Sunday, October 16, 2011

Buying the past. Again.

Last month, I saw a Tweet from a fellow American expat in New Zealand. It read:
"Finally realised that I have been unconsciously trying to replace everything I sold/gave away before I moved to New Zealand. #expatregret"
This is something I haven’t talked about much: The desire to recapture what we’ve left behind. I’m sure this varies form person to person, and it’ll be influenced by how much “stuff” an expat is able to bring with them.

In my case, it wasn’t much: Seven suitcases and a box is all I brought with me initially. Some friends brought maybe four suitcases with them a few months later. A couple trips back to the US, and I brought some more stuff back with me, ending with my final trip, returning to New Zealand in 2008 with five suitcases.

The stuff I brought to New Zealand with me wouldn’t even cover the floor of a shipping container. Considering that much of what I brought was clothes that have been replaced, probably several times over, I have very little from my life in the US.

Initially, I dealt with that by buying replacements for things, sometime necessary (like electrical appliances, for example). Sometimes it was food products, either finding American brands newly on sale here, sometimes it was finding substitutes, other times it was finding stores that sold American food products. All these things gave a sense of connection to my homeland.

Every American in New Zealand that I’ve known has had one or more food items that they very much miss from the US. And yet, life isn’t a snack food or coffee maker, and neither are they the stuff around which we build most of our memories here or in the US; for me, things like books and records are.

I left nearly all of my records and books behind, hundreds of each. After I returned to New Zealand in 2008, and once it sunk in that it was final, that I had nothing left in the US, I started replacing things. It began with a book, some DVDs, and also replacements of some of those vinyl records I left behind (but digital equivalent through iTunes).

These items were all ones that had special resonance for me—especially the music—and replacing them was a conscious decision, unlike the situation for my expat friend. What I think is interesting about that is how liberating this has been: Having stuff in the US meant I had a sort of tether connecting me, but with that tether cut, I could choose to replace only those things that have special meaning for me.

So, I am buying the past again, but it’s stuff that actually matters to me, not what I’d still be carting around if I lived in the US. Less is more, apparently.

And, it’s a reality of being an expat. All things considered, it’s not much of a burden, actually.

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