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The Expat Confessions - Ted Botha & Jenni Baxter

How green is the grass?

March 16, 2006

By James Mitchell

Jented Publishing R102

A colleague picked this up. "Oh, all that whining," he said as soon as he'd figured out the subject matter. There's a section, Some call it treachery, on this knee-jerk reaction so often voiced by stay-at-home white South Africans.

Funny, New Zealanders don't slag off travelling Kiwis for "doing the chicken run". Americans automatically assume you'll return one day if born there: they're curious rather than hostile about your choice to live elsewhere. Scots think it's perfectly normal for their emigrant brethren to run England and the rest of the world.

So why so hung-up here? Ex-South Africans Ted Botha ( Manhattan , New York ) and Jenni Baxter (Gold Coast, Queensland ) asked that and many other questions about the great migration. They came up with food for thought and some great throw-away lines.

Such as, "the grass is only greener on the other side because there's more shit".

Catchy, but is it true? For those who integrate into their new homelands, generally not. For those who become conscious "exiles", clinging to likeminded, resentful exiles, there's a tendency to list all the "shit" factors.

Statistics are notoriously skewed, with many emigrants leaving as pretend-holiday travellers. So the anecdotal evidence included here is probably as reliable as anything.

Much of it resonated with me.

For instance, part-time librarian Marjie saying that when she lived in the US , "people naturally assumed that because I was South African, I was a racist. They would then feel free to open up about their own racism…". This reviewer experienced the same distasteful reaction in New Zealand last year.

South Africans are all over the world. In general, however, our destinations of choice are pretty logical.

We tend, the authors say, to avoid settling in Colombia …the homicide rate's even higher than back home. Or Zimbabwe …Mugabe.

Sometimes emigrants start to take over: Brown's Bay in Auckland becomes Bruins Baai, while Howick is Howickfontein . Across the Tasman, Sydney 's St Ives is called St Africa, and in Taiwan there's even an area of Taipei nicknamed Egoli Heights because of all the SA teachers living there.

This little book distills 500-plus replies to an Internet questionnaire.

More than half the respondents were women, the overwhelming majority were white, and no black expats replied. Wonder why not?

Some embrace their new countries whole-heartedly, blind to any defects. Others are realistically critical: they find New Zealand beautiful but dull, dull, dull; they miss our passion; they miss our smiles.

One well-articulated response came from a nurse now living in the US: "I miss the Afrikaners who will feed and shelter you, as well as repair your car by torchlight when you break down; the English professors who are always looking for a cause; the poppies at the bank tills; the Indian shopowners; the wonderful mamas who break out into the broadest smiles and jive up a storm as soon as some kwela tunes strike up. It's easy to cry for the beloved country."

So why go if that's how you feel? Crime…

You can massage the statistics all you like, condemn those who complain as traitors, but what do you say to this Canadian-based expat who wrote about his brief return: "My mother was murdered, so technically my return wasn't a holiday."

Baxter is a web designer and activist with a heart who left this country 16 years ago. Botha, who quit in 1995 but returns regularly, is a writer (two previous, first-class books and plenty of articles), with another on the way.

He calls it a "non-fiction thriller", about a forensic anthropologist-type who reconstructs faces from skulls, and it's due to be published by Random House. Watch this space.

·  Although published by a one-off outfit, The Expat Confessions is already available here in many bookshops. Otherwise contact www.theexpatconfessions.com or www.sareunited.com. In addition, Botha has his own website, worth visiting, at tedbotha.com