Since the age of 19, I’ve claimed permanent residency in two countries and lived in six major cities in the world. I’ve met many other immigrants and through my journey realized that it does not matter what country you are from; when you live in a foreign land all immigrants are from the same country. The Japanese struggle to understand why the opposite of white is black and not red, why books are read back to front and not upwards downwards and why everyone else is so loud and so much bigger looking; even non-Japanese animals are bigger! The Muslims wish everyone would just run along and not give them that look… you know, the “why are you wrapped in drapes, and wearing gloves and a bee mask” look. Africans, on the other hand, no matter how educated still go on about “why do I have to tip if I’ve already paid for the meal?” I’ve met Africans who stubbornly fight tipping for at least 1 full year after they are off the boat. And let’s face it, if you’re an immigrant in an English-speaking country, we’ve all been teased mercilessly about our English or our accents. It’s a difficult journey. Our first years abroad are soldiered with difficulty because there’s a brooding for our home country. Every immigrant I know swears they will return home a year or two after their first voyage. It’s a home-sickness brought on by a frustration of not understanding the culture, the people, the ‘inside jokes’, the climate, the food. Nothing makes sense at all. In the UK, the cockney accent is brutal. Several family and friends have told me that it took them years before they could decipher what the ‘man on the Tube’ repeats each time the doors slide open. Actually, the ‘man on the Tube’ is a recording of a male voice on the underground train system, and what he actually says is, “Mind the Gap” to alert passengers to watch that their feet do not get caught in the gap between the train and the waiting area platform. In Ireland and Scotland, it’s worse. Who knows what they are actually saying? Is it even English?
In America, they do speak English but it doesn’t add up for you. It doesn’t help that you know you have an accent, which makes you stick out like a sore thumb and it bugs you! The first few weeks are brutal. Chips are french fries and crisps are potato chips, serviettes are napkins, handbags are purses, a spare wheel is a donut, petrol is gas, take away food is ‘to go’. The list goes on and on. When you finally get a car, you have to pump gas for yourself. That is a whole other story! Names are different and sometimes you embarrass yourself to no end. When I first got to the US, I’d watch a morning TV show called ‘Live! With Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa’ but I’d never caught the man’s name because apparently, I just never paid that much attention! A few months later Regis was on the cover of Time magazine on the news stands. I was walking by with an American guy I actually happened to have a bit of a crush on and got quite excited by Regis’ smiling face on the cover. ‘Hey look.. it’s Re-jis.’ Andrew looks up at me, shakes his head with sympathy and says, “Irene, you’re going to have to learn how to talk properly if you wanna survive America. It’s Rie-jas.” OK THEN.
A few years later I was still grappling with the terror of the pronunciation of names of people and places. Worcester remains my all time favorite because it’s home to probably thousands of undocumented Kenyan immigrants. Yet, I bet not a single one can pronounce the word before they get off the boat. As straightforward as it looks, Worcester, Massachusetts is actually not pronounced ‘Wor-ce-ster”. Neither is it pronounced ‘Wor-che-ster”. In what seems to make the least sense of all, it’s actually pronounced ‘Wooster.”
In America, all first generation immigrants live in little pockets with their own. It’s a sad way to live because most of these immigrants have never ventured far out enough to learn English well, or even understand the culture. In every large city, there will be a Chinatown and a little Italy – and yes, the mob is alive and well. The Hassidic Jews populate a section of Brooklyn in New York, where tourists venture to gawk at this plain-living community whose men dress only in black and white and grow their goatees to waist length. The Indians love the suburbs. The Africans too. Professional working Africans have integrated into mainstream society albeit with many potholes along the road, but blue-collar working Africans most of whom are undocumented prefer to live communally for various reasons. Typically, one undocumented worker usually brings in another and so on and so forth. But more importantly, blue collar work requires long hours, sometimes over 80-plus hours a week, in order to rack up a substantial income. This kind of backbreaking work would be impossible without the help of friends and neighbors pitching in to help out with the kids. This method of living in immigrant pockets, comfort zones, where one never has to integrate with the mainstream has led to a peculiar breed of Kenyan immigrant. Today, it’s not uncommon to find Kenyans in the US who speak frightfully poor English and who appear never to have spent a day in Nairobi. These people have traveled straight from the village to Worcester, Massachusetts, perhaps with a quick glimpse of Nairobi en route to the airport.
When my husband and I relocated to South Africa, I thought things would get far easier. But South Africa presents its own problems. This blog is a journey about my life as a I mature from a young girl, into the woman that I am today. I was born Kenyan but somewhere along the way, I met America, I met South Africa and I have a crazy love-hate affair with both my adopted countries; particularly South Africa. I’m not Kenyan or American. I’m something in between. I am able to see all the marvellous things Kenya has to offer but I am also able to see the many perturbing difficulties Kenya has as a country. Sadly, because I’m no longer fully Kenyan, I’m not able to love Kenya unconditionally. Sometimes it makes me unpopular within the Kenyan circle in Kenya because I’m too critical; that’s OK. I also get blasted for standing up for America sometimes; that’s OK too. And sometimes I get blown to pieces for standing up for South Africa – ‘No, the crime is really not that bad…!’ Try telling a non-South African.
Along the way, I got married to a Kenyan and had three 3rd Culture children. My children are free from being bound by nationality or ethnicity or language or culture. They are global citizens; It is the biggest gift I could ever give to them. Our hope is they will pick up one Kenyan language, preferably Swahili. Beyond that, they are free to be who they want to be and speak as many languages as they would like to speak. My youngest one has American and South African citizenship. But she is Kenyan too. That is both weird and amazing and as global as it gets. Being an immigrant is devilishly hard but it’s also what makes me, me. I can’t imagine my life any other way.