11 May 2015

Election and Predestination

On Saturday, Mei turned 6 and we, the UK Pihlajas, did what we have seen all the other British families do and felt obligated to do ourselves: throw a birthday party. We chose a relatively inexpensive option — or I should say, Yoko did. I watched on, as I do, paying for whatever we needed and doing the heavy lifting of speaking English. This inexpensive option was the Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park, a very small zoo off of Canon Hill Park. We paid £30 to hire a party room for two hours, and then admission for everyone that came and then pizza and cake. What should be provided at these parties is set: cake and party bags, and the people attending should provide a gift with a retail value of £10. The kids eat cold pizza and the parents look on and when it's clear that the kids are only picking over everything anyway then the father takes a pizza from the table and offers pieces to the weary parents, who must first reject and then begrudgingly accept the pizza.

This is the most British of experiences: the conversations you have reflect the class structure you have found yourself in. I was asking one of the parents, who is Scottish, about the election and the sweep of the National party. The conversation was, however, quickly taken over by another father who said, 'Surprising result in the premiership earlier today,' and I awkwardly went back to cleaning up serviettes, and pretending that I was of some use and belonged there. I don't even know where Sunderland is.

A friend of mine, a scholar from the OU, wrote a book called, 'The Idea of English in Japan', which is about conceptions of the English language, and its symbolic status, in Japan. Of course, the conceptualisation of the language has little bearing on what it actually is — the Japanese are so displaced from any real use of the language, that it becomes something entirely different. The idea of England in the world, in many ways, is similar: England, the United Kingdom, is not what you imagine it to be as a foreigner.

The idea of England was planted in me in college, reading Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. There was an air of refinement that I wasn't familiar with. I’d read Beckett in high school, but without any context; I was all-American in the worst possible way. I remember once at a poetry reading, a student who had just come back from a semester abroad in Italy was complaining about the food on offer: cola and Oreos. ‘You can’t match two sweets.’ He was incredulous, and I was confused, What do you mean, I remember asking. ‘Well, you can't eat and drink sweet things together, you need to balance it. Like have some wine or something’ and I remember thinking, Isn't wine sweet like Coke?

I was wise enough to avoid saying things like this because although I was ignorant, I learned to hide my ignorance at times. I was homeschooled and realised quickly when I was first thrown into large social situations that my social awareness was cripplingly narrow. I would sometimes spectacularly say the wrong thing, like asserting once that women didn't masturbate. But I was mostly good. I never mentioned the time twelve-year-old me wrote the El Paso Times a letter they was published, complaining about an evolution quiz they had run. It was only a theory, after all. I didn't tell people I voted for Bush the first time around or that I had done street theatre with my youth group in front of Watertower Place in Chicago.

Woolf started to untangle some of this, offer another way of being in the world. That dream of England subsided some when I got lost in Japan for that spell but returned in 2007 when I had decided to want a PhD. The dream percolated back up and we came here finally in September of 2008, Yoko, me, and Naomi, who was just starting to walk confidently. At that time, the only thing I wanted was to spend a few years here, and see the Rothko Room in the Tate and have my British experience. I took a picture on the Thames one warm December day, the first time we were in London.

Some eight years after that first yen to come, the sea change in the British politics and the rejection of immigration as a necessary or good thing by the government, has started to decimate whatever dream of life here we had built. In the conversations with the fathers at the birthday parties, I find myself on the flip side of where I was in college: knowing more than I need to or should and trying to pretend that I don’t. ‘So you don't want to stay on then?’ No, I say, it’s just very expensive to stay. ‘Oh, yes, life in the UK is expensive.’ No, I say, well, that, but the visas are expensive, too expensive, and the laws are always shifting and unstable. ‘No kidding? I thought anybody could get in here’ and I laugh too, but I'm not laughing, No, that’s not the case. ‘But the kids are British, right, they are born here, right?’ No, I say again, trying to hold back what I want to say: The average British person doesn't even know why they’re British. Instead, I say, No, no, that’s not how it works. ‘Huh,’ and the conversation ends.

Somewhere along the way, you let your expectations get away from you and forget to tamp them down, to temper them. And then suddenly, they aren't attainable. It’s like how lovers sometimes turn on each other, try to become so unbearable that the other will leave and they will be free of the consequences of choosing to end it themselves. I feel silly that this is the analogy I come up with for my relationship with the UK now, this giant machine, the government, the home office, whoever it is that doesn’t want me or my family here. We won't tell you to leave, but we'll make it too hard for you to stay.

I want to call someone up on the phone and tell them about Woolf and this history we have here: we're worth it to keep, I swear, don't force us out. When you're an immigrant, you’re always displaced: saying you're displaced is a tautology. This house on Victoria Road is just temporary, despite the way we treat it, the things we buy that make it difficult to leave. How can you explain visas to kids or tell them they can't have things because we don’t know what the parliament will decide in the autumn.