Sometimes we need reminding about the difficulties for immigrants in adapting to a new country. It must be a very stressful and terrifying experience when language, culture, food and lifestyle are so different.
I was reading recently about a friend of my father’s and of her experiences as a new immigrant in post-war New Zealand. Her experiences had been very similar to those of my father. Experiences that had given us cause for much laughter over the years.
There was the time when he’d first arrived here and been invited to dinner at a home in Beauchamp Street, Karori. When getting into the taxi he stated his destination in perfect French – “Bow (short vowel)-shong (silent ‘ng’) Street – only to be met with a ‘what?’ look.
So he repeated ‘Bow (short vowel)-shong (silent ‘ng’) and then handed the taxi driver a piece of paper with the address written down.
“Oh, you mean Beechim Street. Yeah, right you are mate!”
Lesson number 1: forget perfect French.
My father was a biggish man with a good appetite. He loved his food and after years of deprivation, he had learned never to turn down a good meal or a second helping. His first meal at the home of New Zealanders came as a surprise. He’d finished his main course and was really looking forward to being offered more. When the offer came, he responded as had been the custom in Poland “No thank you, I couldn’t possibly.”
He waited and waited for the second offer. It never came.
In Poland it’s customary to offer three times – with the offer being accepted on the third with a “Well, if you insist – I’d love some more.”
It didn’t take him long to learn that in New Zealand you only get offered once!
Lesson number 2: he who hesitates has lost.
Food was an incredibly important part of his culture – and even though he learned the ways of New Zealand hospitality e.g bring a plate means bring a plate with food on it, he never lost the habits of his past. Way before some foods became commonplace, we had a fridge full of yoghurt (I can even remember what the waxed pottles looked and tasted like), salami, cream cheese, cottage cheese, polish sausage, gherkins and sauerkraut. My friends at primary school thought my lunches very strange. Cottage cheese and jam? We were well ahead of the times!
When my parents had guests for dinner, the table literally groaned with food. (He always catered for the the uninvited guest.) If there were no left-overs that meant that he had under catered and that was the worst possible thing in his books.
I haven’t lost the habit – I always cook about twice what’s needed. In our house that’s not a problem. We love leftovers – and if we can spin them out for one, maybe even two more meals that’s a bonus. Some people though must think I’m extravagant. It’s not that at all – it’s a fear of losing that integral part of my father’s culture.
Some things don’t need changing.