There are many things I could and should say about what it is like to be an immigrant. Maybe it is best to start roughly 2 years ago, sometime in late summer I was sitting on the Piccadilly line on my way from Uxbridge back to the city. I was with my friend Sean (not his real name), my boss at the time. We went to Uxbridge to test my students, the cleaners of a big office complex, whom I had taught for about 4 months. It was possibly the best and most exhilarating experience of my life as a teacher. They were Indian and Pakistani ladies, from all over and from all kinds of different backgrounds. There was a Nepalese lady, too, I taught her longhand. She spoke and could write in three languages (Nepalese, Hindi and Tibetan), but she was not familiar with the Latin alphabet. So I brought her exercise books and she got to work while I was teaching the others and at the end of the class she showed me how she did. I corrected her mistakes and gave her lots of homework, which she always did diligently. She learned a lot, she could write well by the time we finished the course. Other than that, I was there to tech basic skills (literacy and numeracy), which I did, but we also talked about life, food, their families and what it was like to be an immigrant.
I had been a teacher on and off for almost a decade by then, I had had all kinds of students, most of them middle class and western. But I had never experienced such openness and understanding towards different peoples as I did in that room every Friday. It was not the “touchy-feely, everyone is my friend” kind of openness, no. They would have been against their children marrying into a family whose religious background or even caste differed from theirs. They would not have invited each other to their homes – if the specific colleague’s background was not appropriate, either. Yet I felt they were who they were and saw that everyone is different and they accepted themselves and others despite their differences. It sounds basic, but I find it is by no means self-evident and widespread. And it is where I believe real tolerance lies. Anyway, I loved teaching them and I think learnt a great deal more than they did.
It was the last day of the course, they took the test and afterwards Sean and I took the tube back to the city. It is a rather long commute, an hour or so. So we got to talking about life, our families and well, me and my prospects. Sean, you see, comes from a large Irish family, his mom is Northern Irish and his dad was from County Kerry. His dad came over in the 1950s and worked as a builder all his life. Sean and his brother were both smart and thanks to their very tough Catholic school they both went to Oxford. Where Sean promptly became a Marxist and a keen observer of the Class Struggle, so our conversations always ended up being about that. You see, I did study some Marx at university, but not a whole lot and I did not feel the need, either – as where I am from his reputation is slightly… Tarnished.
I am not sure how whether our conversation had a lot to do with Marx, mind you. Either way, Sean was convinced if you born into a class you will more or less die as such. I did not believe in that. Or at least I very much wanted not to. Sean thought as an immigrant ex-middle class person (from Eastern Europe, of all places) I was worse off than someone British from a lower class (whatever that means). As I am one of the untouchables, a declassé, a nobody, an obscure, non-existent, highly suspicious person. From the point of view of the great British public in general (or so Sean thought). I have very little chance to succeed. And if I did it was because being middle class might translate into a different culture after all and I might have a slight chance. “Shit floats upwards, too. No offense.” By then I was gasping for air. I had spent chunks of my life in the US, where the complete opposite is drummed into you and I came to Britain with high hopes. But “The American Dream” Sean thought was bullshit. I have to look the part, I have to sound the part, I have to be able to be friends with the right people. None of which is within reach for me, obviously. That and Britain, Sean believed, is less socially mobile now than it was say, in 1965. Top it all with a recession and general suspicion towards immigrants. Plus I am old (well, thanks for that, too). I will succeed, he thought, in the second half of my thirties, when I come to my senses and go back to Hungary.
But I had faith and I told Sean I wanted to write about people, politics and immigrants. I want to work for a newspaper interested in others’ point of view, those from outside the Pale. I could be that. I am an outsider and I have a lot to say. I want to be part of the conversation and I do not want to be invisible, like I am now. Or, I should clarify, I felt thus then. Because if I felt invisible I wonder how those lovely cleaner ladies must have felt? Well, they do not think about such things, that’s how. They are who they are and that’s it. Stuff like that is the opium of the riches (yes, misquoting Marx here, just to hint at my intellect). Wondering about being invisible – bullshit! They just get on with their lives and do what they do and live. And I bloody well should, too.
But then and there I told Sean about my dreams and aspirations and like a real American girl I repeated several times that I refuse to give up. I told him he was dead wrong, he disagreed etc. By the time we got this far, we were in Knightsbridge. And right before the tube stopped a tall, blond, young woman came over to us. “I have been listening to your conversation for some time and it was very interesting. I applaud you – she said, looking at me, sounding much like Prince Charles – I think you will go far and please, do not give up.” And the train stopped and she got off. I was overwhelmed with feelings, happiness. My American pollyanna deep down was jumping about in her little pink dress and purple mary-janes, her faith in people restored… I almost cried. The wilderness years are over, there is hope, after all. There are nice people, too, people, who say nice things at stuff.
Sean listened to my tirades for a minute then thought it is time he brought me back to earth. “Saw where she got off? It would not have been more obvious if she had got off at Buckingham Palace. She is posh. Real posh. She is the one standing in the queue way in front of you. A queue you could join at the very end, only because you used to be middle class and you are not bad looking. Sh she might be nice to your face now, but would stab you in the back in under a minute if she felt you were a threat to her career.”