Rachel Kitchens shares her experience of immigration, parenting in a foreign land and the process of becoming an American Kiwi.
‘Home’ is a complicated word for many people whose lives and hearts are stretched across different continents. Let me take you back a few months to December 2015. I’ve just finished putting the final touches on our Christmas tree with the help of my mom and my two lovely daughters, aged two and a half and six months. It’s not the ‘all is calm, all is bright’ scene. It’s a picture of chaos – paper wrappings for ornaments cover the floor, the Christmas tree lights are a total jumble, and my eldest keeps giving extra ‘cuddles’ (or rather, body slams) to my baby, who falls to the floor crying – again! Sigh. It’s been a full year, I’m tired, and it’s just the beginning of the Christmas season.
The Christmas season is stressful – buying presents, trying to get our Christmas cards out on time (this never happens), and getting ready for our annual Christmas party. The stress I can handle – it’s the season itself that has me flustered. The weather feels strange and foreign to me – it’s turning warm outside. Like hot and humid. Like middle-of-summertime hot and humid. And even though I’ve been in this beautiful country for five years already, I still can’t figure out why it is hot during Christmas! And then I remember that I’m not from here, not from this place that I now call home, and I’m not on some extended holiday on a tropical island on the other side of the world. I am an American, but I live in New Zealand. I live here. And this is my life.
Rewind five years. In the space of three months, I married my lovely Kiwi husband in Vancouver, Canada, road-tripped across the USA to Atlanta, Georgia, packed up my belongings, said goodbye to my family home, my mom, and my friends and arrived in the land of the long white cloud. For our first Christmas here, we had no furniture and none of our things. They were all in a big container somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean. We had a ‘Charlie Brown’ Christmas tree which was 1. fake, 2. spindly, and 3. about half a metre tall. We also had no ornaments. And it was warm outside. So I did what any girl would do on Christmas Day in a foreign country, with her family on the other side of the world – I fought back tears all day.
Over the next few months I found myself doing this a lot – fighting back tears, then panic attacks. The cloud of sadness that I thought would last just a few days, lasted for a few weeks, a few months, and then stretched to about a year. I kept telling myself different things that I thought would help – “I’ll eat more healthily. No more sugar!” Or, “I just need some more exercise.” Or, “I’ll treat myself to a nice pedicure and that will cheer me up, or a nice dinner out, or a new dress.” But nothing was working. I had to accept that I was sad, really sad. Depressed even. And on my worst days, I was suicidal.
I burst into tears at my doctor’s office. I thought it was normal to fantasise about walking out of my marriage and my new life. I dreamt of getting on a plane and going anywhere and just not coming back. Ever. My doctor suggested that this was, in fact, ‘not normal’. So I started some medication for depression and talked to a few people that have a bit of experience with these feelings. I was depressed, but for me it was something more particular – it’s called culture shock, and it can be a real beast.
Culture shock is specific to each person, but its effects can range from a couple of months to a few years. Such shock is very common for people who have just experienced a significant move, or other life-changing events like a marriage or a death in the family. Within a year I had experienced all three. The effects of culture shock can often show up in mundane tasks, like grocery shopping or trying to understand what someone is saying to you in a crowded bar. Let me explain what I mean.
Going to the grocery store is a simple event that everyone must do at some point or another. However, for someone experiencing culture shock, it can take a very long time. For me, buying a few items often took up to three hours because the brands were completely new, and the food options were totally foreign. For example, I wanted to recreate my mom’s yummy spaghetti bolognese. I shopped for ages and bought ‘tomato sauce’ – what I thought was simply canned tomatoes with herbs. I added this to the mixture and ended up with a sickly sweet mess that was inedible. ‘Tomato sauce’ was actually ‘ketchup’, or what you put on fries or a hamburger. Ah. Right.
Culture shock can also mean missing the people, country, culture, and traditions that you are used to. For me, it was missing home – but not the home that I remember, or even the one that exists anymore. It was the home that had been created in my memory with a compilation of all my favourite holidays and traditions and memories piled into one – a rosy-coloured home that filtered out all the bad. And I knew that deep down, if I did go back, it wouldn’t resemble this rosy-coloured picture. In fact, I felt as though I was caught between two homes – one comfortable and familiar, and one I hadn’t quite adopted to be my own. I felt that my real home was still hovering somewhere over the ocean – just like my belongings all wrapped in that container ship.
Fortunately, my brilliant sister-in-law who is a very good clinical psychologist, came up with a plan for my depression and culture shock after a lot of listening. (I also went to see a counsellor on an ongoing basis and took medication as well). She suggested a few gentle things which I still use today – have one face-to-face sociable interaction a day (or if it’s too much, a phone call is sufficient in the early days). Do one chore a day, one little bit of exercise (for me walking to the mailbox was enough!), and one thing that you remember enjoying doing prior to feeling sad. Lastly, have an allotted amount of time each day (about 45 minutes was enough for me) to reflect/journal/listen to sad music – a time when you can ‘be with the sadness’.
At the time, this seemed incredibly difficult and sounded like a lot of work. But I started small, and I did the tasks – even on the hardest days – to help me slowly get back to normal. I started putting all the pieces together and it felt like the plan was working. I also had some friends send me flowers, encourage me, and even pray for me. And then, on my 35th birthday, the day after we bought a house, and two weeks into my medication, my husband and I found out that I was pregnant. This was a bit of a surprise, although we had planned to start a family. Despite the positive pregnancy test, I didn’t ‘feel’ pregnant and was so utterly sad. I wondered how life could begin to grow inside my body and felt like new life was allergic to me.
But it wasn’t. The baby grew and with the passing of each week and month, I began to feel stronger and more myself again. I felt positive about my life for about five seconds a day, and then that grew too. It was like coming out of a thick fog. I could breathe again, I relaxed a bit and I began to enjoy things and laugh again. Our first daughter was born in April and by the time of her birth I was really myself. The arrival of a new, thriving little life gave me hope. In fact, my pregnancy was an incubation period not just for my daughter, but for me too. While I couldn’t see it, something beautiful was coming up out of the cold, hard ground and giving me new life again.
But the question still remained about how to really be myself in the middle of a country that was not my own – how to call New Zealand home. What did I need to help my daughter understand her beautiful New Zealand birthplace, but also where her mother came from on the other side of the world? I promised myself I would tell her about my grandmother (who had died two years previously), the ‘Southern Steel Magnolia’ who could love anything and everything into existence, who loved art and people and gardens and parties. Who made you feel right at home and immediately got a drink in your hand with a, “Come right in!” as soon as you stepped through her front door. I would tell her about chasing fireflies at twilight in the middle of a humid summer, smelling the fragrance of white magnolia blossoms, and the overwhelming kindness of southern hospitality.
I would also tell her about manners, about welcoming people into our home, and about the importance of looking people in the eye and saying, “Hello, nice to meet you.” I would tell her about the beauty of gardens and flowers, of feeding good food to people you love, and about sending thank you notes. I would give her a sense of confidence to speak up when things aren’t right, and show her the art of slowing down and paying attention to the beauty of creation – finding joy in simple things. Every day. I promised to tell her all these things and more, but mostly I would try and share with her a piece of who I am, even if after a few years I’ve changed a bit. And that’s just it. I’ve realised that I have changed. I’m no longer the American girl who married the Kiwi guy with the cute accent.
Now, I’m the American girl and the Kiwi girl. I love fish and chips and fried green tomatoes. I love African-American culture and I’m also falling in love with some Māori and Pasifika friends who I’m getting to know. I am captivated by the beaches, the landscape and the relaxed feel of New Zealand, but I also love getting dressed up to go to a party (even though ‘dressed up’ for most people here means throwing on some tidy jeans and jandals!).
When my girls are old enough to understand, I will explain to them, that while Christmas is a lovely holiday and reminds us of a God who has come to be with us, it isn’t really supposed to be in the summertime. It’s supposed to be in the wintertime. Even if it’s nice to go to the beach after Christmas, it’s just wrong. It’s definitely not how it’s supposed to be. And then they’ll look at me and ask, “Why, Mommy?” And I’ll sigh and say with a smile, “Well, it’s complicated, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”