Sober reflections on emigration

2008-12-22 00:00

It takes time to make an unbiased judgment about the impact that moving country makes on one’s life. And one needs to take cognisance of the fact that one uses one’s homeland as one’s yardstick, which contaminates one’s data, as one is comparing something new and alien, sans family and infrastructure, with all that is old and familiar.

My friends back home want to know how it truly feels. They want the snot en trane embel-lishments; not only the euphoric delights.

I’ve been in New Zealand for five months, and I am trying to have this omnipotent overview of the experience for the benefit of the curious, sanguine and Eeyore “I told you so's.”

Moving country is understandably one of the top stressors in life, preceded only by the death of a loved one, or an acrimonious separation. One loses one’s identity, one’s deeply entrenched roots and home, and one is severed from family, friends, work environment, colleagues and hometown.

Everything on the other side of the grens is new. One starts by adjusting one’s watch on arrival, which becomes symbolic of every conceivable adjustment that follows.

Unfamiliar roads to drive on with different rules, a new city, new places to shop, new brand names, new vistas, new work environment, colleagues, rules and protocols … different accents, different rituals and celebrations. Different politics.

Beyond the initial raw pain of those searingly traumatic airport farewells, the side effects after several flights in transit, and the adrenaline-charged reactions to all that is new and strange, is a less visible response. One is in immense shock. One’s sleep patterns disintegrate for several weeks.

A few months later, the shock subsides and reality kicks in. Only then does one feel an indescribable heartache and the “melt-downs” start, due to only then internalising the deep grief and sense of bereavement of all that one has lost.

Coming here, I decided to play a game with myself as my way of mustering up the strength and courage to pursue this choice. I pretended I’d metaphorically died and arrived into a new life. I’d say out aloud to myself: “Mmmh, so they have flowers and birds in this life, too.”

Texting, Skype and e-mails have bridged the gap between this metaphorical “afterlife” and my former life. But that is painful in itself. Hearing beloved grandchildren’s voices is sometimes the last straw.

Friends get bored of one’s news, one’s pictures, one’s life. Their lives go on perfectly merrily without one, and so inevitably one starts to feel redundant.

I ponder on why it all happened anyway, and what a crystal ball would reveal about the future. Some of our family had spoken of a move for better career opportunities, combined with added security some place where crime is less prevalent. But delays in their arrival have meant that we feel stok alleen.

I come across South Africans wherever I go. There’s an obvious profusion of them and it’s a topical joke that New Zealand is a province of South Africa. Those I’ve met are idyllically or bravely happy, having come with their children and families, which is obviously easier. I’ve only met one disgruntled South African, who was a headmistress of an elite South African school and is now back in the classroom. Other South Africans return home, maybe broken by grief or due to the global recession.

But sacrifice is part of the deal. One balances the scale with the positives — sleeping with the bedroom door open to the elements, no burglar guards or electronic fences, no paranoia if one breaks down on the road. And if one drives home alone on a rural road at midnight it won’t be deemed bloody foolish.

But one learns that one will always be a “foreigner”.

It’s exhilarating starting life all over again at this age. But it’s also eina and not for sissies.

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