I’m actually a little salty at the moment because last night someone made fun of my accent. There’s often no malice in pointing out someone’s differences but sometimes these kinds of remarks find the soft spot in my scalyness. I think the reason for this is that my parents emigrated to Yorkshire when I was one year old, and I learnt to speak there. Then we were in Texas for a year when I was six; suddenly I had relatives but they didn’t speak like me and everybody thought my little Yorkshire accent was just so adorable and it was like I wasn’t real I was a pet. Then we came back to the U.K. I started noticing that my parents didn’t speak like me either. When I got a bit older I noticed that they didn’t understand a lot of things about British culture that I found obvious and impossible to explain. Soon I realized that I didn’t understand a lot of their cultural norms and found these ‘norms’ baffling and often irritating. I noticed I was labeled at school and other places as the girl with foreign parents and therefore I was a foreigner myself. All that stuff’s pretty nasty.
Once I was 18 I was no longer protected by the human rights laws that prevent minors who’ve lived their entire lives in Britain from being sent back to their country of origin. I discovered this too late. Suddenly I was required to pay $40,000 per year for my education instead of $4,000. Suddenly I wasn’t eligible for scholarships. Suddenly it wasn’t legal for me to work or even volunteer. Being rejected for volunteer positions based on my new residency status was the worst bit. What a very clear way it was of telling me I was no longer allowed to be a part of the community.
Very suddenly I had to be a foreigner in America and when people imitated my accent to tease me it was a slap in the face; you don’t belong here, but isn’t it funny that you have to live here? How funny to be rejected from the home that brought you up and formed your voice and personality and opinions and tastes. I’m quite stubborn so I tried for years to get home by any means necessary including but not limited to: attempting to join the military, working illegally as a cleaner, writing strong letters to MPs, applying to retrain as a barrister, and contemplating several candidates willing to enter into a green card marriage with me.
After six years I ran out of schemes. I finally let it die and to be candid I thought I was gonna die myself, then something unexpected happened. I started seeing people all around me who have experienced everything that I have and much more. New York is full of people from elsewhere, and people who embody multiple cultures within themselves, and people who grew up here but have parents from elsewhere and are now being rejected by this country, even though this country is their home and in some cases, the only home they’ve ever known. Like an idiot I thought my experience of alienation was singular but I’m surrounded by thousands.
I can’t really describe how much I’ve come to love New York because as a Brit, the idea of gushily expressing a positive emotion about something makes me want to vomit. But I do love New York because of its people. I’ve got fam now. I don’t look or speak like any of them and all of us have different cultural heritages and there is this frankly overwhelming acceptance and celebration of our diversity that freaks me out because it’s made me absolutely at home. I’d be embarrassed to tell them how much it means to me to be included and recognized as one of their own.
There’s my experience and then there’s millions of others with a similar thread but different and much more dangerous and painful circumstances. Pretty much everything I care to make as a person who makes things is about those experiences of exile. I’m not satisfied with the way that the U.K. or the U.S. are handling immigration, or with the prevalent xenophobia all over the world—I’m not even close to satisfied with it. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to think of anything else besides this humiliated and furious dissatisfaction and that bleeds into my work and that is how we ended up with SWANS.