Smoko: Immigrants- co-builders of our future

I have been thinking about immigrants of late. And I'm partly prompted to put pen to paper about them by the snide, patronising and sometimes outright racist attitudes that are thoughtlessly propagated about them.

Take the observation that American blogger Ken Levine - name-checked in Toby Manhire's "Internaut" column in this week's Listener - made of a recent trip to New Zealand.

Mr Levine writes a blog called "By Ken Levine". It was selected by Time as one of the 25 best blogs of 2011, so this man is not without ability or influence.

He was impressed by some aspects of his experiences here, not quite so much by others. In the former category he rated the Wellington Sevens; in the latter a bus trip in Auckland, including the commentary of the driver, which indulged in a routine bit of back-handed immigrant bashing.

Writes Mr Levine, "The guide announced that the population of Auckland reached 1.5 million last week and then added, 'I'm pleased to say it was a birth, not immigration'."

Kiwis are not alone in supposing our own culturally inflected virtues, talents and attributes are superior to most others; that people who come to make a life here should be eternally grateful for the privilege and never be allowed to forget it.

Yes, there are many wonderful facets to life in New Zealand, but the latent condescension towards the many people whose abilities, determination and capacity for hard work bring renewal, human capital and other, often unseen, forms of enrichment to their adopted society is not one of them.

I know something of this by personal experience. A very close friend emigrated here about 20 years ago. Despite being a high-achieving professional with about 15 years' experience in her chosen field in a major overseas city, and with qualifications from a reputable tertiary establishment, she had to retrain in this country and go back to the bottom of the ladder.

From there, with quiet determination, great good nature and a love of her adopted country, she has pulled herself back up, done well, gone far.

Few who know her and of her work would doubt that she has already made a significant contribution.

But it has not been without sacrifice: the unconditional love and close-at-hand support of parents and siblings; the camaraderie and collegiality of friends and close colleagues left behind; the loss of all that was peculiar to, and comfortingly familiar about, the culture in which she grew up.

But at least her native language was English and there was, and is, much overlap between the two cultures and countries she straddles.

Recently, I met a couple of immigrants who came from a country quite different. It was their stories, really, that prompted this brief meditation, so illuminating, inspiring and humbling they were. And here's the thing: I don't imagine they are in any way unique.

My couple arrived here about 10 years ago. He had a little English, she practically none.

They had good jobs with excellent career prospects in their home country. They had family support. They were comfortable. But something was missing and they ended up here.

She went back to university a mature student, learning English along the way, poring over her books from 6 most mornings until 10 at night, struggling to comprehend each and every sentence. She requalified over four long, hard years. How foreign must seem to her the carefree lives of the majority of today's young, partying undergraduates. She now has an excellent job in her chosen profession; I don't doubt she, too, will go far.

He requalified as well, but his field is not so easily conquered without native English-speaking abilities. We have all heard the tales of hideously overqualified taxi drivers - doctors, lawyers, brain surgeons and rocket scientists - and I know one of those, too, but that is a different story. My man has now gone into business on his own account.

Life would be easier for them if they had opted to go to Auckland, where they have friends and a sizeable community from their homeland. But they chose not to.

They love Otago. They love its beauty, its landscape, even its weather. They love the beaches and the wildlife. Dunedin seems just the right size for them. They look forward to their young children growing up as Kiwis.

They are smart, sophisticated, charming, incredibly hard-working model citizens. If New Zealand's history was built on immigration, so, to an extent, will be its future.

 - Simon Cunliffe is deputy editor (news) at the Otago Daily Times.


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