It starts with the satellite forms of art, the ones infused with layers of function and economic stimulus. From the minute you’re off the plane, ship, or dirigible you gape at the architecture, wriggle your nose at the new foods, and giggle at the accents. All of these things are fresh in the beginning, but are the first to fade to your new normal. You begin to accidentally imitate some words and phrases, you accumulate favourite culinary delicacies (L&P), and the buildings and streets signs once so foreign quickly become markers you plan your trips by.
Then, it’s the public art, the camera candy that inevitably becomes your Facebook profile picture much as it has for the other 862 wanderers that whipped out their iPhones and made a silly face that day. You scout them out at first, these gems you’d convinced yourself you’d never find, and check them off your bucket list. These are the Eiffel Towers, the London Eyes, and the Hollywood signs of the world. The cultural synecdoche that is as much the place as the place is it. It’s only when you’ve checked off the ones you knew before you got there that you begin to find the others. The fountains hidden in the deep of the park, the sculptures in random alleyways, and the cement quotes that decorate the city. All of these begin to create a collage on your camera roll, and they accumulate as an intangible imprint, an indescribable piece of the definition of this place.
Time passes and you begin to attend the largely publicized events. The big shows, the large venue concerts, the sports events. In an effort to empathize you let yourself get carried away by the tide of majority. For non-Americans this is surely a football game, a Phish concert, or a Broadway show. Here, it was seeing the Haka performed at an All-Blacks game. There’s nothing quite like the ‘mob-osphere’ of a rugby test to get you screaming for players you don’t know to do things you aren’t 100% sure of. You start singing along to anthems you don’t know the words to and responding to Maori chants when you’ve never spoken a word of the language yourself. This is the cultural baptism by fire. This is the tourist threshold. It’s here that you can love or leave. If you can walk away from this experience and not feel connected, if your heartbeat didn’t change a little bit, then maybe this will never be home. (For me, this wasn’t the case.)
After this, you see local art. You stop in galleries, see little jazz trios, maybe a small theatre company’s play. At first this is as foreign as every other step. You feel like you’re in a shirt that’s not the right size and everyone knows it; it feels a little fake and a little awkward. But, you drag the friends you’ve made along the way with you (or they drag you) and your applause merges with others’. So too does your laughter, your gasps, and your heart felt responses to these very local concoctions. This collaborative response and shared experience of witnessing pulls you deeper into the community and for seconds, minutes, moments at a time, the camera stays off, the souvenirs are forgotten, and you are a part of this place you’d never thought you’d be.
There are more messages in this than I can count and perhaps even more steps that I have missed. I can bend these thoughts to the concerns of globalization defeating cultural authenticity. I can put these in the box of tourism management and discuss what competitive aspects culture provides to destinations, or I can leave it in the educational realm and preach it as a sermon on the irreplaceable experience of studying abroad. Maybe there’s a bit of all of those things in there, but for me, it’s more about my personal discovery. Art is an irreplaceable part of my recipe for home. And I truly feel like I’ll always have one here in New Zealand.
Joshua Midgett is a second-year student in AU’s Arts Management graduate program and serves as this year’s Finance Chair on the EALS committee