Between 22°C and 22°F


The first time I saw snow, it was Christmas Eve. I was walking around a shopping mall in Paris, and a light dusting of icy flakes started to fall innocuously, lazily drifting around in the breeze before settling onto whatever it reached. I watched them melt between the weavings of my gloves quickly, and marveled at how temporary its existence was. The next morning, the city was blanketed in white.

The power of snowflakes to accumulate over time and become that huge hunk of white at the side of the road in the winter is both amazing and somewhat infuriating. Small differences building up over time.

The irritating crust of salt that stuck to the top of my suede boots in freshman year served as a constant reminder of my unsuitability to the new environment, the chilling winter gusts cutting my face and constantly threatening to blow me out of Cambridge because I simply did not belong there.  A filed Non-Resident Alien Tax Return Form.

A glance at the weather report told me it was 22 degrees outside, but it was simply not the right kind of 22 degrees. Instagrams of picnics during a blizzard.

The mutual exclusivity between summer and winter and the ability of a body of matter to only exist in one place at a time; these are the things that I lamented the last two Christmas Eves when I was sitting at some airport or on some plane, suspended in some nondescript location walking along the line between these two seasons and these two countries. But it’s not just a line we walk along around this time of year. For some, it’s all year round.

Of course, I am not just writing about the weather. I am writing about immigration.  Maybe ‘immigration’ is too strict of a term; at least when I think of it I think of the thousands of migrants moving in waves from Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa with their families to start new lives. However, the world has become connected enough now that I think this definition of ‘immigration’ doesn’t entirely encapsulate certain experiences, for instance moving to another country for study. Can this be considered an immigration of sorts?

“So if you’re from New Zealand, how come you can speak English?”

Like the snow, the differences I perceived upon arriving in America as someone from another first world, democratic, economically stable, English-speaking, westernized country were small. Maybe just a smatter of slang, some odd habits and an overabundance of squirrels, on top of the obvious accent. But it became clear to me over time that background matters. Though on the surface the current states of the countries are similar, their histories are surely different. That history dictates a lot of the psyche of the population, the decisions made in politics, the issues that are on the forefront of media coverage. The differences snowball into two distinct nation identities that those like me, who have stakes in both countries, have to navigate.

I often wonder, considering how similar New Zealand and the US are on the surface details, how other international students must find the experience. I suspect Canadians have an even lesser difference felt, but even they celebrate Canada Day and take pride in Canadian-specific activities. But what about the experiences of a Pakistani student, of a Chinese student, of a Kenyan student? They must have a lot of interesting perspectives.

“What can you bring to the Asian American Association, being an international student?”

At first I thought that perhaps America was unaware of its superiority complex, but I realized soon after living here for a while that it was simply unsure of what it really considered one of its people. There is absolutely no homogeny to the population’s values, which can be both a great thing in terms of multiple perspectives, but also a source of many conflicts. 

Of course, there is the image of the quintessential ‘American’, the blonde hair, blue eyed, draped in red-white-and-blue nuclear family who lives in suburbia, patriotism spilling out of their Statue of Liberty-worthy facial features and Constitutional gun collection in the basement. This image, I believe, is largely no longer regarded as the sole image of Americanism, thanks to larger multicultural populations, growing populations in urban areas and a rise in non-traditional family settings.

However, I would say that a lot of time, the image of an ‘American’ does not include those who have recently immigrated. Of course this makes sense. They just arrived, so how could they possibly understand the culture (wait, what is America’s culture?) and fit in with everyone else (wait, is there really an ‘everyone else’ collective, considering the lack of homogeny?)? How long does someone have to be in America to be considered ‘American’? Enough time to get their permanent residency? Citizenship? What about those who were born with American citizenship but since have moved abroad, but then moved back? Are they American too?

Sure, my experiences growing up will forever be tainted by the distinct smell of sulfur, the feeling of Pohutukawa bristles while playing hide and seek and the tickling of a teacher’s brush on my face as it carefully traced out the shape of a Koru fern. Even until college, my memories of Christmas Eve were often rooted deep in the sand of some New Zealand beach, sun blaring down past a weakened ozone, not a cloud – rain or snow – to be seen.

However, as someone who looks to be of Asian descent living in America, my experiences suddenly and inexplicably merged with those who have called themselves ‘Asian-American’ since birth. Because despite my New Zealand upbringing, I still entered the country with a Chinese passport many years ago. I grew up with weekly family dimsum outings, having to memorize traditional Chinese poetry, bringing chopsticks with me to every meal before being taught how to use a knife and fork at age 15. Of course, these experiences are synonymous with many Chinese-Americans as well as Chinese-Kiwis. Being from New Zealand is not stapled over my face, and even after I speak most people do not pick up on my slight accent anymore. Likewise, my childhood in New Zealand does not shield my clearly Asian appearance from the same discrimination that any other Asian might face in America.

“At what point am I a resident of Massachusetts?”

Looking up driver laws for immigrants in America is likely to make you more confused than you already were. There are certain laws that pertain to those who hold foreign licenses who are not residents of the state, and different ones for the people who are. A lot of times, it is also dependent on how long you have been in the country. But does that mean since the first time I came to the country, disregarding trips back home? Or does it literally mean the length of stay since I last landed at an American airport? Also what does it even mean to be a resident of Massachusetts if I’m staying in a college dorm with a temporary address?

Roll forward two years from the first time I came home drenched in sleet, cotton socks wet from slush, teeth chattering as I scrambled for the heater dial? I still don’t much enjoy the snow, but at least I can survive in it.  A pair of trusty Bean boots to blend me into the New England crowd, gloves peeping out of pockets, scarves lining my wardrobe, cashmere lining my drawers, wool lining my far-too-warm-for-Auckland coat.

I guess after all this time of facing the weird differences between my now two home countries, you kind of learn to live and adapt to both. The result? Now I’m just a semi-foreigner in both countries. My kiwi friends love to make fun of my semi-American accent nowadays =_= When at school, I miss New Zealand and sometimes just want to come back to hear the bleating of the sheep across the road and relax with no worries for days on end. After I get back, of course I would miss the busy-body movement in the packed cities and late night adventures in America. Being stuck in the middle is part of the job description I guess, but we have to try to live in the present as much as we can since every place has so much to offer.

Again this Christmas Eve I am sitting in a summer bach up north of Auckland with a killer view of a lagoon. This year, it is overcast and the clouds threaten to spill over with rain. But the temperature is 22 degrees high, and right now at least, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy Holidays everyone! I guess the next time I write will probably be after new years.