5. You get to act as sole representative of your entire country
There’s nothing quite like chilling out with a relaxing beer after work with your English friends or colleagues, and suddenly being asked to explain:
- American gun culture
- The Iraq war
- Donald Trump
- Insert incomprehensible & idiotic thing Americans have been or done that they’ve encountered most recently here
This is jarring enough, but it pales in comparison to how much worse it would be to be, say, a visibly Muslim woman and asked to explain Islamist terrorists. Or spat on. Which, by the way, I have been, by a stranger, allegedly for speaking with an American accent.
4. You get to act as sole representative of all immigrants - and none
This sounds contradictory, but stay with me.
English people can instantly recognise that I was not raised in the UK when I speak. Despite this, I have often been in close proximity of discussions about immigrants as an abstract group rather than a group of people to which I belong. This is because I (mostly) conform to Western standards as befits a woman of my age in matters of attire and verbal and visual presentation. I have a well-paid job and an English partner, and while a person I’ve only just met might not know either of these things immediately, they will naturally assume from my demeanour and confidence that I am the sort of person who will be agreeable about - to their minds - the undisputable fact that there is too much immigration into Britain because “it’s far too easy to come to this country”, a myth I am quite happy to eviscerate.
Because I spent over ten years working here on various types of permit, and during that time I could not claim benefits. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I note also that I was steadily paying into the benefits system throughout this time. I could not quit my job or be made redundant without having another job lined up, because if you do lose your job on an employer-sponsored visa, you have to find another within 28 days or leave the country. The visa rules changed every time I had to renew (every 2-3 years), so every time I had to fill in a completely revamped 75-100 page form which suddenly wanted to know if I’d had at least £800 in my various bank accounts for the past 12 months. (On the subsequent renewal, that requirement was taken away.) The waiting times for work visa renewals went from six weeks to six months between 2004 and 2012. A lot of times, a working immigrant’s work visa will run out before a renewal has been processed. As long as you still have your job, this is fine, but if you lose your job in the meantime, you’re stuffed. That’s not at all stressful, nope. Oh, and a work visa went from costing about £350 in 2004 to nearly £1000 in 2012. And then there’s permanent residency (£1000+) and naturalisation (£1000+). So immigration to Britain is not “easy”. It’s an expensive, painfully bureaucratic and difficult process.
If you speak English fluently and are white or not quite brown enough to be threatening (hi!), then you’re told “Oh, but I don’t think of you as an immigrant”. Which is 100% intended as a comforting compliment and has entirely the opposite effect on the recipient. The logistical acrobatics required to perform this act of exceptionalism allow the speaker to retain the perception of theoretical immigrants as benefit-scrounging job-thieves rather than attempting to change their views based on the actual immigrant in front of them. There you sit, having declared yourself to be a representative of immigrants to people who refuse to believe that you are one. It’s a cartload of joy, let me tell you.
3. You will never, ever fit in completely
Through careful study and behavioural modification, you can succeed in adopting enough observed traits to integrate into your new culture. You’ll probably have to, if you want to be happy during your stay. If you immigrate late enough in life, as I have done - well past childhood and even early adulthood - it’s unlikely you’ll be able to adopt perfect enough mimicry to have an undetectable accent. Even if you can, through having a very good ear and/or being a professional voice actor, you may not wish to. (I neither wish to nor am I able.) So if you decide to settle, if you are fortunate enough to be able to afford the exorbitant fees involved in repeated visa renewals, settlement fees and naturalisation, you have to accept that as soon as you open your mouth, native inhabitants of your chosen homeland will know that you were born a foreigner. You are choosing a lifetime of unease.
2. You cannot easily recover fluency with your homeland
Some immigrants, like myself, are able to accumulate sufficient sources of happiness that the aforementioned discomfort fades to a fairly mild, constant, background hum. I can also afford to make occasional visits to the land of my birth. However, as the years pass, it becomes more difficult to slide back into a set of cultural norms with which you had instinctive familiarity. When you visit your original homeland, your family and friends tell you your accent sounds British. Strangers begin to assume that you are. You forget your native vocabulary. Things that you could once do without a second thought - tip appropriately at a restaurant, greet a sales assistant in a shop, open a conversation with an innocuous comment about the price of petrol-I-mean-gas - require a conscious effort. Eventually it dawns on you that if you were to move back, you might actually not be able to recover a complete sense of belonging.
1. You have to rebuild your entire support structure
If you are lucky enough to be able to choose to immigrate as a full-grown adult - and I say “lucky” because if you’re choosing it, that means you’re not fleeing a war, you have sufficient money and skills to qualify for a dearly priced legal work visa and you’re likely fluent in the dominant language - then you are most probably signing up to living away from your parents, your grandparents, your siblings, your niecephews and all of your until-now physically close friends. You must learn to navigate new tax, medical, legal and social support structures. You may even have to re-qualify to do things you’ve taken for granted for many years, like drive a car. And you have to do these things all at once, while trying to make new friends whom you’re constantly fearful of alienating because you cannot correctly read social cues, which may be blatantly obvious to natives but are often imperceptibly subtle to immigrants. I’m not exaggerating when I say that immigration is a traumatic experience, even for affluent economic migrants.
So why do we do it? Find out in the next installment: The Five Best Things About Being an Immigrant.
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