|My very own rite of passage|
However my path into British citizenship started five years before 2005. In May 2000 I cast my vote in the London mayoral race and a year later I did the same in the country’s general election. I won’t tell you which party made me mark my ballot paper with an X (a cursory glance through my blog will give you the answer) but what I can assure you is that this simple act of electoral democracy had deep, philosophical repercussions on me.
I have written before about my experience as an immigrant in the UK but the recent combination of passport renewal and a looming general election on 7th May have made me nostalgic somewhat. I have been reflecting on the hard-to-fathom euphoria I saw in April 1997 when I first visited Britain. Strangers talking to each other on the tube, on buses, in parks and other public spaces about Blair's New Labour vs John Major's Tories. A country, which according to my lectures at uni still had the “stiff upper lip” label attached to it, revealed a side of itself so surprising that, when I spoke about this phenomenon with my Cuban friends back in Havana, it left puzzled looks on their faces.
An immigrant’s life is a life of post-it notes. Both for those who stayed behind and for the friendships you form in your host nation. In my case these post-it notes have carried incomplete snippets of information. People here know that my mother and father still live in Cuba. They might know their professions. They might even know that I have a cousin who is more like a sister to me, the sister I never had. But they do not know about my best friend and his late mother, his late mother who was a great woman and who always had a kind word for me, for my children and my wife. My friends here might not know that one of the reasons why I became an English teacher was to avoid the draft at seventeen and thus the real danger of being shipped to Angola where the war was still raging on during my college years and where many of my young peers were getting killed. Likewise, the people I left behind in Havana might not know that I am about to take part in a life-changing event in a few days. They might think that all elections are the same and indeed they are in my country of birth. After all, I always knew who was going to be in power when I lived there. Forever and ever and ever and ever. But, right now, even allowing for apathy and for dodgy politicians and for posturing and mud-throwing and all the other inconveniences, I have hope. That, too, is part of my citizenship rite of passage. It was fifteen years ago in 2000 and it continues today.
There is gain and there is loss in an immigrant’s decision to up sticks and relocate. I have discussed here before the challenge of moving to a country in which one has no past, only a future but still working on the present. The past, the reference-filled past, is a chimera for the immigrant. It is unattainable even with post-it notes. Yes, I can talk about Fawlty Towers and Only Fools and Horses because I have seen these two sit-coms. But I was not here when they were first broadcast. An immigrant lives a second-hand-experience life whilst forging a first-one.
Immigrants are all different, which is the same as saying there are no bad or good immigrants, just immigrants. When politicians, like Nigel Farage, lay into us, they lay into what they see as a homogeneous, too-hard-to-parse group whose nuances escape the narrow confines of race, origin and language, to mention but three elements that define us. The back-of-the-lorry immigrant has post-it notes that might be almost unintelligible. They would be, wouldn't they, if they escaped war and poverty, if they saw their children perish in the Mediterranean, if they themselves were trafficked or if they were labelled "cockroaches" by some half-brained, faux-columnist in a tabloid newspaper? The visa-carrying immigrant coming out of the airport pushing their trolley with their luggage on, legitimate status validated by a stamp on arrival, might have pockets stuffed with post-in notes neatly typed up. But in both cases the post-it notes, like mine, will be incomplete. Most of us also share another common feature: after a while the word "home" denotes both the country we left behind and the one in which we live now. Try to figure that one out, reader!
I fell in love with a British woman and here I am. On 7th May I will cast my vote and at some point in the next few days or weeks my new passport will be pushed through the letterbox. Any sense of loss that I have felt so far (and there has been some) has been offset by a life in which I have been able to scribble, sometimes regularly and some other times less so, my own, incomplete, bullet-pointed, post-in notes. It is part of my rite of passage. It is part of being an immigrant.
Next Post: “Urban Dictionary”, to be published on Wednesday 6th May at 11:59pm (GMT)