On Wednesday afternoon I was scrolling through twitter when I saw this tweet from Nikesh Shukla, novelist, editor of The Good Immigrant, my boss and generally brilliant human.
I clicked on the hashtag and spent the next half an hour filling my heart with wonderful photographs of beautiful families and filling my eyes with tears of pride, joy and validation I didn’t know I needed.
Nikesh said of the hashtag: “I felt sick and appalled and violated by the racist fear-mongering campaign about immigration that has been conducted. I felt like the Ukip poster showing a sea of brown faces in an attempt to demonise them was like a racist attack.”
He wanted to give back humanity to the vast numbers of people who –especially in the recent referendum debate– have been so effectively dehumanised. Whole lives, families, loves, hopes, dreams and a hell of a lot of hard work have been reduced to mere numbers used to scare people into supporting a variety of campaigns and policies of late.
It wasn’t until I was scrolling through the hashtag, blinking at an increasing frequency, that I realised how negative my connotations of the word “immigrant” had become. Even though I am very pro immigration, the rhetoric around immigrants has clearly had an effect on me. #ProudChildOfAnImmigrant made me consider that effect a bit more.
As I was writing my own tweet featuring my brilliant immigrant mum, I realised how daunting a task I found it to say the phrase “immigrant mum”. I have no issue saying that my mum is Chinese Malay. I’m fine telling folks that she moved here 30 years ago for sixth form and then university where she met my dad and decided to stay in this country as a practicing dentist. But to say that she is an immigrant is scary. It’s scary because of how I know a lot of the people in this country view immigrants now. As a threat. And, as a result, as hated. Whatever form of threat people believe immigrants to inhabit, that distrust comes from fear. It comes from immigrants being talked about –at best– solely in terms of their numbers and –at worst– as scapegoats and as a voiceless people upon which politicians and mainstream media find it all too easy to heap blame.
‘It has given faces back to the faceless, and that can only ever bring about empathy.’
I was shocked at how much I wanted to distance my mum, and any person, from the word “immigrant”. When I was younger it was not an inherently negative word. Now, it is a synonym for many things it should never have even been associated with. And in that realisation lies the reason #ProudChildOfAnImmigrant was trending in the UK: it has given faces back to the faceless, and that can only ever bring about empathy. When we take people’s complexity from them we take the chance for compassion from ourselves. It is very difficult to relate to a nameless number. But it is even more difficult to refuse understanding to someone who has just been shown to you as the much loved parent of an adorable child who has now grown into their skin and into this country.
Since beginning to follow #ProudChildOfAnImmigrant on Wednesday, I’ve experienced pride, joy, solidarity and relief. But predominantly, my stomach has been filled warmly with gratitude to my mum and to her parents who saved up for her to come here. For bringing about my existence and then supporting it completely. For everything my mum sacrificed, some of which I know but most of which will remain hidden by chance and time.
This morning I woke up at 6.30am to a text from my sister: “I love you so so much. I don’t know what we’re going to do now, but just know that I love you and we’ll figure something out. There’s still so much love and hope and wonder. Look after yourself. Xxxxxx”. As I read and then reread that text, the gratitude in my stomach swelled and then curdled. Since then I’ve been feeling like all the words, hope and fear I’ve ever felt are going to make me puke. Whatever the result of the referendum, by last night, last week, maybe even last month, it had already caused pain that will be very hard to heal. Both sides have used people as props and that has had an effect. Wonderful members of our society have been made to feel unwelcome and that feeling would not have vanished with a Remain vote, and it will most certainly not be dismissed by today’s result.
We have a lot of work to do. My brain is oscillating wildly between hope and devastation right now. But the hope comes from seeing an outpouring of love from many, many people. Today, I am going to move forwards with kindness. We need understanding over ignorance and empathy over isolation. I am hurt by the majority who voted Leave but hopeful in my belief that those of us in other camps are far more the future than any bigot.
‘My brain is oscillating wildly between hope and devastation right now.’
So I’m going to end this piece with a thank you to Mama Cheah, and to all the immigrant parents out there who birthed us, loved us, supported us and raised us to each to be a proud child of an immigrant. Our families may not now feel welcome in this country but we are all part of it. I, and many others, are eternally grateful for the miles travelled, risks taken and hearts stretched across oceans. We have all contributed and will continue to contribute in myriad ways, both big and small, and I hope that as we move forwards from the referendum debate, more and more people, whether they identify as children of immigrants or not, will recognise that. I hope that more and more people can look through #ProudChildOfAnImmigrant and the conversations that come out of it and today’s result and begin to recognise their own faces, lives and hopes in ours. Recognise humanity through their own.