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!.