Outside In: Gillian Harris

outside-inwavesGillian Harris has always considered herself a water-baby. She grew up in Durban, on South Africa’s east coast, where the city and the coast, north and south, are a paradise of gorgeous, tropical beaches, embracing the warm Indian Ocean, and the golden sands. “Our family, mother and father included, all loved going to the beach.” Gill says. “This is how I remember my childhood – always in the surf (the bigger the better), and taking vacations in beach cottages up and down the coast.” When she was very young, and her parents couldn’t find her on the beach, her father would say, “See that little head way out there? The person well beyond the other swimmers – that’s Gill!” Most likely, he would join her.

That was that life.

When Gillian immigrated to the States, her American husband soon introduced her to the Northern California coast. It was foggy and cold, and Gill thought to herself that they were the most miserable beaches she had ever seen. “Today, over 30 years later,” she says, “I view those same beaches as utterly beautiful in their misty bleakness and grandeur.” It’s the perfect metaphor for how one’s vision of beauty and belonging changes.

It was in 1983 that Gillian came to the States for a vacation. At the time, she was working in the training department of a human resources company in Johannesburg, and she told her manager that her vacation would be about three weeks long. “He said, since I was coming such a long way, if it wanted to I could stay a little longer. Little did he know that I would never come back!” On her second day in San Francisco, she met a man she would marry four weeks later. “If I had intended to do it, I would at least have brought the right paper work,” she laughs, “my birth certificate, and so on. In fact, I had to go back for it.”

Initially, it was a difficult period for Gill, ending up in a pretty deep depression and sense of isolation. “When I first came, I went to a psychologist and I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, ‘you are displaced.’” The most difficult part was being so far away from her family and often feeling unsupported and alone. “I’m not sure I would ever give anyone advice to emigrate because it is very demanding,” she says. Gill has lived a life in this country and raised a child – ultimately as a single mother – without any extended family around. “So many of us South African friends have had to rely on each other almost as extended family.”

Gillian has permanent resident status in the States, rather than being a naturalized citizen and, while a part of her wishes that she had been “smarter” many years ago like her friends who became citizens when it cost $50 instead of $800, she recognizes that, unconsciously, a part of it may have been not wanting to give up her heritage. “My father was British, and when I was still at university in South Africa, I applied for British citizenship. I still have a British passport.” Another part of the picture is that, while home is here for Gill now, it’s actually always her adopted home. Even in the community where she lives in California, she has the sense that the underlying message is, ‘you’re not really one of us.’ “I miss that profoundly personal feeling of, ‘this is truly my home.’ I would call this home but I can’t say it is truly my home.”

This manifests itself in subconscious ways. Both her parents have died, but she is now, at the age of 63, experiencing these dreams where she is back in Durban, and asking people if they know her parents’ phone number, or their address. “It seems I want to go back ‘home.’ This dream takes the form of all sorts of contexts, but the final realization is that, if I found our old address, and tried to knock on the door, strangers would answer, and my parents would not be there. Where do I go?”

Yet, despite the dreams, Gillian is bound to the States now, for all the history and experience she’s enjoyed here. “I think what plants me here now in the USA, is the fact that my 30-year old daughter is very much American, loves living in San Francisco, and I am eternally grateful for her in my life.” Gill believes that the experience of immigrating has made her into a survivor and self-sufficient person, and the best part is that she has come to love this country and feel completely content to make her life here. “I live among the vineyards – what could be better than that? I have access to all sorts if physically glorious splendors – Yosemite, Tahoe, the Pacific coastline …” And, under current circumstances, she adds, “I am so grateful that I have an immigration story to tell, at all!”

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