My family and I immigrated overseas to America from South Africa. The reality of relocation is the challenge to belong. Belonging was difficult with little or no economic power. During the first years, we traveled a lonely road, to church, to work, to school and home. If you wanted to go anywhere, it cost money. My children had to fit in and find their way in school and they would often come back from school in tears because their classmates were making fun of Africa. They were asking my children questions about whether lions and wild animals still walked in our city streets. They were asking whether a jumbo jet could land in South Africa. They were asking whether we lived in huts and whether we had running water and electricity. They were asking my children why they say they come from Africa when they are not black. I had to ensure that my children were dressing appropriately so as not to stand out as foreigners.
I started to relive the trauma of my past. The interesting thing was that no one questioned my identity or doubted my identity but I did. I had to get to the place where I could reaffirm who I was. We are now in America for seven years and generally it is getting better but for the current economic crisis. My children are embedded in society; They speak like Americans, have adopted an "American" culture and are doing superbly, academically, socially and economically. They have many friends and like to go bowling or to the movies. Eating out is their favorite pastime.
Relocating to another country is never easy because you have to rework and renegotiate your identity, your life, your lifestyle and your worldview. You have to reestablish friendships and build community. Keeping the faith is important to stay sane. You have to know the nuances of meaning in the new culture. This can be difficult if the culture that you come from is markedly different than the one you intend to embrace. South Africa has a very high context culture where group identity is the norm. Everybody knows or pretends to know something about everyone else's business, and the group that you belong to is the important focal point. America in contrast is very low context. Everyone minds their own business. Here you have to fend for yourself. You do not speak to strangers and even your neighbors are strangers. We are fortunate to be living in a nice neighborhood with the best neighbors.
Some of the challenges inherent in relocation can be awkward to negotiate. Children serve an important mentoring function. I have often marveled at how the children become the interpreters of language to their non English speaking immigrant parents. Our children became the role models for learning a new lifestyle in a new land. Some of our values had to be redefined and re-interpreted. They continue to teach us about Thanksgiving, Independence Day, President's Day, Martin Luther King Day and other activities and events of historical importance. We no longer celebrate second New Years day, Easter Monday, and other significant South African days. We can no longer just walk over to friends and neighbors to visit, to chat or just to have tea. It is either call first or we will call you to come and visit.
When you are invited to lunch or dinner it is not a treat, you pay for yourself. Reciprocation is important to energize friendships. Sometimes you can not start with exploratory dialogues because people can be impatient to listen to stories because they do not want to skip a beat in their quest to be successful in life. I have found some Americans to be very friendly and supportive but very ignorant about life beyond the borders of their country. They will help as long as they can see the need to get involved.
God bless America with its ever growing immigrant population. We need to reach across diverse barriers to strengthen our growing friendships. We must do for all Americas people what all America's people need and stop focusing and satisfying only our greed. Our greed precludes us from identifying need. In the process we sometimes forget that we do have needs.
We are here to co-create a country worth living in for all.