Sunday, November 23, 2008

The chicken run it is not

I sometimes get asked what it is/was like to emigrate. Take your pick: traumatic, culture shock, heartbreak, unimaginable stress, hell. It is a hardship that lingers for years. Very few people I've met say it took them less than five years to break the ties with the old life and settle down.

I think I can safely say without fear of rebuttal that it is perhaps
the most traumatic experience short of death and divorce.

Your whole life is uprooted, your history, your accomplishments, the familiarity of your culture - everything - it is gone..not to mention lifelong friendships and family. You lose everything. You start over. You are alone. Your support network ended.

I am in a different position because I haven't fully emigrated. I live in two countries and that's the way I like it and want it to be. Most though, leave everything behind.

When one decides to leave the country for good, of course one must pick a destination. If you are lucky enough to be able to pick your country and qualify to enter, like me, that helps. I chose Australia because of its similarity to South Africa - well, at least I thought so - but I soon realised Australia is England with sunshine. The Aussies are as similar to Saffers as biltong is to beef jerky. Still that's better than landing in a totally foreign country having to learn a new language etc. Most go where they are allowed in.

On arrival, you realise your currency really is worth shit. That's the first shock. You mentally convert everything to rands. What..R280 for a case of beers?! You soon stop that for fear of going into a deep depression every time you shop. Housing is a nightmare. As is learning the dialect and missing the jokes. You say, gawd, their humour isn't funny. And what the fuck is a budgie smuggler..? [swimming speedos]

And you also find, most natives hate migrants so there is also that to contend with. A good friend in Aus, a Saffer who upon being on the receiving end of yet another jibe at his nationality turned around and said, "Hey pal, when I arrived here in Australia, my company paid for my move and my business class seats. Your ancestors arrived as convicts." He says it is effective. D'ya think?

I could go on but I'll keep the post short by saying this. Leaving is not done willingly. We do it because we fear for our lives and the future for our children and that is a very strong motivation. Like our forefathers who left to find greener pastures, it is our turn. I wish I could say it will be easy and wonderful but it is not.

What I can say categorically is that it gets better as time passes and you begin to feel less longing for what you left behind. If you can hang in there and remember WHY you left, you will make it. If not, like I always tell people, what's holding you back? You're not in prison, go home.


Sting’s song "Englishman in New York" repeated the phrase "I’m an alien," a song that revealed how much a foreigner can feel alienated in a country away from home. Immigration is a major stressor that can trigger depressive or anxious symptoms (including insomnia, increase in consumption of food, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, etc.

One of the most helpful coping skills includes building a supportive social network: clinical studies have shown that social support immunizes people against stress. Stay in touch with friends and family via e-mail and webcam but also establish new social networks by joining a gym or other sports club, attending a college course, church, meeting with other immigrants.

For example, the Africa Club in Brisbane meets on the last Friday of every month for a casual social evening meeting. SA Connections meet on the first Thursday of every month for a business breakfast in Surfer’s Paradise. Even visiting the South African shop (in Melbourne or Perth) to strike up a conversation may give you a sense that you’re not alone in your struggles against minor things such as getting lost on the roads, not figuring out the money, waiting for the container or animals to arrive, to major ones such as feeling financially overwhelmed, not finding a job or a home.

Another coping skill is to acknowledge that immigration is tough: you are torn from friends, family, job, a home, familiarity and a routine. You have to go beyond your comfort zone and ask others for a favour or directions, go to a gym that is "not as grand as mine back home" and feel like an idiot for not being able to pronounce Aboriginal suburb names. You have to live somewhere that is not up to your standards back home or take a job that is not ideal. This is tough.

Once the struggle is acknowledged though, remind yourself that the first few weeks or even months will be the most difficult and "this too shall pass." Nobody immigrates because it is easy. Giving up and thinking about returning to South Africa can be tempting in the height of feeling overwhelmed. In the short run, that may be easiest route. In the long run, you may be either back to square one or worse off. Returning may really work only if you’ve become aware of your values (e.g., family not security is most important to you).

By acknowledging that it hurts and is uncomfortable, you can then move forward by setting clear goals. Do five things daily to achieve them. Stick with the motto: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Whenever you get a "no," see it as an opportunity to seek better. Sometimes you will have to settle for second best and go beyond your comfort zones (i.e. do things you have to not because you want to.)

By continually striving to achieve your goal, settling for second best temporarily means that you will not be stuck there.

4 Opinion(s):

Mark JS Esslemont said...

Try going deaf in the prime of you life before and after emigrating, like me, and you'll find emigration a doddle.

Anonymous said...

Good luck to you Mark. You obviously ave balls of steel

Anonymous said...

The article is spot on. I am 4 months into my emigration and it is everything you say. Today, for example, I went to purchase furniture for my new "R2.5 million" tiny condo (flat). Well I wanted to open an account to take advantage of an increased discount. I have a private bank account in SA, but here none of that counts. Anyway I took my chances and of course the account was declined. Credit history is another small hiccup you have to deal with along the way. It can all get you down, but you are correct, do not lose sight of the original reason why you made the move.

Anonymous said...

@ anon 10:44..

When I moved to Aus, I was fortunate enough to be relatively well off.

Anyhow, obviously having no credit history I was told to start purchasing on credit to "build a credit history". I purchased a mattress at Amart and was turned down for a $1000 loan!

So I pulled out my Amex card with a $50K limit and paid for it. And would you believe, three years on, I still have no credit history ;o)~ I just couldn't be bothered.