FRENCH, Australians, we don't want any of them: we just don't want to be overwhelmed.' said 'John', an active member of the right-wing, racist British National Party.
Well sorry John but here I am, an Australian with a French name, in Britain. And frankly, I'm finding the whole experience...well...overwhelming.
When I arrived last year, it was six in the morning and I was a little nervous about meeting David Ransom, my fellow-editor. I wandered amongst the throngs of travellers at Heathrow trying to find him. More than once I tapped on the back of some David-like person, only to find a flustered stranger. Meanwhile, David searched for me, hoping the task would be easy with the description he was given: 'Brainy-looking with curly hair'. He no doubt discovered there are many intelligent-looking people out there with wild locks.
Finally we met, after I taped a desperate plea for help onto my suitcase. The long search had worn down my apprehension and we hugged like old friends.
A week later, Princess Diana died. The country reeled and the media reported this was 'an outpouring of British sentiment'. I watched the television, speechless at the sight of millions of people standing for hours on the sides of freeways to catch a glimpse of her hearse, but then I heard something really astounding. Someone commented that Prince Charles' 'callousness' in the aftermath of Diana's death was not surprising given that his father was Greek.
Diana was the true 'English rose' deserving of the viewer's sympathy. Charles was the distant son of an immigrant. This sudden revelation of prejudice was like the Australian sun in my face blinding but frighteningly familiar.
I also experienced this in my search for photos for this magazine. It was rare to find images of people of different colours living, working and celebrating together. And the lines of intolerance are drawn in nationality. Irish migrants are 50 per cent more likely than the British-born to commit suicide and are the only immigrant group whose life expectancy declines after arrival in Britain.
Migration highlights a country's strengths and challenges its failings. For the migrant, it allows them to step back from their life, to view it from afar. As my head spun in the airport I asked myself (not for the last time): 'What the hell am I doing here?'
The British and Australians are not as similar as you might imagine. My phrases, jokes and history need explaining to 'the Brits' while their mannerisms and accents are a bit wacky to me as an 'Aussie'.
Beyond all this, there is an incredible learning curve as people cross the psychological borders which divide them and develop mutual understanding. And this common ground is the most exciting place I've visited yet.
for the New Internationalist Co-operative
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