As I apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK, I reflect on my ten years as an immigrant, including the concept of belonging, mixed race identity, and that so-called American passion — with allusions to my favourite parts of British culture along the way.
As I write this, My Life in the UK test is tomorrow. It’s my next step towards citizenship.
I remember being seventeen, collecting albums of British artists on CD, listening to the BBC, on my iPod. I also downloaded a podcast by a very English gentleman who walked around London’s parks, recording the atmosphere with the occasional commentary. There weren’t very many podcasts back then, and this one was especially delightful, because I could close my eyes and imagine I was there. At that age, it would have been just like me to take practice tests of this Life in the UK test, just for fun. I clung to whatever information and inspiration I could find, on my quest to read English at the University of Oxford.
As a teenage summer student there, I dodged my programme’s 5 o’clock curfew by asking whether there was a morning curfew as well. Could my friend and I go out, at say, 6am? What do we want to do outside at 6am? Well, we said…Go for a run? Exercise felt valid. But really we just wanted to be there, to soak up everything in our two-week time slot. We jogged around the block in our Converse shoes, and enjoyed the empty streets of Oxford all to ourselves.
A couple autumns later, I matriculated at the university. I began each day with a walk, not quite at 6am, but keeping that tradition alive. I dared myself to take the least familiar streets, to keep it new, to remind myself every day that I was living my dream. Before arriving, I had memorised the map of the city, all the colleges and their crests. I was surprised to find that no one else had done this, it seemed. But like Hermione and Hogwarts, A History, I felt like I was catching up. Most of the other students grew up in this country, even if Oxford is a world of its own.
I felt distinctly American in contrast to my soft-spoken peers, who taught me quirky daily life details that aren’t covered on my Life in the UK test, such as the fact that ‘tea’ can mean dinner as well as the beverage.
In fact, the topic of tea is not covered on my test at all! But I had, of course, read several books on the subject in preparation for my move, and could brew the perfect loose leaf cuppa with ease. One of my first stops upon arrival at Oxford was Cardews in the Covered Market, where I stocked up on Assam, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, you name it. But my friends would request ‘normal tea’, so I learned to keep a box of tea bags on hand, along with a tiny carton of milk in my tiny fridge. Every student bedroom came equipped with a kettle, facilitating the cheery tradition of hospitality that rings: “I’ll put the kettle on!”. In general, I was rightly accused of being ‘loud’ and ‘enthusiastic’, but I have this theory that the English will save up all their quiet enthusiasm for this one ritual, of being offered a cup of tea. Their eyes will go wide with an “ooooo yes!” or “yeahhhh go on then”. If a cup was declined with an “I’m aright thanks”, it is customary to ask if the person is feeling okay.
Another early purchase was a huge map of the UK, which filled my entire bulletin board. I would glance up and learn the geography. This was my strategy for becoming acquainted with where everyone was from, to avoid staring blankly at someone’s answer to where they’re from, like the obvious foreigner I was. The map still hangs on our mantle, and continues to grow pins marking our travels.
While for the most part people were kind and polite, on occasion I’d be shaken out of intellectual debate by being called out for using an ‘American’ word. “Speak English,” they would say, and I’m not sure whether this ‘joke’ was also directed at my Asian-ness, even unconsciously. When I told Oxford townies that I was there for an English degree, they would say, warmly, “But your English is so good!”. It took many years after graduation for me to realise that this one was definitely directed at my Asian-ness.
As discrimination goes, I’ve certainly experienced worse. But these specific jabs at what makes me not belong, reminders that my student visa would run out, that my peers had the luxury of boredom in a border control queue – it does hurt, a tiny bit at a time.
I read that in 2020, hate crime against British East and Southeast Asian people tripled.
That stat checks out with the increased racism I’ve experienced personally, even though I’m half white, and even though I wouldn’t describe my interactions as ‘hate crimes’. For instance, for the first time, people on the street started meowing at me. MEOW! Snickered two people, on three separate occasions. This odd kind of ‘cat calling’ felt like being mocked, but I couldn’t tell what I was being mocked for. Was I wearing some cat garment I’d forgotten about?
The third time, it clicked, and I realised they weren’t meowing. They were Ni hao-ing. “I’m not Chinese!” I said back, when I suddenly realised this. I made myself smile, but it came out bristling. My whole body trembled with the confusion of being cajoled in my own English-speaking country in a language I don’t know. Not to mention the general stress of being on a street during a pandemic. I criticised myself all the way home, hoping it didn’t sound like I was suggesting there is anything wrong with being Chinese. No. This wasn’t my fault. Ahhh I don’t know! It’s hard. Even as I tell this story, it feels like such a small thing, but it still winds me up, keeps me alert and on my guard.
In small talk, a white British citizen gets to pick out something about me that emphasises how I am not in the majority. The conversation around them is in the present: what do you do, perhaps. The conversation around me insists on pushing me back to the past: when did I enter this country and for what reason, where in Asia are my ancestors from, where did I come from, to have that accent.
A British passport will not end these kinds of encounters for me.
I realised something recently. Feeling like I belong here is my choice. According to the Life in the UK Handbook (3rd Edition), this country prides itself on being welcoming and inclusive. I do appreciate this intention, even though in practice, the country is far from perfect. Decolonisation remains a work in progress. And deflecting the racism in this country as ‘not as bad as in the US’ is a micro-aggression in itself, by the way, especially when directed to an American.
For my first years in the UK, I fought an unconscious battle of belonging. In recent years it has become a conscious one. But now, I choose to belong, full stop, as they say. Let people who have a problem with me, and immigrants like me, spend their time being bothered about that, if that’s how they choose to spend their headspace. It helps me to imagine that they’re the miserly Mr Curry, Peter Capaldi’s character in Paddington 2. I know the truth. I know that I deserve to feel welcome here, just like Paddington.
I used to say that UK Visas & Immigration was my boggart.
Every airport arrival is still a little tense. I remember that first entry on a student visa, feeling woozy from the overnight flight, and an hour-long Heathrow queue. I was asked to present my Oxford acceptance letter, which… I’d sent through with my check-in luggage. I stumbled to salvage the situation, offering my English Literature reading list and a carryon crammed with novels as evidence. He believed me and stamped my visa. Perhaps he took pity. More likely, it wasn’t my convincing student-ness at all, but my privilege coming from the US.
Last year, a border control agent in Edinburgh customs asked why, on my form, I’d stated the next time I’d leave the country. I had been putting down the date of my next holiday or visit to my family in the US all this time. “You live here,” he said,” You can just put ‘resident’”. Oh! I swelled with recognition, this moment of realised trust, that the UK didn’t actually want to babysit my every move, and that this person had bothered to assure me of this. The tension at the airport has eased a little since then.
For ten years, I’ve voted in every American election by post, and have hardly been in my own country of origin to experience the result of these votes firsthand.
As I start to seek community as a Person of Colour, I realise that actually, in virtual groups for Asian Americans, I feel more comfortable with the Asian part of my identity than the American part. Living in Edinburgh, Americans come and go, each new friend, each new trip ‘home’ to the US, reminding me how unfamiliar a place it is to me.
The first time I visited Scotland I felt a sense of deeper belonging than I ever did in England. Maybe it’s in my blood, my quarter-ish Scottish-ness, maybe it’s having the distinguished Scottish surname Burns. Like the poet.Maybe it’s just that Scotland is a particularly welcoming place, with a particularly pleasant border control staff. I love it here.
I used to worry about getting kicked out of this country. Now… they don’t want any of us to go anywhere at the moment. It’s a strange relief. I can’t ‘go back to my country’ as the sneers sometimes say. I also can’t see my family, although in some ways I feel closer to them than ever. They have even been helping me study for my test over email.
I would probably study more efficiently, if I didn’t stop to curate my Life in the UK playlist when inspiration strikes (the first song is “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols). But I’m sure the pub quizzes help.
My family has been doing birthday quizzes on Zoom this year, as our favourite form of celebration is competition. I’ve been sending them daily questions from my UK practice tests, some hilarious, some hard. It helps me revise (that’s British for ‘study’ or ‘review’), and is even better than the celebration at the pub afterwards that isn’t possible right now. With these quizzes, I am not a lone immigrant, but a member of a family pub quiz team, with every review session its own daily bit of fun.
I put on the kettle in the afternoon, and make myself a pot of tea in my very British tea set, a present from Emma when we were students. It’s from Paperchase, decorated with a set of cartoon cakes waving Union Jack flags. This motif was apparently so me that Jenny also gifted me a set of containers from that same collection. I brew tea I ordered online from Cardews in the Covered Market, and place a sensible number of biscuits on the saucer, for good English measure.
Moving to the UK was my calling, my passion.
In Crazy Rich Asians — which, by the way, is pretty much the extent of my knowledge of China — Eleanor Young says, “How American, to follow one’s passion.” This attempt at an insult has been directed at me many times here in the UK: How American. Is it though? I may read your literature through an American lens, but it’s still your literature. In your most celebrated stories, your characters confront conformity, from Harry to Matilda, not to mention Hamlet. What is Marianne Dashwood if not passionate? Don’t forget that what makes us American was born in Britain. Our passion (and, may I gently remind you, our slave trade) comes from you.
In my ten years as an immigrant, I’ve grown to learn that, actually, Britain? You need us.
Perhaps, it takes immigrants like me to point out a common theme in your revered classics, and your present day West End successes: Billy Elliot, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – these stories about personal passion, are approved by your public with a mainstream stamp.
So, UKVI, I realise that there is no essay portion of this application, for indefinite leave to remain, but, if you’re reading this, I assure you: I am enthusiastic about my residence here, and unapologetic for my American enthusiasm. Like my favourite British immigrant, Paddington, I intend to be a good citizen and good neighbour. I will sign this with love, because I learned from The Beatles and Albus Dumbledore, that it is all you need.
But I’d like a passport too, if you don’t mind.
Until the Next Chapter,
P.S. I passed!!! I knew I would be okay when the first question was about the American Revolution.
P.P.S. Exploring my perspective as an American and an immigrant makes me more certain about what I have to offer as a literary guide to Jane Austen. English Literature is taught very differently in my two countries of study: American readings focus on close reading and the individual, while British readings are more thematic, focusing on context. The crown jewel of my experience is my mentor Isa’s point of view, which is of pure passion. She insists on discussing the characters as if they are real people, and that is my way too. My Letters From Jane Austen reading experience bridges the best of these understandings, to connect the contemporary reader across continents, discovering her own approach to the novels along the way.
- Sarah Starrs, my first friend in London, who sent me her Life in the UK study books. I am blown away by the full-circle magic of this, my cross-continental friend.
- Kayla Kurin, for designing me a special UK-themed Adventure Flow yoga class the night before my test.
- Mom, Dad, Sister, and Steve, for being my pub quiz team.
- Emma and Jenny, for your kind Paperchase presents.
- Cardews in the Covered Market for fuelling me with scrumptious loose leaf since 2010.