Let me tell you the story of the lowest day of my life. You see, I have gone through some bad and some good times; like anyone, I have had my struggles and my victories, although I have been lucky enough to experience more of the latter. But there is one day, one evening I remember more than any other — which is surprising, as not much happened. One would think it would be the day of an important funeral or other great loss. No. It was nothing like that.
Most of the time, I think, I spent lying on my bed and looking at the ceiling.
It was Monday, the 4th of October, 2010, and my first day at university. It was also my birthday; not that anyone forgot about it. I got plenty of messages, gifts, and hugs a few days before it. But right at that moment I was in a new country, with not a single familiar face around me — and suddenly I realized that though I may not be all alone in the whole wide world, it certainly felt that way.
I had only just come to the UK the day before — a not-so-successful story in itself. I had travelled all by myself, with two airplane approved bags containing the very few belongings I had. All the other kids in my accommodation came with their parents and a lifetime’s worth of stuff… and I didn’t even have a pillow. I had no clue English universities do not give you pillows in the dorms; but even if I did, well, pillows are not airplane approved. So I spent a day walking back and forth to Ikea with bags and bags of stuff I could not really afford, slowly filling my little room for myself and, well, by myself.
But it was my birthday that made me realize how alone I was. You see, I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday. Maybe if I had, I would not be left to feel so sorry for myself. But I didn’t feel like it mattered, like it shouldn’t matter to anyone. I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know their world. And, quite frankly, I didn’t think it could ever become like home to me. I was — on some metaphorical level — quite homeless. Quite lost.
When I first moved to the UK, I thought I had moved to a familiar place. After all, I was still in Europe; I was also still in a part of Europe I know, as, although culturally closer, I have no clue what I would have done with myself in the Balkans, for example. My English was great; I had graduated from a really good school with an international diploma. I was raised on English books and movies, I watched football, I had been to London at least once before. I was settled.
But it turned out I knew absolutely nothing. My first few days felt a bit like I was spectating tennis — everyone spoke so fast and about things I had no clue about, they may as well have been aliens. They all went on sharing school memories, comparing places of birth, speaking of their teachers and their holidays, and there was nothing there I could relate to. My collection of memories was incompatible with theirs. And although it was all very fascinating, seeing this other side of life, this other universe, it didn’t make me feel like I belonged. It made me realize that if I don’t do anything about it, I will always be an outsider.
People often tell stories of great migrations, of travelling across the globe to find a better place to live. Even others I know, others that have gone through quite a lot to make the UK or another country their own home, they all stick to the sunny side of the story. The grass is always green here. Nothing goes wrong in the dream land. Only success and hugs and rainbows.
But the reality is quite different, isn’t it? The world does not cease to be the world just because we think we have found our paradise. We still struggle and doubt ourselves and have the same problems everyone else does. Sometimes, it is all even worse, as the loneliness and the feeling of not belonging can become overwhelming quickly if not dealt with properly.
I have made it through. I adapted. I learned the ways of the world I ended up living in. But so many people don’t. And it is not always the outside hate that gets to them – although, you know, being told to go back to their own country probably does not help. The problem is in their heads. They just won’t — they just cannot — do it.
I know people who have lived abroad for years and years, much longer than I have, and still have not got a single friend who does not come from their own home country. Who still import food from their homelands, who stick to their own languages books and films, and who feel like they can just carry on living in their own country, just in a different place. Maybe they can. Maybe that is their way of coping. There is nothing wrong with this, I guess. But I find it hard to believe it does not make them sadder, that it does not make them miss their old life more.
That it doesn’t make them stuck in the past.
I cannot believe it doesn’t do this , because even with my very English lifestyle, very English boyfriend, and very English job, I still cry every time I get on a plane back to the UK. I doubt there will ever come a time when I don’t. I am yet to find myself another place where I feel as comfortable as I do back with my parents — back where I come from. It is funny how much power our childhood holds over us. How it teaches us one way of thinking and acting, and makes all other ways slightly… off. Forever.
It is my choice to stay here. It was my choice to come here to study, it was my choice to stay here to work. I may be hitting a low point from time to time, crying on the plane, missing my friends and family, but I have found a new life and made myself at home in this strange land, somehow.
And what is another privilege of mine — I can go back any time. I came here on a whim, chasing some ridiculous dream I don’t even remember anymore, and I CAN leave. Many can’t. There are people who bargained their life on this move. Many who simply don’t have a place to go back to. One day I will pack all my things and move to another country, and then do it again and again, till I find one close enough to what I dreamt of; but that is a luxury I should be grateful for.
I guess that is why some sides of Brexit hurt so much — this disdain for people who sacrificed their whole past betting for a better future. People who work hard, who struggle and who are building a country that will never consider them its own. I hate to admit it, but even with my sort of job, you know, full of people in suits who know better than others, I am surrounded by those who think that only immigrants who come here out of a curiosity for the world are acceptable and those who just try to survive, to make their lives better, should be kicked out like stray dogs.
There is a story behind each immigrant. A little, bitter-sweet tale of their own adventure. And regardless of whether it is a story of adventure or a story of necessity, it is important to acknowledge it. Being away from home can be hard, and sad, and full of nostalgia that no amount of money will get one used to. We don’t have to make it worse for them with a false sense of superiority that is simply not real.
All it takes is to simply listen to each other.