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.
I am from the U.S. I still live in the U.S. Most people speak American English. Each state here is in many ways like its own little country. I have never felt like I belonged any where. I realized after reading this amazing post that it may be because my parents left the state where I was born when I was young. I grew up in one place, but I wasn’t a native. People who were native to the place made a big deal out of it.
I spent a month in Europe once. By the end of it, I was sooooo ready to go back home. By the end, it was exhausting and confusing. I can only imagine how tough it would be to move to another country. You are my hero.
An incredible statue. Thank you for this share. And reading your heart-birthed prose again makes the world seem both small and infinitely large to me.
Thank you very very much Lynda
I love this blog post.
I am a longtime lurker here – really enjoy this blog but have never replied until now. You are a great writer, Janet. I’m American but have lived in France for 20 years now. I have many friends here but I’m always a bit “different”. And when I go to the US I have many friends to visit but I’m just a little “different”. I’ve always thought that when I retire, I have no idea where to go because I no longer have a place with “my people”. With this post, you’ve made me think that perhaps this place in online. Thank you.
Thank you Lisa. I think you are right x
Beautiful post and very true. There is nothing easy about moving your life from one place to another.
A great post and it put a lot of my thoughts into some sort of prospective as I now realise that it is not just because I live here..Thailand..which I love… but you never feel totally accepted, you are always refered to as a Farang but your post has made me understand a little better..thank you and great choice of sculpture I love that sculpture ..chanced across it about a year ago 🙂
I love that sculpture too. I am glad you know now you are not alone. Because until I saw that statue, I also felt like it was just me who felt this way. All the comments I have received have really made me feel better.
So pleased that you feel better and so pleased you wrote about this and I’m sure a lot of others like me feel better also 🙂
What a great post. It is so close to my heart. I have never seen a picture of that sculpture before, but wow, does it speak to me.
I was born in Germany, grew up in Iran and have now lived in the US for 20 years. There are times when I am sad and my inner voice says “I want to go home” but I do not know where home is anymore. If I look at it in a positive way, then I can say all three places are home to me.
I feel exactly the same way!
I loved this Janet!! I can to some degree understand what you are saying. I lived in Ohio for 43 years. Then we moved to Florida. For 2 years I struggled with being homesick (cried a lot) and still occasionally I have pangs of being homesick. But, Ohio will always be home in my heart.
Recently we traveled to Cozumel and stayed for a week, I have the smallest amount of ability to speak and understand spanish. Trying to grocery shop was a challenge and trying to communicate with people who do not speak a lick of english was interesting. Then I found when we came home I found myself saying “Gracios” just in a weeks time my brain had started to assimilate.
I think you are so brave!! I don’t think I would ever move to another country by myself, I just do not have the confidence in myself to do such a thing.
Perfectly put – I´ve been here six and a half years now, and there are bits missing wherever I am now. We have settled pretty well here, but still don´t have any network of friends etc that you pick up when you are growing up. My language skills aren´t what they could be (not helped by working for a company where the business language is English), but I´m getting better.
I went to three parent´s evenings in the last month (you know – the one where all the parents are there and we have to listen to what is going to be happening this school year) and for the first time I left without feeling that I just wanted to cry because I felt so out of my depth.
Coming back from a work trip to our UK facility this month I braved a taxi home because I just wanted to get home before midnight instead of closer to 1am. Usually I will stick with the public transport as I´m more confident when I don´t have to try to communicate as I feel embarrassed by my lack of understanding and poor vocabulary. I am so glad that I did, because the taxi driver chatted with me all the way home, and I understood almost everything, and was able to respond. We had a great conversation, and I realised that I missed hearing German while I was in the UK, and I finally had that “I´m home” feeling.
I am also shy and quiet in Swedish and just the opposite in English!
A wonderfully written post Janet…and so true.
I am so grateful to my parents for being able to spend the first 20+ years of my life in East Africa and Hong Kong. A piece of my heart will always be in those places.
All very true Janet, as an Englishman living in France who only has a basic understanding of the local language, it can be quite nerve racking at times! But I’m comfortable shopping on my own now thank goodness.
I left home at 16 to live in another part of England, I think in a way I left something behind when I did that move, then 10 years later moved again to another part of England with a new job, the only person I knew there was my new wife! We stayed in the same place though for 24 years, the longest I had ever been at one address. And then 5 years ago we moved to France.
I’m always looking back to what we had before, but no regrets I enjoy life here and what I’m doing on a day to day basis. It makes up for the little frustrations of life in a foreign non-English speaking country.
I’m pleased to say that my French is progressing nicely with the help of DuoLingo!
Loved this post Janet.
I have felt all of what you have felt.
I often feel like I am between lands.
It is so true that only an immigrant knows what that “otherness” feels like.
That sculpture you shared in this post is stunning. As is the quote at the end of the post.
Thank you for sharing all of this, this moved me. And I will read this again.
I am not multilingual. May I ask, in what language do you “think”? Does it change with geography, task, emotion?
If I am really sad or really angry I think in English. But for everyday things it is the language that is around me every day.
Much food for thought, thanks! I live between two countries, too, so I can identify with parts of your experience, although my two countries are neighbors and share a common language.
By the way, people do not necessarily forget their second language if they get dementia; a friend’s mother surprisingly forgot all about her native language with age as she got dementia, it was a language that she had lived with until she got married and moved to a different country at the age of 20.
I am so glad to hear about your friend’s mother!