My name is Yulia Khan. I was born in far-east Russia on an island called Sakhalin. It is to the north of Japan and to the very, very east of Russia. When I was born, the region was still Soviet Union. I grew up in Siberia.

I am of Korean descent, but I don’t speak Korean and since I was born and raised in Russia, Russian is my mother tongue. I grew up speaking Russian, got schooled in Russian and my first undergraduate degree was in Russian. So, that makes me, I suppose, Russian linguistically, it makes me Russian culturally, but not entirely because it’s very, very fluid. Right?

I can’t complain about my childhood because I think my parents did their very best to give me the best childhood. In terms of things [stuff], I sometimes even had things that other kids didn’t have. Though we lived in Siberia, which is quite far from China, my grandmother who lived in Sakhalin, very close to Japan, would get things like cool dresses and chewing gum sent for me.

Growing up as a minority was not the most pleasant thing because visibly you are different. It’s just so striking and it’s so obvious that inevitably people notice you. You are not the same as them.

And of course, people start thinking different things, inevitably they think, you know, ‘oh, this person’s not from here. She’s an outsider.’ For example, ‘Ah, you’re not from here’, or ‘Where do you come from?’ or ‘How come you’re here, why do you live here?’ Sometimes you get to answer these innocent questions. Sometimes questions are quite ignorant and sometimes they are quite rude and maybe even hostile. I don’t think that particular part of my childhood is something that brings any positive memories and I don’t like to remember it.

The first generation of my family was Korean, back in the late 19th, early 20th century when Korea was one state and the country was colonized by Japan. The Japanese would send ethnic Koreans to Sakhalin Island, which used to belong to Japan. And so, the first generation was, basically, forcefully sent to that island to work. They stayed there and they thought, you know, it’s another island, and it’s – I don’t know what exactly they were told – but probably it was something not very true.

So, the first generation ended up there and then the wars started. The First World War and then the Second World War. Then I guess my family was stuck there. There is a story about how my mother’s side of my family separated during the Second World War and was later reunited in the late 1990s.

It’s interesting, I sometimes actually wonder, well, who am I? I mean, yes, fine, I’m Korean but here in New Zealand people just want to speak Chinese to me all the time. I went to Briscoes recently to get some martini glasses and then some guy began speaking to me in Chinese. And I was just like, “Do I look Chinese? I am not Chinese.”

And people just don’t realise that it’s offensive. The fact is that someone can be Asian, but that doesn’t mean that they’re automatically Chinese. I mean, how many countries are there in Asia?

A love for travelling and this desire to be elsewhere, made me think about my next destination after I graduated in 2006.

I knew I didn’t want to stay. I just couldn’t see myself staying back and working at a normal rather mediocre entry-level job and being miserable there. I just didn’t want that for myself. I wanted something different. I wanted to go overseas. I knew from the very, very early childhood that I wanted to live overseas and travel.

I travelled to New Zealand because I just wanted to change my life.

At the time I was thinking, well, I’ve just finished my undergraduate degree in International Relations but I don’t really want to work in the government. I decided to study marketing at Victoria University in Wellington. I was really choosing between Canada, Australia, and New Zealand but I chose New Zealand because I found a course and I liked the campus and I said, “Oh wow, New Zealand!”

I thought, okay, well I’m going to choose New Zealand and see what I can suss out. I thought, maybe I will stay or maybe I’ll just get the qualification and move back home or somewhere else. I didn’t really know anything about New Zealand.

The experience was tough because I wasn’t really prepared. I had lived in Spain for a little while on my own but New Zealand was different.

When I landed here I didn’t know a single soul. No one. It was just me, my suitcase, and some other belongings. In 2017, it will be ten years since I’ve been in this part of the world.

It has been tough because – it’s just a different country. You have to adjust to the ways of being here and the way of living here. It’s a different lifestyle. Different values, different priorities, different language.

It took a while for me to adjust to the Kiwi way of speaking and the Kiwi slang and twang. To do that I had to work hard. I would listen to the radio and I would hang out with the English speakers. I tried to hang out with people with whom I could speak English so I deliberately did not seek any friendships or anything with Russian migrants living in Wellington or in Auckland.

And it’s only when I crave some food that I can go to the Russian shops and some of the events where they have food. But other than that, I mean, look, I’ve got my friends and I can talk to my friends if I really feel homesick or nostalgic. But, ten years ago was really difficult. Now I feel like, actually, this is becoming a real home.

I think the shift happened because of a combination of things, certainly values. You have to rethink what’s important for you. Going from valuing just material things to valuing and appreciating human values and attitudes and qualities and traits, for example, people’s kindness. Appreciating people’s consideration. Respect to other human beings. Being fair and equitable. I believe in fair-go, equal opportunity. I believe that everyone deserves a chance. And I think I’ve changed because New Zealand is like a melting pot. Not ethnically, necessarily, but in terms of our attitudes and views on life.

I think that there are so many different people out there that you realise that what you thought was right and was correct, and was supposed to be, may not be. In New Zealand, I think it’s really great that people can be to be whoever they want to be. And so, this sort of diversity helped me become more patient and tolerant and accepting and inclusive.

I arrived in New Zealand with just a suitcase, my passport, my backpack, and my brain. This is a piece of jewelry I got with me - it’s a 14-karat white gold chain.

Among Koreans it’s common to give money as a present for birthdays or weddings. So, I got some money from my grandmother and before my trip to New Zealand, before I left I had to do some shopping and I thought, okay, what shall I buy with my grandmother’s money? And so, I went to one of the shops and I got this chain. And I consider it my grandmother’s gift.

My grandmother’s a very, very special person. She’s been incredibly kind and helpful and she’s got a very, very big heart. This chain is something that I wear when I experience some hardship and some difficult moments in life, when I get fed up just in general if I’m not really in the right space or in a bad space. If I’m at a loss I wear this chain. I keep it. It’s always kept safe somewhere. So, that’s a special piece for me because it’s from my grandmother.

***

I think for migrants overall, it’s a very difficult journey. And I think people should really be realistic about their journey if they’re planning to move to New Zealand. Experiences like this change you as a person, and sometimes that might change you completely, even to your core.

It’s not an easy experience to move to a different country and start your life from scratch especially if you don’t know anyone. Sometimes it feels like every single part of you is breaking. But you have to break yourself in order to become someone else. Or, you might as well just go back and be where you are, where you’re from. It’s a very difficult decision to make.

Migration is a very complex experience. I don’t think I would do it ever again, you know, moving to a country while being so unprepared. Even if I have to move again, I will do my due diligence, I will make sure that I know enough that I’m prepared. I will not do it the way I did it here. The way I landed here.

Hopefully through this project a lot of people will realise what it’s like to come to New Zealand and the experiences that people have here. How they cope with them. For New Zealanders I think it can be quite educating and revealing and eye opening even. And maybe it’ll help them realise that migrants in New Zealand are not just people who will take the jobs away from the ‘locals’ and make everyone else’s lives miserable.

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