The Troublesome Immigrant – Eastern Europeans in the UK

There’s an issue that makes it difficult for me to be objective about Nikesh Shukla’s bestselling book, The Good Immigrant – and that is its title. The book was published in 2016, the year of the UK referendum, and it concerns itself solely with the BAME community. There is absolutely no mention at all of Eastern Europeans living in the UK.

Correction: there are plenty of mentions of Poles who make up the multicultural make-up of London. They just don’t speak for themselves. The problem is that in 2016, the British voice had spoken, and it has spoken against Eastern Europe. And somehow, Unbound thought it completely okay to title a book The Good Immigrant and not mention the Eastern European elephant in the room. Here’s the thing. If this was an isolated incident, I wouldn’t be complaining. But it’s not

First, we have Nigel Farage saying that he would prefer British employers to be able to discriminate in favour of British people in comparison with Eastern Europeans. He said, notably:

“I have to confess I do have a slight preference. I do think, naturally, that people from India and Australia are in some ways more likely to speak English, understand common law and have a connection with this country than some people that come perhaps from countries that haven’t fully recovered from being behind the iron curtain.”

Now, if I could pretend this was just Nigel Farage’s guilt for Britain’s 19th-century Empire speaking through him, I’d be a happier person. But notice he doesn’t actually compare Australia and India to France and Germany. No, he compared Australia and India in preference to countries, which “haven’t fully recovered from being behind the iron curtain”.  The former Eastern Bloc never had the somewhat doubtful ‘honour’ of having been a British colony, and unlike Western Europeans, we aren’t civilized by the virtue of our birthplace. In a Game of Thrones-style comparison, the inhabitants of the Eastern Bloc would be wildings from beyond the wall. This is what I learned during the referendum campaign – there are nice Europeans: German, French, Italians – and there are nasty Eastern European immigrants who steal our jobs and our unemployment benefits (although how they manage to steal both at the same time, I cannot imagine).

I happen to have an international BBC accent and two Oxbridge degrees, so people tend to assume that I am German, expat British or perhaps South African. When I disillusion them that I’m in fact Polish, there’s the occasional sigh of disappointment, or even unabashed surprise “Really? Well, I’d never have thought…” I remember the joy of one of the Polish cleaners at Oxford when she discovered I was from Kraków. “It’s so good to meet someone who’s Polish and actually studying here,” she told me.  One Cambridge student spoke to me at length as to why we should stop Eastern European immigration to the UK and when I told him I was Polish, said cheerfully “Well, I’d never spoken to a Polish person before I met you.”

After the referendum we had numerous reports of increased hate crime in the UK against all immigrant minorities, including graffiti, broken windows… etc. There was a sign in Oxfordshire not long ago stating “No Polish or Eastern Bloc Fishermen” on the front gate of a fishery, to which a friend of mine (also from the Eastern bloc) responded by suggesting, “But that means fisherwomen from the Eastern Bloc are fine, right?

Because I don’t have a typically Polish accent, I suspect a lot of things that tend to happen to Polish people in the UK pass me by. But I do remember vividly in 2017, talking to my Mum on the phone in Polish. A group teenaged of boys walked up to me on the street and made strange guttural noises that were supposed to imitate the language I was speaking. They thought it was hilarious. I ignored them.

Now I’m not saying Eastern Europeans are a saintly lot. Speaking for Poland (as my own country), I definitely know we aren’t. One sunny day when I was crossing the street, a driver who was speeding and clearly hadn’t noticed me crossing the street uttered a stream of swear words, in what he obviously assumed would be an incomprehensible language. Sadly, I could understand every word. He called me a fucking whore (“kurwa jebana”). I know racism against other ethnicities is rife among Polish people at home and abroad – that paradoxically many Polish people supported Brexit in the UK and are active participants in white supremacist gangs. A British friend of mine, in casual conversation, when talking about a mutual acquaintance said, “Ah, you know, but what else do you expect? All Poles are racist.” After a short pause, she added: “I don’t mean you, of course.” It’s annoying and slightly insulting to have the entirety of Poland be called racist. I did know what she meant. I would have been much less insulted if she had said ‘most Poles’. The accusation, in that case, might even have been statistically accurate, though you will have to believe me when I say there are plenty of exceptions to the rule.

So yeah, perhaps, we Poles (or Eastern Europeans in general, but in a calculating guess I will suspect quite a few of them are better behaved than Poles) don’t fit the “The Good Immigrant” label. Eastern Europeans can be racist, drunk and sometimes even violent. We are troublesome immigrants. But that doesn’t mean there are not plenty of normal individuals among us who are still being occasionally discriminated against. We are still human.  We’re troublesome, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be talked about.

I once wrote a piece of fiction featuring Polish immigrants. A British editor, unaware of the fact that I was Polish, questioned me “Why would you write about Polish immigrants? Surely there are minorities who suffer much more and are more interesting.” Well, sure. But that’s not the point. It’s not a “who suffers most” competition.

The point is, Polish is the second most common spoken language in England. Let’s talk about the immigrants who speak it. Ignoring them doesn’t make sense.

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