I met and married my German Prince Charming in sunny South Africa. We dated for about two years, one of which was long-distance. I had just obtained a law degree, and he had finished his medical degree.
We decided to relocate so he could specialise. And that’s how I found myself in cold dark Germany, with a shiny new degree but no job. My language proficiency, or lack thereof, didn’t help of course.
However, I was intent on finding a job, even after finding out that I was pregnant within the first three months after the big move.
Have a can-do spirit
I searched for all kinds of native English speaking jobs that related to my skills. Good thing, I connected with a language school that taught business and legal English to professionals. They signed me on as a freelance trainer. Here, I gained some brilliant insights into local business practices, various types of people, the work culture, and topics that get Germans talking.
Despite being an entry-level job, it was precisely what I needed for a head start. But I was hungry for more and refused to settle for being ‘that expat’ with limited options. Stagnating in my personal development was the last thing I wanted.
The barriers to entry are frustrating; a South African law degree isn’t recognised here. Additionally, the effort to convert such a degree was a mountain I wasn’t ready to climb. I was determined to find another way.
Fighting limitations, prejudice and my inner demons
More than a few people along the way had their own opinion on how I should overcome the obstacles in my way. Frankly speaking, these weren’t always helpful and I learnt to simply ignore the naysayers or the pessimists. Ultimately, the wisdom or willingness to overcome external limitations comes from within.
I couldn’t speak enough German to work as a lawyer which also involves quite a bit of specialist vocabulary. I did however recruit my husband to make my CV look German. Yes, German-looking CV’s are a thing, they include a stoic picture of the applicant and have a specific format. Finally, responses to my applications drizzled in.
Despite having a can-do attitude, there were times when winning felt impossible. I wrestled with my own prejudices, like being a new mum in a foreign country, being distinctly small built and dark-skinned, oh and from Africa – would people take me seriously?
Considering the growing sense of suspicion towards foreigners in Europe, I sometimes felt like a fish swimming upstream. I even searched for flights back home to escape the winter. But somehow knew I had to do this.
The long winter came and my small part-time jobs became my saving grace, giving me the fire that I needed to warm up my soul. Work was the perfect distraction that got this Durban girl through the cold.
The journey is what you make of it
During the dreadful season I was still freelancing and applying for part-time jobs. There was no available day-care for toddlers under 18 months of age – had to turn down several job offers because of that. Fortunately that didn’t spell the end of my career. Over next three years, I found myself in several part-time jobs. They provided the flexibility I needed as a mum.
Combined with my teaching, I worked as freelance copy editor for a medical tourism business. What’s more, I also wrote for a local publication on issues affecting African women. Before I knew it, my network of friends had grown thanks to the diversity of people I met.
I remember when I started teaching lawyers at a high-powered law firm in Cologne. It was like being in an episode of a courtroo drama. The boardroom was pristine. It overlooked the Rhine river and was situated directly across the majestic Cologne Cathedral. I taught young lawyers and a partner at the firm, while at the same time absorbing a lot of information about the German legal system.
At my most memorable moment with the class, we had just read an article about the stereotype of Germans not having a sense of humour. One of the students, took it upon himself to re-enact the said stereotype, and the whole class of young lawyers, all suited up and generally composed, was set ablaze with laughter.
Where I least expected it, I experienced the exceptions to the stereotype. And they loved the fresh perspective that I brought to my lessons.
Be faithful in the small things
For the first year, I ran only one class for the firm. I loved what I was doing because my degree came into good use. At the same time, being among lawyers brought some welcomed familiarity to my life. I was hoping for more work, and by the second year, I was given two additional classes. Slowly my little freelance business was growing. I found confidence in what I was doing and so did my clients.
Soon, I was working seven days a week. I loved the energy that came with being super productive, but I needed to slow down for some work-life-balance. My toodler needed attention, and a household doesn’t run itself. So I switched to a more regular job, working five days a week for 32 hours a week.
Perseverance pays off
I got my current job due to the experience I gained in the few years I freelanced in Germany and the experience I collected in South Africa.
Being a social media editor for Rheindigital, has integrated me further into the German workforce- even though most of my communications are still in English. I’ve managed to find a job, a work environment and colleagues that complement my persona.
Being successful in a foreign country means adapting to the new values, attitudes and ways of doing things. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t come at the expense of what makes us unique. The perceived need for conformity can easily drown those same creative streaks I was hired for.
Thankfully I have found a space to express myself in a work environment that encourages and celebrates creativity.
Not everyone’s cup of tea
There was that odd moment of me sharing a South African joke and nobody laughed, except me. But hey, not all South Africans come with Trevor Noah’s gift of humour. My way of doing things isn’t the norm here – maybe counter-cultural at times. And that’s ok. In pursuit of our dreams, we learn to trust that inner compass.
Nobody knows your journey, the sacrifices you made, and the steps you took to be here – in this very moment. Continue with what allows you to keep rising. As they say in South Africa, ‘Phambili!’ or Go Forward!