An immigrant’s story

There are a lot of immigrant stories in New Zealand – about a quarter of the population were not born here so most will be immigrants, that’s over a million of us.

Last week Duncan Garner stirred up the immigrant issue with a column for Stuff.

In response one immigrant, Ghazaleh Golbakhsh, who has lived here most of her life (since she was 4) has written her own column:  ‘They speak English and have good lamb’: a Kiwi immigrant’s story

My parents moved here from Iran for simple but horrid reasons. They had just lived through a massive revolution, which brought in a new autocratic regime which implemented archaic laws oppressing the masses and completely overturning the nation. On top of that, there was a bloody war where the city they lived in was bombed on a daily basis by Saddam Hussein’s forces.

Interestingly enough, the straw that broke the (culturally appropriate) camel’s back was being arrested one night after a party where the sexes were mingling (not allowed) and some hipster had brought their homemade vodka for all to enjoy (definitely not allowed). I know this because I was there and so became the youngest in my family to be arrested. As a four year old. To be honest though, I was lucky. Some of the other partygoers got public lashings as punishment. I just developed mild claustrophobia for the rest of my life.

She seems to have also developed a determination to confront immigrant-bashing.

1987 in New Zealand was an odd time. It was an old time. It was a time when everything shut on a Sunday and ‘immigration’ was some strange term that seemed straight from colonial days. Except as modern immigrants, you were expected to assimilate. And fast. It was the first time in my life that I learned the power of language. When I arrived I only knew three words in English: “One, two, three”. Ironically, maths has never been my strong point.

At primary school I had the ghastly Mrs. M as my teacher. She resented me because I couldn’t understand English. One time, I drew her a darling picture of she and me and a tree – standard kid drawing stuff. She yelled and yelled at me until I cried. This wasn’t the homework we were meant to do.

One of the cool boys felt sorry for me so helped me instead. His name was Ben. If you are reading this Ben, know that I love you and hope to swipe right on you on Tinder some day.

Vowing never to be that embarrassed again, I set about reading as much as I could. I read anything I could find – to myself, to my parents, to anyone who would listen. And so I suddenly began to learn the language. My reading and writing comprehension went up so much that I got put up a year. Take that Mrs. M, you dream crusher.

Having dreams crushed at school isn’t confined to immigrants but must make it very hard for them. Parents of immigrant children seem to be good at encouraging them to succeed despite hardships they encounter, something quite a few born here Kiwis could do with learning.

Why I can’t trace my lineage to Scotland/Ireland/England like everyone else in my class? “We’re just Persian,” my mum tried to explain. “But that can’t be it!” I replied desperately. “Yes – it’s one of the oldest civilisations in the world.” Not good enough, I thought. It wasn’t until my late teens when I threw myself into writing and drama that I learned to accept my differences. It helped that I hung out with other marginalised friends who got it. They were immigrants too, or in the arts, or redheads who couldn’t sit in the sun for too long either. Or just accepting.

I was lucky I was able to feel like I did fit in, despite the redheadedness.

Then 9/11 happened and everything changed. It not only altered or destroyed the lives of those people whose lives were directly affected, but it changed the way the world looked at so many of us.

…I was also treated to heavy-handed racist diatribes whenever some mentally unstable gunman with a beard terrorised innocent victims in the West. “We need to bomb them all. Fuck the Middle East.”

It’s disheartening to hear this from people who have never even seen a bomb, let alone lived through a war.

It is sad to see intolerant people promoting violence, especially on a large scale.

I’m sure military veterans and other victims of war would agree when I say – no, you have no idea, you fucking sadist. War should not be the answer. Ever.

Ever. But that requires many people to openly oppose violence.

One of my favourite incidents was in my twenties. I got accosted by a man in a Hugo Boss suit on the bus who kept yelling at me about how there are too many of “us” in NZ. “There should be a bomb to get rid of all you immigrants, a nuclear bomb to get rid of all this rubbish like you!” Everyone on the bus just stared at me and I refused to engage.

Sad that no one spoke up against this extreme bullying.

Instead, I wrote about it and won an award. I put it into my work. I used that anger and hatred as fuel for something better. If you are reading this Mr. Suit Man, know that you are being immortalised in a film soon. I hope you see your monstrous self reflected back and think about it.

There are a few people that would benefit from seeing themselves as they are, or as they appear to others.

I know I am speaking from a privileged position. Even as an immigrant there is an obvious pyramid of hierarchy. I am privileged in that coming here as a child allowed me to develop a typical Kiwi accent. I am privileged that my parents had skills to allow them decently paid work. I am privileged that I am not usually subject to the racist vitriol directed so often at my fellow immigrants from the Asian continent.

No one in New Zealand should feel privileged that they avoid being on the receiving end of racist vitriol, but sadly it happens far too much.

That’s abbreviated, it’s worth reading the whole thing: ‘They speak English and have good lamb’: a Kiwi immigrant’s story

Many Kiwis are tolerant and peaceful, but need to do more to make it clear that intolerant and violent behaviour should not be the Kiwi way.