In year seven, my English teacher asked me why I had moved to Britain. I told her that my brother had asthma, and that the rainy climate served him better – which, strictly speaking, was not a lie.
But being an immigrant was never a question of preference for me, much less an active choice. One night, when I was eight years old, I was informed of the situation over a Happy Meal and a vanilla milkshake. Three weeks later, I was on a Ryanair flight to Glasgow Prestwick.
Over the years I have given as much thought to living in Britain as I would have had I climbed out of my mother’s womb in Carlisle infirmary. Being Polish mainly meant that I didn’t put milk in my tea, and that I ate fish at Christmas. I soon learned, however, that not everyone shared my sentiment. When I was younger it was inconspicuous things, that didn’t really matter: getting bullied for being Polish hurt, but it didn’t seem more painful or remarkable than being bullied for anything else, and it wasn’t like the lad who spray painted “Polish go home” in the underground crossing near my school was actually going to deport me. In my innocent childhood world, racism was officially illegal and frowned upon by all the major British institutions.
The Brexit referendum happened just before I turned 18. At first, I thought it was simply unfortunate – that, come what may, I’d be fine. Of course I’d be fine. I’m not a real immigrant. Not even Lucy from school thought so. Lucy told me that she voted for Brexit, but not because of immigrants like me.
What she meant is that she voted for Brexit because of immigrants like my parents. People with thick accents, living in ex-council houses, and doing minimum wage jobs that no one else wanted. People who, like my parents, moved to a different country, took on jobs they were over-qualified for, and accepted years of humiliation and prejudice in the quiet understanding that their children would be better off. And I was better off.
Two months after the Brexit vote, I moved to London. I was now an adult, studying at a well-respected and internationally renowned university, which would not hesitate to call itself prestigious. It’s easy to get used to the privilege of being treated like a normal person, unscrutinised and unsuspected, so I became accustomed to navigating my daily life the way white English people did.
But it’s precisely because I could pull off being white and English so well that I would flinch in surprise any time I was treated differently. Like the time when the lady in the bank assumed that I couldn’t speak English and shouted at me in an oddly patronising and slow manner, as her colleague looked on in horror. Or when I’d get complimented on my English during job interviews.
Or when my permanent residency application was rejected by the Home Office.
Like thousands of other immigrant kids I never got British citizenship, because I was from the EU and under-age: a British passport was a redundant document my parents could not afford. I always thought that I’d get my citizenship once I was an adult. My family and I assumed that it would be a formality. After all, I had lived here my whole life, and I wasn’t really an immigrant.
And then one day, I found myself before a friendly, university immigration advisor, who asked, politely: “Do you have comprehensive health insurance?”
“If you’re an adult and not in employment, you should really have comprehensive health insurance.”
I didn’t know that comprehensive health insurance was a thing. Nobody had told me. Turns out, once I was eighteen and studying full time, I became an unemployed immigrant, and thus a burden on the NHS. If I were really British at heart, the Home Office reasoned, I would have done the decent thing and paid for my own health insurance.
That’s a lot to ask of a student who can barely afford her mould-infested Camden flat. I still use my family’s Netflix account, and the last time I saw a dentist I was 16. I wish that at least my situation was unique. But it applies to all my “immigrant background” friends who went to university.
My mum called to tell me the news on a Thursday morning. The Home Office sent the decision letter to my parents’ address, explaining at length why I couldn’t receive permanent residency, which would be a prerequisite for my potential citizenship.
They cared little for the fact that I had lived here for most of my short life, that my ringtone in year eight was that Charles II song from Horrible Histories, that I knew Macbeth by heart, that I didn’t have a home anywhere else. I wish I could say I was surprised.
It wasn’t my choice to become an immigrant when I was eight years old. I became one thanks to my parents’ hard work and defiance. Ten years later, I became an immigrant again because of a democratic vote.
By popular demand I found myself a foreigner in my own home. As if I was stuck in some nightmarish, Kafka-esque reality TV show, pleading with the audience for my civil liberties as they vote me off the island. Because after all, I’m not good enough on paper.