I’m one of those that they all really hate. I’m one of those that they talk about a lot. But also, one of those that they never talk about. One of those that are blamed for the Leave vote.
I came from Hungary – Eastern Europe (boo), in 2008 – financial crash (boo), and without a job or idea of what I’ll be doing in the UK – low-skilled (boo). I moved to the UK young, foolish and in love. In love that was all but forbidden in Hungary, or at least it was shunned to the shadows and the absolute secrecy and privacy of the home.
My partner and I met in 2006 in the workplace and developed an intense friendship that flourished into love. When the management found out that we are together they fired me. After some unsuccessful job hunting and with both of our parents uneasy, uncomfortable and unsupportive of our relationship, moving abroad seemed like the only way to stay together. And so, with not a lot of money but with a lot of unearned confidence, we made the move to Brighton with one suitcase-worth of stuff each.
Of course, in the beginning we still fooled ourselves – we said, we’d work here for a year to beef up our English skills, then move back to Hungary to get some better jobs. But the truth is, after a couple of weeks I already knew… this is our new home, this is where I want to spend my foreseeable future. I felt safe, liberated, trusting and open – I found people extremely easy to get along with. Due to the kind of jobs I’ve worked in the first couple of years (largely hospitality and catering) I was always surrounded by people of diverse national backgrounds, and British people were part of that rich cultural tapestry that made me feel connected and accepted into this country.
All the while, we also started to grow up as people and as a couple. We rented, we worked, we laughed, we cried, we went to our first Pride, we failed and failed again, stood up, got back, grew and got older, figured some things out and messed up others. Being able to walk down the street holding hands and not having to watch our backs while doing so or being able to be out at work were both alien and euphoric feelings that we were not going to give up. We were not going to move “home”, we found a home. I remember thinking in the first couple of weeks how interesting it is that I don’t feel homesickness, but I was sure it will come at one point. It never did.
When we were growing up in post-Communist Hungary in the early 90s, studying at a UK university seemed like an impossible, distant dream to both of us and in 2012 we both got to fulfil this dream when we started our undergraduate courses at Brighton University. We gave our twenties to the UK in hard work, serving customers day in day out, and in 2015 the UK rewarded us with first-class degrees, a whole lot of new knowledge, skills and opportunities. Our fantastic lecturers, bringing their diverse backgrounds, nationalities and experiences gifted us with a vocabulary that would help us contextualise our existence in this country.
Of course, by 2015 we noticed the first signs of trouble with the referendum being called, but we were assured by everyone around us (including our lecturers) that, just like with the Scottish Independence vote, it may come close, but ultimately, the British will vote to stay. By the end of 2015 I got my very first office job at a small, family business and threw myself into new challenges. News from Hungary were always politically horrifying so we had no reason to even think about moving back, and while the 7 years we spent here by 2015 has revealed some issues with British society (the inequality of wealth distribution being a major one), we still saw our future here, we still felt like this is home.
We followed the referendum campaigns closely, I had my fears about the outcome, but kept hearing “ah, it won’t happen, stop worrying”, so I did. Nevertheless, I was angry that we weren’t allowed a vote, considering that by 2016 we spent 8 years here, I couldn’t believe that constitutionally we were still seen as outsiders with no stake or say in the future of the country. The Leave campaign often focused on Eastern Europeans and vox pops routinely featured Leave voting voices complaining about “the Polish” or whatever Eastern European country they could name.
Our complex backgrounds and identities as immigrants were switched over in the discourse to neat categories that were all equally excluding and offensive. Immigrants could be the good ones working in the NHS, they could be lazy benefit-seekers who can’t integrate or low-skilled fruit pickers taking British jobs AND lowering wages for everyone else. I felt utter frustration at how simplistic these categories were and how much they failed to cover the wide-ranging experiences that people who came to this country in good faith go through. I may have arrived as a low-skilled worker but I grew up here, I worked my way up here. All calls to limit low-skilled immigration felt and still feels like a personal attack because I’m the kind of immigrant they don’t want anymore. My kind of experience of becoming is seen as unuseful – you either come as a complete package or we don’t really want you.
When we woke up on the 27th of June, everything felt different. We were shocked, sad, angry and felt an immediate sense of resignation, a sense of “well, this country went tits up under us too”. Having no real connection to Hungary and having our connection to the UK so suddenly and violently severed, the rug was pulled from under us and we are still free-falling ever since.
If you are still reading (thank you), you may think “All this exposition and we are only getting to the referendum now?!”, but for me, my background is what makes all this so much more painful. For different reasons, but both my birth and my adopted home country rejects me now. For the former, the love I feel for my (female) partner of 12 years is an abomination, a disease, a major source of shame and if we wanted to adopt a child we are no better than paedophiles. A country where you can be beaten up for wearing something rainbow coloured. A country where they boycott Coca Cola for portraying a hugging gay couple on an advertisement. What a place to go “back” to as a lesbian couple, eh?
But instead, we are here, in the UK that accepts and acknowledges our love, we can get married, we can adopt. And yet, suddenly I’m a second class citizen for a different reason. Now, I’m thinking twice if I should book a GP appointment, because I don’t want to be seen as leeching on the system. Now, I’m scared to talk on the phone because I don’t want to answer questions about my accent. Now, I’m watching an election unfold in utter anguish and hoping beyond hope that this battle for the country’s soul will not be lost.
Between two stools, one falls to the ground. It’s hard not to despair cause no matter how much we still love Brighton, if it comes to another 5 years of Tory rule, I don’t think we will be able to stay… The anxiety of the last three years have been all-consuming. I spent a small fortune on therapy where Brexit is a recurring topic. Sometimes the feeling of impending doom is overwhelming, because I know that our future will be decided in a couple of days time by a very specific group of “other people”. Other people, the majority of them only differentiated by the fact that they were born here. But I feel that I was born here… the “me” that I became, the “me” that was largely shaped and formed by the years spent here, in this country, among these people.
Suspended, not here, not there, not anywhere, after so many different deadlines and countdowns, we are, again, hold our breathes and wait for this country to make up its mind.
© Lili H., 34, Hungarian, in the UK since 2008
First published 9-12-2019