Not easy being an expat

2008-06-09 00:00

Are expats cowards for fleeing South Africa in its time of need, or are they just people looking for new adventures? News24 chatted to “Aussie” Lois Nicholls, author of the book Aussie, Actually to find out.

Q: 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.

How difficult was settling in to another country? Do you feel settled and naturalised in Australia?

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.

Do you feel you’ve abandoned your home country? Some here at home have that opinion of people who have left South Africa. Others it seems are more envious than anything else.

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 1890s for a new life in South Africa, 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.

What are the best and worst parts of being an expat in a country such as Australia?

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.

Is Australia really full of South Africans? What do you think fuels this perception?

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 that 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 fête. 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.

What has been your experience of the prevailing attitude towards expats?

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.”

Would you come back to South Africa? Do you miss South Africa?

While I’ll continue to visit my family in South Africa, I can’t imagine going back for good. We’ve moved seven times in 11 years so I simply could not cope with another upheaval. My children are also happy — this is the only home they know. Of course I miss South Africa.

What is the perception of South Africa in Australia? Give us the honest truth — what do people think of us?

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 actually to visit as they’re concerned about the crime.

What made you want to write this book?

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.

Is the grass really greener on the other side?

Literally, no — we’re currently in the grip of the worst drought in over 100 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 African immigrants say they’ve never worked so hard in their lives. The overwhelming “green” side is that it’s a wonderfully safe place in which to live and raise a family. — News 24

• Find out more about Nicholls’s book at

from howick to brisbane

Lois Nicholls was born in Pietermaritzburg. She grew up in Howick and went to the same school with the same class from year one to year 12, and was hopelessly unprepared for being plucked from the comfortable bosom of family and friends when she emigrated to Australia in 1997. Home is now Brisbane, Australia where she lives with her husband and three children.


Lois Nicholls

“An African market! Sue, you have to come with me, I’m desperate for street art – I’ve been starved of creativity!” I bellow to a long-suffering Cape Town friend. Sue (Segar, of Witness fame) has been a friend since junior school and is now a respected political journalist based in Cape Town.

We have just met up again in Cape Town after several years and she feels obliged to play tourist guide to her annoyingly curio-mad friend. I am feeling euphoric at the endless stalls stretching out before me. There are carved little colonial men from Central Africa, women with beaded headdresses, exquisite table cloths . . . I hurry from one crammed aisle to another, taking in the sights. I grab a carved ebony African woman with beaded headdress and skirt and ask for Sue’s approval.

“What do you think?” She looks at me as though I’ve finally lost the last vestige of good taste. “Lois, I will not let you buy that and would not allow one of those into my home if I were dead!” she says firmly. “Oh,” I answer, slightly deflated, but coming to my senses. Perhaps I could start a new look – sort of ethnic shabby chic fusion. What Sue doesn’t understand is that so much creativity in one spot is too overwhelming for an expat to handle. While living in South Africa, one takes the ethnic art on every street corner for granted.

Give a South African a few years away from their country of birth, however, and it’s ethnic all the way. Good taste flies out of the window when confronted by yet another street seller. That, coupled with a desire to buy from every individual means that one can return to Oz with a scary assortment of curios. Once ensconced in Australia, many South African homes can look more African than Africa.

Visit most immigrants of six years or more and you will see at least one or all of the following incorporated into their décor: Ikubra cloth, several beaded critters, wooden guinea fowl, African masks, an African headdress, a soapstone carved head of an African man or woman, African pots, woven basketware (not confiscated by Customs), a painting of the Drakensberg or a Cape Dutch cottage scene, a wooden hippo, ostrich egg, a Nelson Mandela salt shaker, conglomeration of wooden carvings, wire artworks or the pièce de résistance — a giant, wooden giraffe.

Check out the book shelves and you are bound to discover Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and the coffee table book entitled Mandela, The Authorised Portrait. There is also at least one item from pewter queen, Carrol Boyes, bought in a last flurry of pre-emigration shopping activity. There are also several items of nostalgia that family press tearfully into one’s hands on departure. This could be a family heirloom silver cup awarded to granddad for the high jump in 1910, or a range of silverware that will remain unbuffed for the remainder of its Aussie life.

Among my most precious possessions are my two antique Cape Dutch riempie chairs which would definitely be on the list of household items I would rescue in the event of a fire. While some are delighted to part with Aunty Jane’s dining room table (it didn’t fit in the container, Aunty), others, like myself, hoard every familiar item that can squash into a suitcase.

Another absolutely essential item if one has children is a BP black plastic push bike. The reason for its popularity “back home” was that it was toddler-proof. My children careered recklessly down hills [on them] for years until the wheels completely gave in and we were sadly forced to throw the bikes away.

A “potjie” pot (cast-iron African pot used for slowcooking over a fire), is one bit of Africa that can come in handy. It not only allows one to entertain vast numbers of people (all those owed a dinner) at one sitting, but best of all, there is only one pot to clean. Also of culinary assistance is a “skottel braai” – a large barbeque plate connected to a gas bottle – which would alleviate my having to cook “boerie” in front of large numbers of wide-eyed campers at communal barbeques. I don’t own a potjie or a skottel but had I realised their versatility, I would have left the fridge full of maggots and packed the cooking necessities instead.

• This is an edited excerpt from ‘Aussie Actually’ by Lois Nicholls.

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