Growing up in suburban Calgary I was friends with neighbourhood girls whose parents were from Trinidad, India and China. When I got older I got engaged to a guy whose parents were from Guatemala and became life-long friends with a girl from Iran. I have never thought of my friends as anything other than Canadians despite the fact their parents have funny accents.
Later, I lived in Toronto, a city with a population that is 45.7% foreign-born according to the 2006 census. I lived there during the 2002 World Cup, which was a blast. No matter who won, there was rejoicing in the streets after every game. I did not hear anyone grumbling about the multicultural nature of the city.
When I moved to Montreal I met a handful of Quebec nationalists who insisted stubborn immigrants who refuse to integrate are threatening Quebec’s cultural heritage, and once in a while I bumped into Albertans who insist that immigrants on welfare are responsible for Canada’s high taxes, or heard inflammatory mutterings from members of the Reform Party (now the Conservative Party). In my experience, though, racist outbursts are the the exception rather than the rule.
Then I immigrated to the UK. Holy smokes! Are immigrants ever ruining the country over here! I’ve never heard such a shower of spontaneous tirades as I have since moving to Cornwall. Foreigners are destroying the health service, stealing English jobs (whenever they can fit it into their busy schedule of collecting welfare checks), threatening national security and generally criming around like it’s the End of Days.
As much as I, an immigrant, enjoy being treated to an earful of venom about foreigners, I do sometimes try to bring some perspective to the conversation. I wave my arms about to draw attention to myself and say “Helloooooo! Over here!” (translation: “I’m an immigrant and I find this conversation offensive”). They look at me queerly, as if I’ve grown an extra arm in the middle of my forehead, then assure me that of course I’m not that sort of immigrant they’re talking about. They like me. Never mind that I personally stole an English job, engage in criminal behavior (magic mushrooms are a class A drug here even though they grow all around), and could go to a hospital for free if I were so inclined.
The most peculiar thing about this pervasive English attitude is that as far as I can tell there are no immigrants in Cornwall apart from myself, one Indian family and two Chinese families. I swear to God they are the only other foreigners I have seen in over a year of gadding about the South West coast. They work in two restaurants (one Chinese and one Indian) and a Chinese herbal medicine shop, so they haven’t even stolen English jobs – they made their own.
The last time I was exposed to an immigration tirade, I asked the anguished kvetcher “So tell me: Apart from myself, how many immigrants do you trip over in the course of your daily business?” He spluttered a while and finally said “Well they’re not down here, they’re upcountry. Wait’ll you see what it’s like in London”.
So I went up to London – a city diverse enough to rival Toronto. I saw many people I suspected might be immigrants until I heard their cockney accents. As I assume those who are born and raised in England are English, I was not able to ascertain by strolling through Seven Sisters whether London is rife with immigrants or not. So I went to a barbeque and asked some proper pasty-looking Londoners “so what do you think about the immigrant problem?”
The unanimous concensus among those I asked was that immigration is the lifeblood of London’s economy and culture, and the very suggestion immigrants might be causing problems was offensive in the extreme. In fact, immigrants are working in conditions English people would never tolerate, which enables English businesses to continuously lower their bottom line while increasing profits. (Granted, I asked a pack of lesbians who may represent more progressive views than the average Londoner, and as it turned out, two of them were Dutch ).
Anyway, all this has got me thinking: how ironic it is that the British, of all people, should be so indignant about masses of foreigners moving into somebody else’s country and cocking everything up. Maybe when devious hoards of immigrants turn up in Cornwall handing out blankets purposely infected with an incurable disease, or start abducting English children to indoctrinate them in their foreign ways I will concur that the locals have reasonable cause for concern.