Groundviews

Brexit through the eyes of a new British citizen

KNUTSFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 17: In this photo illustration, the European Union and the Union flag sit together on bunting on March 17, 2016 in Knutsford, United Kingdom. The United Kingdom will hold a referendum on June 23, 2016 to decide whether or not to remain a member of the European Union (EU), an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries which allows members to trade together in a single market and free movement across its borders for citizens. (Photo by illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Featured image courtesy IBTimes

On the day Britain found out that it chose to leave the EU, I became British. It was supposed to be a special day for me. After 5 years and thousands of pounds I was receiving validation of the person that I believed I was inside. I’ve been British for a long time now. I just needed something to prove it. The morning of the ceremony I was working from home, while watching the saga unfold on BBC. I began directing my turmoil and anguish at my sleeping spouse, who had voted for Brexit. The pound had dropped, the markets were crashing! Our initial focus was on the macro issues that were affecting this nation. Soon to be mine. Not only was I becoming British, but as soon as I did, I automatically surrendered my Sri Lankan nationality. In all this confusion it didn’t occur to me that I was going to also become “European”.

At the ceremony in the red brick Registrar’s Office, decked with plush seats and a portrait of her Majesty, the Registrar welcomed me to the United Kingdom and I took an oath to Queen and country. There was no mention of the European Union. At that moment I was celebrating becoming British. Then the micro effects of this watershed moment hit me. I now need to apply for a passport- was it to be a European Union one? I am due to travel quite a bit for work and my husband as an Engineer for an Airline hops, skips and jumps all over Europe- what does this mean for us?

Taking on the responsibility of being British previously may have meant coagulating a European identity. In my slightly indeterminate case, having already felt British, I began contemplating if I ever felt European. Now that I was officially British I didn’t feel the need to come to terms with not being European having never felt it.

For me the EU was more about the free movement of goods and services- something I learned in economics class at school. Following the Second World War the aim to create a united Europe with its many caveats of EU currency or not, Schengen area or not, Single Market or not did confuse the rest of us. In my history books Britain was always positioned as “with Europe but not of Europe”. If so why was I feeling so upset over the vote by British people to leave?

Was it because I finally felt like I had gained validation and entry to enjoy the free movement across the region merely with an EU driver’s licence, or because I didn’t like the attitude of the campaigners such as UKIP Leader Nigel Farage who clearly had their own agendas, or because I believe that such a decision should be made on what is good for the country on an economic level- because British people will never really consider themselves European. Britain has always felt and been separate, geographically, linguistically and in the sense of National pride. So the EU marriage had always seemed like an economic decision to me.

Then it dawned on me, the problem I was having was that this split was sold as something that would let us “take back control”, “protect our borders” and reduce “immigrants”. This word: Immigrants. That must have been what riled me. It would be hypocritical for me to stand in front of a portrait of the Queen enjoying the great liberty that was being bestowed upon me and then turn around and aim to limit the same access for others. That didn’t seem fair.

On the Tube Monday morning, I was beaming as I began doing “firsts” as a British citizen. I politely gave up my seat to a pregnant lady, waited for passengers to disembark at Green Park station before I boarded my Victoria Line train and once in, I observed that more people were voraciously reading a newspaper than I had ever seen before. Previously when I looked around a train I would make eye contact with ladies in hijab, smiling at them- acknowledging our solidarity. This time I saw a Polish lady cradling a baby. I smiled at her. I used to look at Europeans on the train and think how lucky they were. Nobody could tell most of them were foreign until they opened their mouths and started speaking. I was more comfortable speaking the English language, I understood British humour, I could rattle off Shakespeare’s work in my sleep, but for some reason I was foreign. Me with my brown skin, a black lady with her shopping, a lady in hijab, we all stood out as different. Britishness in my opinion is not skin deep. It’s a state of mind; it is not eating that last biscuit, it is offering someone a cup of tea, it is politely avoiding eye contact in a lift, queuing properly, giving your seat to an old person, complaining about the weather, taking long walks a good natter and being curious about others. For once on the tube though I realised, that some British people now saw Europeans as “immigrants” and “foreigners” too.

In the bubble that is central London however the cosmopolitan melange will cushion the reality of what is happening in the rest of the country. London is truly European in its most positive sense, the rest of Britain is probably not- and that is what we need to realise.

The overwhelming melancholic response from my colleagues at work who were English and sorely depressed was reassuring. One of them was so sure that we would remain, he even put money on it. None of us could understand. All of our friends on Facebook were supporting remaining. How had we gauged such a skewed perception of the results?

It rained heavily in London on the day of the vote. We blamed the rain. A Czech colleague of mine who was hoping to return back to Prague said she now was going to stay in the UK and complete five years here to get her Indefinite Leave to Remain. At work we had calls that day with Poland, Italy and Croatia, there were jokes and an underlying feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’ for a fleeting second. Most of us took the “Keep Calm and Carry On” option in true British fashion. The best man won, democracy took its rightful course and let’s work together were the slogans of the post-manic phase. But wait. Why? Hitler, Mugabe and my former President Mahinda Rajapaksa were all democratically elected. And soon the American trump card Donald may soon also be democratically elected. Yes London had its first Muslim mayor, great job- but what about the rest of the country? Was it divided enough that immigration could be such a strong topic to unravel our relationship with Europe. They say not much will change however I’m not going to keep calm. I want my country to succeed, to be the best it can be.

The thing about social media is that people share. Even if they’ve only been to the United Kingdom on holiday, or to study or have relatives here, the internet seemed to care. Posts about racist slurs hurled at immigrants populated my newsfeed. I was being tagged on posts asking me if “this was true” was it “that bad”. No. It wasn’t. British people are lovely – take it from me, I’ve lived in Devon! Would I choose to make this my home if I felt racially targeted? I can safely say that I have never had anything racist said to me.

This country does have a problem though, the noise of a few who are quite vocal and also good at engaging the masses, especially those who are ready to blame immigrants for job losses and pressure on public funding, are louder than those who are keen to create a Britain that is united and thrives. I want the best for my country. I want it to continue to attract the best talent across the world, to provide a home for those who are in need of protection, to be envied as a destination to “make it”, to set the standard for class, manners and behaviour the world over, to be a place for art, culture, crossroads, food and sport. Look at our runners, our cricket team our politicians- immigrants add flavour. Imagine an immigrant free Britain- no chicken tikka, bao, Sriracha, stroopwafel, bubble tea or kebab!

So as I continue the rest of the week dispassionately avoiding BBC, the newspapers and Facebook brawls on the state of the nation, I hope to make peace with the fact that I may never be European, but nothing can stop me from feeling so, should I choose to.