When You Immigrate You Also Emigrate: Lessons in How To Do Both Well

It has been over four months since we left our home in Johannesburg and moved to Austin. Time has this elastic rigidity to it. It marches with total predictability, never slowing or speeding for even the smallest of its perfectly divided increments, and yet it is experienced in subjective stretching and compressing, sometimes pausing or stopping while other times accelerating. It feels like yesterday and a year ago that we left SA. It is such a strange thing.

In the short (and long) time that we have been here we have been learning some lessons, often the hard way. We have always wanted to be people who contribute in a meaningful way wherever we find ourselves and so we have tried to make ourselves useful immigrants to the city of Austin. What we have realized though is that to arrive somewhere is simultaneously to leave somewhere else, and that in order to be immigrants to somewhere you also have to be emigrants from somewhere else. Our desire therefore hasn’t just been to be good arrivers in a new place, but also to be good leavers of our previous place. We have watched lots of people leave South Africa for many years and for a variety of reasons. Some of them have done it well and some of them haven’t. The Lester’s have done it well in some areas and poorly in others, to be sure. We think we are starting to understand some principles of departure and arrival though that have been useful for us to focus on and may be useful for others who ever leave or arrive, or simply experience the leaving through the lives of people they love.

So, below we have compiled five lessons on how to be a useful emigrant and how to be a useful immigrant. We hope to try to live these out, but I am sure we will fail at most of them. Thank goodness for grace.

How to be a Useful Emigrant

Know that your departure hurts people

Leaving a country you love is all consuming. There is just so much to do as you prep to leave and so many emotions that you experience that you can forget how deeply it is affecting people around you. People who love you will feel abandoned by you and probably won’t feel free to express that. We failed at noticing this and empathizing with it in the lives of people we love deeply, and we are sorry for that.

Stay in touch

The lives of people back at home will go on, and the novelty of your experience will not be shared by them. The onus therefore falls on you to reach out. We have realized that just simple texts or mails when you think of people mean a lot. Don’t let all your communication be en masse through social media. Communicate with people you love. Let them know that you miss them when you do, which will probably be often.

Don’t seek to justify your decision

I have watched many people bash the land they left in order to justify their departure. This really hurts people back home and causes irreparable damage to even long standing friendships. The place you are bashing from afar is the place that they live in, and raise their children in, and flourish in, and build lives in. Get off the old news sites where every piece of bad news from home is one more useful justification tool for your departure. You left, you had reasons, it’s okay, be at peace with it.

Represent your homeland well

This is related to the point above but distinct. Sue and I do all we can to speak well of home. This isn’t a denial of societal struggles or real issues, but rather a fair representation of a complex society that gets flattened out in mass media. We try to be ambassadors of SA and sales peoples of tourism SA wherever we go. We try to tell the nuanced stories of the beautiful struggle that the land that we love is still in.

Represent your new life fairly and accurately

There are elements of our new life in Austin that are awesome and we want to speak of those and celebrate those. But, emigration isn’t a picnic, and we want to be open and honest with that. Also, here is a shocking bit, there are some things from SA that were just better than anything we have found here. Lots of things actually. Don’t oversell your new life. Let people see the struggles.

How to be a Useful Immigrant

Be a joiner

I have tried to think of what I would want a person who had moved to Johannesburg from another country to be like, and just tried to be like that. This means not always just bashing local sports, customs and food, and just getting stuck into some of them as a joiner. I don’t get the sports, but I am going to try. Tex Mex makes little to no sense to me, but I am going to eat it like a local. Well, not with all the beans people. The reason you need to refry them is because they weren’t tasty the first time, and they still aren’t the second.

Be slow to speak, but do speak

There are going to be things that you do not understand because you are an outsider, and sometimes that means you should be quiet and sometimes that means you should speak up. Wisdom is knowing which moment is which.

Be as interested in people as they will be in you

People have been fascinated with our lives and have had us over and asked us millions of questions. We have felt genuinely interesting. Our response to question fatigue though has been a determination to ask people as many questions as they ask us, and guess what, they are actually really interesting too. America is so big, and so diverse, and hearing people’s stories is wonderful.

Don’t always mock

Contrary to my deep desire, sarcasm is not actually a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Neither is mockery. These are my go-to defense mechanisms though and while they contain a certain charm, they also eventually isolate you because you make people feel “less than”. There are some things in America that I find incredibly dumb (see Tex Mex notes above, and don’t get me started on baseball), but I can’t just always be the guy who mocks, and never be the guy who appreciates and enjoys. People outside of the US often criticize Americans for being ignorant and arrogant, but then we so often act in these same ways when we come here and don’t take the time to know the history, culture and loves of this crazy beautiful place.

Serve the city that receives you

The Lester’s are acting as if we are foreign missionaries dropped in a strange and exotic mission field, because that is what we are. We honestly want to live for the good of Austin, and so are seeking ways to enjoy and to serve the city that we now call home. Having missionary eyes really does give one new ways to see and appreciate your context.


Alrighty, that’s it. We are trying our best to be useful emigrants and immigrants. Four months in and we are still finding our feet, but God is helping us we attempt to leave a place we love to serve a place we are growing to love.



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