What I did on Wednesday night

Wednesday night marked the end of a fairly important chapter in my life, and the beginning of a new one. Taking my turn, along with about thirty other people, I walked up to a lectern, made a short speech, took an oath, and became a New Zealand citizen.

It was a special occasion. Lots of people laughing and smiling, and heaps of photographs being taken. “Informally formal” was the description. Two women in saris, one woman in stunning African dress, lots of people in suits or smart shirt-and-neat-trouser combos. We were invited to wear our national costume – buggered if I know what that would be for an Aussie. Stubbies and a pair of thongs (still haven’t learnt to call them jandals. But I’ll get there!)? Bikini top and shorts? Neither the weather nor my figure made either of those even vaguely appropriate. So I went with a green dress I’d made myself (out of good NZ merino) and tried my best to look civilised.

We were given the choice of whether we wanted to swear an oath on a bible or other religious text – we were encouraged to bring our own book, if we  wanted to – or to go with the humanist version, and simply affirm, which was my choice. One delightful couple who must have been in their late seventies at least had the miniature bible that she had carried as a bride more than half a century ago. We’d been sent a copy of the oath beforehand, but they also had laminated copies of the various options at the lectern. Including one in Te Reo Maori, which a couple of people opted for. I wish I’d felt brave enough to do that, but my Te Reo is virtually nil, so it didn’t feel appropriate.

Probably just as well, because I was on the verge of tears the whole time. Not sadness – or at least, mostly not that – just feeling so much emotion that I was constantly on the verge of weeping. (Side note – I hate that I cry so easily these days. It’s a physical thing that I don’t seem able to control – I’m not emotionally fragile, and it isn’t my brain that’s leaking. But I cry really easily. And when you cry, people stop listening to what you say and just stare uncomfortably at you while you try to pull yourself together. So you have to put your mental resources into stopping yourself from crying, or from crying more. Which means you aren’t speaking coherently. Even if you feel completely lucid. I don’t know if its my pre-menopausal version of hot-flushes or what, but it really, really sucks.) (And yes, I know that was a long side note.)

Ok, so some of my emotion was sadness. Because they asked us to all say something about what our story was, and why we were here, now. One family of mother, father, and three sons were just delightful – the father went first, and said he’d come to New Zealand from South Africa for a better life, for him and his family, for his kids. His wife came forward, nodded at him and said “I followed him”. Then son #1 stepped up, said “well I didn’t have much choice really, I came with my parents, but it’s good” or something to that effect. Brother #2 came up, nodded in exactly the same way as his mother, and said “I came with them”, and brother #3 added “like he said.” All three boys were very tall, and someone asked if they played basketball … ok, it’s a daggy joke, but it fitted the moment. Another woman said that she’d been here for 41 years, and thought it was probably time to become a citizen. Another woman came over to work in a company that folded. So she became the boss’s boss, and married him, and took over. And one man commented that he was there alone, but only because his wife and daughter were involved in a school production that night …

When it came to my turn, the best I could do was to say that there were too many reasons why but that if I tried to say any of them I’d burst into tears, and to try and joke that after 26 years what I really wanted was to be able to enjoy watching international rugby. Then I started to read the oath, but discovered that I was reading the wrong card. So I had to try and find the right one, and start again. (Pretty sure the oath doesn’t count if you read the wrong one.) All I wanted to do was bolt back to my seat before the waterworks started, or I managed to embarrass myself in some other, completely novel way, but  I had to stand in front of the flag, shaking deputy mayor Malcolm Lyall’s hand while the official photographer did his bit. (Did I mention I really hate being photographed? Some people look good in photos. I am not one of them. If I manage to look human – as opposed to the victim of some horribly disfiguring accident, or a weird by-product of a failed foray into genetic engineering by an evil super-villain after a night on magic mushrooms – then I’m doing well.) One of the councillors was someone I know, Murray Lemon – he’s a lovely man, and when I went to shake his hand and take my certificate from him, he just about undid me all over again by smiling and saying “a hug, I think?” and giving me a big bear-hug. Which was lovely, but also another opportunity for me to look like some witless, weeping, wobbling woman. (Tried to think of another w word to add, but thought the better of it. Feel free to mentally insert your own.) I did manage to make it back to my seat, with my certificate of citizenship, my little desk-sized New Zealand flag, and a seedling native tree – a kowhai. Then we watched a brief video statement from the Governor General, sang the national anthem, and were invited to pose for more photos and stay on for supper. Murray came down to chat, and said that the first time he’d been sent to officiate at one of these he’s thought it was a bit of a pain, but that by the end of the night he’d been completely converted – humbled and moved by it all, everyone’s stories, their histories and hopes, and the deep emotional resonance of the whole thing. That this wasn’t something little, or silly, or just a formality to get through so you could get back to your life. But that it was something bigger than that. Something that mattered. Of course he may have just been saying all that to make me feel better – he’s a politician these days, after all – but I like to think I wasn’t the first person to be on the verge of tears the whole way, even if I was the only one that night.

To celebrate, Stewart bought me a gift – a symbolic adoption of a kakapo called Waikawa. Couldn’t have been more perfect – I have been hopelessly in love with Kakapo since the first time I heard of their existence. They’re one of the reasons I came to live in New Zealand.

Two improbable flightless birds, in deep green. Here’s looking at you, Waikawa.

2 Replies to “What I did on Wednesday night”

  1. Congratulations Joanna. I’ve been to one of those ceremonies (as support person for a young student whose teacher became a Citizen – almost the whole class was there) and was also unexpectedly moved by the whole thing. I think tears were both appropriate and universal, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of or surprised about in that respect. Unless you’ve been there it’s hard to imagine just how portentous and satisfying it feels. Love the kakapo.

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