Many immigrants arrive into the The Big Smoke already feeling rejected or ashamed. Somali children yet to reach their teens, who 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, on depature from Nairobi, to do everything the agent said, 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.
But even if one has not been sent by war torn Somalia 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. Recently a movement of young adults in Spain, 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, which they were not going away, they were not going to be pushed out of their home. This tells you about the feeling that many economic migrants having to move to the capital city having been unable to make a material life for themselves in their home town and country. Many of London’s immigrants, even those who have travelled internally, feel a certain degree of shame, rejection, humiliation and embarrassment. 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.
One 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. It is common for anyone who comes to London to think that they are coming just for a few years. Hamid Seny, who, has seen the French community in London, for more than a decade, commented in a recent documentary made by the BBC that, “Ten years ago we were all young french kids thinkgin we are learing english getting a little bit of work experience and then we can go back to france… Another defense mechanism is to despise all those around you. Hamid Seny explains, “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!”‘
Part of the 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, involves the creation of 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 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.” Many Somalis in the UK have strong political ties with Somalia, or a desire and ambition to become involved in politics back home once the situation there improves. They therefore retain strong ties and belonging to specific tribes and their allegiance to different political parties in Somalia and Somaliland. (CLG, 2009, p) They tell themselves that London is not their home, as if to suggest that they are still loved and cherished by those back home. Daniel Stier a German photographer roams London’s ex-pat communities, looking for people to take photos of in their country’s traditional dress. His work has a lot to do with the fact that he lacks a sense of belonging himself and is interested in exploring that feeling in others. Daniel commented, “I didn’t have to come here – I’m not a refugee – so I’m not complaining, but what I tried to look at is how people integrate into a place, but don’t ever fully become integrated. It’s that feeling that makes London what it is; 40 percent of the people that live here weren’t born in the UK. Everyone I photographed would say stuff like “In my country” or “back home” as if they’d just left, even though they might have been living in London for 30 years. I realised I do the same thing; I’ve been here for so long that I have no idea what goes on in Germany nowadays, but I still refer to it as “back home”. And their traditional costumes are the one part of home people can carry with them.
The size of the immigrant populations in London and England, together with the lack of demand amongst English people to watch the home side, has meant England internationals, played at Wembley, during the twenty-first century have attracted sizeable away support. It has been suggested that in some cases, for example in the case of Polish labourers, it meant a lot to be able to boast of a win over England to their English colleagues. In some respects then this is about the immigrant feeling a sense of rootlessness, and harking back to their country of origin, and kind of having that hatred for the city, the country, which they have moved to. A spokesman from the Polish FA was said to have explained in anticipation of the game, “Knowing how many Poles live in Great Britain, we know how many will attend this game, even though now we don’t have a chance to qualify. For a lot of people it’s a very special game. It is England and it’s a football story. They live in England but the team from the motherland is their country. It’s important for them to be at the game and support the Poland team. It is always better to go to work the next day and say to their English colleagues, ‘We beat you.'”
Some 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 was going to move back their when he retired.
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. 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.
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.
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 West 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.
London as a workplace, not a home
Some people see London, principally as a place to work, and whilst living here, they continue to see their home as back where they came from. People who work in the City of London or for one of the many institutions in Canary Wharf, may buy a flat nearby. Whilst they may, from time to time, enjoy some of the sights and sounds of London, they know and make little effort to get to know any people outside of their work colleagues, and spend much of their holiday time, back in their country of origin. Qualified nurses come to London to work, and experience a lower standard of living here, because the strength of the currency is such that it allows their family to enjoy a better quality of life than they would have, if the nurse worked in their country of origin. An Indian family, with a long established grocery store in Kent, make frequent trips back to the ancestral village, where they have contributed to the building of a school, and where gifts, such as pens and pencils are given to the young children so they can learn. A family from Tottenham, with Carribean heritage, make regular trips to the West Indies to see extended family and friends. The mother talks of the annoyance of relatives rummaging through her suitcases, as soon as she arrives. The point, I suppose, is that London may not give you a great quality of life, but it does give you better spending power. I think this is something about the spirit of London, it is for people who compromise the quality of life, compromise what they have, what they have grown up with, for better spending power, they do not commit to an area, they leave, they are ready to spin the bottle or shake the dice, they are not satisfied, they are not thankful for what they have got. Phillipine families have a tradition of educating one member of the family, in the hope that they might move abroad, and work, often as a nurse in London, and send back enough money, that the family might educate another member. In the early twentieth century the British merchant navy started to employ Somali sailors, would spend weeks and months living in and around the docks of Tower Hamlets, and send money back home to their families.
Of course for the people who leave their family, to provide more for them, they are in doing so, emotionally detaching themselves from the family, whether through intent or effect. They are maintaining a material responsibility for their family members, but creating an emotional detachment from them. People who want to be able to say they have a family, but do not actually want to have the family. In the 1970s it was said that when the Somali sailors retired, they returned home to Somalia, to their family, only to find that they couldn’t fit in, so they went back to London, where they lived and some may still be living out their final years.
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. 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. Hamid Seny, a French Londoner, says acceptance that London is now home has been accompanied with a melting in the hearts “… 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.