A foreign experience

As youngsters growing up in the ‘old South Africa’ and having witnessed the dawn of the new democracy in 1994, we had many peers whose families had been exiled from our country during the struggle against the apartheid regime.

We used to look at them with a mixture of admiration and envy as we couldn’t begin to imagine the kind of glamorous lives they had lead abroad. Most of them had been to the United States, Europe and others in the neighbouring countries of South Africa. Those who had lived in the States were the most enviable as they returned speaking with an American accent, most of them claiming they couldn’t speak any of their vernacular. We used to marvel at the way they dressed in such up to date styles sporting the latest fashion. These guys were beyond reproach, they were what we all wished we could be and one day hoped to be.

As it was a different zeitgeist where everything and anything foreign was deemed better than any local offering, such was the extent of our being brainwashed into believing ‘the American Dream’. Being avid consumers of mass media we couldn’t wait to experience for ourselves the life of being in a foreign land and living exotic lives.

Our heads were filled with romantic ideas of one day emigrating and living in the land of milk and honey. We couldn’t wait for the day when, as our grown up selves, we would embark on the journey that would lead us to our happy ever after.

We were so young then. It was the age of innocence.

Today in 2011, many years later, immigration is one of the most discussed topics in the world, one that elicits a myriad of reactions, ranging from fear, suspicion, hate and disillusion.

In some parts the word ‘immigration’ has become so loaded that it is synonymous to racism. There is no doubt that it is a contentious issue, and one that will remain a conundrum to the world for many years to come.

My family and I recently left South Africa to relocate to the Northern hemisphere in Finland. Since our family is a Finnish-African family, we decided to move closer to where my husband’s side of the family lives and see if we could build a life there. When moving from one country to another there are always high expectations, hopes and even romantic ideas about the new life that awaits at the end of the journey. Nobody expects it to be particularly easy, however no one can know just what it will take to get settled in that new country as there are so many considerations.

Starting a family life is a challenge anywhere, starting a new life in a foreign country can be daunting . I am sure that each country, has it’s own brand of challenges depending on various factors.

The question then becomes: does the experience of being in a foreign country meet the expectations?

One of the first things that happen when you have finally found your way to the country of your choosing is that reality of having relocated sets in, the fact that one has to start from scratch in almost everything becomes undeniable. There is no question about the seriousness of the journey ahead, the process of putting roots on unfamiliar soil is a long one.

Within months you come to terms with the expression ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’, however the startling fact about this is that should you find yourself living in a country whose language is not English, it becomes obvious that the first thing to do is to learn the language. Above all else, communication is key, although learning any language as an adult is no easy feat. Doing so under pressure as your job prospects are contingent on speaking the language, this becomes the Everest!

Every foreigner has a different reason for having emigrated, it could be for love, work, or the search of a better tomorrow. There is often two forces at play, a pull towards the foreign land, when love is concern, and sometimes a push from your own country particularly in the case of war torn countries with instability.

One thing is certain, the experience of being an immigrant cannot be romanticised as it falls short of any idealistic notions that are often preconceived by would be immigrants. The reality is such that more often than never, as an immigrant you will be forced to face the facts of being an outsider often sooner than later. It is also going to be crystal clear that perhaps your position in society is already predetermined by virtue of your immigrant status. Whatever ideas you may have had about yourself, life, the world might have to change. There might even be a lot of shattered illusions. You will discover that your prospects of gainful employed in the job of your own choosing , preference or even qualification might be slim, if not altogether out of the question. For practical reasons, you may need to make peace with the fact that you could find yourself relegated to the underclass that currently exist in almost all countries who’ve opened their doors to immigrants. At this social strata is where you are most likely to find employment doing something rather socially undesirable, but nevertheless paying more handsomely than what one would ordinarily get from one’s home of origin. This brings another moral dilemma. Will you wait for your kind of work and not earn an income, or will you swallow your pride and get paid. Nothing short of a paradigm shift, is needed for a foreigner to make in roads within any new society in which they are trying to be integrated. For all intents and purposes, you will need to redefine who you are, re-assess who you thought you were, and who you want to be in this new life.

Not all experiences are the same, some people may find conditions in a foreign country to be incredibly favourable to them occasionally beyond their wildest dreams. Often this can be the case with high profile athletes, artist etc. This is a fortunate instance, when all things just seem to fall in to place and life picks up from where one left off, however this is more of an exception than it is a rule. There is of course no single story for any experience, including the life of immigrants.

It is undeniable that the quality of life in a first world country is in many ways a lot better than that in developing countries, for obvious reasons. Starting from social security, efficient transport system, access to internet and information, as well as improved health care, to having safety and security. The strength of the economy also allows for all those living in the country to not fall by the way side and end up live in the fringes of society, since even the socially undesirable jobs do pay well. In light of the above mentioned, regardless of what challenges a foreigner faces, the fact still remains that in the bigger picture, it makes more sense to remain in the foreign countries and to make the best out of their situation, than to find an alternative. After all, the passage to a new country is not always the easiest nor cheapest, thus once the decision has been made to move, it becomes prudent and vitally important to push on through to the finishing line.

When you meet an accountant turned street sweeper, or a Master’s graduate doing car guard duties, or a business analyst being a cleaner, remember that there are often a set of complicated circumstances that necessitated this phenomenon.

These individuals deserve the world’s respect, instead of being branded as people who go around the world stealing jobs and women/men as well as sponging off the government by being freeloaders who merely expect handouts. These are people who are looking to develop and improve themselves and their lifestyles, they seek recognition of their talents and a chance to contribute to whatever society they find themselves living in.

Struggles will continue to exist anywhere in the world, it is only the brand of the struggle that changes. How you navigates this life depends entirely on what choices you make, and how far you are willing to compromise. Sometimes the choices can be somewhat difficult in the short term yet prove to be fruitful in the long run.

Essentially, finding yourself in a new country, can also afford the opportunity to redefine yourself, revisit your values, and focus on your goals. It offers you something of a second wind. The best way to meet and greet the challenges on the way, is with a shot of courage, a dollop of humour and the will to succeed against any odds.

Best foot forward!.



Before the beginning

On this day last year, we said goodbye to all that we knew in Cape town, journeyed across the African continent to the Northern parts of the globe- Finland. Armed with hope and the promise of a new life. The opportunity to leave had finally met preparedness.

As with most travellers, we were optimistic, excited and slightly unnerved, but nothing could hold back our high hopes and big dreams. As you know, there is nothing more refreshing than the knowledge of having new possibilities, choices and chances. We couldn’t wait to find out what the future had in store for us. Off we went leaving African soil the one day, to arrive the next day to what would be our new home for the next undetermined period of time. We were good and ready!

Our arrival was well planned to coincide with the middle of the Finnish summer, so we were not disappointed by the eternal days, with lovely sunshine and natures bountiful offerings. We took advantage of the organic fruits and vegetables available at the family’s summer cottage – a profusion of choices, from berries, to fresh basil and beans. It was nothing short of a vegetarian’s paradise.

Of course as with anything unknown, having mixed feelings is standard, yet regardless, one continues to keep the hope alive that all will work out fine, come what may. To be honest the easiest part of the process of changing countries was the decision to move, the purchasing of tickets and acquiring of visas. These were all fairly straight forward. What wasn’t altogether clear was other logistical matters such as, how long it would take to find our own place, secure jobs, find schoolings etc, you know the basic day to day issues of daily living. As the great team that we are, we knew that perseverance and endurance would be key for us to build a future with all the realistic odds that were stacked against us.

After having lived in CT for a number of years, it was no secret to us how things can get difficult when building something from scratch, so we had a bag of tools we had collected from previous experiences.

As Murphy would have it, on the third week of our stay in Finland, I had a freak accident, snapped my Achilles heel, got hospitalised and operated on, and was rendered immobile for a couple of months. Granted this was not an ideal way to start a new life- in fact it was the last thing we could have imagined would happen to any of us, however, when life throws you a curve ball, you learn to adapt and roll with the punches. We soldiered through the summer with me on crutches, while we nonetheless were trying to make in roads within the society. Needless to say, most of our illusions were shattered almost instantly, however, sometimes illusions do need to be sheltered. We had to face reality, re-assess our situation, and regroup before we could take the bull by the horns and start our new life.

The business of new beginnings has it’s pros and cons, the trick has been for us to find a balance, and to constantly do so. The status quo keeps altering all the time.

We have had great times and some not so great, but through it all, we have really found new meaning in the expression ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’ We have laughed, cried and smiled through the process of putting down roots- nobody said it would be easy. We have been through the fiery furnace and came out the other side in one piece fortified. For that I am grateful.

In the last year we have met our objectives, reached our short term goals, and achieved things that seemed insurmountable when we started. Life has never been so good! There is so much that I could recall and recount, but in the interest of space and time cannot. All in all, We are happy that we have made it this far, and trust that as the journey continues, the next phase will bring us more surprises that will continue to enrich our life as a family.

To my partners in crime, I am proud to have you as my family. I look forward to the next coming years of our building this life that we call ours.

May we never get too tired and weary, may we always find strength from being a team.

You guys are aces in my books.

Days of summer!

Summer is here once again! How lovely it is to have longer days, warm and sunny. It’s even easier to wake up ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’ for no reason at all. This is my first Finnish summer after having had a Finnish winter- I must confess that after the shockingly long and snowy winter, one can’t help but feel overly excited over the subtlest ray of sunshine. Summer does become a bigger deal than normal once you’ve experience many months of very little light and sometime no sunshine to speak of for days- from which I am only now recovering . The thing about summer time is that it has a transforming effect, it really changes people’s disposition. In these here parts you can almost see the difference in the way people change from the one season to the next. There are visible changes in the way they interact with others, every one seems to tread with a new and lighter spring in their step. The magic of summer is here!

I have always loved summer, I was a summer baby. However in all of my living years , I have never quite felt this much excitement just because summer had come – it makes me wonder; am I becoming soft with old age? Or was the Finnish winter that severe? Well…maybe it’s a bit of both. What ever the reason may be, it is a good thing.

As the whole nation is preparing for their holiday time….most will be going to their summer cottages to commune with nature and maybe even get in touch with their roots (however that works). Their days will be characterised by lovely saunas, dips in the lake, picking of berries and mushrooms and most likely visits by mosquitoes. It’s all part of the fun. The already long days will get even longer until for one night there is only 2 hours of dark and 22 hours of daylight-this is midsummer. A rare phenomenon to one such as me, one I certainly look forward to experiencing for the second time ever.

The question is; what will I be doing during my summer vacation? The plan is to have fun! I may have no summer cottage to visit, but I do have the two most important men in my life to spend my sunny days with. I intend to play football like it were a competition, I shall blow as many bubbles as the wind can manage to scatter in every direction, and I shall love and laugh like it is going out of fashion. These are the few things I know summer favours and since I, for one, feel this overwhelming joy at having this season come, I intend to make every moment count.

Apart from the above mentioned, My family and I will also include some leisure time to travel, most likely by ship on a cruise to Sweden. This is the perfect time to brave the deep blue seas while having a whale of a time.

What brought all of this up you ask?

Today I woke up feeling good for no reason at all, and methinks that I can count on many more days that will begin the very same way.

Am I making too big a deal of just a new season?

Maybe, but in the spirit of this moment, I have to say,that is neither here nor there. I am just loving summer and it is feels great. I will get my kicks from it, and I sure hope you will too.

Ps, I forgot to say that above all, I intend to safely sunbathe as much as my dark skin can absorb…after the long winter, goodness knows, my skin needs the vitamin D and this is finally my opportunity to make up for lost time.

Happy summer holiday!