The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child

A couple of years ago, when I was in my third year of uni, I was crippled by anxiety and depression.

I was terrified of everything, even descending the stairs to leave my flat. I actually sat crying at the top of them, shaking and gasping and clinging to the banister, certain I would slip and break my neck if I stood up. Totally alone.

I started sweating whenever someone talked to me, avoiding eye contact, convinced I wasn’t worthy.

mirrorlightblackMy heart was perpetually agitated. I couldn’t sleep and when I did I had such nightmares that I woke up with my heart racing, feeling like I hadn’t had any rest at all.

Things that I used to enjoy – acting chief among them – now made me miserable. It wasn’t fair. Throughout high school acting had been my escape from the misery, not just experiencing someone else’s emotions, but the adrenaline of performing. Now there was no refuge left.

All I could do was wrap myself up in my duvet in front of my laptop and watch endless episodes of some TV series or other in an effort to distract my brain from berating me, if only for a while.

Eventually, sick and tired of being relentlessly miserable, I gathered what little courage I had left and went to the university health centre. The doctor immediately prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills and referred me to a counsellor.

It was hard opening up to the counsellor – I don’t like “bothering” other people with my troubles – but she pieced together my problems, deducing that they probably arose from the awful bullying I’d received between the ages of ten and fifteen, and the fact that I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere.

She went on to say that it was very common for the children of immigrant families to experience what I experienced. Immigrant children are often bullied when they first arrive in their new country, bullied for being different – perhaps their accent or way of dressing – and for reasons that have nothing to do with inherent xenophobia and everything to do with ten-to-fifteen-year-olds being nasty, peer-motivated adolescents who like to put each other down.

I sometimes wonder if I was bullied because some New Zealanders still see English people as rich, imperialistic, “you ignorant colonials belong to us” royalists, but, despite the fact that when I first arrived my classmates assumed I had a butler and drank tea with the Queen, I never really got that impression. As for the feeling that I don’t belong… well it goes deeper than your typical young person angst. Deeper than not having many friends.

The fact is I have lived in New Zealand for over half my life and I still don’t feel like a New Zealander. Maybe this is because, not having many friends, I spent more time than the average teenager with my parents, watching DVDs of British comedy series. I have not lost my English accent, and of all the qualities that the New Zealand media proudly boasts are Kiwi – such as the do-it-yourself attitude, the love of rugby, the hatred of Australians, and general toughness – I have none.

I am English. I glory in our history, our countryside, our multitude of hilarious accents and our sense of humour! But that’s just it – do I have the right to say ‘our’ anymore? I’m not up with the current trends in England. I’ve set foot there once in the last twelve years. English people think my accent sounds slightly Australian.

When I was talking to some English people I was friends with at primary school, I mentioned going to the dairy to get some milk. From that, they thought that in order to get milk New Zealanders walked down the road to a dairy farm and got it directly from a cow. I had to explain that in New Zealand a dairy is a corner shop, or convenience store. I had said dairy automatically.

I’m not really English anymore, but I’m not a New Zealander either, and that sense of not belonging anywhere is really depressing. In fact it can shake you to the core.

Not to sound overly dramatic, but when my parents decided to emigrate, they destroyed my life.

All my friends, my hobbies, my other relatives, my culture – the only place in my life I would ever fit in because I was born to fit in there – it was all ripped away from me.

I don’t know if I can describe the total loneliness I felt without sounding whiny, but, according to that counsellor, it was the sort of loneliness that can fester and manifest itself years later as clinical depression.

To be fair, my parents must have felt lonely too. We all clung desperately to our Englishness, be it with BBC DVDs or watching the football in the middle of the night. I remember when the English comedian Bill Bailey came to Auckland with his Tinselworm stand-up show: he asked the audience whether they’d heard of ASDA, (a massive supermarket chain that doesn’t exist in New Zealand,) and every expat Brit in the audience, including us, cheered, to which he responded, “You’ve been away too long.” We should not have been cheering for ASDA. Even if it does sell such a variety of food that we can only dream of in New Zealand…

So desperate were we for a little piece of home that when we were travelling around the South Island in a campervan, for example, and we came across a sign for a place called Sheffield, we pulled over excitedly, clamouring for a photo.

173 Back in Sheffield

(In England, the town we lived in was quite close to Sheffield, but, unlike Sheffield, it does not have anywhere else in the world named after it. Either nobody ever left before us, or they were so glad to leave it behind that they never wanted to be reminded of it. Either way, extremely sad.)

So there you have it: my personal existential crisis, and the crisis of all immigrant kids. I wonder how many children of immigrant families actually develop depression as a result, but at the end of the day I’m still glad we moved to New Zealand.

You might be happy to know that in the last few weeks I’ve managed to wean myself off the anti-depressants and only occasionally start sweating when someone talks to me. Or you might not care. But I’ve learned that you shouldn’t be ashamed of taking anti-depressants – they work, and it’s better than being miserable all the time.

UPDATE: It’s been two years since I wrote this. Recently, I’ve written a more detailed account of what it’s actually like living with depression and anxiety. You can find it on the The Writers’ Labyrinth.

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15 thoughts on “The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child

  1. Nothing to be ashamed of in seeking counseling or anti-depressants, you did the right thing! Hang in there and be strong! 🙂

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  2. Kat says:

    I loved this one Abs. xoxo

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  3. Carol says:

    I have been following your blog for a while now and I love reading your posts, they are incredibly well written. I’m an immigrant from the UK and I know exactly what you mean about feeling that you don’t belong. Emigrating is such a challenge to one’s sense of identity, I was very surprised to find myself feeling like the ‘other’ and it threw me. I’m so sorry you had to endure the awfulness of bullying, It’s something I’ve heard a lot from expats who were schooled here and I know what it is like myself. I also know what it’s like to suffer depression, it’s crap ain’t it? But from someone who has come out the other side, it does get better. Good luck and please carry on writing, you have such a natural flair for it, and that’s rare.

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    • kiwipom91 says:

      Wow. Thanks.

      Yeah, depression is just crap. People think they can make you feel better by saying, “Of course you’re not worthless. You have nothing to be miserable about. Cheer up, duck.” You know logically at the back of your mind they’re right, but that doesn’t make a difference to how you feel. It’s better just to say what you said: “It’s crap, ain’t it?”

      And wait ’til the sun comes out.

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  4. savioni says:

    I kind of had your growing up. My father, a doctor, died when I was ten and my mother moved us from Sacramento, California, USA, to Hawaii, where they hate white people and every year or more often I would get beaten up just for saying that I thought some girl was cute. I had been a flamboyant kid before my father died. I was open and brilliant. When he died, he took all my self confidence. Adding insult to injury, Hawaii was cruel, as you said just because I was different. The Japanese cultural influence of hitting a nail that stand up with a hammer could explain what was happening. I spoke because I enjoyed learning and being with others, but you were supposed to talk among yourselves and choose a spokesperson before you answered the teacher’s question. Besides, I hated speaking pigeon, which is what everyone else spoke. It made me feel fake. So, I lived out of the school district I attended to protect myself and went surfing usually alone. Over time, I understood prejudice very well, but also learned to be self-sufficient. But, it did affect my relational life, such that I never had a girlfriend really when I was in school, but I liked a lot of them. Anyway, if you want to know more, I’ve written a review of the book Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux (http://savioni.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/you-lose-track-of-the-thing-you-are-beholding-a-review-of-hotel-honolulu-by-mario-savioni/), which interweaves my journey in Honolulu, where I lived from 1970 until ’93, when I moved to Berkeley thinking I would get into the art business and be able to borrow books from the University of California at Berkeley.

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  5. Peigi Romano says:

    I thought that I must be the only person in the world that had these feelings. Parents immigrated to Canada when I was 14, just a after I had entered high school, I left childhood friends, all my family and everything that was familiar. I hated school, started drinking to fit in and went on a downward spiral. I did get out of that, married raised a family, divorced and then remarried but never felt like I belonged there. Three years ago I decided to move back to the UK, now I feel the same way here, I don’t speak the same language, like the same foods or have the same life experiences as anyone here. Now I think I don’t really belong or fit in anywhere, when here I am recognised as American, in Canada I am thought as an immigrant, even though
    I lost my accent very early in the process. I do blame my parents for what has happened to my life rightly or wrongly.

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    • kiwipom91 says:

      I suppose you have to ask yourself why your parents decided to move to Canada in the first place. I mean my parents decided to move to New Zealand because my dad had a highly stressful job (high school teacher in Nottingham!) and had always dreamed of adventure. If we hadn’t moved, things might have become very difficult for my parents and, if they were stressed all the time, it could have been so much worse for my sister and I. Your parents probably did the right thing in emigrating.

      I’ve never lost my English accent, so I am still identified as English by everyone I meet. I suppose I’ll have to focus on finding who I am beyond what nationality I am. I’m actually going to Europe next year… it’ll be interesting to see what I discover about myself.

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  6. […] my parents. The move undoubtedly had a massive psychological impact – you can read about that in The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child – and, although I still don’t consider myself a true Kiwi, I love New Zealand and want to grow […]

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  7. […] The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child […]

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  8. […] Like I said, I’ll apply one day. It would be nice to actually be a New Zealander, having spent most of my life in New Zealand. I’m still definitely British to everyone that meets me, though – the existential crisis of the immigrant child. […]

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  9. […] If you want to read what happened in the lead-up to me starting this diary, see Last Night of the Poms: The Story of Our Move to New Zealand. See also Why New Zealand Made Me Write and The Existential Crisis of an Immigrant Child. […]

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  10. […] my experiences with anxiety and depression a while ago, and a piece about how it relates to the existential crisis of the immigrant child, so I won’t go on about it here. But if that’s what I’m like with things that I have no real […]

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  11. […] it’s not unusual for immigrant kids to develop depression, (and you can read more about that in The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child,) but I don’t know if moving to New Zealand is solely responsible for my mental health issues. I […]

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