New faces of New Zealand: The kids are all right

By Suzanne McFadden

What is it like to move to a new country, where you don't speak the language or have schoolfriends? Suzanne McFadden talks to six new Kiwi kids about fitting in.

Javiera Machiman, 10, is quickly morphing into a Kiwi kid. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Javiera Machiman, 10, is quickly morphing into a Kiwi kid. Photo / Sarah Ivey

No one likes being the new kid on the block, especially when the language is a fog of alien words, and cliques of friends are set in the concrete. In the past year, around 36,500 new immigrants were approved for residence in New Zealand. Some families come for better job opportunities, others look to give their children a safer, more wholesome lifestyle where they can freely run outside and get muddy.

Some are the offspring of "astronauts" - dads who continue to work in their native countries while leaving their families in New Zealand.

But are their children happy here? For a "friendly" nation, how willing are we to accept newcomers into the fold? And will the new New Zealanders ever call themselves Kiwis?

We talked to six new immigrant children to find out just how tough it is being the new kid on the Kiwi block.

Javiera Machiman from Chile

When she first walked into Kelston Primary School, Javiera Machiman could communicate only with her hands. Three years later, the vivacious 10-year-old from Chile has conquered English, and has now moved on to mastering sign language.

She's teaching her Year 6 friends to speak Spanish and helping her parents learn the language of their new country. She has dreams of becoming a doctor here. But life wasn't so blessed when Javiera, and her younger sister, Maura, arrived from Concepcion.

"It wasn't easy to make friends. I didn't know any English, so I couldn't understand them and they couldn't understand me," Javiera says. "As I started to learn words, I made more friends. The hardest thing here was learning the language."

Making friends is no longer an ordeal, Javiera is a popular student. She's quickly morphing into a Kiwi kid, learning to swim, and play netball. "My dad calls me a little Kiwi sometimes," she laughs.

"Netball is really cool. You get a lot of exercise because you have to run. If you hold the ball for more than three seconds, you have to give it to the other team. I always play 'wing d'."

The Machiman family came to New Zealand, Javiera says, because her father wanted the girls to learn English and experience a new culture. "And because in Concepcion, people get robbed and killed - it's really bad," she says.

"Here, we can go anywhere without being robbed. Here it's all green, and there's blue sky. In my country, it's always winter. I love the beach, it's so clean. In my country it is sand and rubbish. We want to live in New Zealand for, like, forever."

The family has residency now. Her father, a builder by trade, has a job as a house painter, and her mother is a cleaner at a school. They rent a house across the street from the multicultural Kelston Primary. When they first arrived, they were settled in by Casa Latina, Auckland's Latin American community.

Javiera and Maura, now 5, speak impeccable English, and their parents are catching up. Donna Armitage, a teacher aide at Kelston working with ESOL students, says Javiera has become a "brilliant helper" - so much so that it's often difficult getting her back to her regular classroom.

School is one of Javiera's favourite Kiwi things, along with pizza, watermelon and strawberries.

"At Kelston, they are really good to you. If you have trouble with the language you can get help. In a Chilean school, you don't get a lot of help if you can't speak Spanish. You have to learn yourself."

Alex Chen from China

Alex Chen has yet to become an enthusiast of Kiwi mud, despite his mother's best efforts.

She's been trying to get the 10-year-old better acquainted with dirt since arriving from Guangzhou, China two years ago.

"My mum wants me to get out and get more muddy. But I just don't want to. I'm sort of a bookworm. I like to roll across the bed to get to my computer, and you can't do that when you're all dirty," says Alex, a Year 6 Remuera Primary pupil. He gets squeamish at the memory of last month's school cross country experience that caked his shoes in sludge.

But there's plenty that Alex loves about New Zealand - principally, less homework.

"The best thing about New Zealand is that there isn't too much homework. In China my record was starting at 5pm and finishing at 11pm," he says.

His parents moved to Auckland specifically so only-child Alex could "learn better". He goes to after-school lessons twice a week to brush up his new English skills.

"My grandparents have been here for five years, my aunty and cousins seven years. My grandma introduced us to many people and things. When my grandparents first got here, they travelled all around the city by bus to find all out about it," Alex says.

"I understood a teensy bit of English when I came. Last year, my first year, was a struggle, but now it's much easier. I still try not to ask too many questions, because it feels weird."

This year, Alex has made friends with a Christchurch "refugee" who arrived at the school after the February quake. "We have the same likes and we both speak Cantonese," he says. "All the other boys in my gang are Korean, so sometimes me and my new friend talk in our 'secret language' - it's a like a team talk, when we're playing a game."

At home, he's helping his parents with their homework - both are studying English at Unitec. His mum hopes to become a secretary.

"I really like New Zealand, but I miss my friends in China, my computer lessons, and going to fun parks on the weekends."

Ebba Ahlsson from Sweden

Ebba Ahlsson is like any 8-year-old Kiwi girl. She has muddied knees, does gymnastics, has sleepovers with her friends, and speaks with a Kiwi twang.

But just 10 months ago she spoke and understood only Swedish.

Her elder brother, Anton, who's now 10, speaks English too but with a Scandinavian lilt. Now the siblings even fight in English.

"In Sweden you don't start school until you're 7, and in the second year you start learning English. Anton had started to learn, so he speaks it with a Swedish accent," Ebba says.

When Ebba arrived at Remuera Primary last year, she was given an older buddy to help her settle in.

"Her name was Rhianna and if someone asked me a question, she just told them I couldn't understand, so I didn't get really embarrassed. It was cool that everybody did everything for me when I first came here," she says.

The Ahlsson family isn't planning to stay in New Zealand. Ebba's father, Fredrik, is a doctor and honorary research fellow at the Liggins Institute in Auckland.

At the end of his fellowship, they'll return to Uppsala (population 150,000) where he works in the University Children's Hospital.

"He's helping here right now. He looks after really small kids," Ebba says. "He always says to us, 'I ruin it for you. When you're here, you miss your Swedish friends, when we go back to Sweden you will miss your New Zealand friends'.

"But it's okay, because I hope I'll come back here to visit sometimes."

Ebba has picked up major differences between her friends on opposite sides of the world. "In Sweden, there are different rules at school. If you ask to play with someone, they have to say yes," she says. "But my best friends here and in Uppsala are kind of the same - they like going to the park and they're not scared of sleepovers."

Ebba misses snowy winters, and won't miss Auckland's "fast-changing" weather when she eventually leaves.

"It's really weird, but in Sweden I thought it was boring always living in the same house, but now I miss my room."

Igor Kilimnik from Russia

"Rus-kiwi" is perhaps the best description for 12-year-old Igor Kilimnik. Having lived the past seven years in Wellington - where his mother, Anna, is a senior scientist at Niwa - Igor sees himself as "probably Russian, but maybe somewhere in between a Russian and a Kiwi".

"But I really like it here," the young former Muscovite says.

He's probably seen more of New Zealand than most Kiwi kids - riding sand dunes at Ninety Mile Beach, to shooting deer and spotting kiwi on Stewart Island. "They are such beautiful creatures," he says.

Igor has embraced the New Zealand outdoors - the family doesn't own a television, so he braves Wellington southerlies to play outside after school.

He's a promising tennis and soccer player, and last year played at the inline hockey nationals. He practises soccer with his dad, Yury, on the astro-turf at his school, Evans Bay Intermediate, where he's in Year 8.

"My dad was a very good sportsman. He was a professional hurdler and skier in Russia, but then he had problems with his legs," he says.

Igor has no interest in rugby. "I don't want to get a broken arm or broken leg every month, it would just interfere with my other sports. And I'm not really built for tackling giants."

His parents felt New Zealand was a good place to bring up their only son. "My mum was afraid for us in Moscow. There was a lot of criminality and she knew I wouldn't be able to go outside to play by myself, not even walk to the dairy. Someone could just kidnap you," he says.

"It was also too hard for her travelling to work, it would take her one-and-a-half hours to go one way on three types of transport - an underground train, trolley bus and tram.

"I came here two weeks before my 6th birthday. I remember it was a lot colder than we thought it would be. We looked out the hotel window and saw people running in small shorts and singlets and it was only 12 degrees. We thought, 'oh my God, I didn't expect it to be this cold!' I've got used to it, but Mum is always cold."

After a month in Wellington, Igor started school at Lyall Bay with just one word of English - toilet - "because it's exactly the same in Russian".

"On my first day at school, another girl, also from Russia, started in my class so we could speak to each other. It wasn't until my second year that I could speak English and know where to go," he says.

"It's an easy language to learn. People say most languages are easy to pick up when you are young.

"I love the atmosphere here - it's not polluted, there's a lot of green stuff, and it's not so massive that it takes an hour to get from one part to another, though I don't know what it's like in Auckland.

"My family wants to stay here, but maybe in the future I might go back to Russia. I'm interested in engineering - weapons and guns - I'm a technical person."

Damia Roslan from Malaysia

Damia Roslan goes to Morrinsville College dressed in her hijab, the traditional head scarf worn by Muslim women.

"Heaps of people ask me about it," says Damia, who's about to turn 14. "My friends always answer, so I just leave it to them."

There is another Muslim girl at the school, the daughter of her mother's friend. But Damia's friends are all typical Kiwi girls, and she says she's had no trouble making new buddies since her family moved back to New Zealand from Malaysia early last year.

Between the ages of 2 and 7, she lived in Dargaville, her family returning to Kuala Lumpur when an aunt fell ill. Last year, Damia's father got a job as supervisor for Wallace Meat Works in the Waikato farming town.

She's found the transition back to New Zealand life easy, as have her elder brother, who's at Waikato University studying software engineering, and her 17-year-old sister, who's also at Morrinsville College.

"The best part of being back in New Zealand is school. The teachers are really kind here. In Malaysia, the teachers were all grumpy," the Year 9 student says.

"New Zealand is probably a year behind the Malaysian education system, so last year I was doing the same work, but that was okay. It's been easy to make friends, the girls are all so friendly."

She speaks faultless English and in the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class she spends time helping a Japanese girl.

She has carried on the keyboard lessons she started at age 5 and, like in Kuala Lumpur, she has pet rabbits to take care of after school. "There's not much difference except the weather. But I'm used to the cold now - I just put on more wool," she says. "I prefer living in a town this size to Kuala Lumpur."

Damia doesn't think of herself as a Kiwi, but considers herself lucky to have already lived in two very different cultures.

Laura Hwang from South Korea

Laura Hwang tends to spend her lunchtimes in the library at Remuera Primary School.

She admits that she's finding her new life in New Zealand "complicated".

The 9-year-old, who lives with her mother and grandmother in Panmure, has found it difficult to make friends since arriving from Seoul a year ago.

"In New Zealand, it's really complicated making friends. If you ask to play with them, they don't always say yes," she says. "In Seoul, someone will always play with you. I don't have a best friend here."

She has picked up English quickly, through kids on the playground and in the school's ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) unit, but she's not always happy about it. "Sometimes I cry if I have to go to ESOL, when I would rather be doing gymnastics or art with my class," she says.

Outside school, Laura is learning to swim. Although she initially struggled to understand the swimming instructor, she simply followed the other children.

"You just never go first," she says.

She answers with an emphatic "no" when asked if she will one day call herself a Kiwi, "but I want to be a New Zealander".

At home, she's teaching her mother to speak English but gets frustrated by the adults tripping over the letter R.

"The tongue is always going around," she says with exasperation. "I've forgotten how to speak Korean. I can still understand it, but it's hard to speak it now. Sometimes at home, I combine the two languages," she says. "I don't like it at school when other kids speak in their own languages. It's rude, because I don't know what they're saying."

Laura misses her father, who is still living and working in Seoul. He came to visit his family once this year, and they've made one return visit. But she's happy to stay here.

"I think New Zealand is better than Korea. It's really dirty in Korea, they cut down all the trees. But here, the trees are protected," she says. "When we first came to New Zealand, we rented a car and travelled around the South Island for a week. If we saw the sea we quickly changed into our togs and went swimming. I love the nature here."

- NZ Herald

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