A friend tells me about a recent phone call he had. He was trying to book an activity at the place he’d be staying on holiday (in the UK). The person on the phone ended the call by asking, “Are you an immigrant?”
Neither of us are sure why he was asked this. For what purpose? To what end? Except we’re both very sure why he was asked this. Because in parts of the country, it matters to people whether you are an immigrant or not. It doesn’t matter that my friend was booking a holiday activity and planned to pay for it in a timely fashion. Would he have been refused the activity if he’d said yes? If he’d said he was a tourist? If he’d said, that is none of your bloody business, mate.
This happens in the thick of the World Cup. England’s loss in the semi-final brought the team’s incredible journey to an end. But up to that point a strange thing seemed to be happening all around me as football fever gripped more and more people: the very notion of home was changing. For the good.
I remember the morning of the Brexit referendum, being told a few times that it was time for me to “go home”. Someone even told me it was time to pack my bags and go back to “brown land”. (Aside: where is brown land? It sounds amazing. I bet it’s mango season all year round and no one puts their wrist next to yours during a heatwave and says, “look! I’m nearly as dark as you now”). Go home. I can’t think of a person of colour I know who hasn’t been told to go home at some point. It pulls into sharp focus where home is.
It’s precarious and complicated, I know, to be born here, with a culture from somewhere else, and have a complicated idea of what your identity is. Norman Tebbit’s overly simplistic cricket test was, for me, hard, because supporting India meant celebrating where my parents were from, part of my heritage that was unknowable, feeling a kinship with my cousins back in the desh. Supporting England meant a personal admission that I wasn’t as Indian as I wanted to be. But I was, as Hanif Kureishi describes beautifully in The Buddha Of Suburbia, “an Englishman through and through, almost”. That word, almost, described the feeling of not quite belonging and yet belonging.
And just when you reconcile the fact that you’re born in Britain and you feel British and yet your entire family is from India and so you feel Indian, too, someone tells you to go home. “But this is my home,” I would think.
The chants of “It’s coming home” over the course of the World Cup have been more unifying than I thought they would be. Because the idea of where home is feels collective. I look at England fans now and see a lot more diversity than before. I didn’t flinch when I saw swathes of people daubed in St George’s flags walking towards me.
Of course, it’s not all perfect. I saw a tweet from a young south Asian man saying that some white England fans had told him to stop waving the England flag because he wasn’t white. Also, there are people who won’t have felt the collective spirit of good news and euphoria from following the England team because they’re not into football.
But this word “home”, it meant something this past few months that it hasn’t done for a while. It meant as if it included me. Someone told me, during one of the matches, that if you took out all the England players who weren’t children of immigrants, it would wipe out over half the squad.
So I think about my friend’s phone call. That loaded, out-of-the blue question: “Are you an immigrant?” and how toxic it is. There is no justification for asking it, except for the purpose of “othering” my friend. And I think about home and being told to go home repeatedly over the years. And whether football came home or not, at least it was to a place that felt more inclusive and diverse than before. I just hope that now the football’s over, if you hear someone yell “go home” at a person for no reason other than to be toxic, I hope you have our back. Because this is our home, too.