Sunday, February 22, 2009

Emigration can be very bad for your health

By Sarah Britten (expat in Sydney, Australia)

The title of this blog entry was originally going to be “The flip side of freedom from fear”, but nobody would have read that. If I’d titled the companion piece to this piece “The main reason I’m glad I left South Africa” instead of “The noise in the night”, I’d be rivalling Traps at the top of the leaderboard.

Alas, in blogging, the title is everything. So let’s see how this one does.

First I need a convenient segue from the previous posting — about the (relative) freedom from fear of being attacked — and tell you about how I walked home from the Hayden Orpheum cinema on Military Road at 11 at night, a distance of around 3 kilometres.

The highlight of my walk was spotting a Tawny Frogmouth perched on a road sign around the corner from the apartment block where I live. (I love this bird, one of my favourites. It’s a type of nightjar on steroids. Hilarious looking thing.) A middle-aged woman with a British accent out walking her fox terrier asked if I was looking for someone, so I pointed out the bird to her. She was fascinated; she had never seen one before. “I’ll go and tell my mum to come and have a look,” she said, before we went our separate ways.

Walking alone late at night is not something I would dream of doing anywhere in South Africa (or indeed, certain parts of Sydney or many other cities around the world). But the ability to not live a “safe lifestyle” and get away with it is not my main point here. The point is that I was alone. I’m always alone.

That’s the trouble with moving to another country and leaving your friends, family and colleagues behind. The loneliness, which at times can be gut-wrenchingly painful, a punch to the solar plexus. It’s by far the worst existential angst I have experienced, ever, and I’ve been into profound ennui since the age of nine.

Granted, my situation probably isn’t typical. I’m here alone while my husband is trying to sell our house and sort out our affairs in South Africa. Being made redundant has meant that I no longer interact with others in an office environment. I live in a suburb which is great for pleasant nature walks along the harbour, not so great for making eye contact with people who pass you in the street (greeting strangers is a no-no), let alone striking up friendships with others.

I can go for weeks without having a face-to-face conversation with another human being. All my social interaction is either online or, very occasionally, on a phone. Seriously, if I died in this apartment, nobody would notice until the smell got too bad to ignore.

The inevitable social isolation experienced by immigrants is something that anyone considering a move to another country needs to take into account. Because loneliness is very bad for your health.

For a start, loneliness speeds up the ageing process. Lonely people are more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s. Chronically lonely people die younger than people with functioning social lives, and the effects of loneliness are as bad as obesity and smoking. Not to mention the people who attempt or commit suicide because they can’t handle it any more.

Researchers at the UCLA Cousins Centre for Psychoneuroimmunology have linked loneliness to alterations in the activity of genes that control inflammation responses. One of the researchers explained, “What this study shows is that the biological impact of social isolation reaches down into some of our most basic internal processes, the activity of our genes.”

I checked out the UCLA loneliness test and not entirely unexpectedly, I scored the maximum, severe loneliness. I suppose that if the murderers in South Africa don’t get you, the loneliness elsewhere will.

As in the case of so very many things, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

15 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say your experience is atypical. I have exactly the same feelings. I am in Canada and it is the same. You daren't look at strangers, let alone speak to them, so the odds are virtually zero that you will meet anybody. I miss SA terribly and can say that I suffer from cultural and intellectual loneliness. I do interact with people, some of them Canadian. But these interactions are clinical and devoid of any humour. For example, recently I was spoken to by a Canadian for jaywalking. JAYWALKING, get a fucking life. All of this of course is the price you pay, and I hate to hear myself say this, but I wouldn't have it any other way. To return is not an option. I live on faith and hope that in time things will get better.

Haikutastic said...

Perhaps join a club or get involved in community activity? How about enrolling in an educational course? Don't just sit at home feeling lonely.

Anonymous said...

How it affects you depends on how old you are primarily. As a 20-year old you see it as an adventure. As a 40-year old, you've spent two decades establishing a career and consolidating lifelong friendships. It is hard to leave and start afresh. A 20-year old has probably no ties, children or maybe even a partner so the world is his/her oyster. At 40, you've got a career underway, a home, kids, roots in the community etc and to emigrate means leaving all that behind and becoming like the 20-year old, only you are not an energetic, excitable young spirit. You will be stressed, tired, and not up to the challenge of starting over. I think that's why many people return to SA.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous I can relate.
Also in Canada. Also missing South African thinking, humour, outlook and perspective. I also would not have it any other way, not going back its not an option.
Tell the idiot that spoke about jaywalking to stick thier pompouse, condecending excuse for a personality. Dont look for it but dont take any bull from the mealy mouthed natives.
Dont give up hope you will meet someone, make the law of averages work for you. In the meantime put some spring in your step, you come from a place that breeds them strong. If you are ever in Calgary I will be happy to buy you a drink.

Head high.

Anonymous said...

@ anon 5:01, that's the spirit. I give back as much as the natives dish out. Aus is not migrant friendly. Having been here some time though things have changed for me. In the beginning you are unsure and taken aback when someone gets snarky with you but that has passed. I pity the fool that tries their crap with this Saffa. I have had quite a few ding dongs of late and I don't give a rat's arse. Mess with me and you get a heap of Joburg attitude right back at you.

Anonymous said...

I read your blog regularly and thanks for all your hardwork.
I am in Scotland and are having the same problem. Its not easy to get over the culture shock especially if you're on the wrong side of 40....

Anonymous said...

@ anon in Scotland..

Your story is my story and is basically almost everybody's story.

My doctor who is South African and has been in Aus for 17 yrs treats many, many South Africans almost daily, each going through severe anxiety attacks, stress, depression etc. On average it takes between 2-5 yrs to acclimatise. I wrote a post once where I described that emigration is certainly NOT a chicken run. It takes courage.

Of my circle of South African expats friends, abt 20-30 people, only ONE did not have a hard time mentally. Everyone else went through mental hell. My sisters who have been here 7 years are only now settling in. I have the luxury of living in both countries so I don't feel it as much but yes, it is awful and you just need to understand that what you are going through is so normal and there's nothing wrong with you.

I think what makes it different for expats from SA and expats from other countries is the sense of permanence in the decision, like there is no going back. Aussies or Yanks going to the UK for instance always know in the back of their minds that they have somewhere to return if it doesn't work out whereas we don't and that makes for a scary prospect.

Anonymous said...

It still goes without saying that I'd rather be lonely than dead.

Hang in there, things will always get better. You've spent a lifetime building up those friends and relationships back in ZA, and this will not happen overnight in your new home. But it will happen. You just have to keep putting yourself out there, being friendly, gregarious, and the problem will solve itself.

I speak from experience.

Anonymous said...

Response to Anon 5:01. I am in Calgary, Sunnyside (Kensington area).

Anonymous said...

In response to Dobes. I too was unsure and withdrawn in the beginning. But now I don't hold back. Let me relate two incidents. The first was during Halloween. My daughter was singing a song that a Canadian found offensive, despite her having learnt it at school. He promptly rebuked her and I publicly, stating it was rude. I kept quiet as I didn't "know my place" but was angered. A few months later, to show you how I had changed, I was verbally challenged by a bunch of youths in a car (whom had obviously been drinking). I was simply walking along the sidewalk in a busy part of town, minding my own business. I showed them the finger whereupon they attempted to show some balls by pulling off into a Gas station. Well hey, we don't shy from a challenge. I ran across the street towards them, so they promptly accelerated away. These are two extremes but I no longer hold back either.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anon in Sunnyside (Kensington area) Calgary
Drop me a line at and I will buy you that drink.

Liezel said...

I can only agree and also mention that I felt it really bad, specially in the first few years. I had a drive though to stay here. The reason? Myself and my former husband were attacked in our house in Pretoria. Luckily no serious bodily harm or rape. They just tied us up, threatened us, and emptied the house... I didn't mind the stolen goods really. I was just to glad that they left us alive and unharmed, although in terrible shock.
We left for New Zealand a few months later and in the beginning it was stressful here, making a new life with little money and no job. I felt very alone and couldn't easily adapt to the Kiwi culture in the workplace. Luckly I ended up working in a team FULL of expat Saffers! That helped me alot. My former husband then wanted us to move to Wgtn from Auckland, and again I was alone for the next few years. We were living like hermits because it was difficult making friends we both liked and therefore we just gave up. He and I split later when he left for Australia without me.
This is another problem expat couples have. When they are unhappy and split up, there are no family close by to support you. No real close friends either. THIS lonliness is worse, because it builds on the lonliness and out of place feeling you have already in a foreign country.
Well, life goes on and if you are lucky like I was, I met another lonely expat (from Europe though). But still, if you don't stay in a place long enough, you will always be lonely.
I'm going to Australia soon, for good, but with my new family. I will stay there in the same city, probably for the rest of my life! No criminals, corrupt goverments or impatient partner is ever going to make me move around the world again as much as I have done over the last 10 years! All-in-all, my former husband's impatience and his jobs made us move house between 5 different cities and about 23 different houses/flats over the last 10 years....
The only move that I don't regret, was the one out of South Africa to New Zealand.

Anonymous said...

Well done Liezel. Hang in there girl. And welcome to the real new SA - Australia. 110 000 strong and counting. You won't be lonely here.

Liezel said...

Thanks Doberman, I'm looking forward to Aus!
Please keep this blog going because it shows the world what life really is like in this new South Africa.
Realistic South African views are more and more on YouTube too now. The world needs to see what the ANC really did to SA - and it is not apartheids fault.

Anonymous said...

I lived in New Zealand for 5 years and am now living in Queensland, Australia. I have found people very friendly and helpful. People in NSW and Vic are just snobs and think they are better than others and it is no wonder they are not friendly. I would rather go back to NZ before I lived there.
I also find a lot of X-South Africans have a crap attitude, they expect every body to feel sorry for them and want things just like it was back home. I find the Afrikaners the worst, they have to speak their TAAL even in the company of others who don’t understand which I think is very rude. When in an English country, speak English and if you must speak that TAAL. Do it at home. Well, get over it. You live here so live their way. Be grateful they have let you come and live in this wonderful country and stop complaining. If you are not happy then go back to SA.
Love it or leave as the bumper sticker says.