The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla.
I loved this book and hated it, in about equal measure.
The various authors deal quite beautifully, sometimes wittily, with deeply painful experiences of immigrant life in Britain without, in most part, expressing any bitterness.
Boundaries appear to be broken between members of minority communities by the act of sharing stories of growing up as outsiders in a majority culture, when folk in that culture largely don’t get you or don’t want to get you.
The book creates understanding between communities because readers are left knowing “isn’t just me and people of my culture” who are feeling left out or hurt. The stories also partly educate the majority culture, for anyone who wants to learn by listening.
The reader is left hoping that cringe-worthy attempts to “welcome” or “accommodate” folk who grew up in the UK vanish. You can only feel slight pity for the white yoga lady who clasps prayerful hands together as she greets a complete, British born, stranger with an inappropriate “namaste”, or the white cafe owner who serves “pants chicken”. Who wants to avoid being like them?
The authors pick away at the stitches of racial (media) stereotypes. Individuality shines through, albeit in a liberal chattering class kind of way.
Erudite complaints are mixed with honesty and self-deprecating humour. This affords the authors deeply critical comment which doesn’t really offend but expects some nodding engagement, acceptance or coffee shop debate. The content and perspective of the essays are a sign, to me, of some serious cultural integration with dominant British media culture.
The stories in “The Good Immigrant” stir both empathy and frustration.
I am a 6’6″ red haired Scotsman who has lived in two SE-Asian countries and now live in multi-ethnic West Bromwich.
My Anglicised Scottish accent and family culture still doesn’t fit in England, twenty six years after migrating.
The day I wrote this review I bumped into a fellow Church of England vicar on a campsite. I said to one of our campsite neighbours “what did you do to deserve having two clergy next door on holiday?” The vicar said “Are you Church of Scotland?” “No, I’m an Anglican.” I replied. “Are you a Scottish Episcopalian?”. “No, I am a Church of England vicar, like you”. “Sorry” he said “Your accent made me think you are from Scotland.” “I am AND I live in West Bromwich’.
Last week, up the market, an Asian market trader and I were chatting away about his business. We spoke bout helping the homeless, he said “You’re from somewhere far away, right?” I replied “No, I am a local. I live just up the high street”. “But you’re not from here. You’re from way up north, right? Your accent is not local like mine!”
True, but I am I not from West Bromwich?
Today, another Asian passer-by, who stopped to talk about my dog, said “You’re not local, are you?” “No I said, but you are.” “Yes, I grew up in Birmingham.” He replied.
West Bromwich is gloriously multi-ethinic. Yet I exist in an ethnic minority of only two Scots, as far as I know. The other Scot is second generation. So, no one gets my heritage.
Many folk will share fond stories of going to Edinburgh or the Isle of Skye on holiday, being stunned by the beauty of the mountains and surprised, contra stereotypes, by the hospitality and generosity of their hosts. The passer-by today had lived in Paisley, and enjoyed it.
But going on holiday doesn’t make anyone an expert on the history, narrative and culture which shapes the people in a nation. Being Scottish, like any other nationality, is caught not taught.
Like some of the contributors to “A Good Immigrant”, I was bullied for being different. Only 2-6% of northern Europeans are red heads. Add to that, I was skinny, gangly, tall, malco-ordinated, clumbsy. John Gordon Sinclair, Gregory’s Girl, was me, except I was ginger.
I was bullied at school, had footballs kicked in my face, was treated unkindly for being ginger and for blushing furiously.
I can’t imagine the added layers of trauma which stem from being different in a culture which your parents chose to live in but is not their own.
My parents lived in Scotland because their parents and their parents parents, as far back as we can know, lived there (although my maternal grandparents migrated to England for work and retired to Scotland). I get being singled out and abused for hair and skin colour, for being different.
It is really hard being different in a world where there are cruel or insecure people who get a rise by picking on people who don’t quite fit. I also know the experience of keeping quiet in front of my patents because of shame after being bullied.
I chose, as an adult, to migrate. First to England then overseas and back again.
Being 6’6″ I get really sick of the question “how tall are you?” or “what’s the weather like up there?”
I remember, with an alloy of sadness and amusement, the various times that complete strangers in the countries I lived in overseas remarked in public on my skin colour, hair colour and height. “Orang Putih/Mat Salleh tinggi, lah” Gyo lo/Ang mo… Gorah…
I am secure in my identity as an adult, but being red head carries childhood insecurity and memories with it.
It’s clear that people like to code and sort each other. To place origins and distinguish on appearance and accent. That, it seems, is just the way we humans operate. How we handle difference, it seems, is the key.
It’s tough being different, when growing up or living in a country where you look different.
I’ve been coded/sorted and bullied for being different. I empathise. So I love the book for the wit and pain.
The next post will reflect why I hate the book.
Hate is too strong, but love and frustrate don’t grab anyone’s attention. I am frustrated by “The Good Immigrant”.