Recently on that all-consuming social website we all call FB a lot of people have been posting articles and blogs by "expat" South Africans and having their say. I find myself muttering at the screen that the author is either being a tad harsh or has no idea what they are talking about or my favourite line is that they moved for the wrong reasons. So as my youngest is curled up in her bed nursing a horrid bout of flu and the rest are at school and work, I figured in the quiet, I'd take the time to put my opinion as an expat out there in cyber space.
If I knew then what I know now I would've left when I finished school. I miss my family and the few friends that are left there but so many of my family and most of our closest friends left South Africa before us anyway so further distance between us makes little difference. I don't miss the food except maybe a decent rump steak now and then. I don't miss the weather expect perhaps during those few bone chilling wet mid-winter days. I don't miss the beaches, we spend more time on the beach here than we ever did back "home." I don't miss walks in the bush or picnics at the botanical gardens or the sight of the Drakensburg Mountains covered in snow. I walk the girls to school through a park dense with trees and bush and natural wildlife every day, who needs the botanical gardens when you can have a supper picnic in the sunshine. Every morning I wake up and I am greeted with the majestic sight of a snow covered sleeping giant. I don't miss the beauty that is Africa I appreciate it because I know first-hand in her harshness there is unsurpassed and unequivocal beauty. World's end has her own beauty, it is a much more subtle and gentle beauty but it surrounds you in comfort and makes you feel at home. I will admit to really missing a good heart stopping thunder storm, you know the one I mean, when even the ants stop moving in anticipation. That complete stillness as the light begins to change colour and the air becomes electric, when eyes turn to the sky and feet scurry for shelter just as that first flash of light tears through the blackest clouds. Then that clap of thunder that makes everyone's heart stop for just that moment and the instant relief when the first giant drops of water hit the ground. Then as quickly as it began so it is over, the sun is back and everything is shining with water and the dust has been washed from the air and Africa starts moving again. That I miss, there is nothing I have experienced that will ever come close to comparing with an African thunderstorm.
I don't miss living in South Africa and I don't miss our life in South Africa and I'm not talking about the crime rate or the government I'm talking about our day to day actual living life. There are as many reasons to stay as there are to leave you don't decide to pack up your family and home in your mid-thirties move to the other side of the world and start again without first considering all the pros and cons. Decisions like this have to be made with logic and intelligence and not with emotion, there is no point jumping on a plane and making a run for it at the first sign of danger. There is no point moving somewhere "safer" because the conspiracy theorist are predicting the country will implode. There is no benefit in leaving because all your expat friends and family say you should, what do they know they aren't living your life. A decision to leave your homeland is a very personal one and, I believe, no one else's business, what and why you decide to do what you do should not have to be explain or rationalised. But you do need to have something with which to answer those never ending questions, my answer is: "I needed a change!" I am always amazed at how people react to that statement, some change the subject out of sheer surprise while it becomes a very interesting discussion with others. Of course the cost of living, crime rate and horrendous rise in the cost and drop in standard of education where factors in our decision to leave but they were not the deciding factors. Those reasons run much deeper and personal and shall remain there. During the deciding the Mauritian approached his father for advice because he too had given up his life to move countries, his advice as always was crude by effective "Fuck everyone and what they think do what works for you!" then he picked up his glass of whiskey, finished it with one swallow and staggered off to pour himself another.
In my years working in foreign exchange I processed many transactions for people packing up their lives in South Africa and moving to "greener pastures." In those same years I must have reprocessed at least a third of that number as they packed up their lives overseas and went back to South Africa. Over time I began to realise that these people where the ones that where more than happy to tell you why they were leaving and then changed their minds when they realised how much they had to give up to leave for good. Leaving your home for another life is a decision for the head not the heart. The truth is when you decide to leave your home country you have to leave it behind completely. You cannot take the weather, the food, the space or your family and friends with you. You have to think, talk, shop and drive differently. You have to accept that you are different because you are no longer a local and therefore friendship will take longer to form because you have to find a common ground to start on. You have to accept that things are done differently from how they are done at home, they may never make sense to you but that's the way it's done so there is no point complaining. Moving life and love to another country is the biggest change you will ever make in your life! Not only are you making a physical change, but also a sensory change, everything you see, hear, smell, touch and taste will be different and to be successful you have to change mentally too, you have to decide to do everything differently and keep trying new things. Without that change of mentality your emotions will take over and rule you, too much emotion makes decision making harder and giving up easier.
Feelings of homesickness, sadness, depression and emptiness are real, something every expat feels to some degree from the moment the change becomes a reality. Feeling lost, useless, forgotten and unwelcome are a "rite of passage" for any expat, we have to navigate through the emotion with a mental compass and if our reason for leaving was the right one our emotions become manageable. We all want to go home to be with our loved ones or sink our teeth into a Wimpy burger or watch a mid-summer thunder storm unfold around us and know we can't. We all need mum's chicken soup or dad's advice, we all want to cuddle our nieces or wrestle our nephews, we all feel obligated to be home to watch a brother getting married or bury a grandmother. But the truth is that these are the sacrifices we chose to make when we chose to leave. The reality is that few expats can afford the air fares to go home to be with family every time there is a gathering, life for an expat is not cheaper or easier it is merely different, it is when we chose to accept and embrace the difference that we know we choose to leave for the right reasons.
People spend so much time judging others for staying, for leaving and for going back. There is so much out there in cyber space criticising others for the choices they have made and their reasons. Accusations fly and rubber fingers point and wag! What for? What purpose does it have except to rile people up and cause arguments? I do not agree with a lot of expats reasons for leaving South Africa or their sudden decision to go back because I think they have allowed their heart to rule their head. But I don't live their life so I have no right to voice my opinion, my way of thinking is not their way, they must walk their path. In much the same way I will not accept someone else's judgement of our decisions, I will fight you tooth and nail it's my life butt out.
There is no shame in wanting to leave your home and make a new life somewhere different. There is no shame in choosing to return home. There is no shame in staying. We may never agree with each other choices so let's drop the debate and just get on with our own lives leaving others to get on with theirs.
The sun grows dim in the African sky
The moon softly lights the African dark
Ah yes, those slow African days
Bleeding gently into warm African nights
The smell of the African grassland
The steady beat of the African drum
With a burdened core I bid you farewell
I have grown old in my African skin
Though the pulse of Africa
will forever beat in my soul
Though the African sun
will forever shine in my eyes
I long to dance in the cleansing
I long to breath the new air
of a fresh start
Samantha Braum Sep 2008