Ideasroom

To be a migrant in NZ

Dr Diane Comer explores one of the deepest concerns humans feel: where do we feel at home and why?

When my family and I migrated to Christchurch from the United States in 2007, we never thought earthquakes might wrench apart the city, as they did twice within six months in 2010 and 2011. Then this year a far more abhorrent and human fault tore through two Christchurch mosques, as one individual killed men, women and children gathered in worship. Fifty migrants and family members who came here believing this was a safe country died and as many again were injured. And we want to know why and how such violence happens.

Kindness and welcome begin, or do not, with each of us. The Christchurch shootings are an extreme example of what it means to be seen as ‘other’, as unwelcome. Yet every migrant knows they can be seen as ‘other’ often even before they speak. Whether migrants are accepted and welcome in Aotearoa New Zealand is an ongoing, lifelong negotiation that happens in the playground, in the workplace, in the casual, everyday interactions with those they encounter who make their migrant identity a point of difference, if not discrimination.

I want to believe New Zealand is a safe, compassionate and inclusive country, and so did the 37 migrants who live in Christchurch and wrote about their migration experience in my new book, The Braided River: Migration and the Personal Essay. But acceptance always operates on a continuum, as their stories reveal.

The Braided River gathers more than 200 personal essays written by migrants from 20 different countries to explore the experience of migration in New Zealand.

If indeed “They are us”, we must first understand that acceptance is always reciprocal, and practise it.

These migrant writers show that welcome goes both ways. Migrants must accept and feel accepted where they live if they are to settle and have any sense of belonging. Whether it’s the New Zealand- born farmer helping a postwar Dutch sharemilker to pronounce English, or the Korean migrant working today as a Justice of a Peace – both embody how the rich, interactive human exchange is where barriers and difference dissolve.

One of the powers of writing is it reaches the deeper story, gets past the surface narratives all migrants tell about when, why and how they came to this country. Consider the Russian migrant who arrived “with no language in his heart but hope” but is taught the word ‘Gladwrap’ working as a kitchen-hand in Arthur’s Pass. Building on one word – and one encounter – at a time, the invisible, overlapping strands of chance and connection get recognised, often for the first time, in writing. We live forward but understand backward, something these essays reveal. Gladwrap leads to this migrant eventually becoming a chef and marrying a woman he met in the alpine village.

When the earthquakes disrupted my research at the University of Canterbury, I had the opportunity to study at Oxford, a hotbed for migration studies with three dedicated research centres. I went to every lecture and seminar about migration and what I realised is migration is rarely looked at from the vantage point of those who experience it. Policy, history and economics do not migrate, individuals do. I wanted to tell that story in a New Zealand context, a country where 25 percent of us were born overseas and another 20 percent are dotted around the world, not only as travellers.

I wanted to see what migrants wrote when they wrestled with the effect of distance on their relationships. Temporal, physical and emotional distance factor into all migrant lives. Family members age and die half a world away and migrants are often unable to return. A Swiss woman empties her savings account to send orange roses, her mother’s favourite colour, to the funeral: “I walk past all those shoppers who don’t know that my mother has died. I wish I could wear a sign of mourning that people would recognise, tie a black ribbon around my sleeve, or pin a black cloth button onto my top, like we do at home.” Her unwitnessed grief becomes shared in the essay.

In 2012, our family was displaced to Sweden thanks to the earthquakes. As I struggled to articulate what it means to belong somewhere, the current of my migrant writers buoyed me. Their personal essays explored one of the deepest concerns humans feel: where do we feel at home and why? Our family asked the same question, realised we belonged in New Zealand and returned in 2014.

The Braided River bears witness to these migrant lives through their writing. The narrative traces the roots and routes of their migration, to show the ongoing repercussions of this choice. We see how migrant identity is contested daily and why belonging is predicated on mutual welcome. If indeed “They are us”, we must first understand that acceptance is always reciprocal, and practise it.

*The Braided River: Migration and the Personal Essay is published by Otago University Press.

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