One Immigrant's Story

By Candy Gourlay

Last week's referendum has revealed us to be a divided society here in Britain. Watching jubilant Leave voters on TV explaining that they wanted to rid the country of immigrants is not easy for someone who is exactly that.

Oddly enough, when I arrived in this country as a blushing bride twenty-seven long years ago, the thing that most astonished me about the UK was its incredible diversity.

We moved here from Manila, which at the time was pretty homogenous - my English husband and I suffered catcalls and rude comments because my fellowmen assumed that  any Filipina in the company of a Westerner had to be a prostitute. What a relief to move to multicultural North London where not an eyelash was batted at our two-tone relationship.

Having grown up in the Philippines where my only exposure to Brits was of the cinematic kind, I expected the UK's denizens to speak in round, well enunciated syllables ... the men pale and foppish like Michael York or dark and villainous like Oliver Reed, all the little children sweetly singing 'Whe-heh-heh-her is love?', and all the women twinkling like Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot.

Instead, there was BBC political correspondent John Cole on TV. I had never before heard a Northern Ireland accent and night after night, I listened, uncomprehending but fascinated. And  how about the stand-up comedian, Billy Connolly? Experiencing the Glaswegian accent for the first time is intense, like a deep body massage.

In the Philippines when I was growing up there was a terrible snobbery about regional accents and I worked on perfecting my received American pronunciation. Speaking English in Manila opened doors that a regional accent could not.

But here in my new home, regional accents were on TV, in documentaries, in the movies! I did learn later that the British had their own snobberies about accents. But when I didn't know that yet, I felt thrilled and liberated. What an amazing people, I thought, to cherish the things that make people special. When I wrote my first published novel, I made sure I had a character who spoke the wrong kind of English - to show my fellow Filipinos that it was okay to speak any way we do.

Meanwhile all that English I had studiously acquired from American TV turned out to be the wrong sort of English.

Suddenly I was missing a million little subtleties, mistaking irony for insult, not getting jokes, using all the wrong words.

It was a challenge. But I was determined to learn how to hear this new kind of English.

So every day, I listened for hours and hours to British radio -- British radio! How I love British radio! -- I listened and learned.

I learned a vocabulary that did not exist in my native culture. In the Philippines, communication involves a lot of pakiramdaman (feeling your way), not saying what you mean for politeness's sake, saving face and giving the other party a way to save face, not saying sorry. Our more sensory style of communication is a fault as well as an advantage - you may not get us but you can't say that we Filipinos are lacking in empathy.

So ... from British radio, I learned that one can ask hard questions and answer them without being rude or losing face. I learned that one can be precise, say exactly what you mean, and it will be okay. I learned that one can say sorry and be forgiven.

When I arrived in this country 27 long years ago, the thing that most astonished me about the UK was its diversity

I love British reserve -- my late father-in-law's self deprecation when I asked him, admiringly: 'Are you a good gardener?' And he replied, 'Not very.'

It was only later when I realised that British gardening was not just about planting and watering but propagating and composting and mulching and potting up and pinching out ... and that my father-in-law was a very good gardener indeed.

Coming from a tropical country where things just grow, this new wonderland of careful cultivation was thrilling.

I spent every spare minute quizzing my father-in-law about gardening. He taught me the Latin names of plants, took me along to luxuriate in garden centres and great gardens, and at Christmas he gave me a bamboo so that I would remember home.

I learned from him that gardeners here are/were mad collectors of plants from all corners of the world, working out how to make the most alien trees, shrubs and vegetables grow in this cold and rainy country.

It has crossed my mind that I was like one of those exotic shrubs:  discovered in a far away land, taken back to England by my new family, and carefully and lovingly coaxed into glorious flower.

I must admit, the day after the Leave vote won, I was filled with insecurity. I posted this on Facebook:

It's comforting to think back and remember the Britain I discovered as a new immigrant on these shores.

It helps me know that there will be something good on the other side of the Brexit turmoil.

Just before the referendum, I delivered a keynote speech to A Place at the Table, a conference of top publishers and editors working to increase diversity in publishing here in the UK. I was so impressed and gratified to see the packed room and I delivered the speech as a call to arms. Here it is again. 

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