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‘They speak English and have good lamb’: a Kiwi immigrant’s story

Thirty years ago this weekend, writer and filmmaker Ghazaleh Golbakhsh arrived in New Zealand with her family, immigrants from war torn Iran. Inspired by Duncan Garner’s recent outburst, she reflects on life so far as an immigrant New Zealander.

I was not surprised by Duncan Garner’s hideous column about immigrants at K-Mart. He comes from a long line of scared white men in the media who consistently try to wrap their racist drivel around actual issues such as population rise, infrastructure problems and packaged undies. I mean, just look at the example set by the OG dog-whistler, Paul Henry. Their obsession with using immigration as a scapegoat for everything is not only skewed, it’s obviously racist.

Why? Because their concerns are never about white immigrants, but people who don’t look like them. Mr Garner, is it because you don’t have any brown/Asian friends? I hope not. In fact, I hope you and those who support your outlandish views start learning more about these immigrants you feel so strongly about. So here’s my attempt at introducing you to one. Me.

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.

Me (on the right) and Gladys

We left in 1987. The airport was chaotic and full of families being torn apart by those also seeking refuge elsewhere. I remember being excited to be going on a plane for the first time with my doll Gladys (I don’t actually remember her real name, but Gladys seems like an appropriate name). The rest of my extended family were sobbing uncontrollably. Unlike me, they knew it could be years, decades before they might see us again.

You see, when a country becomes volatile and hostile, borders suddenly close up to even the most innocent of folks. We were denied visas to the US, Canada, Australia and pretty much every country in Europe. Only one bastion of hope allowed us in – a tiny island nation in the South Pacific, literally at the end of the world. New Zealand. And no, no one had ever heard of it. “But they speak English and have good lamb”, said my dad, and that’s why it was chosen.

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.

Fashionable for school

Most children of immigrants can relate to what happened next. You just want to fit in, so badly that anything that sets you apart – your name, your physicality, your religion, your food, the way you don’t wear shoes inside – is an immediate embarrassment. Holy shit, my parents have accents! Cringe. Crap, why can’t I have an easy name like Stacey, I bet no Stacey ever has been made fun for their name.

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.

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. Weirdly, it also provided a crash course in Middle Eastern geography for some. Suddenly everyone knew Iran was an actual country and not a misspelling of Iraq. Friends who could barely pronounce my full name were discussing places like Kandahar province, Mosul and Sulaymaniyah.

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. 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. My response to this was part anger, part cathartic. These days, I put it all into my work. I create characters that respond to this in their stories, as I would like to in real life. I give them life and in turn hope that a different viewpoint is represented.

Discovering journalism and new technologies at high school

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. 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.

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.

I am privileged that I can still visit the US (as long as I complete a form detailing my military experience and religious affiliations, of course). I am also privileged because throughout it all I have made friends and learned from people who are accepting. I have surrounded myself with people who are not threatened by my presence. I have developed a way to explore it all within my work. I have also learned to never read the comments.

So Mr Garner, perhaps next time you find yourself in line at another low priced American import shop, surrounded by faces that don’t look like yours, embrace it. Not literally, I mean, don’t scare people. But be curious, say hi, maybe even strike up a conversation. You’ll learn more about people and possibly hear some interesting stories. You are a journalist after all. In fact, I’ll make it even easier for you. This Labour Weekend will mark my 30th year of being here and I’ll be celebrating and drinking cheap Prosecco with friends. Perhaps you’d like to join us? I can make a mean hummus.


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