These past few months have been extremely busy, hence all the radio silence. This always seems to happen once it grows cold. I started a fantastic new job in my favourite area of central London, and I was finally able to do the one thing I swore at age 15 that I would do by age 3o: apply for British citizenship. And through years of luck, hard graft and being in the last generation of humane visa policies, I did it! Reader, in five days, I will be a dual citizen! I still don’t really believe it despite finding out before Christmas, so I’ve come across as rather blase about the whole thing. Hopefully it will finally hit me in a way that isn’t completely embarrassing next week, I don’t want to look like a complete fool when pledging allegiance to a monarchy my country (though not my ancestors) fought to rid themselves of, ahem.
So it is a new year and soon I will have a new country to fully call home, complete with a little red passport (I already have passport photos at the ready). I will even get to vote in the upcoming general election this May, my first opportunity to vote in the UK since moving here seven years ago. I will also be a EU citizen, which is almost inconceivable to me. I never thought at the beginning of this blog that this would occur, but here I am (I’ll have to change the header soon). And even though I am still trying to come to grips with pledging allegiance to an institution that I vehemently disagree with on a socio-historical and political basis, I am happy that I will finally be afforded the safety and security and permanence of citizenship. And by claiming Britishness I believe that I can better critique structures that I disagree with, as I am able to do in the US.
So here’s to a new year and new beginnings! Happy new year everyone!
I have a continuing interest in the various populations that make London home, and how this transforms areas across the city. My area, so close to Southall, unsurprisingly has a large Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) population, followed by Polish and Somali. But recently I also noticed that my area has a surprisingly large number of French and American families, which is now being reflected in supermarket chains- in the ‘world food’ aisle there is pumpkin filling, 3 musketeers, mac and cheese and Skippy peanut butter! So it was interesting to be reminded of this old article from last year, detailing the main languages spoken other than English across the city. Some are less surprising than others, small pockets of north London are orthodox Jewish enclaves, so Yiddish would be widely spoken. In east London in Tower Hamlets, home of ‘Banglatown’, Bangali is widely spoken, bookending London with Asian languages. However, I was unaware that Japanese was a major language in Ealing, or Korean in southwest London or Lithuanian in the east along the Thames. With London changing so frequently, especially with the increase in housing prices and the changes in immigration policy, I wonder what the map would look like in a few years?
I am incredibly excited for Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW. To celebrate, here is a link to her talk at the New York Public Library, reading one of my favourite essays, ‘Speaking in Tongues’. I actually have this clip on my mobile, it is great to listen to while travelling on the train. This essay voices a lot of my thoughts about the creation of personal, social and national narratives, inhabiting and navigating through different worlds, whether it be the duality of the immigrant, or the unsure existence of the educated classes. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.
Speaking in Tongues: Zadie Smith.
There have been a slew of programmes on lately about racial and religious tensions in places like Luton and Bradford fuelled by extremist groups like the English Defence League. So I thought a video by Reza Aslan, an Islamic scholar and one of my favourite public intellectuals, would be appropriate right now.
British history, much like that of most Western nations, is seen as linear, and immigration in all its multifaceted forms is seen as a disruption to this straight line of action. However, Britain has never possessed a simple historical narrative, it is a complex network of crossed histories that have left their traces in every city. It is also a nation whose strength has been built through the work (mostly forced) of other nations all over the world. Though the population may not reflect this to the same degree that it has in the Americas, Britain has been a island of immigrants for centuries, from black and Asian seamen and freed slaves, French Huguenots to Eastern European Jews.
The influences of other nations are archived in architecture, the words we speak and the foods we eat, which have only made this nation richer. I have walked the streets of London countless times, weaving though side streets, small neighbourhoods, and museums and what I have seen is glorious. Modern Britain has reached a wondrous point where (despite the battles and violence that still flare up about identity) all these groups are starting to create a synthesis of being, a new sense of identification that recognises those that inhabit it shores. I, as an American, can listen to English youth speak in a manner that encompasses “proper” English and Jamaican patois and speech patterns and recognise that it is an authentic representation of Britain just as RP used to be. Places like Banglatown/Brick Lane are marketed as fixed parts of the London experience, while the Regent’s Park Mosque sits nestled next to one of the pinnacles of literary England, Baker St. As new groups enter, more mutations and blends are bound to occur, blurring even further what it means to be British.
On a personal note, what drew me back to England was this mix of people and traditions. The first places I saw were filled with immigrants and the descendents of immigrants, which lent a feeling of wild possibility and chance to every place I saw. While I take comfort in many places that are still staunchly traditional, even if it is solely in name, in the end it was foreigners that makes this place continue to be utterly fascinating. And I know many others who have settled for the same reason. For me, Britain continues to be my gateway to the rest of the world, and I look forward to that distant day where people like me, with our funny accents and differing cultures and ways of viewing society are finally seen as what we are: equals and not a part of the problem. When that day comes, I’ll celebrate with a well deserved cup of tea.
The reality is that the majority of immigrants into the UK are white and from Europe, the Americas and Oceania, who in 2001 made up 53% of the foreign-born population. Following at a very distant second are those from India and Pakistan. Though these figures have changed somewhat in the last few years, the demographics basically remain the same. Along with this, many immigrants tend to only stay for short periods of time, creating a constantly shifting population of people. What these statistics show is a foreign population of skilled (whether in labour or “highly-skilled” fields) workers from Westernised nations who tend to migrate towards large urban centres and the south-east of England. What is perceived about immigration, however, could not be further from the truth.
Immigrants are portrayed as the fearful harbingers of Britain’s decay by the media and many political parties, especially as the recession drags on. As many Britons lose their jobs and struggle to find new ones, they blame immigrants for coming over and “stealing” their work. Along with this, they blame immigrants for overpopulating the island while bemoaning the changes of multiculturalism and “political correctness gone mad” taking place in their communities. In their minds immigrants follow these patterns: they are poor, dangerous and minorities, if not black and brown than Eastern European. They are relatively unskilled, follow dangerous religions and are a powderkeg of dangerous ideas and actions which threaten the rights of native citizens.
This paranoia screams out at me from broadsheets, news reports and television programmes on a regular basis. Instead of confronting the government about the stifling class system and programmes in place which allow so many British citizens to become victims of their environment, instead of creating grassroots programmes which allow for safer communities and a network of support for those in need, many British people have chosen to follow those in charge and blame those who are different from them, a cyclical accusation which always occurs in times of national duress and uncertainty. This, of course, is a dangerous way to react to change, and such ideas, coupled with all too familiar forms of racism and xenophobia are continuing to have devastating effects on British citizens unable to completely assimilate to the majority of society, whether due to race, religion or culture. When people cry out about overcrowding (which simply isn’t happening outside the major cities in the ways that fearmongers would like us to imagine), what they are really railing against is the incremental increase of people who don’t look like and, in some cases, have no urge to be like them. What these perceptions really show most of all is the failure of Britain to come to terms with its own intersections of identities and histories in the new century.
Gordon Brown has released his hard-line stance on immigration this week. He has set a series of limitations on what non- European immigrants can do if they are lucky enough to obtain a visa, including closing about 250,000 skilled sector jobs (catering, engineering and caring) to non-British workers. He has created what can be considered a two pronged attack on immigrants and asylum-seekers/refugees, limiting not only their ability to enter the UK through a labyrinthine bureaucratic system that has had devastating effects on incoming students, but also making it difficult to remain and survive in the country once they actually arrive. I will not state that I am very knowledgeable about the situation surrounding refugees, so I will mostly discuss what I have personal experience, that of the international student-cum- skilled worker.
Due to changes in the visa system implemented after I finished my postgraduate programme, many international students are having to defer or, worse yet, give up their dreams of studying in the UK completely after they have been accepted in their courses. Since international students contribute about £4 billion to British universities, many universities have bemoaned the projected loss of money that would directly contribute to maintaining departments, libraries and British and EU students. Along with this, international students will be barred from working part time in temporary jobs, which will make life extremely difficult for many students who are already surviving on loans and financial aid. This restriction will also make obtaining a work visa after graduation even more arduous if not impossible for most students, which is clearly the Prime Minister’s point. For those who then manage to obtain work visas and stay in the country, the road to citizenship has become more fraught with dead-ends and pitfalls.
Says Brown, “the right to stay permanently will no longer follow automatically after living here for a certain number of years … Instead, we have said that after living here for five years, migrants will have to apply to become probationary citizens – and at that point they will have to pass a points-based test.” The idea of “probationary citizenship” has been criticised before because it restricts the ability of immigrants to participate in civic activities such as anti-war protests and forces prospective citizens to prove their worth through parting with hundreds of pounds through the years of their stay. Another issue is that it forces a strict idea of what Britishness is through the forced learning of countless statistics and facts (many of which British subjects themselves would not know), ignoring the more personalised and varied experiences of Britishness that immigrants could obtain (which may also draw from foreign cultures already present.)
Brown has been criticised for his efforts to make a stand, many have said that his declarations are too little, too late as fears of the immigrant invasion coupled with a devastating recession have caused people to leave the Labour party in droves to more right-wing extremist parties. In his attempts to appease fearful citizens, as made clear in his quietly chilling “British jobs for British workers” quote (in which he echoed the same right wing extremists that he so fears), he is causing serious damage to the future of British identity while also ignoring the past effects of British and European colonialism that has contributed to much of the non-European immigration occurring today. The spectre of immigration also once again reveals British fears of class, race and nationality as well as their privilege.