Arrival: Notes from a Migrant Goan
Nobody tells you how vulnerable you’re about to become. The plane lands and your emotions start to heighten once you pass through immigration. Even if someone is waiting for you in Arrivals, you know somewhere deep within that your whole world is about to change. You just have no idea how, or how much.
It is 1997 and I’ve landed at Heathrow airport’s Terminal 3 from Goa, India, where my parents are from. The England I anticipate meeting is the clichéd version, with tweed-clad gentlemen standing by rose bushes in front of cosy thatched cottages. In my mind, the women sit daintily at tables in the back garden, smelling of Yardley talcum powder and pouring tea from their flowery tea sets. Children have picnics of ham sandwiches and fresh apples at the seaside and on clifftops, just as they do in Enid Blyton’s books.
By now, I’ve lived in many places, including the conservative Islamic state of Kuwait (where I grew up) and cocaine-fuelled Miami (where I began studying for my bachelor’s degree). But nothing has quite prepared me for the culture shock of watching eighteen-year-old British boys and girls chugging beer and then violently throwing up in the university student bar at 5 p.m. after winning a rugby game and trying to drown themselves in their body weight of beer. The students have alcohol and sex on the brain, an obvious riposte to the controlled, conservative family environments they were raised in. I search desperately for a clique of sober nerds and find that ‘my people’ are the fifty or so international students scattered around the campus.
My belief is that I am starting my second year at Nottingham University (having had to transfer from my university in Florida after my F1 student visa was unexpectedly cancelled) and I’m excited by the thought of a huge sprawling campus like the one I’d been attending in Miami. But the School of Biological Sciences, where my course is taught, is in the tiny village of Sutton Bonington, where there is a little sub-campus of Nottingham University. It consists of about 700 people and is about half an hour’s drive from the city. I want to rail at Fortune for abandoning me in a village. Instead I swallow another deep disappointment so soon after being blackballed from the United States.
The professors turn out to be staid, cold and merciless. The campus is so tiny that it takes on the characteristics of a provincial village – everybody knows everyone else’s business. Students (and even some professors) keep boredom at bay with drink and sexual promiscuity. This is the first time that I’ve felt compelled to cut out a large section of myself to fit into a world that I can’t fathom. I’ve been raised with conservative, middle-class values but I’ve also lived in extreme environments. In Miami, my friends were from middle-class Haiti, Belize and Nicaragua. They had escaped difficult living conditions and were on study scholarships and financial aid. They studied full-time while they worked at extra jobs to pay off college tuition bills. In contrast, Sutton Bonington is full of over-privileged, spoiled brats who are being groomed to take over top posts in Britain’s corporate and landed hierarchy. The level of culture shock I experience tells me that I am going to stand out like a sore thumb.
The international students here become my tribe. We are individuals cast adrift in the same foreign boat. We look for and find solace in each other’s familiar sense of abandonment and individuality. Perhaps we have all cut away sections of ourselves to fit in. Instead, we fit together. Culture shock unites us. We marvel at the strange adherence to punctuality and the ultra-politeness that the British insist is characteristic of a civilised society. It all goes over our heads. I can’t tell when someone is angry with me anymore – real emotion is contained behind a patina of politeness and civility. It becomes a game I must learn, and start to play. Eventually, it leads to a job in London, but the process of getting there involves killing off more parts of myself to fit into professional life in England.
I’ve grown up in a Goan family that taught me that he who speaks the loudest is heard first. In professional Britain, the opposite applies. Passion in your voice gets you dismissed, not noticed, because people take it for aggression or rudeness. One doesn’t have a sense of humour unless one excels at sarcasm. Wit is revered. I become quiet around Brits. I tell myself that I’m learning by observing. I realise only much later that silence has become my coping mechanism.
I am under the impression that people here are burdened by a lack of emotion that might have been spent in the Second World War, an event that continues to colour the memories of everyone around me. Oral histories of the war are etched in their psyches and I watch their eyes brim as they recount stories of rationing and memories of grandfathers who served during the British Raj. These images unobtrusively play over and over in their hearts and minds. My interactions are inadvertently coloured by ‘Othering’. I’m not sure who’s doing the labelling, them or me.
This isn’t diverse, multi-racial London I’m in. This is the boondocks of provincial, elitist England. Unfortunately, much of it is lost on me during the two years it takes to complete my bachelor’s degree. When I graduate, I realise that I have friends who have no idea what it means to live as an Indian in Britain. They’re all Caucasian European and I’m likely the brownest friend most of them have ever had. I feel disconnected from their childhood stories of horse-riding or of holidays spent in Mallorca, Nice or Bournemouth.
I make the decision to apply only for jobs in London, where I can escape provinciality and I’m more likely to find people ‘of my ilk’. I take the first job that comes my way, without having any idea if the salary is enough to keep me in food, accommodation and savings. It isn’t. I find myself living from one salary payment to another. Transport on the tube is expensive and I didn’t even know to factor that in. I don’t want to live with strangers in London, so I rent a cheap studio flat in East London which costs over half my monthly salary. After about nine months, it is broken into one Saturday while I’m out.
I can’t let myself cry as two policemen scan the tiny space, asking me to list all the electronic and personal items that have been stolen.
‘There are no glass surfaces.’
I look at the policeman, confused.
‘It’s difficult to lift fingerprints off any surfaces, unless they’re glass. Everything here is made of plastic and wood.’
Here are a few of the things I will never recover because I don’t live in a greenhouse. The tiny Mac computer my brother has lent me; my prized CD collection, including the one of Rachmaninoff’s second – played by the composer himself and recorded in 1929 – which was a gift; my radio – the only one I could afford with my first salary – even the suitcases where I’d been storing my winter clothes, personal diaries and photographs; are all stolen. Strangers have rifled through my personal belongings, including my underwear. The police tell me that there has been a rash of burglaries lately by a group in search for any valuables they can sell to buy drugs. I hold on till the locksmith comes and then try to think of someone I can call who can help, or at least someone with whom I could stay for a couple of days until I can feel safe again. One is an Anglo-Indian friend who says Yes when she means No. I am no stranger to subtext. Another is entertaining friends and gives me a clear No. A third is an elderly Indian gentleman, a closet homosexual, who blesses me with a Yes.
I arrive at his flat with a toothbrush and a change of clothes, and sit on his couch, letting the shock of being burgled wash over me. The only thing I feel like doing is stroking the stray ginger cat he has recently adopted. He pushes something my way. I look down at the cup in his hand.
‘What is it?’ I ask blankly.
‘Tea. It’s good for you.’
‘No, thank you.’ I return to stroking the cat on my lap.
‘Have it. It’s hot and sweet.’ He gentles his voice. ‘It will help soothe your nerves.’
I take it and sip gingerly from the flowery teacup he’s handed me. He’s right. It helps.
‘Have you called your parents yet?’ he asks.
‘No. But I will, later. After I know they’ll be reassured that I’m handling it and I’m OK.’
They couldn’t do anything even if they wanted to. They are too far away to be of any help. People rarely talk about how traumatising it is to be an immigrant; how vulnerable you really are. At least, no one in my family does. My parents were immigrants in Kuwait. I can’t recall them ever using that word to define themselves, though they often use it to define other non-Goan immigrants. As I said, I cut off bits of myself to survive living in England. No one warned me that this would be a requirement.
Going on an annual holiday to Goa means spending a huge chunk of my savings. Nobody had prepared me for that, either. I can’t seem to figure out how to live in a positive, healthy environment or at least work towards building one and save up something for my future. My savings are spent on not being alone for Christmas. Not once do my parents suggest spending Christmas with me. The cold is their biggest gripe. I don’t blame them. I’m desperate to be immersed in warm weather, heat, sunshine and some sense of family for at least a couple of weeks each year. Though several years have passed, I still feel that I am a stranger in Britain and a visitor in my parent’s home in Goa, where they have retired. I don’t feel able to tell them about what life in Britain is really like for me. Nobody wants to hear the sob story of a privileged middle-class girl who has been given a chance to get out, but is flailing.
However, I do try, thinking that my father might be sympathetic. ‘Papa, England isn’t really working out for me.’
He looks up from his newspaper. ‘Is it the weather?’
‘Er . . . not really. It’s more than that.’
‘Why don’t you migrate to Australia instead? The weather is better there.’
I sit there, confused, and stare at him. This is the man who once told me and my brother how in the early sixties he travelled for a week by ship to get from Karachi to Kuwait to work as a bank clerk and make coffee for his seniors; he couldn’t afford a sweater to keep himself warm in the cold, desert winter and slept on a mat on a terrace when endless power cuts couldn’t provide any relief during the sweltering heat of summer months. He went into cinemas when he could afford it, just to enjoy the air-conditioning when nights were too hot. He got married because he was bored hanging out with bachelors who gambled and drank homemade wine because they couldn’t tolerate living in a dry country. I heard about the years of sacrifice, indignity and prejudice that my father put up with while he slowly ascended through the ranks to become chief accountant at the bank. All the while, this same man dreamed of a Utopian Goa where he would one day retire, a Utopia where he now lives and that frustrates him on a daily basis.
Bribery, rife corruption, endless bureaucracy and worse inefficiency keep him in a cycle of rage and bitterness. He had dreamed of living a better life by the time he retired and returned to the land of his birth. Does he realise that the same dreams he’d had, he is pushing onto me? To get away from the corruption and inefficiency at any cost. As a mother who’s gone through hours of labour pains soon forgets and wants another baby, my father wants the same that he’s had, for me. It’s the bittersweet dream of every middle-class parent to have a child who studies abroad (meaning USA, UK, Canada or Australia) and if they’re lucky and work hard, gets to ‘settle’ there too. Never mind the price.
I am at lunch with a colleague in a café in Soho, London, when a middle-aged Indian man with a faded suitcase walks past the café’s glass front, sees me through the window and with a beaming smile walks through the door and straight up to me. In clear Hindi, a language I’m hardly fluent in, he says something, then shows me an address scribbled on a piece of paper. Looking at the address, my heart plummets. There is no house number or street name, just the name of a place I’ve never heard of, a comma and ‘Soho, London’. I know that he’s been had. Someone has made him promises, taken his money, given him a fake address, promised him help on the other side and left him to the wolves. I shake my head and, when he doesn’t budge, I stand up and lead him to the door. I look up and down the street and see a policeman at the end near Soho Market. I point to the policemen and in the best Hindi I can muster say, ‘Isko pucho’ (Ask him), in the hope that the policeman has encountered something similar before and will know how to handle it better than I do.
I live in England for fourteen years, in London for eleven of those. I stay put, always hoping it will get easier somehow, that I’ll be able to build something for myself. But, I don’t see signs of this happening. With every passing year, things only get harder. It gets harder to build, maintain and then save relationships of any kind, friendships too. The corporate life is too cold and calculating – it cuts away at bits of me until I move into working with charities and start again from the beginning. It is a much better fit than corporate Britain. But, when long term contracts shift into contract extensions that dwindle from nine months to six to three and I find myself being expected to work on different projects for three months at a time, I decide to throw in the towel. I realise that job security is a myth in today’s world. The recession is hitting charities hard.
By then, I have an MA in Creative Writing and have carved a collection of stories into publishable form. I cash in my redundancy cheque, move to a beach in Goa and live off my savings while I search for a literary agent and a publisher. The sound of crashing waves, the sunshine and the heat are like balm to my cut-up self. I begin to put myself back together again.
Four years and a published novel later, I’m still living on a Goan beach in India. I miss friends back in London, the museums and theatres, the dining-out and the easier living; but then I remember how difficult it is to fit in, to find warmth, to earn a living as a creative without a strong support system to rely on. I’ve been privileged in many ways, lucky in others. All said and done, I can still recall the difference in my emotions when I was a fresh arrival on England’s shores and when I arrived in Goa to live there for the first time in my life. The feelings are miles apart. The first arrival made me want to throw up in anxiety. The other felt like a welcoming womb I could snuggle into.
Perhaps your sense of arrival and emotional response to it varies depending on the phase of life you’re in or what experience you’re going through. It certainly helps if you have a support system to catch you when you fall, and help you feel protected and safe at least through tough times. In a world where migration appears to be a way of life common to most, it is surprising how little one hears about the vulnerability migrants face. Families that have experienced this need to be able to talk openly about their migrant experiences, both the bad and the good, if only to lessen the traumatic effect that others may face. It’s taken some distance, but I now consider myself lucky to have had the experience that I did of being a migrant Goan in Britain. However, I can’t help wondering about the fate of others who end up standing in Soho Market with a suitcase in one hand, a useless piece of paper in the other and a feeling of deep despair that even a policeman cannot assuage.