry a woman and birth the next generation of their family. He never came out to them, and although we loved each other fiercely, there was no way I was going to ask him to upend his family and his home for me — someone who didn’t really know where their home was anymore.
I moved to the US for a PhD and then back to South Korea, before finally moving back to New Zealand in 2019. It hadn’t felt like it, but 11 years had passed since I left these isles. During these 11 years, I came to love and relate to so many people and communities. But I returned to these lands on my own.
South Auckland is now where I live, but I still ask myself where my home is.
The people I once loved 11 years ago had changed. They had experienced their own joys, growth, traumas and regressions. Distance had grown between many of us. New relationships and connections are being made for sure, but being gone for more than a decade is a long time for anyone. My home had changed, grown, and developed without me in it.
The graces, experiences, and privileges you’re afforded when you travel, study, and work in other places are indescribably rich. But mine is not a white expat’s story. I never moved for adventure. I didn’t set out to consume cultures to raise my exotic senses.
The correct, LinkedIn thing to say would be that I moved overseas to pursue other career opportunities. But that would be a lie. Yes, that may have been the mechanism that took me there, but I moved because I needed to heal the trauma that resided in my own heart, in my own home.
Like many people across the motu, I often lay in bed at night not able to sleep, thinking about life experiences. My emotional Piscean brain drifts to images of the people I crossed paths with, the lands I once walked on, the cities I once explored, the hundreds of students I once taught.
I think of the men I once loved, my Korean family who pseudo-adopted me, and my four-year-old Korean nephew who calls me Patrick Samcheon (Uncle Patrick) and asks his dad when I will visit him again in Ilsan where they live.
It often ends up with my pillowcases becoming stained with tears and a heaviness sitting on my chest when I wake in the morning knowing I visited them in my sleep again.
They say that home is where the heart is, but where is your home when your heart is in so many places — across lands, oceans, time and with people you can’t see, but whose presence you can always feel.
My body is here, my mind is present, and my work is fruitful and beautiful. But in my heart, I know that I still haven’t quite found my way home again.
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