Sunday, February 28, 2010

9 Year retrospective

Anne remembered that today is the 9th anniversary of our arrival in America.  It is astonishing how quickly time flies and hard to imagine how our naive assumptions about moving could have led us to where we are now.

Through the 80's and 90's there was a steady exodus from South Africa of people who had the means either through ancestry or other connections to places like the UK, Australia and New Zealand.  We had toyed with the idea of leaving and of course it was a topic of many conversations at dinner tables in our home town of Grahamstown.

If we had the means we would have left South Africa without a second thought in the mid 80's when the Government repression of anti-apartheid activists touched us personally or in 1992 when Anne narrowly escaped being killed by a mob of violent teens who pelted our VW Kombi with rocks as she was driving home from school.

In the mid 90's with all the new hope of universal franchise and Mandela's release, talk about leaving was a tougher conversation but when the opportunity came to visit friends who had moved to America and the subsequent job offer in Boston, it seemed like a good idea.

I remember going to the police station in Grahamstown to get a police clearance certificate and looking on the wall at the crime statistics.  It was the first week of the month and the numbers of rapes, murders and thefts amounted to around 5 a day each.

We had friends who had been personally affected by violence on their farms (murders and robberies) and who had been carjacked at gunpoint.  To be clear these things had been going on in the bigger cities (Johannesburg and Cape Town) for a long time, but we lived in the small university town (Grahamstown) where this sort of thing had been very uncommon and it felt like we were somehow caught in a downward spiral.

I had felt that rather than join the flock of people who were leaving because of their fears of what a black government might mean for the white minority, I'd prefer going to a country that was less popular a destination for South African emigrants.  Where being South African was not as big of a deal.

We naively assumed that having grown up on American popular culture - I get teased at work because the TV programs we watched in the 80's were popular here sometimes a decade before - that we would be able to slide right into living here, but it isn't just driving that happens on the right.  We were surprised that Anne's paintings (several oil nudes) caused a bit of a stir in the neighborhood (one boy told the boys that they were so lucky because they have "porno" on the walls of their house).

Some of our basic views that came from how government was perceived in South Africa and, for example, how you feel about weapons are not just hot topics here, they form the basis of entire political movements.

Figuring out driving on the right hand side was not too hard.  You do have to watch yourself stepping out to cross a road because we were trained to look right first which is dangerous over here with the cars coming from your left. 

The work environment was very different too, I went from a very safe job, one that was more or less guaranteed if I worked consistently - to an environment where 1 in 10 companies were destined to failure and the people working for them subject to retrenchment as the need to downsize arose.

American immigration (if you do it properly) is not an easy process.  My work visa tied me to an employer whose sponsorship had to demonstrate that they had not been able to find a local person with my credentials.  This was easy when I first moved here because the high-tech bubble was just about to burst and qualified, capable people were hard to find.

In September 2001 when the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center shook things up, a number of these high-tech start-up companies found bridge funding opportunities drying up and ours was hit hard.  We faced having to find our way back to South Africa if I wasn't able to find a new visa sponsor.  We had more or less committed all of our resources to getting here in the first place and this was something that weighed heavily on Anne and I.  Indeed the thought of not having work in this strange land with no family or other support was a preoccupation for me until the green card sponsored by my second employer (which took around 6 years with all the paperwork and other processes) came in 2007.

All things considered we have been incredibly lucky.  The second company that sponsored me has been surviving well and the work (and some of the people that I have worked with) has made it interesting and rewarding.

Our big regret (and it is something that I wish we could have foreseen) is that our daughters can't live in America.  One of them works in England and the other in South Africa so we get to see them far less frequently than we would like.

I have come to understand American politics a little better and to value the skepticism that most American's feel about bureaucratic competence.  In particular I value the strong ethic that dictates that you find your own way in the world (work for what you want, don't assume that you are somehow entitled to it).  This is something that I value my sons learning here as they begin to make their way in the world themselves.

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