“What do you think about this?”
“How are you coping?”
“Wow...your country is dumb!”
These were just some of the messages that pinged on my iPhone on the night of the British EU referendum. I was four rum and cranberries in, and lulling myself from having to answer these questions because I’d have to interrogate my jumbled feelings. As the CNN hosts shouted and made incredulous faces when the Leave vote started outnumbering the Remain, I felt my heart quicken and thoughts of all my family back in London ping-ponged around my head. Would they be safe or would they be shouted at in the streets like before?
I looked to Twitter to see the reactions, and it was heartbreaking to see young people fearing for their job security, financial instability, crossing borders, and worrying about their families. I composed draft tweets about my confusion then deleted them, my hesitation at being so far away from London kept stopping me.
Most expats have a tendency to romanticise their homeland with their nostalgia coloured glasses. I’m no different, since my work as a writer inevitably goes back to that emotional loss of moving away from London. All the signifiers I clung to, like a Cranford accent that still hasn’t been sanded away by Canadian rolled r’s, the communalism of watching Bollywood films at Feltham Cineworld, my eccentric and blunt sense of humour, or cheering on England in the World Cup and Euros, were called into question again on the night of Brexit.
Nationality, citizenship, and identity are cultural inventions, but they house that idea of claiming ‘home’ and belonging with other people who share your opinions. I was challenged that night as a South Asian, because for the first time I didn’t feel welcome to return to my ‘home.’ As an expat, it felt like a psychic loss of personhood. Did I really want to call myself British or English if xenophobia and racism had dismembered the country?
Camp Leave led by Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Michael Gove were repeating the same hateful language hurled at our parents and grandparents’ generation. Farage’s victory speech invoked that dichotomy as he gleefully proclaimed that “the ordinary people, the decent people, and good people” now had the social license to air out their racism.
How easily the older generation of 55-65 that were rejoicing a return to British values, could forget that it was immigrants like my grandparents who worked in their sewing factories or steel mills to prop up their industry. It's plain hypocritical that a return to “golden days” means eliding the thousands of commonwealth soldiers who fought in the World Wars.
The day after Brexit, I woke up in a fog of hangover and loss. I was still sorting through that cavalcade of anxiety and worry for my family living there, and how I would cope, since my identity felt unmoored. Reading tweets of Polish people being targeted in Hammersmith, and Muslim schoolchildren being greeted by “Up Yours” signs from white men, my bubble of nostalgia seemed to have crashed.
I sought out solace in music like Englistan by Riz MC, an album that seems more prescient than ever, in light of Brexit. As Riz raps, “On this little island/Where we all survivin’/Politeness mixed with violence” on the title track, the politeness has been cast out. The divisions has only been amplified by the gloating bigots who’ve been emboldened by the neo-Nazi propaganda of the Leave campaign.
Living close to the US border, I feared for the similar anti-immigration and white-power message being peddled by Donald Trump. Britain had reached that no-man's-land of exiting from the EU, and it’s still frightening to see if gullible Americans could soon follow suit an elect a Muslim banning, Mexican hating candidate. I tried to quell my anxiety that day by reading up on popularity polls between Hillary Clinton and Trump, but if a place I called home could so easily succumb to mistrust and hatred, so could they.
At work I couldn’t focus all day, because I needed some perspective on Brexit, so I asked my family in London what they thought about it. My uncle offered a sobering reminder that this could lead to the same mistrust and suspicion accorded to his Ghanaian parents, while my grandparents feared a return to a Enoch Powell “rivers of blood” strike back. I got inundated with cousins asking me how Canada’s visa system worked so that Vancouver or Toronto could be a backup option.
I was downbeat at their responses: there was no way to sugarcoat this heady mix of shock and uncertainty. At the back of my mind, I always wanted to come back to my “home.” I knew I couldn’t recapture the memories of yore, but I still felt deeply connected to London and the memories it gave me, both good and bad. I still cry on the plane whenever I leave London, because I’ll always feel like I’ve had such a good time that I don’t want to let it go. Yet, it took Brexit to appreciate why my family brought me to Vancouver.
It’s unfortunate that an epiphany centred on being thousands of miles away from my family dealing with this crisis on the ground level. It’ll be triggering to come back to London this July and see how Britain will deal with the fallout from Brexit. It may take years to actualise and pull the trigger on Article 50, but my family and countless other generations of South Asians will be dealing with the impacts of this exit for years to come.
Change will be incremental, but I’m hoping that the millions of expats like myself can offer much-needed solidarity for our sisters and brothers living in Britain right now. That doesn’t mean being a shiny advertisement to join us in other countries we’ve settled in, but opening up a dialogue of how identities can fluctuate and repair from the traumas that Brexit might cause. That includes popping our own expat bubbles of what ‘home’ constitutes, because home can be found in combatting the xenophobic atmosphere that’s threatening to eclipse us.