Thursday, April 22, 2010

I am a Foreign National

I’ve been privileged for the past four years to be able to live out my dream – a work permit in South Africa has enabled me to live and work in this beautiful country, travel within Africa, and stamp out boundaries towards becoming a better person. As a Foreign National, the privilege comes with a fair amount of strife – moving to another continent wasn’t such a breeze as I naively imagined while planning my move from sunny Southern California. Some say “change is as good as a holiday,” but imagine changing almost everything in your life – all at the same time.

You move into a new house, neighborhood, town, region, and country. You live in a new time zone, in a new hemisphere, and ‘home’ is more than a day’s journey away, cramped inside a tiny space and at an exorbitant price. You contemplate the similarities between your position and the pioneers of yesteryear – you are surrounded by strangers and new things, nothing is familiar, you feel like you’re living on an outpost, far away from the “same” and the known. Driving is now an adventure, in a manual shift car on the “other side” of the road. You teach yourself to look right-left-right before crossing, and fight the urge to look the other way around, as you have been ingrained to do since childhood. A small task like grocery shopping becomes a drawn out affair as you’re faced with a sea of brands you’ve never seen or heard of before – perhaps the one with the red label is fair, or maybe that other one – over there?

Your seasons are swapped around so holidays that used to be cold-weather ones are now sunny-bikini ones, and, in your new country you’ve got new dates to celebrate – like Youth Day, Family Day and Women’s Day. You do so with joy, after all, you’re getting an “extra” day off, one you’ve never had off before! But the feeling becomes bittersweet when you realize you’re the only one who seems to know about your old favourites, like Saint Patrick’s Day, Independence Day, Halloween or Thanksgiving.

You have new friends now and no matter how you try, you just can’t seem to keep up with your old ones – email, online chats and the telephone seem so inadequate when you’re trying to describe your new life, an average day, your new friends, or the man you’ve fallen in love with. Time passes and even though it breaks your heart, it seems impossible to avoid missing out on life-changing milestones, like anniversaries, engagements and weddings, first pregnancies and births, or even saying good-bye when someone you love passes on. You are far, far away – you straddle two worlds, two lives, two understandings, two sets of friends, two points of view – you can feel yourself changing, growing, becoming more “you”. Here there are new things to try – new food, new places, new languages, new words and slang – even in English. You pick up small learnings each and every day, like that a “hat” is actually a “beanie” and a “cap” can be called a “peak”. Your accent changes, your mannerisms, too – things become easier, more natural, you start to call this ‘home’ and remember times ‘here’ instead of ‘there,’ life becomes more comfortable on top of your new grown foundation.

You begin to feel familiar, now you have context. You have history here, too – you know how it works, at least more now than ever before. You feel happy – you’ve done the battle with loneliness and discomfort – you’ve grown and achieved new success – you can start to take off now, to greater levels, to push greater boundaries. You know you’ve made the right choice – this is home now, there are still new places to explore, new things to learn – you want more. You feel like you belong here – like you’re no longer a stranger, you might actually fit in. But then you realize one thing – your visa is about to expire, you’ve got only 30 days left.

It’s time to visit Home Affairs to apply for more time – you gather your documents, you patiently wait in the que. You put on your most pleasant smile to those attending the room packed full of other foreign nationals who, just like you, jockey for their own fate. The air feels a little thicker in here, you can feel the pace of your heartbeat going a little bit quicker – what if, what if, what if? You try to laugh at yourself for being so affected and glance out the window at life in the city, moving on, as usual. You think about your past, the present, the unknown future – you have trouble swallowing. Your future hangs in the balance, somewhere between getting that stamp – or not.


  1. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading this. I fully understand of how life since 2006 has been very difficult for you. What you did in leaving California was an extremely courageous thing to do! Sincerely hope that your being here in South Africa has been worth the 'move'.Look after yourself.

  2. awesome, t. well said!

  3. well...?!!! did u get it??

  4. well done!! I like it! I do think you are so brave for taking a chance and going there. I hope it really is all working out and you are happy my dear. I miss you.


  5. Thank you so much for sharing your article, I really enjoyed reading it! It has made me realise how far I have come in the last year and how at home I now feel. There was so much to leave behind, but also so much to learn and to gain by relocating. To rebuild your life from scratch is an empowering thing. Thank you again, you’ve really made me reflect.

  6. Dear Theresa...
    Thank you for the great “mind cinema” :-)
    Your words are so to the point...
    Making a “foreign national” laugh. And cry. At once

  7. just wanted to say, interesting article!

  8. I like this - Val.

  9. I like this, too. Mike

  10. Goosebumps. I'm a South African who lived in UK (London) for about 4.5 years and know what you are talking about.

    Well said, good writing : )