Waikumete Cemetery, at the end of my road, is the largest in Auckland. It’s a rambling, hilly patch of green. None of my relatives are buried there, or anywhere else in Aotearoa New Zealand. My paternal grandparents are buried, for now, in Choa Chu Kang, in what I remember to be an eerily overgrown cemetery at the western end of Singapore. With the government’s New Burial Policy limiting a person’s burial period to 15 years, their graves will likely be exhumed within my lifetime to make way for the usual— schools, roads, and high-rise apartment buildings. They will be ordered as efficiently as possible to maximise space use. Real estate agents will downplay their recent history. School children will tell ghost stories.
An open piece of land is, after all, too valuable to leave for the dead. In a country where approximately 7500 live people occupy every one square kilometre (compared to New Zealand’s 17), a grave plot for wood and bones can be nothing but a temporary luxury. Five million grow up, go to school, fall in love, and replicate bits of their DNA in this city: a well-washed, colour-coordinated concrete jungle rising sharply above the ground; trains and buses running so regularly that a timetable isn’t published; identical trees lining clean streets an even spacing apart; laundry overhanging common pavements twenty-five floors above your head.
My family arrived in New Zealand in 2002. I was thirteen years old, and mesmerised by every opportunity to see past the immediate building in front of me. Every expanse held a dash of the sublime.
One of my earliest memories of this experience occurred during fourth form PE. I was standing in the sports field of Avondale College with a bunch of other gangly fourteen year olds, when I was suddenly taken in by the view of low-lying state houses half a kilometre away.
“Look!” I exclaimed to a new friend. She looked, and then turned back, confused.
She turned again, and then considered me strangely. “It’s just houses,” she said.
“I guess so,” I mumbled, slightly embarrassed.
That was the year I learned to love the sea as much as I feared it. My friends brought me to the west coast beaches and taught me the mechanics of catching a wave on a body board. I was initiated into the Kiwi custom of running repeatedly into the raging ocean—in spite of jellyfish, sharks, the cold, rip tides, stingrays, and all common sense.
The edges of these islands are remarkable places.
Sometimes I forget the rarity of a border that, for all intents and purposes, looks like it could possibly be the edge of the very world. They remind me how isolated we are, and why people from all over seeking solitude, personal freedom, and a Shire-like life of quiet self- sufficiency are attracted to New Zealand.
It is difficult to pinpoint when I became a New Zealander. The truth is that turning away from an old country and settling into a new one is a difficult and confusing process. There were moments that allowed me to take it for granted that I belonged here. I remember things like finding the back door of a friend’s house left unlocked for me to drop by whenever I wanted. I remember being endlessly engaged in small talk at the supermarket checkout. I remember being told after a pōwhiri, “this is your Marae too.” I think we are defined by the things we take for granted. I do not remember when I became used to the uninterrupted horizon.
All I know is that one day I was driving along in the suburb of New Windsor. There is a turn in the road at the top of a hill from which you can see all West Auckland and its flickering lights stretched out before you. I did not gasp in surprise.
I pass Waikumete Cemetery every day. I take it for granted that one day I will die, and I will be undisturbed by planners and councils. There will be a place for me—if not here, then elsewhere. I find myself at the beach many times every summer. And I take it for granted what you do when you meet the open sea. You run into it.