“When I was in America, I didn’t feel like a foreigner.”
A friend of mine once said. He had recently returned from a year abroad in America as part of his degree. His experience was amazing, baseball games, good friends, and travel to the incredible sights and sounds of America. I got a bit touchy with him considering my British inferiority complex with regards to America but his words really struck a nerve elsewhere.
“In America, you can become American very easily.” Said another friend of mine.
I can vouch for what she said. I had friends at my school in Turkey who were of middle-eastern heritage but considered themselves thoroughly American. It was the same with a few Canadians I know.
Ok fine so woo hoo America right?
Well lets take a look across the pond at Britain, a rainy, green and pleasant land. I’m gonna come out and say it now, I really love England. I remember coming into London from China where I was a child and being continuously wowed by how green it was. Compared to the
magnificent but barren deserts of Northwest China, England really did seem like a green and
pleasant land. Going down to the southwest of England my grandparents filled my mind with tales of King Alfred and King Arthur at Glastonbury, giving me a deep sense of connection with the soil. Here the Vikings were beaten off, here a great hero sleeps in anticipation of days to come. I admit much of that is fanciful, but I don’t want to let go of a certain wonder with the country of my birth.
Yet for all this, I am ashamed to be British sometimes. Those two friends I mentioned were of Eastern European origin, and Britain could not give them a sense of belonging. Whilst working in a summer school as an English teacher I overheard a conversation between my eastern european colleagues.
“How is it going for you?”
“It’s getting more difficult, when I tell people where I’m from and that I’m an English teacher they look at me strangely. As if they think someone from Britain could be doing that Job.” Was the gist of what I overheard. Brexit loomed in the backdrop.
I remember speaking to a friend who had lived in London his whole life as a second generation immigrant.
“Do I look British to you?” he asked me once. “Of course I don’t!” An awkward statement for me, a white British person, to be confronted with but it spoke volumes. This guy was probably more British than me, having lived here his whole life unlike me, but he did not feel British.
The area I live in is full of Turks. There are a lot of shops where there is no English writing, only Turkish signs. I walked into a Turkish corner shop one day and spoke to the shopkeeper in Turkish. His face seems to light up each time I come in and converse with him in my pidgin Turkish. I now try and talk to each Turkish shopkeeper I meet. I am surprised how well a simple “Kolay Gelsin Abi” (may your work come easily brother) can go down each time I go to one.
And this leads me back to my first friend. After he shared with me about his experience in America I suddenly felt the overwhelming need to tell him something.
“Mate…I’ve never told you this to you before but…Welcome to the UK.”
It was a bit awkward because I’ve known him for 3 years but I’m glad I said it.
It’s something I need to say more to people. I have heard of many incidents from different contacts about a situation where they told a newcomer “Welcome to the UK,” and the effect has been wonderful. I have yet to experience this but I plan to soon.
For myself as a foreigner in Turkey I was struck by how often strangers would say to me “welcome to Turkey”. I’m not talking about guys trying to bait tourists with exhorbitant and annoying sales techniques, I’m talking normal people. Whenever someone asked me where I was from and said to me “welcome to Turkey” I felt a sense of safeness. My Turkish was
terrible and I was a weirdo in the middle of Istanbuls industrial district. But I felt comfort in the fact that at least one person around me was glad I had come and could offer me help if I needed it. Of course as an English person I was careful to disassociate myself from the imperial sins of my nations past, as prejudices did still exist. Yet for all that, there were Turks who were glad I was there.
It was partly also a cultural thing, as Turks are naturally disposed to being helpful to people even if it wouldn’t help the situation. However this small focus on welcoming people was very touching to me.
The vast majority of people who come to the UK feel a sense of resentment against them from the populace. In the big city where everything is changing constantly we are suspicious of strangers and cold towards those around us.
I read a very fine article that stated Brexit was a cry for community. This longing for community can easily be co-opted by racists as a means to create a homogenous society and Brexit has made racism seem legitimate to many. Whatever you think, London, the UK, is in
dire need of community. We are divided by Brexit and all the trappings of race and class. Small businesses and local shops are swallowed constantly by big money and gentrification ravages our communities with Uber-esque internet services. New people come and find themselves in a hostile, cynical machine of underground tubes and hurried streets.
One should still be careful how one throws around “Welcome to the UK”, don’t let it become a demeaning white saviour thing. But in all honesty we really don’t say it enough. This simple phrase could do so much to help our community in day to day life.
I know what the politicians say, I know what the news says, I know what some people might say, but please, from a British person…
Welcome to the UK.