The sculpture above is by Frances Bruno Catalano, and symbolizes the hole created by leaving your country, your people, your life, everything you know. No matter the reason. Nothing has encapsulated how I feel better than this statue. I have been thinking about this for a long time, but seeing this sculpture somehow pushed me to write it down.
I don’t think anyone who has never left their homeland to live in another country has any idea how hard it is. Many people imagine it as an extended holiday, an easy way out, or something constantly exotic and exciting. In South Africa particularly, if you have left since 1994, many people think of it as a chicken run, the coward’s way out.
I am a South African with citizenship in four countries and permanent residence in one. I have lived in the US, the UK, Ireland, and I now live in Sweden (22 years now). I have also travelled extensively around the world. I was born in South Africa and lived there for most of my life. My family is there. I come from a small town (with no airport and not a single escalator) and am now living in a capital city. I literally live on the opposite end of the earth from where my family is (a 30-hour trip, one way). Living somewhere permanently or long-term is very very different from holidaying there.
For me, living in Anglo-Saxon countries has been much easier. There is a great deal in common – slang, food, television shows, history, and most importantly, the language. I have always been in places where there are hardly any South Africans and I have never lived in an ex-pat bubble as so many do. I never wanted to become the person not learning the language, grumbling about your old country and grumbling about your new country, despite the fact that you have lived somewhere for the last 20 years.
To come to Sweden I had to give up my apartment, my car, all my belongings (I arrived with one suitcase), my job, my career, my family, my friends, my pets, the weather, the culture, and my mother tongue. I had to learn another language, retrain, change careers and go through the whole administrative nightmare of getting a work permit, a residence permit, an identity number, an ID card, a driver’s licence, registering at the tax authority, getting medical records and birth certificates etc from South Africa, you name it. And I had to do it all by myself. I don’t think any of the people who have told me I took the easy way out realise how hard it is and how defeated it makes you feel. How constantly feeling foreign can be more debilitating than exciting.
I cannot claim to know how hard being a refugee is is. But I have found my situation hard. If I had known how hard it would be, I would probably never have done it. But I am glad I did because it has made me grow as a person and learn more about our world. I am a better and stronger person for it and all the different places I have lived have given me opportunities, experiences and relationships that I would never otherwise have had.
But the hard parts of moving to another country are very hard. For me it is the constant darkness in winter and the constant light in summer. That Swedes are so reserved. Living in a big city. But anyone in a similar position would probably have difficulty with learning a new language, shopping in supermarkets where you don’t know what anything is and they have never even heard of your favourites (for me it was especially hard when I really wanted something like bran muffins or a steak and kidney pie. I couldn’t even make them myself because I couldn’t find the ingredients), trying to follow a recipe or a knitting pattern in another language, opening a bank account, going to the doctor, getting used to the different ways countries do things. When small talk is in another language and you don’t yet have the words. Getting cross or trying to talk about emotions in something other than your mother tongue. Constantly talking in a language that is not your own, especially when you are tired or not feeling well, is exhausting. Despite the fact that I work in English, I do everything else in Swedish.
What people who have never lived anywhere else don’t understand, is that you leave part of yourself behind in ‘your’ country. When I am in Sweden I am a different person. In Swedish I am a different person. For example in English I can speak to 500 people with no problem. In Swedish I hate saying anything in meetings (or even in a shop) because my Swedish is not as nuanced as my mother tongue and foreigners are few and far between where I work. In English I talk and laugh a lot. In Swedish I am quiet and reserved.
And now that all these years have passed, I will never again be 100% at home anywhere. I am no longer South African and for the rest of my life every time I say something about South Africa when I am in South Africa, people will bristle, feeling I have no right to say anything about a country where I no longer live or belong. But on the other hand, I will never belong 100% in Sweden either. I did not grow up here, I have no common frame of reference with anyone. I cannot talk about things like televisions shows and food we grew up with. I do not have the stamtänkande that Swedes talk about, tribal thinking. They also feel I do not have the right to have opinions or have anything to say about Sweden. They also, because they have never had to do it themselves, tend to feel that Sweden is a Utopia where everyone wants to live and that it is easy to move here. Which it is most definitely not.
When I am in Sweden, I lose all my Afrikaans and when I am in South Africa I lose my Swedish – the languages are too similar to keep separate. And when you become old and suffer from dementia, you lose all the languages you have learned except your mother tongue. I am lucky I have a common mother tongue that many people understand. If I spoke an obscure dialect, my old age in Sweden would be very lonely indeed.
Most people in South Africa think I live in Switzerland and can never understand why I don’t speak ‘Swiss’. I imagine if I were in the UK or the US it would be different because they would be able to relate.
From Sweden I miss the way everything works properly, that everyone is taken care of, that you can see where your tax money is used, the lack of corruption and crime, that I am never afraid. I like the long holidays, the fact that if I get seriously sick the system will take care of me and it will not cost me anything apart from the money I paid to taxes. I guess they are all practical things.
From South Africa I miss my family and friends, the beautiful blue of the sky, the smell of the dust, the bright flowers all year round, the Jacarandas, the wild animals, the sound of the birds singing,the bright colours of the clothes, the friendliness of the people, the gorgeous beaches and the sea. I miss rugby and cricket and braais. I guess they are all emotional things.
Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy here. I have a good life. But, as the sculpture shows above, you leave part of who you are when you leave your country. And, after living in another country, when you go back to your homeland, you leave part of yourself in your adopted homeland. There will always be part of you missing, no matter where you are. You are never whole again.