2007 - 2022

The reality of being a naturalising immigrant

I came across Kurt’s account while scrolling through TikTok at four in the morning. Dance challenges, comedy sketches and cooking tutorials – yes, that’s what I was after, no shame about it. Recent times haven’t provided me with much fun after all, and with all due respect, the government advice to light the candles and watch the birds out the window doesn’t really do it for me. After seeing one video, I visited his profile to find out more about him. I noticed that Kurt, originally from Malaysia, now lives in Scotland, just like myself. His videos include dancing in a kilt, rating Scottish sayings and exploring the country. I looked at the comments – they were mostly positive – with the exception of those in which Kurt describes himself as Scottish or admits he’d like to be so. 

One person told him to get out of the country. “Thinking you can come over here and get anything you like,” the boy wrote. I know I should say that the comment shocked me. It didn’t. The worst part of it all was that I knew the guy. I attended his birthday party before the pandemic hit. I’ve seen him out on the town several times. He’s a mate. He couldn’t have been nicer to me, never had a problem with me being Polish. In fact, he told me he had other friends from my country. Why did he write that then? 

For the last few years, Scotland’s been a home to me. Not just a place where I can earn a few quid or get a degree, although there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I’m based in Glasgow and having lived in four other big cities before, I can easily say I’ve never felt more respected and supported. After looking for so long in so many places, I finally feel like I found it. 

Scottish hospitality is a thing. So is People Make Glasgow. “We want you to stay” is the message of the Scottish government. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon expressed her support and appreciation for the EU nationals after Brexit many times. Scotland is a place of residence to 234,000 European citizens after all. “Scotland is your home, you are welcome here,” she wrote in the letter addressed to those who chose your land to be theirs too, in one way or another. The policy of unlimited support towards EU nationals is, without a doubt, one of the best advertisements Scotland could have.

I got in touch with Kurt shortly after discovering his cheery content on TikTok. I wanted to compare our experiences. I told him about the microaggressions I often have to deal with. Just to be clear, I don’t mean people coming up to me to spit in my face and call me something bad. By microaggressions, I mean questions or statements that aren’t necessarily intended to be offensive or unkind but usually end in awkward silence. The likes of “Do you study in English? You speak really good English for a Polish person” or “Polish can’t make a decent cup of tea”. My absolute favourite, thrown at me after introducing myself to someone: “Oh, you’re Polish? I had Polish neighbours once but they always had a domestic. It’s a shame, their son, just a wee boy, always walking around so quiet, like he’s scared to say anything.”

“People are always surprised when I tell them I only moved to the UK 10 years ago because I sound English,” Kurt tells me. “I also get asked about the missing Malaysian planes, a lot. And of course: “Did you learn English in Malaysia?” Like as if the only way I could’ve learned English was in the UK. Yes, I learned English in school, from kindergarten.”

Unemployment is one of the main reasons for migration, that’s a fact. However, not every case is the same. Some people want to start fresh. Not everyone has a lovely family to drink hot chocolate and watch Gogglebox with. Some people experienced trauma, a painful heartbreak or lack of acceptance in the places they were born. In my case, it was the combination of the last two. I come from a working-class background and I couldn’t afford luxuries but I was doing alright. Most importantly, I wanted to be myself. I wanted to have a boyfriend that isn’t in the closet. I wanted to be able to mention my sexual orientation to a group of people in a conversation without them going quiet or whispering behind my back. I wanted summer Pride events to be celebrations, not fights and battles, where I might end up with pepper spray in my eyes. I can flip burgers in exchange, no problem. 

“Scotland has so much history, traditions, quirks…” says Kurt after I asked him why anyone would like to live in Scotland. “If people like myself take time to try and embrace the Scottish culture, it makes you feel really proud to call yourself Scottish. I think it’s one of the most progressive countries! The first country to have free sanitary products, LGBTQ+ lessons in schools etc. Loving Scotland earns you the love of the Scottish people and I’ve never felt more at home than in Scotland.” 

I am in the process of naturalising. Having been in the UK for more than five years, and in Scotland for more than four, I often find myself using Scottish, and more specifically – Glaswegian phrases and slang. Not because I am “trying too hard”. The only time I speak Polish these days is when I’m on the phone to my parents. I only have one Polish friend here, and whenever I see her, we mostly speak English as her flatmates don’t understand our mother tongue. My friends get that it comes naturally. I hear those phrases almost every day of my life. But whenever strangers and newly met people hear that I’m “pure raging”, they look at me funny or laugh. Is accent a deal breaker? I asked Kurt for his opinion on what makes a true Scot: 

“I think becoming Scottish is more than putting on a kilt and reading poems by Robert Burns,” Kurt tells me. “It’s appreciating how Scottish people are so alike, yet so different at the same time! Take stovies, for example. No two Scottish households can agree on how to make ‘proper’ stovies. Every family has their own recipe and will fight to the death for it. Yet most Scottish people I’ve met will agree that Tories are the enemy.”

Kurt touched on an important point. It has always fascinated me how one of the friendliest countries in Europe can be so divided at the same time. It seems as everyone belongs to a camp here. Catholic or protestant, posh or working class, thick or light accent, royalist or hating the royals, West End or East End, Celtic or Rangers, Glasgow or Edinburgh, Union or Independence… We could go on for ages. One thing, however, appears to be a mutual characteristic – aversion to English people. Whether it’s a genuine feeling or just a recurring theme in Scottish popular culture and art, it’s there. 

“Obviously, because I’m English, I don’t have it as bad as some people do. Saying this, I have too been a victim of microaggressions,” I hear from Megan, a 23-year-old student from Ayrshire. “There is a large population of Scots who take it out on individual English people for Westminster’s screw ups. It can come out in jokes with my partner’s family, such as ‘aw bedding down with the enemy son’ or being called a ‘sassenach’. Generally speaking, people imitate my accent back at me and I had a few instances of people rolling their eyes behind my back, laughing and asking “is she English?” when I’ve been out for drinks…”

“The opportunities here are great,” said Megan when asked why anyone would like to live in this country. “Especially with all things education. The nature of the Highlands is truly breath-taking and I do believe the diversity up here is also getting better.”

Starting fresh in another country is never easy. It doesn’t matter if you travelled 4000, 800 or 150 miles to get there. You might be fluent in the language spoken there or only speak your native one. You could have lots of friends waiting for you across the border or just be by yourself, scrolling through job offers in a café, taking one day at the time. No person is the same, so putting everyone in the same boat isn’t nice. 

Kurt won’t be applying for a British passport. Malaysia doesn’t allow double citizenship and he isn’t keen on giving up his current one. These rules don’t apply to Poland, so if everything goes according to plan, I will have my own British passport and citizenship in late 2022. Will anything change then? 

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Comments (16)

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  1. Axel P Kulit says:

    My father was naturalised in the 50s. My wife was naturalised in the 90s. I have never in the 30+ years I have been here faced any aggression ( micro or otherwise) because I was born in what Dr Johnson called the Great Wen but my wife told me she learned it was best to say I was Russian, not English when asked.

    A lot of this anti-English trope is banter and not seriously intended. I got more anti-Scottish crap when I last worked in London than I have ever had in Scotland.

    Having said that there are white-scots-supremacists here. I guess every country has its batshit racist loonies, though I found a claim you can only be Scottish if you are white and born here of Scottish parents and would be expelled if Scotland became independent rather more then I could take

    1. @ Axel P Kulit says:

      Wasn’t it rather William Cobbett, the grand mythologiser of the pastoral, who coined the term ‘the great wen’ in 1830, when, in his Rural Rides, he likened ‘the metropolis of the empire’ to a large sebaceous cyst on the face of Britain?

  2. Antoine Bisset says:

    Much of that seems to me to be pretty ordinary. Not especially rude or antagonistic. When I was little, in Edinburgh, I was liable to be attacked because my school uniform marked me as Catholic. (My maths class had one third Polish, one third Irish, one quarter Italian and the other half were Scots. I never saw or heard any discrimination at school.)
    When I left school I found that there were were a number of major employers, insurance companies and so on, who did not ever employ Catholics. I never saw or heard of any discrimination on the basis of race or colour. Of course, at that time the number of non white people was numbered at a few dozen. I recognised many of them.
    “Racism” is a modern construct intended to create division. It is promoted by those interested in creating divisions in Western society as one to the routes to bring about its destruction.
    It is useful to remember that some people just might not like you, for who you are as a person, setting aside race, colour, creed. It is delusional to expect everyone to like you, or even be polite. Lots of people are grumpy, irritable and not very nice.

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    Good article Tomasz. Scotland would be a lovely country if we could just get rid of the British. The English are welcome but British is no longer a nationality, it’s a mentality. Beware the union jack wavers, they’re not that far removed from the white supremacists. They’re exactly what the Tories need to “make Britain great again” – slaves.

    1. @ Tom Ultuous says:

      Aren’t all nationalities nothing more than ‘mentalities’? Or do you subscribe to the racialist view that they are objective biological phenomena? Wherein lies the difference between a Scot, an Englander, and a Brit? Bloodline or state of mind?

  4. Mairi Kennedy says:

    What a refreshing article. I admire your honesty and your clear love of this country. This, alongside your acknowledgement of those many unthinking ‘ microagressions’, – eyes wide open- make it a joy to read.

  5. Dennis Smith says:

    A good article, but I’m not sure that the coinage “microagression” helps here. It’s arguable that any kind of aggression, micro or macro, must be conscious if not intentional. Many of these interactions might be better described as “cultural misunderstandings”.

    I’m reminded of a Scottish acquaintance, living in London many years ago, who was puzzled at the number of people who, on first meeting,, started babbling about otters – till he worked out that their only acquaintance with Scotland came from reading Gavin Maxwell’s ‘Ring of bright water’ at school. The problem is more about media stereotypes than individual intentions, and would be better tackled through greater diversity in the media. How this can be achieved in a world of social media silos is another question.

  6. Derek says:

    The bass player in my band is English. We’ve had shite because both she and the guitarist/singer are female, but none because she’s English.

    1. @ Derek says:

      Racism, nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. are all manifestations of the same global phenomena: ‘ressentiment’; a sense of hostility directed towards an object (e.g. non-white people, the English, women, LGBTQ+ people) that one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration; that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration.

  7. Niemand says:

    Interesting that several posts simply want to deny there is any problem. Yet the testimony is quite clear there is one. How much of one is open to question. Micro-aggressions can actually simply be ignorance of certain things – they are not aggressive. It is just they get repeated a lot so get tiresome. But we all know the feeling of getting tired of something but it is the cumulative effect on the individual that can build what seems like aggression, not any aggressive intent on the multiple individuals they interact with.

    But the bottom line is what does it take for someone to be ‘Scottish’? The question is avoided by all. Is it someone who simply starts living in Scotland, Scottish? If not, how long does it take? The real test / hard case is an English person isn’t it? Is an English person living in Scotland, Scottish? If not, are their children? Do they need a Scottish accent? Scots (going back many generations) with English accents have trouble being accepted as Scottish don’t they?

    I hate to say it but ‘British’ is actually very useful because I think most these days would agree anyone from whatever nationality living here is British, but Scottish or English or Welsh? These are not simple questions and the idea anyone who moves here is instantly Scottish is a naive one and quite probably unreasonable. Culture matters, so even if we move away from ethnic definitions, having a good sense of a culture, its details and history, taking part in that culture is significant when it comes to being accepted as a ‘native’. But I do think the accent thing is sort of an elephant in the room and more so in Scotland than England as many Scots define themselves in part as most definitely ‘not English’ (the English do not do this). This is rooted in power differentials and I think that is what the ‘aversion’ is that the article author mentions. Personally I think it holds Scotland back, as does the tribalism mentioned generally.

    1. @ Niemand says:

      As you know, I’m a great advocate of the civic definition of Scottishness: anyone who participates in the civic life of the imagined community we call ‘Scotland’ is ‘Scottish’, irrespective of their nativity, descent, language, culture, or historical tradition.

      Losing ethnic definitions of Scottishness is surely key to the remaking of ‘Scotland’ as a postmodern plural society that allows ‘others’ to go their own variant ways within a framework of such limits as must be imposed in the interests of maintaining that peaceful and productive communal order that’s conducive to the best interests of everyone alike.

      1. Niemand says:

        There is a logic to this that I don’t disagree with and approve of in fact. It could work except in one very major case – the English living in Scotland (and vice versa to be fair). I think we are a long way off extending the civic ideal that far. I mean these pages are not strangers to those who basically would prefer the English to leave, labelling them ‘colonial occupiers’ (that idea still dismays me yet it goes mostly unchallenged), let alone embracing them as fellow Scots.

        1. @ Niemand says:

          Indeed, but those bigots would be marginalised. ‘Scotland’ (as a political entity) exists nowhere but in and through its civic institutions. Providing that no one is structurally excluded from participation in those institutions for reasons of their nativity, descent, language, culture, or historical tradition (or their sex or gender identification, sexual preference, age, education, physical abilities or characteristics, etc., for that matter), then what the bigots think, say, and do would simply not signify. All that would matter is the mandatory incorporation and assiduous enforcement of equal opportunity in the ongoing cycle of evaluation, revision, design, and performance of those institutions.

          1. Niemand says:

            Indeed but what bothers me is that unless you win hearts and minds, this ‘assiduous enforcement’ can end up backfiring. It takes surprisingly little for a new party to represent the disgruntled and before you know it, they are garnering significant votes. It might just be me, but the ideal of a newly vibrant, ‘progressive’ independent Scotland could well end up looking really rather different.

          2. @ Niemand says:

            Aye, but that’s just collective life. We’re never all going to get on; there will always be some folk who are disgruntled because they don’t think they’re being treated fairly or that they’re being treated less fairly than others, and political parties will always seek to exploit that disgruntlement in order to increase their power in the body politic.

            The trick is to design political institutions that prevent the emergence of clear majorities (of the disgruntled or of anyone else). The inability anyone to impose a majority will on society as a whole would require everyone, for reasons of self-interest, to accommodate their differences just short of conflict in a general atonal harmony of constructive interaction that arises not from a central ‘sameness’ or identity, but from the very diversity, dissensus and dissonance that prevails among individuals and groups in our decentred postmodern society; an arrangement that no one will deem ‘perfect’ but everyone can live with.

            Scotland as an ever-shifting forcefield or ‘antisyzigy’ of duelling polarities rather than some single ‘utopian’ solidarity or national unity… That’s ‘a newly vibrant, “progressive” independent Scotland’, with a built-in democratic resilience to potential majorities and their tyranny over the generality of society, to which we could happily aspire.

  8. SleepingDog says:

    I consider The Three Billy Goats Gruff to be a pro-migration story. Whose hero is the troll? Anyway, I had been ignorant of the extent of Scottish migration until I started reading TM Devine’s Scotland’s Empire, including the large numbers of Scots who apparently ended up in Poland. If you are against immigrants to Scotland, unless you are applying a double standard, you should be against similar emigrants from Scotland. As usual, someone has expressed this better than me, although in the specific case of asylum seekers and opposing mobs:
    That said, just because there are lots of nice Polish people here should not deter us from criticising Polish authorities or interest groups when we have valid reasons for doing so, and the same for any nation.

    I watched a documentary series on Asia’s Ancient Civilizations (presenter Peter Lee) which looked at some examples of religious and cultural tolerance (there was also intolerance and even an invasion to violently seize Buddhist scrolls, which seemed an odd way of priming the conversion of your state to Buddhism), which tolerance made sense in the context of trading empires with powerful neighbours, just like tolerance of Jews were at times convenient for usury-avoiding Christians, and of taxable non-Muslim subjects for Islamic rulers (according to historian Eleanor Janega in The Middle Ages: A Graphic History, illustrated by Neil Max Emmanuel). But beyond these economic reasons, such cultures unsurprisingly seem to flourish with freer exchanges of ideas, patterns and incoming inspirations (as indeed the Shakespeare canon draws upon).

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