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Journey from South Africa
Lorraine Baskin was born and raised in South Africa. She met her husband and gave birth to her children there. In January 1987 Lorraine, her husband and children arrived in the United States. They left behind family, friends and a country in turmoil for what they believed to be a brighter future in America.
Lorraine grew up during the Apartheid era in South Africa. The Afrikaaner Separatist Government wanted to keep the white minority separate from the black majority in order to allow the whites to maintain control. Blacks and whites went to different schools, used different toilets and rode different buses. It was a situation very similar to the segregation in the United States except it was more extreme. Nelson Mandela was the leader of the freedom fighters and was an opposing force against apartheid. He was sent to prison for 27 years when Lorraine was a young girl. As Lorraine grew older she never imagined anything would change. She was a university student between the years of 1973 to 1976. In 1976 the Soweto Riots took place. On June 16, 1976 black school children in Soweto protested against the imposition of the Afrikaans language as a method of instruction, which triggered one of the most intense challenges to the South African apartheid state (Pohlandt-McCormick, 2000). Lorraine’s father warned her not to take part in any protests because he would lose his job so she was silenced. After college she got married and had small children and soon realized that she did not want to raise her children in an environment where they had to hide to be friends with anyone outside their race or risk incarceration. With encouragement from her parents, Lorraine and her husband made the difficult decision to move to the United States leaving everything behind in South Africa.
Lorraine had been to the United States before, but had only visited the East Coast. Moving to California with three small children was frightening. They did not know anyone and were leaving behind a collectivist culture and having to immerse themselves into an individualistic one which was a huge change. They were also leaving behind a life of white privilege with good jobs and a beautiful home to come to America with nothing. Since 1995 more than 800,000 white South Africans have immigrated out of South Africa (The Economist, 2008). In a manner very similar to the United States, the richest and most educated individuals in South Africa are white and the emigration out of the country is causing what is known as a brain drain in South Africa. The movement of the educated or economic elite across international borders to a more prosperous country (Kaba) is a direct consequence of the apartheid system that was in place for so long in South Africa. The United States may have the largest number of educated Africans who live and work in western nations (Kaba). Both Lorraine and her husband were considered part of the educated elite in South Africa. He was an attorney and she was a physical therapist. One of Lorraine’s biggest fears about moving to the United States was that they would not be able to financially survive here. Her and her husband entered the country on a work visa. He was an attorney in South Africa and he took the California bar exam before they moved. She was unable to work. After two years the temporary work visa expired and they stayed in the country illegally. It took many years for their immigration status to be straightened out, but they were finally able to become citizens with the help of an attorney.
Assimilation into the American culture was difficult. The first city they lived in was Foster City and they experienced the people there as cold and unfriendly. Her daughter hated going to school and cried every morning because of the way she was treated by the other kids in school. Language is another area that causes a cultural barrier for immigrants. Nearly six million out of forty million immigrants speak only English (Porter & Rumbaut, 2014, pp. 246). However, there is a difference between the American dialect of English and the dialect spoken elsewhere such as in South Africa. Lorraine and her family were English speaking, but, it was a different dialect and many of the nuances were very different which caused some confusion when communicating. People often ask Lorraine where she is from based on her accent which implies that America is not her home, when she has lived here since 1987. When she talks to other people from South Africa they tell her that her accent has changed and that she sounds more American now.
By September of 1987 Lorraine and her family made the choice to move to Walnut Creek where they were accepted warmly into the community. Another thing that was different in the United States was the grocery stores, things like the number of different choices for bread is something that took some getting used to because in Africa there were only three choices, not twenty or more like there are in America. The higher education system was also a shock because in South Africa students lived at home and went to college right down the street. In America students go away to college and have to pass a rigorous application process in order to get accepted. Adjusting to the cultural differences in the United States was a process. There were very few other South African immigrants in the area that she lived in and the few that there were had already assimilated into American culture and they weren’t very welcoming.
When Lorraine and her husband divorced she had to go back to work and since she had been here so long already she was unable to take the physical therapists exam so she went back to school and worked in the legal field for a while until a friend convinced her to become a teacher. Lorraine taught at Heald College until they recently closed. She needs to feel like she is making a difference and teaching allowed her to do that.
In spite of all of the experiences Lorraine had as a child growing up in an apartheid society she tries to bring the collectivist and giving nature to her surrounding community. She reaches out to her neighbors and tries to recreate the sense of belonging she felt in South Africa. It is her way of maintaining some of her South African culture. She still feels very deeply connected to her country of origin in spite of the length of time she has lived in the United States.
Economist. (2008). White Flight from South Africa: Between Staying and Going. Retrieved from The Economist: https://www.economist.com/node/12295535
Kaba, A.J. (2015). Africa’s Migration Brain Drain: Factors Contributing to the Mass Emigration of Africa’s Elite to the West. 109-130.
Pohlandt-McCormick, H. (2000), ‘I Saw a Nightmare . . .’: Violence and the Construction of Memory (Soweto, June 16, 1976). History and Theory, 39: 23–44. doi: 10.1111/0018-2656.00144
Portes, A. & Rumbaut, R. (2014) Immigrant America: A Portrait, 4th edition. Oakland, CA. University of California Press.
Kristy Matye wrote this story in 2015 as a student in Professor Maggie Hunter’s Sociology of Immigration class at Mills College.
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