I know I’m not the only one
Words by Joana Silva
It was 2016 and in true millennial style, I racked up the credit card bill and visited New York City. Now, this may be the uncultured Hayes-girl talking, but the Statue of Liberty was really the main thing on my bucket list. Ellis Island, admittedly, was not in my plans.
I visited it nonetheless and left the museum with a huge shift in my perspective. The Immigration Museum was a building dating back to the 1800s and in the depths of its Great Hall, some 15 million immigrants were ‘inspected’ upon entry to the US. In a matter of minutes, an inspector would determine whether you were deemed a risk to society. It was in that very same Great Hall that I stumbled upon Stoyan Christowe who in 1919 so accurately encompassed what in 26 years I could never truly articulate:
“While I am not a whole American, neither am I what I was when I first landed here…In Bulgaria I am not wholly a Bulgarian; in the United States not wholly an American.”
I travelled to London in 1997 with my baby sister, two dogs and parents who spoke no English. We’d packed our lives into an Opel Corsa (the European equivalent of a Vauxhall) and driven all the way from sunny Lisbon, the city you can thank for custard tarts and Luis Figo’s ascension to football stardom. I picked up English in a matter of months. I was surrounded by other immigrant families where courageous 20-somethings packed their bags and opted to raise their kids in England – the land stereotyped as tea drinkers, lovers of fish and chips, and to my mother’s delight, gravy from a tub.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t always “all gravy”. Some found our traditional double-cheek kiss awkward. The smell of my mother’s leftover stews wasn’t always well-received when I opened up my packed lunch. My dad blasting foreign rock songs on the school run became the topic of many playground conversations. I was introduced to the concept of a Yorkshire pudding aged 17 and embarrassingly, it took me years to actually understand the humour behind Live at the Apollo and other British shows. And when it finally became ‘cool’ in secondary school to be connected to anything remotely foreign and exotic, I’d travel home every summer to comments on how pale I’d become or how my Portuguese was developing a foreign twang. I felt like I could never truly be British, and back “home”, I was slowly losing the battle to remain Portuguese.
I know I’m not the only one.
I write this in attempts to comfort anyone feeling the same way. With Brexit looming, our foreignness, our identities as Europeans feel like they’re being attacked – whether intentionally or not. We’ve grown up trying to appease each side, trying to marry up often opposing cultures. My only comfort has been in seeking to look beyond borders, to understand that my identity is so much more than what my passport labels me as. So yes, while I am Portuguese, I am also a lover of literature, I appreciate good radio, good music and comfort food. I am good to those who are good to me, and maybe even to people who don’t deserve it. I can never stay awake through a movie and eat too many chocolate digestives. I wear my heart on my sleeve and still tremble when overtaking cyclists. I am Portuguese, in spite of these things, in addition to these things, amongst these things. And whilst I am not shunning all the beauty that I can thank the motherland for, nor can I currently afford to be a British passport holder, my nationality and your border is a wholly man-made concept, one I am choosing not to be held back by.