NOTE: The article above appeared in 2005.
Not easy being an expat
Cape Town - Are expats just cowards for fleeing South Africa in its time of need, or are they just people looking for new adventures? We chat to "Aussie" Lois Nicholls, author of the book Aussie, Actually to find out.
Lois Nicholls is pregnant and heartbroken when she leaves her country of birth, South Africa in 1997 to begin a new life in Australia with her husband and toddler.
Through a series of anecdotes she provides a snapshot of her emigration journey with candid, humorous and touching accounts of her new life on foreign soil. Battling through endless Brisbane summers, she tells of her struggles to make friends, coming to terms with leaving her family behind and understanding the quirks of living in Australia.
News24: Why did you leave South Africa?
Lois Nicholls: The usual clichéd reasons applied - concern about the increasing crime and uncertainty about the future. There was also a naïve sense of adventure and the opportunity to experience life in a new country. My husband was fortunate to be offered a job which sealed our decision.
News24: How difficult was settling in to another country? Do you feel settled and naturalised in Australia?
Lois Nicholls: In the beginning, settling in was unbearably tough. I spent a lot of time crying on the phone to anyone who would listen. We arrived with a toddler and five months later, I had my second child. To top it all, we rented arguably the hottest home in Brisbane and had to move again 12 months later. When we first arrived, one cynical couple told me to "prepare to be miserable for the next two years". I hate to admit their grim prediction was pretty accurate. I feel settled now but still, after 11 years, have moments where I am struck by just how different our cultures are.
News24: Do you feel you've abandoned your home country? Some here at home have that opinion of people who have left SA. Others it seems are more envious than anything else.
Lois Nicholls: No, not at all. I think South Africans are particularly sensitive to emigration - no-one accuses English or Italian expats, for example, of abandoning their country. My grandfather left Wales in the late 1890's for a new life in SA, as did my husband's grandparents. Leaving one's country of birth is not a new concept. To those who are envious, don't be. Hug your best friend or mum and dad instead! There is no Utopia. The routines and everyday struggles of life are the same, no matter where you end up living. (See Domestic Abyss in my book!)
News24: What are the best and worst parts of being an expat in a place like Australia?
Lois Nicholls: The best? Everything works as it should and I feel free and safe. I love the fact that we have no burglar bars on our windows or fence around our property. The worst? Not having any immediate family in the same country or having a history. Australians are very patriotic and as much as I'd like to, I don't feel part of that patriotism.
News24: Is Australia really full of South Africans? What do you think fuels this perception?
Lois Nicholls: Statistically, South Africans make up a fraction of the overall intake of foreigners. Immigrant groups such as the English and New Zealanders are far greater in numbers. There are, however, concentrated pockets where South Africans tend to settle - for example, Sydney's St Ives and Brisbane's Western suburbs.
The assumption the country is overrun by South Africans probably stems from the fact that South Africans don't quietly slip under the radar - they're enthusiastic and get stuck straight in. School mums are eager to volunteer for tuck shop duty or make pickles for the school fete. In business, the majority of South Africans are forthright and many hold senior positions in major corporates or run their own businesses. They're known to have a sound work ethic and therefore stand out.
News24: What has been your experience of the prevailing attitude towards expats?
Lois Nicholls: On the surface, pleasant and accommodating. The average Australian is very accepting of foreigners. That said, I have heard Australians comment that South Africans are arrogant and too forthright. I have also had the odd barbed comment. For example, when I once mentioned I wasn't that partial to gold jewellery, my companion answered: "That's unusual for a South African."
News24: Would you come back to South Africa? Do you miss South Africa?
Lois Nicholls: While I'll continue to visit my family in SA, I can't imagine going back for good. We've moved seven times in 11 years so I simply couldn't cope with another upheaval. My children are also happy - this is the only home they know. Of course I miss South Africa.
News24: What is the perception of South Africa in Australia? Give us the honest truth - what do people think of us?
Lois Nicholls: They view South Africa as a beautiful but violent place - many have travelled there or want to do so as they've heard it's such an amazing holiday destination. However, most are hesitant to actually visit as they're concerned about the crime.
News24: What made you want to write this book?
Lois Nicholls: It was a form of therapy during my husband's career crisis! At the end of 2003, he voluntarily resigned from a highly paid job to start his own business. There were seasons when we were quite penniless so the writing helped ease the pain. I also wanted to empathise with other expats and help them through the early dark days. Hopefully my honesty in the book will make them chuckle and see they are not alone.
News24: Is the grass really greener on the other side?
Lois Nicholls: Literally, no - we're currently in the grip of the worst drought in over a hundred years! Seriously, some South Africans may have the perception that Australia is the land of milk and honey. The reality is most Australians live on tight budgets and work exceptionally hard simply to make ends meet. A dual income is the norm. Many South Africans say they've never worked so hard in their lives since emigrating. The overwhelming "green" side is that it's a wonderfully safe place in which to live and raise a family.