The ambivalence of immigrants towards London

Reasons for coming to London

People come to London for many different reasons. There are usually the pull factors, there are opportunities in London, there is money, creativity and material resources, which are sucked into the city and then circulate around it. But there are also push factors. People come to London because of a lack of job and opportunities to earn money in their own country.

Some come to London feeling the overbearing constraints of family. The adult children of southern European countries might come to London to put some distance between them and their overbearing families, to escape the emotional demands of their mother.

Some come to London to escape past loves and relationships, putting distances between themselves and all those places, which once were the locations of starry eyed romantic liaisons, but which now feel sour and painful, and the bittersweet memories, of the streets and parks and places which whisper to them of their love that turned sour.

Some come to escape stigmatization that might come from being a member of a certain community. Parisians from Paris’ infamous Department 93, otherwise known as district Saint Denis, and Muslims from France, who face discrimination, come to London, in the hope that employers will not write them off and give them a chance. Since the 1980s members of smaller clans, who are subject to systematic murder, abuse and exploitation of the larger clans, have frequently tried to find sanctuary in London.

Many come because it is considered that there are better opportunities for material accumulation, compared to where they live. Spain’s economy is not growing, there are no new jobs, so generation after generation of young adults find themselves unemployed, living with their parents, with no money and no hope of forming their own family, forbidden from entering the kitchen by traditional mothers who see the kitchen and cooking as their own domain. Like this young Spanish adults are humilitated, ashamed, infantilised.

Others come to London for the standard of education on offer, which is considered better than what they can access in their own country. Russian oligarchs and millionaires, of which there are thousands since Russia decided to exploit its natural gas and oil wealth, have sought residences in London, to allow their children to access the public and private schools. Somali families, worried of what will come of their children in a land where children are frequently murdered, raped and kidnapped, in which there is no education system, send their children unaccompanied to Heathrow airport, with the aid of an agent, hoping that the British state and distant family members present in England, will take care of their children and provide them with an education.


Humiliation and shame

Many of London’s immigrants, even those who have traveled internally, feel a certain degree of shame, rejection, humiliation and embarrassment.

Many immigrants arrive into the The Big Smoke having felt rejected or ashamed. Somali children yet to reach their teens may find themselves in a state of shock, sitting on a couch in London Heathrow arrivals, wondering where the agent, who accompanied them on their trip is, having been told in no uncertain terms by their parents to do everything the agent said, on departure from Nairobi, and with the agent, some three hours ago, telling them that he would be back in a few minutes. Like many others, they come from a place where they have not been accepted or they have been rejected, sometimes by their own family, in a city with ten million people, where not one has any deal of concern for them. It is a journey from rejection into oblivion.

There is always a certain humiliation that comes with immigration, in having to move away from the place that one was born, in giving up the relationships, the synergy, the knowledge, the power, the experience, sacrificing it all. Even if for a better life. Spanish economic migrants, including many young people, feel a similar sense of humiliation having to move to the capital city having been unable to make a material life for themselves in their home town and country. This sense of humiliation was recently made explicit through a movement of young adults in Spain, who posted photographs and videos of themselves on a website, communicating the fact that they were going to maintain their pride and stay in Spain. It was a message to everyone else who had jobs, that they were not going away, they were not going to be pushed out of their home.

Such people arrive in London discontented, confused, lacking pride and hope, humbled and defeated sufficiently that they felt compelled to leave, to accept defeat, bitter that at being disowned their homeland they then disowned their homeland.

This humiliation and shame does not subside with time, it stays with you forever. So whilst you whilst the person who immigrates may feel proud of the fact that they have made a conscious choice to better themselves, and may indeed do just that, they will always subconsciously, feel humiliated, that for one reason or another, they felt propelled to make such a choice, and that they had to flee the land that they were born into, that they were never able to get a grip of resources in that land, and never were sufficiently accepted by those who did have a grip of the resources, that they could carve a name out for themselves, carve a position, a certain status and relevance, that means they would never have felt the need to go and carve a better life out for themselves.


Suppressing the humiliation and shame

Many immigrants arrive in London feeling a strong sense of humiliation and shame, and it is something that never leaves a person. What might change across time, is an immigrant’s ability to deal with that shame and humiliation.


London’s distractions and noise, muffling the screams of the heart

Some deal with the shame and humiliation by trying to suppress their feelings, and by giving up on emotional fulfillment. To do this they need a distraction and London offers the perfect distraction. London is one great big twenty-four hour distraction, a one million course meal in a restaurant with a menu of delights. People come to London as a spectator, to watch other people, to see things, to experience, to taste and touch, to admire, but not to feel, to be affected, to connect, to be dependent, to hope for love. In London people can devote themselves to arts, cultures, landscape, architecture, money, careers, concepts, hedonism, food, sex, yoga, aesthetics, fashion – they engage all their physical senses but don’t engage in matters of the heart.

People come to London because they don’t want anything serious. They just want a bit of fun. It is a place for thrill seekers. London is like being on the rebound, disowning one’s home, one’s partner and falling half-heartedly into the arms of a faux super hero, into the arms of this big city. London is like being dumped by your one true love and meeting a guy who just wants to have fun. It is a city which celebrates trends and fashions, it is fixated by the next big thing, whether it is music, street art or restaurants. It is full of transient passions sufficiently transfixing, for the neglected and abused immigrant to suppress their feelings of rejection and hopelessness.

It anaesthetizes, stimulates the conscious, its noise drowning out the screams of the subconscious. It is a place where people can forget about emotions, and memories, and the trials and tribulations of relationships. This makes it a real help, a great place to come to turn off one’s feelings.

One can loose oneself in London, it is said, loose oneself in London. It is full of people with trauma, who arrive in the Big Smoke, hoping the fumes will put them to sleep.

The heart, however, is never completely destroyed. It is in there somewhere beating, and form time to time, when the body is at its most weary, and conscious energies are at a lower, its ticking can be heard, and one’s deepest subconscious pains rise up like early morning mists, into one’s consciousness again.

Sometimes these feelings are projected on to those very objects, that one uses to avoid matters of the heart. One expresses feeling through arguing about the qualities of a film or a piece of art.

Having killed off their feelings Londoners cannot reach out, share their needs, fears, inadequacies and vulnerabilities, for fear of their neediness being distasteful and off-putting those around them. London fears you will walk away. This fear means that Londoners, whilst they can walk side to side, whilst they need company, they can never commit. London doesn’t do commitment. Commitment means the competition has stopped, that a mate or a friend has finally been chosen, that the game has come to an end, it involves a trusting in one’s family and friends, a resting on one’s laurels. In London people don’t commit because they think they will be taken advantage of, that their laurels will be whisked away in the back a white transit van. Therefore, in London there is am affected shared blindness to, a sneering contempt of commitment, whilst the desire for it burns strongly in each and every heart. Those who don’t want to affect emotion in others, and who don’t want to be obliged to be affected, can breathe a sigh of relief. People feel relieved that they don’t have to compare themselves to a norm that they have failed so miserably to achieve back home. Those who never felt like they fitted in back home, are free from having to fit in ever again, there are enough people, who will be happy to hang out with them but who don’t much care for them. Apathy reigns, and there are many willing subjects.


Londoners’ lack of commitment

Another way in which immigrants deal with the feelings of rejection and shame is by committing as little as possible to London, to its people, to the social life, and in so doing, tell themselves that they have not been rejected. Many Londoners constantly go back home, almost as if they can not trust London enough to commit to it, or as if they feel deeply ambivalent about the ties they have broken on arriving in London. Western Europeans regularly go back home. They constantly go back home; to refuel, to remind themselves about who they really are, and as they fly back to London, they wonder why they do it. Western Europeans constantly bring back food stuffs from trips back home. Chorizo from Spain, olive oil from Greece, pasta from Italy. Periodically the Spaniard bounds back to mama, returning to England with suitcases full of chorizo, cheese, red wine, jamon Serrano, paprika.

French people, like may immigrants arriving in London feel a good deal of ambivalence with regards to their new home. True, French immigrants, like many immigrants, arrive in the Big Smoke, anticipating opportunity, excitement and stimulation. However these feelings mask a deep sense of uncertainty about their identify, belonging, future and their acceptability and desirability. It has been suggested that French people deal with their insecurities by telling themselves that they will only be in London for a few years, as if their relationship with London will never mean anything, will never be more than a fling, they will eventually return home to their true love. Furthermore they adopt the attitude that rather than them needing London, it is somehow London that needs them, or that somehow they had never asked to be in London in the first place. This results in an attempt to create a world within a world, a home from home. This can be seen in the remit of French Radio London who aim to accompany press review of French newspapers with a “heavy dose of nostalgic music” to give listeners a “sense of being home”. One Frenchman, Hamid Seny, living in London for ten years, noted how his compatriots and he would, when first arrived in London hold on to a “belief of le grandeur de la france, let us teach you savoir-vire let us teach you food, let us show you how great we are”. Furthermore French people would tend to not get too involved with Londoners, congregate together and speak in French with each other. Seny noted, “I remember we were speaking English in the workplace we had to and then outside we would speak French, and we would shout in French, like we are French were different were more sophisticated because we are French.”

For many immigrants to London, the city is treated as a place for work, like an international work station, whilst their heart and consciousness continue to reside in their homelands. In this way immigrants experience a splitting of the mind and body, their experience of London being something like a vague recollection of a dream. A Greek family lives in East India Docks, just fifteen minutes away from London City Airpot, spend most of their time working in the institutions of Canary Wharf, do most of their shopping at the Canary Wharf Waitrose, do a few things in the West End, but otherwise go back home to Greece on weekends, taking two week holidays at Easter, three weeks during the summer and three weeks at Christmas. Their whole life then continues to be lived, more or less in Greece, mentally, socially, emotionally and to a large extent physically.


Londoners’ self-hatred

Another way in which immigrants deal with the feelings of rejection and shame is by projecting their shame on to the city and people around them.

They tell themselves that London is not their home, as if to suggest that they are still loved and cherished by those back home. They talk about one day returning home. Cypriots talk about going back to Cyprus, Bengalis to Bangladesh and Somalis to Somalia. A Cypriot man, working in a north London community centre, recounted how, when in Cyprus, they would go for barbecues in the hills every night, and just sit and talk and eat, night after night. Beautiful Cyprus, shitty London. He talked about how he was going to move back their when he retired.

London’s weather is commonly the whipping boy for immigrants with a chip on their shoulder, for middle class western European academics and researchers, who transfer their feelings of shame of having to leave sunnier climbs on to the cloudy, more temperate and duller climate of London itself. The weather they go on is so unpredictable, always raining, grey and dull. The light is poor, they say. The London summer especially comes under some criticism. Here, they say, it can be sunny one minute, and then within an hour its clouds. Here in London, they say, there is no summer, you have a few days of sunshine, and then its cloudy and raining the rest of the time. Back from where I come from, they say, at least you know you’re going to have a summer, it’s going to be sunny all the time.

British food, London food comes under constant fire.


Some immigrants eventually accept London

Some immigrants are able to eventually accept the pain associated with the rejection and shame of having to flee their homeland, let go of the impossible dream of return, and in so doing are able to embrace London, the communities within, the people, its weather, and even its food. So, then, London is full of people, who lost their pride at some point, who were humbled and defeated, who tried to stand up and fight in the land they were born, but who failed, and who accepted defeat, and accepted their psychological and emotional death, who disowned by their homeland then disowned their homeland, and said instead I now embrace London, I am a Londoner. The French East End, BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 30 May 2013.It is said that when French people first arrive to London, they often feel a sense of superiority towards those around them and to the city of London. This is, in part, a defense mechanism, a feelng of vulnerability, spurned by their country of origin, but not sure if they can trust the hand of their new lover, they despise that very person, who newly offers them love. Hamid Seny, a French Londoner, says, “At the beginning there was this belief of le grandeur de la france, let us teach you savoir-vive let us teach you food, let us show you how great we are. Because we were there just for two years, we could be arrogant… I remember we would speak English in the workplace, we had to, and then outside we would speak French, and we would shout in French, like ‘We are French! We’re different! We’re more sophisticated because we are French!’ However acceptance that London is now home has been accompanied with a melting in the hearts of the French towards their new lover. Seny continues, “… But because this is home, I see people being low profile, because we are to stay here for five years or ten years, and we want to make friends and coming across as arrogant is not going to work… You don’t see those people shouting anymore, I don’t see those people showing off their Frenchness, you don’t notice them as much as you used to…”

Time, they say, is a great healer, and it seems that is all that is needed for people to eventually accept London, England and Britain as their home.


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