Leaving Home: adventures of a Kiwi exchange student

I saw my first real hand gun in Chicago. It was 1975 and I was on my way to Minnesota.  I was edgy. Back home, I’d seen Starsky and Hutch on the Tele – if there was a gun someone always used it and someone always got hurt.

The Greyhound I was travelling on, with thirty other excited and over-tired exchange students, had broken down. Not one person on that bus had known me for more than three days. Until leaving New Zealand I’d lived with my family  within a fourteen mile radius of my aunties and uncles and thirty-five cousins. And, I’d had the same friends all the way through school. Now, sitting on the grass verge on a suburban Chicago street, impatient to meet my host family another day and a half away, I was lonely and uncertain. For the first time I thought, maybe my Mum was right, this was all a very bad idea.

It was almost twenty-four hours since I’d left Long Island with a packed lunch, a meal voucher and a dime for an emergency phone call. Heck, I barely knew how to use a public phone booth. Six days earlier I’d said goodbye to my family at Auckland airport. My Mum, who was never great at putting emotions into words, was speechless with grief. Dad kept a photo for decades taken from the viewing platform at the airport. The plane carrying me away on my big adventure had just lifted off. My mother and my little sister were in the foreground – so bereft they didn’t look like themselves. It was different for my Dad. He was busy being proud which, for my Dad,  didn’t leave much room for anything else. (Dad’s family didn’t have a lot. He left school at twelve to go to work.  He never quite got over being amazed at the opportunities he and Mum were able to give us kids.)

Now I was in America. And I was discovering it was nothing like what I’d seen on the Tele. I didn’t know anyone – not properly.  The stars at night were wrong. I couldn’t hear the ocean. There were no hills, let alone mountains. It was fiercely hot, hotter than anything I’d experienced at home.  When I spoke I had to repeat everything, slowly. And the food was strange. I can still the see the packed lunch we were handed as we boarded the bus. Sliced white bread you might think, is sliced white bread where ever you are in the world. Let me tell you, it is not. The look, the texture, and the taste of that bread was all wrong.  And the filling was Spam, with the a dill pickle garnish.  Meat from a tin – Monty Python didn’t appreciate it either.

As for the dill pickle – I like them, now, but back then they had never featured in my mother’s cooking.  I did eat the sandwich and I didn’t complain, much. Mum would have been proud of me.

Waiting for bus repairs

Waiting for bus repairs

Check out the note pinned to my top. We all had them.

And as with the food, the language might seem the same but it isn’t. I’m not just talking about the accent.The idiom is completely different. It was probably easier for me than my host family. I’d had the benefit of Star Trek, The Partridge Family, and The Little House on The Prairie, as well as Starsky and Hutch. I don’t think anyone in the US had ever watched Pukemanu.

If you click  the link and then click on the first clip you’ll notice it’s black and white – no colour TV in NZ  in the early 70s. You’ll also notice a lack of dialogue. Us Kiwis are a taciturn lot. We make Mid-Westerners seem voluble. Who needs words when one flick of the eyebrows can convey anything from “gidday”, to “stuff it”, to “she’s right, mate”, to “yeah, nah,” and more besides. The show was set in a forestry town along the Napier/Taupo road, about a hundred kilometres from my home town.

About the gun  in Chicago – it belonged to a police officer. I wasn’t reassured. I thought, I’m in  America, anything could happen. This wasn’t only from watching too much American TV.  Back then New Zealand police weren’t armed – these days they carry Tasers.  It turned out the officer had shown up to help the bus driver. His gun stayed in its holster.

When I returned to  Minnesota in 2006 I was able to switch back into the mid-west idiom. I‘d begin to say something and then rephrase it. My husband never got the hang of this, occasionally getting things very wrong. One evening we spent an enjoyable hour or so in a bar in Duluth talking to some locals who had been on a cruise around New Zealand. They were eager to tell us all about it. They’d been particularly taken with shandies ( 50/50 beer and lemonade, it’s regarded as a woman’s drink – I think it’s gross) and questioned my cultural authenticity because I’d chosen a wine – all in good humour. Eventually, they left and the  bartender asked John and me whether we would like another round.

John’s response?

“No thanks. We’ll shoot away, now.”

Strangely enough the bar tender didn’t  find John’s smile, nor my translation, reassuring. We got out of the place before they called the cops.

36 replies »

  1. What a brave and incredible adventure you had…and the poignant good-byes with your parents at the airport is pretty special. Perhaps what I like best from your writing is that you clearly show the pride you have in your parents (having very little, yet bringing you all opportunities) ~ as your parent have in you (being able to provide so many opportunities for you all). Beautiful post.


  2. Loving the blogs Jill – laughed hysterically over the gym bunny one. I can so relate to that. Dropped a weight on my foot once and have never returned.


  3. “We make Mid-Westerners seem voluble. Who needs words when one flick of the eyebrows can convey anything from “gidday”, to “stuff it”, to “she’s right, mate”, to “yeah, nah,” and more besides.” Ahhhh ~ grin ~ Visual “emoticons.”

    Hilarious! Thanks for the reminder of the old definition of what “spam” used to be. (deleting every other spam word).


  4. The girl in the photos brings back so many fond memories. I remember being is American Government when it started to snow. Since it was the first time you had seen snow fall we all got to go outside and play in the snow! I look forward to the next installment.


  5. I’m interested to see where your story leads Jill and see it from your perspective. Sounds like a rich experience as I’ve never traveled outside of the States.


  6. Very interesting story about subtle cultural differences. It was touching about your Dad being so pleased with his kids. Times change so much and our lives are so different from our parents.

    As for the spam sandwiches – oh dear! Did you take a jar of marmite with you?
    Great read Jill – kept me entertained right through. 🙂


  7. Good on yer, Jill!

    Shandy, I love one or two on a hot day. They have them here in Spain too, but call them ‘clara’.

    This a very good start, but you have to keep plugging away at it all the time. After a few months writing, you might want to pop back to give this a final polish. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you give it all you’ve got. I’m sure you’ll notice little things that might need altering, you won’t have seen first time round. But I don’t want to take anything away from it how it stands now.

    I enjoy this type of story, and hope you keep it up.

    Best wishes for the future,



  8. A friend who spent time in NZ said she never got used to the sun going the wrong way- right to left rather than left to right.

    Of course I didn’t bail. Policemen with guns are still weird. Sometimes I see them in the railway stations in London. I like the match with “We’ll shoot off”.


    • Funny about the sun! I just couldn’t resist fitting in the story about my husband’s great goof-up in that bar. I’ll never forget the look on the poor bartender’s face – he really got a terrible fright. As for us, we split ourselves laughing when we were safely back in our hotel room. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Clare.


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