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Interview: Immigrants Talk About Growing Old in Their Adopted Land


Molly George

Molly George

Iraqi-born Said Fahran has described exile as a book that one cannot finish writing. A new study of long-term migrants to New Zealand bears out the truth of the artist’s words.

Most left their homelands 40 to 60 years ago. But even after decades in their host country, these immigrants did not trade in one national identity for another.

"It’s still home and you never forget your origins . . . you never lose your childhood memories, they’re with you forever," "Eric" told researchers.

The study was carried out by PhD candidate Molly George and Dr. Ruth Fitzgerald from the department of anthropology and archaeology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.

The study appeared online in the journal Ageing & Society (April 8, 2011).

To learn more, AHB caught up with Molly George in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Ruth Dempsey: How did you become interested in immigration?

Molly George: I moved to New Zealand from the United States in 2004. I came as a university exchange student, and worked part-time as a home-helper through a local organization. I did household tasks for several older people, including one woman originally from Holland.

She was in her 80s and had been in New Zealand for over 50 years. After I finished tidying-up her already immaculate home, she would make me a cup of coffee and we’d talk. On occasion, she told me stories about the Second World War in Europe and her early days in New Zealand. Her accent was very thick and I remember being surprised she’d been in New Zealand so long.

I felt an affinity with her, as a fellow immigrant, even though she’d been in New Zealand nearly twice as long as I’d been alive.

A few years later, when I married a New Zealander, I thought of myself at the beginning of a journey that she had been on for 50 years. And it struck me that immigration is not an "event" but a process.

That’s when I decided I would like to spend time studying immigration – as a story that unfolds over the lifecourse.

RD: Who are the immigrants in your study?

MG: I interviewed 22 individuals from 11 different countries. They came from England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Hungary, the United States, Australia and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). They arrived in New Zealand between the ages of 17 to 29 years. And they have here for 40 to 60 years.

Interestingly, we had an overwhelming response to our request for study participants. Which may indicate these immigrants have few opportunities to openly reflect upon their lives in New Zealand.

RD: Why did they choose New Zealand?

MG: There were many reasons. Some participants arrived as refugees and New Zealand was simply the first or only country that admitted them. Others came in response to the country’s post-Second World War recruitment policies. In the 1950s, New Zealand was aggressively trying to fill its burgeoning labor needs. Some had a specific job offer, and others came in search of life and work opportunities. One had been here before as a worker on a freight ship and returned for love.

RD: What did they say about the early years?

MG: Nearly all told poignant stories of arriving by ship or on international flights in the early morning, and finding themselves in a country they knew little about.

Most arrived alone, or with a fiancé or spouse and no local contacts. Some faced a huge language barrier. They recalled standing on a train platform not sure where to go, or being given a toothbrush and a pair of socks in a refugee group home. Some described lining up to find work.

The descriptions varied widely. But tales of steep learning curves, cultural faux pas, employment ups and downs, simple living conditions and determination were common.

Some talked of loneliness and terrible homesickness, others recalled feelings of freedom and excitement. Most people mentioned both.

Overall, they felt they were warmly received. Yet, their stories reveal strong pressure to assimilate.

RD: Eventually, most returned to their homeland for a visit . . .

MG: That’s right. Many of these immigrants left home, thinking they would never see their families or homelands again.

At the time, New Zealand was a six-week boat ride away from Europe. But travel advances over the next two decades changed everything. For example, while a single visit home was impossible during their first 25 years in New Zealand, many immigrants made five, six, seven trips back home in the subsequent 25 years.

RD: "Alice" recalls being recognized at the local bakery after 24 years away. . .

MG: Yes. One of the women told a wonderful story about being recognized in her local bakery during the first visit back to her homeland. An old acquaintance walked in, looked at Alice and said, "Oh, hello. I haven’t seen you for a while." Alice’s sister responded, "No wonder, she’s been in New Zealand for 24 years!"

Alice was thrilled and comforted to be recognized as though she had never left. It made her feel that her homeland, which she missed and treasured very much, would always be home.

"Beatrice," expressed similar feelings about her visits back to Scotland. She said she felt a deep sense of belonging in Scotland and a huge sense of familiarity with the place. She talked about the atmosphere, the air, the accents, the buildings and the fields. She said, "It’s like going into a warm bath in some ways."

RD: Things changed, as the participants established their own families . . .

MG: Yes, this was the other side of visiting their homelands after so many years away.

Many found the experience unsettling because so much had changed. One woman described how her father had died and her mother had entered a retirement home. The family house had been sold, and the eight-year old sister she had left behind was now a mother.

Some recalled apple orchards ripped out and the old schools torn down. They described changes in gender roles, and even in the language.

For some, this unsettling experience brought an unexpected benefit. It helped them realize that New Zealand had now become their home.

RD: The research suggests immigrants may face unique concerns as they age. Is that right?

MG: Many of their concerns are similar to those of native born New Zealanders. So, concerns about money, independence and access to resources and medical care.

But there are other concerns, too. For example, several immigrants told me that they have few people to reminisce with about their youth, family or homeland.

For example, one woman, who immigrated with her husband, observed that when he died, she lost the ability to reminisce with anyone about the people they knew and the things they used to do. Now there is a significant void in her life, as even her children, who are New Zealand born, can’t banter back and forth with her about her extended family or communicate with her in her first language.

A few participants were aware of some very old immigrants who revert back to their first language, even after speaking the language of their adopted country for 50 years. None of the immigrants in this study were in that situation.

RD: Eric described his "goodbye" visit back to England. I found his remarks particularly poignant.

MG: Yes, a lot of the participants have come "full circle." They left home at a time when travel was slow and unaffordable. Then, travel opportunities opened up, and many made several visits home. Now, some have made or will soon make a "final" return visit to say goodbye. This was quite emotional for several of them.

For some, the journey has become too difficult physically. Others have less money post-retirement, and others say they won’t go back anymore because it’s too different now.

RD: The participants gave a lot thought to where they wanted to be buried.

MG: Yes, burial is tricky when you wish to be both with your homeland and ancestors but also with your adopted country and children.

Most immigrants had come up with creative ideas that suited them, though some seemed more satisfied with the solutions than others.

For example, one couple decided to be cremated and have their aches scattered at their favorite lake, rather than be shipped back to their homeland, or buried in New Zealand with no other family around them.

Another woman noted, with some sadness, that all her children would probably be buried with the families of their New Zealand spouses.

Most participants wanted their remains buried or scattered in New Zealand, but a handful wanted to be returned home.

People had given the subject a lot of thought. One man settled on burial here, but with a headstone written in his native tongue.

RD: So what did you learn from the study?

MG: I learned that time perpetuates, rather than settles or "solves" the immigration experience. In fact, this study speaks in opposition to the assumption that the process of immigration is stamped "complete" at some point.

As well, the study suggests "home" is often a place that exists in our mind and in our heart and not the reality of the place, as it is today.

Finally, the results highlight the importance of context. New Zealand has changed quite a bit in 50 years through growing awareness of, and expanding connections to other places and cultures.

When these immigrants arrived, the forces of assimilation were quite strong. Today, it has become somewhat easier for participants to express their hybrid identities and foreign perspectives.

For example, "Elena" a Spanish immigrant, no longer has to go to the pharmacy to buy her olive oil. She can find ample choice on supermarket shelves, including some made right here in New Zealand.