I don’t know about you but I’m loving reading all the stories in my Honest Expat series. I feel that it’s really giving me a good idea about the highs AND lows of choosing to emigrate and what it’s like to live as a South African scattered across the globe.
Today I’m interviewing an old school friend of mine, Sarah, who is married to Denis. They have two children, Benjamin (5) and Nicole (3). and currently live in Kingston, Ontario Canada.
Where are you originally from?
I am originally from Cape Town, South Africa. My father was a British immigrant and my mother, the daughter of a Dutchman, so I grew up with family in far away places. However, I never imagined I would one day be living in “The Great White North”
In my twenties, I spent several years living in Zambia, Kenya and Uganda. In Uganda, I met my husband, who is a Canadian citizen. We were engaged in California, married in South Africa, and then moved to Canada in December 2010.
What was the catalyst/s for your emigration decision? How long had you thought through the emigration process?
We decided to move to Canada to be closer to my in-laws. Also, we felt that it offers better employment opportunities for us. We had discussed this move for several months during our engagement and wedding planning.
How easy/ complicated was the application process to emigrate and how long did it take? Did it require certain qualifications/ documentation/ finances etc?
It was very simple for Denis to return to Canada, although he had to recertify his professional license and other minor paperwork, but my permanent residency application was another story…. it was a major task involving police clearance certificates from different countries, fingerprints, medical exams, chest x-rays and multiple forms. We also had to prove that our relationship was genuine including sending in copies of our letters to each other, wedding photos with all family members highlighted, details about our honeymoon, and phone records indicating the number of times he had called me, etc!
I must say, that the instructions for all Canadian government paperwork are very clear. There are also helplines to call, instructional videos to watch and much guidance along the way. Fees can be paid online which makes things convenient, and wait times are listed so you have an idea of when your paperwork will be processed. I can’t quite remember how much it cost, but with all the additional paperwork required it was significant.
What was your first year like after emigrating?
It was challenging being a newly-wed and living in a strange, cold, country with no friends, no job and nothing to do, while we waited for my husband to find work and for my emigration papers to be finalized. Canadians are very polite and friendly, but they are busy people and don’t always have time to spend making new friends. Once Denis found a job, we had our own place and the snow was replaced with Spring flowers, things felt much better. Because I had lived away from home for many years, I didn’t suffer much homesickness.
What have you loved about your new home – for you and your children?
Canada is a wonderful country, especially for people with young children. There are so many free programs, great parks, museums and libraries. Living in Ontario we have access to French public schools, one of which our son attends. This really helps as we are raising our children to be bilingual. If you love the outdoors, Canada is for you – great hiking, camping, fishing, canoeing and winter sports too. Of course government health care can be a plus – I had two babies for free, but it does not cover certain medication and procedures and can result in long wait times, so there are positive and negative factors.
What have you found hard about your new home – for you and your children?
There are challenges to living in Canada as well – the weather! Canada is a BIG country and the climate varies from place to place, but you are pretty much guaranteed months of snow and ice. I received some wonderful advice from my sister-in-law. She told me, “The only way to survive a Canadian winter is to find something you love about it – whether it’s skiing, skating, curling, hockey, snow shoeing or just curled up in front of a fire.” She was right. After 7 years here, I actually look forward to the first flakes of snow, so we can get our skis waxed and ready. It really helps having a husband who loves winter sports and has all the gear and know-how. Without that, I doubt I would have strapped on skis or skates, but these things make the Winter bearable.
Money – South African rands don’t go very far here and the cost of living is high. We pay massive income taxes and everything else is taxed as well. No money for house help, that’s for sure! The province of Ontario is $312 billion in debt and we have some of the highest electricity rates in the world, despite having plenty of reliable electricity sources. It seems mismanagement and political maneuvering happen here as well as in South Africa!
Rules – Canada is a land of rules. Every area is public life has prescribed rules associated with it, from riding a bus, to setting out your rubbish, to how the front of your house should look. This took some getting used to, as I had previously lived in Uganda for 3 years where rules were… um… minimal!
What have you NOT missed about South Africa – for you and your children?
Even though I feel sentimental every time I see a photo of South Africa, I have not missed living in fear or thinking about security constantly. And right now, I’m certainly not missing the water restrictions!
What have you missed about South Africa – for you and your children?
Of course, I have missed my family. It’s hard for grannies when their grandchildren are so far away! However, I married into a wonderful family. Some live only 2 hours away and others across the country. Despite this, I feel very close to my in-laws and extended family. I miss my friends too, but so many of my old school friends have moved away that if I went home, I’m not sure I’d have many friends left to see. I really miss the sea and the beach and just the relaxed atmosphere of a braai with friends. One thing I noticed is how much I miss the birds of South Africa. There is nothing like waking up in the morning to the call of a Red-eyed Dove, for me that is the sound of home. Oh, and the joy of gardening all year long – our growing season is way too short.
Knowing what you know now – would you emigrate again? To the same place or to a different place?
We would certainly emigrate to Canada again, especially as my husband’s family are here. It has been a very good experience for us. That said, we are thinking about another move in the future….
If you could, would you return to South Africa? What would make you consider returning to South Africa? What makes it hard to return to South Africa – for you and your children?
I don’t think we would return to South Africa. We are uncertain how difficult it would be for Denis and the children to get permanent residence and also finding jobs may be challenging. We would want our children to have an internationally recognized high school diploma so that they could attend university in Canada if they wished. Sadly, we are not keen to live behind security gates and burglar bars. However, we would love to visit more regularly!
What were the unexpected (good and bad) aspects of emigrating that you’d wished you’d known about before going. Do you have any advice for those contemplating making this huge move for their families?
Some “tips” for moving to Canada: It would help if you could secure a job before leaving SA, but that is challenging. You may not be covered by the provincial health care system if you work under a certain amount of hours a week, so bear that in mind. If you are a professional, you will definitely have to return to school and take courses to become certified. My Egyptian friend has been trying to practice as a pharmacist here and it has taken years. Even hairdressers need a license to cut hair. Most new emigrants will have to swallow their pride and work at more menial jobs at first. House prices are ridiculous, so living in an apartment and taking the bus will likely be something to get used to, at least initially.
I have lived in this city for 7 years and I have one South African friend. So if you feel you need the South African expat community around you, choose your city carefully. Vancouver and Toronto have larger South African communities. That said, I have many fantastic friends from all around the world. Canada attracts immigrants from the most interesting places. Our church community has made a massive difference for us. They have become our children’s adopted aunts, uncles and grandparents. I can always find willing baby sitters and have several people who have walked alongside us through the ups and downs of life. If you are a person of faith, finding a good church and getting involved will make your new country feel like home that much sooner.
My most important piece of advice is to learn the secret of being content in any circumstance – there are good things and bad things about every place. Focusing on the good, having a thankful heart, and helping to make a difference wherever you live, will help you be happy and fulfilled no matter your address.
Thank you so much Sarah for sharing your story. I found it fascinating to read more about your life as an expat and loved you most NB piece of advice so much – I think that really is the key to living a good life!
If you enjoyed reading this interview why not leave me a comment below! I’d love to hear your opinions on emigration and expat life – whether you’ve made the leap or are still weighing up all the pro’s and con’s.
Be sure to read all the other Honest Expat interviews (and let me know if you’d be keen to feature in the series if you’re a South African living abroad!)