Hi everyone! I hope you’re all having a great week / weekend / whenever you’re reading this. The other day, whilst thinking about the topic of immigration, I realised it’s been nine years since I moved to England. I was nine when I moved, so I’ve spent roughly half my life outside Mother Russia. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to reflect on what the ‘journey’ (dear Lord I do hate that metaphor but my brain is too tired to think of something groundbreaking and original) has been like for me, what I’ve learnt, and the multiple sides of skipping across borders. Of course, it’s difficult to narrow nine years to the constraints of a blog post and, being white and reasonably middle class, my experience differs from that of a refugee, an oligarch, a factory worker etc. However, immigration has been and always will be a hugely relevant topic so I thought it would be interesting to highlight the ‘reality’ of my own experience.
(You can check out my old post on immigration from a political and economic perspective here, although my views have definitely changed since then!)
Just as some background, I immigrated to the UK because my mum found a new relationship, and after hearing of the merits of the country’s education system, she wanted to maximise my future potential. She’d spent a few years looking to leave Russia and her moment finally came. The whole process was relatively easeful, and within three months we had settled in and were looking into getting a long term visa and a citizenship as a long term prospect, the formalities of which I don’t remember as I was quite young. I joined a primary school and since then I’ve grown up in accordance with British values, finished secondary school and currently, I’m waiting to start university in September.
That was a very brief summary of how and why I immigrated, but I think I’ll start this post with exploring some of my unfavourable experiences as a Russian in the UK, just so I can later end this post on a brighter note.
• The bullying.
I’m sure most immigrants, regardless of their birth country, have experienced teasing, malice or bullying of some sort. I didn’t expect this, and the majority of the people I met throughout my life in the UK have been welcoming, friendly and treated me as one of their own (especially when I became fluent in the language, as some don’t perceive that I’m from a differen’t country until I tell them!). However, it took me a long time to understand some people’s discomfort with foreigners and not take xenophobia personally. Also it’s important to address that this doesn’t exlusively happen to children and young people – it definitely happens to adults but in a more ‘discrete’ manner, in a way that doesn’t risk you getting fired from your job. For example, some of my mum’s collegues pretend not to understand her English when 99% of the population have no trouble in doing so, and make snide comments about Russia as a country without launching a direct attack. However, as I went to school as an immigrant, it was much more overt. I had everything from the typical ‘go back to your own country’ to being followed around and threatened. With age and the country as a whole becoming more open minded, outright bullying stopped being a problem for me, yet the odd eyeroll from a middle aged woman with a ‘can I speak to your manager’ haircut I notice whenever I start having a conversation in Russian with my mum on public transport still hurts. Even when I have a citizenship and this is as much my country as it is theirs.
• The questioning
Unlike the above, this one is more annoying than it is inexcusable. Whenever someone finds out I was born in a different country, I prepare myself to answer the exact same questions in the exact same order: ‘I moved here nine years ago…Yes I can speak Russian…Yes, I prefer living in England…No, I don’t drink vodka for breakfast…Yes, I still go back around twice a year’. I understand the curiosity but please, come up with something original. I can count the number of times I’ve had an interesting conversation about my birth country, that wasn’t just me reciting answers to a list of admin questions.
• Learning the language
For some, this may be a lovely experience, but not when you’re surrounded by arseholes. When I rellocated, I knew perhaps the first five phrases you would find in an ‘English for Beginners’ textbook, and people loved to take advantage of this, teaching me the wrong definition for certain words, which is funny in hindsight but certainly wasn’t when I told my favourite teacher that I was ‘so not excited’ for a year five school trip because I was told ‘excited’ meant ‘sad’. Don’t get me wrong, I still mispronounce words from time to time and turn this into a joke with my closest friend, but this is different to having a group of six or seven guys throwing paper balls at your 11-year-old self because you sometimes mix up your v’s and w’s.
• Learning the customs
This I would say was almost as difficult as learning the language, and I think certain areas of my mindset will stay ‘Russian’ for life regardless of where I live. However, in my first half a decade of being in England, I struggled to come to terms with fundamental cultural differences. For example, smiling means very different things in the two countries – in England it is a polite gesture, and if you make eye contact with a stranger you’re expected to follow this up with a smile, even if the gesture is purely cosmetic. In Russia, you preserve smiles for your closest circle, and grinning at strangers on the Moscow Underground is unlikely to end well. Similarly, Russians and Britons display different levels of honesty. I didn’t understand why I should tell someone a particular dress looks flattering on their bodytype, instead of expressing my honest opinion and saving them the impending embarassment.
And now, as promised, I will summarise some of the positives:
• Being bilingual
This is the reward for the gruelling process of learning a language from scratch in an unfamiliar, sometimes hostile environment. The importance of knowing at least one language outside of your native tongue is emphasised perhaps on a weekly basis by the press, and for once I’m in agreement with them. It’s a transferrable skill, it opens up employment prospects in more than one country, and you can have your own secret language (although as this post shows, the last benefit sometimes becomes a liability). It also broadens your mind as a whole because you’re able to think in different ways and view situations from different perspectives.
• Showcasing the benefits of immigration
One of the things I was taught as a child is the need to work hard regardless of how I feel and strive for overachievement. This principle will stick with me for life, and with my solid academic record I’ve enjoyed disproving critics who say immigrants are in the country to ‘steal jobs’ without injecting value into the economy.
• Meeting people from different countries and cultures
Russia is a vast country with many different regions, cultures and regional dialects but unlike in Britain’s muticultural society they are not well integrated. In college and especially in school, when I was still unfamiliar with British norms, I’ve always found it easy to talk to people from other countries because even if they weren’t Russian themselves, I always felt like we ‘got’ eachother due to the similiarity of our experiences and troubles. And obviously, it’s always interesting to compare and contrast our respective countries and then make further comparison with our new home, Great Britain.
• A better life
The cheesyness is so real I can almost taste the cheddar but this is the most obvious benefit. I’ll always love Russia but had I stayed there, I wouldn’t have had access to Britain’s amazing education system which is essentially why I came here in the first place. Both countries have their benefits and drawbacks, but I am glad I stuck through the initial difficulties of being in an unfamiliar place without an adequate knowledge of the language because of how this will reflect in my living standard for the rest of my life.
Thank you for reading, and please comment your thoughts and opinions on this topic below!
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