Opportunity

Bee's picture
Sun, 10/31/2010 - 21:00 -- Bee

The other day I had a painter in the flat to work on the windowsills and when I offered a cup of tea we started chatting. After a few minutes this very nice fellow - a lifelong resident of Hackney - asked why I moved to England.

I offered the true and short reason: I came here because I wanted to live in a more equal society, where everyone has access to health care, education, and housing.

He looked puzzled and asked "But don't you miss your mum?"

The answer is yes; I miss my mother, cousins, friends, so much that the homesickness is a visceral pain at the centre of my body. But I believe that my reasons for emigrating are more important than the temptation to return.

Like most immigrants, regardless of status or background, I came to this country seeking opportunity. I wanted to improve the material circumstances of my family, raise and educate my children, create a safe and stable new home where we could prosper.

The first Americans in my family only arrived there about eighty years before I left, and they, like me, were economic immigrants.

They had simple needs: they wanted food, land, the opportunity to work hard and enjoy the products of that labour without interference. They raised a couple of generations of kids with no expectations except that we would take care of each other, and stay in the dark little town they hacked out of the forests of the Kitsap Peninsula.

My family, as far back as you can trace the story, is working class. Rugged individualist. Atheist. Nothing is against the rules, because there is no external authority, no higher power, be that god or government. You can get a job or you can drink yourself to death in a ravine; the choice is strictly up to you.

If I had been healthy I would have remained in that family and that place. I belong in that landscape, I share all of those beliefs. But I was born sick and got sicker, in a place and time that did not offer succour to poor children with cancer. My mother worked at the shipyard, my father pumped gas, and no matter how many hours they put in they never got ahead, because every cent went to the doctors who saved my life.

I was left alone with the pain and and I started to read, indiscriminately, anything I could get my hands on. The America of de Tocqueville, the West of Elmore Leonard: liberty, equality, fantasy, and lots of guns. Political theory, social history, novels, whatever. I memorised poetry for no discernible purpose, because the characters in the books I loved were forced to for school: By the rude bridge that arched the flood / Their flag to April's breeze unfurled / Here once the embattled farmers stood/ And fired the shot heard round the world.

What else was I supposed to do? My cousins and neighbours were riding dirt bikes, stealing shit, and going to jail. I wasn't healthy enough to play.

I did try, conceiving an idiotic teenage marriage with a boy who carried a 9mm semi-automatic handgun everywhere (even ice skating). But the mastery of the illness was inescapable; when the so-called husband joined the military I was not allowed to follow him. I had a note from my doctor.

If you are right-handed and lose the use of that appendage for more than a decade it is rather difficult to take up a career of manual labour. Cutting brush? Job on the line at a local factory? Cashier at the gas station? Work on the ferries? Not for me. I wasn't qualified.

The only option left (given that I would never apply for nor accept charity, even if it had been available) was school.

If anyone in the family was proud of the fact that I was the first to go to university, they didn't mention it at the time. I didn't understand, but perhaps my grandmother knew - education, more than marriage or incarceration or death, was the single factor that could remove me from the cradle of their care.

The day I left home for college was the day I forfeited my birthright, and it has taken twenty years to acknowledge the truth. I can physically go back, but I will never have a home. This was not a choice, it was a consequence; in the schematic of my homeland, I had to go forward just to stay alive.

My great-grandparents abandoned Europe for an unknown future, doing whatever was necessary to stake out an American dream. They did it for freedom, land, solitude.

I followed their example, in reverse, dragging my children back to Europe. Because I could not survive using only my broken hands. Because I want to live in a place where sick kids get medicine, elderly people have shelter, everyone has equal access to education. Because I aspire for more: the right to choose where and how I work, who and what I love, deliberately and conscientiously. Not out of desperation or need.

In the end the details do not matter. The immigrant dream is the same the world over, throughout time. We all want opportunity. We all want more.

It is just too bad I chose a country so determined to insult and betray the people who bring labour, intellect, wealth. The proposed immigration policies of the coalition government are disastrous no matter how you look at it, not least to business and education - two sectors that offer legitimate hopes for a faltering economy.

I am a brand new British citizen and I am both enraged and ashamed.