Go home, you fucking foreigner.
It’s been a long time since he yelled it. In fact, it’s been so long that I’ve forgotten the Danish words he muttered before the tactical switch to English and confrontational squaring of shoulders. I was only just 21 and at 155cm on a good day, he dwarfed me in both age and size.
He was a lawyer. One of the men appointed by the city to stand up for those who couldn’t afford justice. And he obviously spent too much time at the gym. I was kitchen staff, working from 5am to 12 noon to pay the bills while my boyfriend finished university. I’d already completed my education by that point and had a good degree – specifically in the language of the country I was living in. I’d applied for all kinds of exciting post-graduate jobs when I arrived – and even a few boring things where the ‘working language’ was English. But they were always looking for someone more vaguely hand-waving you know. And Danish. Even the jobs which advertised English as the daily business language told me that although my Danish was, “excellent – for a foreigner”, it wasn’t good enough for them. Eventually, I took a temp job washing dishes since it was the only thing I could get.
And don’t get me wrong, I met some really interesting people while I was there. But I also met the lawyer.
There was some kind of function – the firm had ordered my time and a giant pile of food in take-away containers. I warmed it up, set it out and cleared away the plates afterwards. Talking to the receptionist about the leftovers, she mentioned that the usual practice was to send out an email and see if anyone wanted the food that hadn’t been eated. I asked her if she would do the honours since I didn’t have a company computer account and she happily agreed.
For the next hour people trickled down to see me. Most of them were chatty and polite. They wrote their names on container lids and put them back in the fridge to collect at the end of the day. Finally, the Angry Man appeared. He began pawing through what was left, even poking at some things. He eventually started opening claimed trays of food. I intervened.
I was polite, I remember that much – told him that he was looking through what had already been taken. He muttered something, laughed at his hilarious witty remark, then – when I didn’t look to back down – he started with the English and trying to look intimidating. I stood my ground, more through shock than any kind of design, and I told him – in Danish – that he could take from the pile on the left but to leave the rest alone. The receptionist had stood to watch at this point and having seen her there, he backed down and went back to work. I burst into tears.
The receptionist was kind and made me some tea. She asked where I was from and was genuinely surprised when I said I was British.
“But you should be in an office job,” she said, “You’ve got English as you native language. We all thought you were Polish.”
So it would have been reasonable for him to react like that if I had been brought up in Poland?
I said what I always did, “I wanted to work with Danish. I made the effort to learn the language so I want to use it.”
I went home and told my boyfriend. We decided to move to Britain when he was finished studying.
You see, that wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. We’d been walking down the street and someone had yelled – in that sarcastic way morons do – ‘where’s your Burka?’ (having dark eyes and dark hair amongst a predominantly blonde population marked me as a devout Muslim, it would seem). And when it was convenient – say, if I were complaining in a shop when something was faulty – I was repeatedly told that my accent made me impossible to understand, despite the fact I’d had an in depth conversation about the window display with the very same server a few days earlier.
When we came to Britain, I was so proud of the reception my now-husband received. I kid you not, he had work within three days of moving here. People who ask where he’s from have been genuinely interested, or have spoken to him about time they spent in his homeland. One woman at an antique stall even gave him a Royal Copenhagen cake plate because she thought it would be best if it ‘went home’.
Which is why it came as such a shock when something akin to the following appeared on a ‘Mums selling in Bury St Edmunds’ facebook page (why I have a facebook account again is a story for another day):
“Just seen an Eastern European looking guy stroking my cat. Watch out – he left when he realised I was watching. Wearing a black hoodie and jeans.”
The correct spelling is my own embellishment. It was a ‘shared’ message – the woman posting had screenshotted a friend’s status.
I couldn’t help it. I commented. Yes, yes, I know:
But until someone stands up and says something, this is going to go on. These assumptions that we are somehow more entitled to respect as an individual than someone who didn’t happen to be born on our tiny rock of an island… well, they made me cry tonight. And when I spoke out, saying, “I don’t think you can tell where someone comes from by looking at them. His nationality isn’t important anyway. Maybe he left because he was uncomfortable being stared at,” the spate of responses shocked me.
“Nationality is relevant when the fucking Eastern Europeans are robbing old women and children.”
“My friend called the police on him because he was being suspicious.”
“Them fuckers steal everything.”
All of these comments had ‘likes’.
At that point, I posted the above picture and reported the message – something I’ve never felt the need to do before.
In response to that first comment theft is not a uniquely Eastern European concept. We were fairly good at it over here even before people began to move en masse. Even Chaucer speaks about it happening in Cambridge during the Reeve’s Tale. And some scholars think he stole that story from an Italian work called Decameron. So even old Geoff was at it and he’s about as British as they come.
People are people, wherever they’re from in the world. Humans do human things, like talk to cats and steal stuff. That anyone can judge someone because they think they look like they’re from a different country is totally beyond any logic I can fathom.
It’s impossible to define a nation with a general sweeping statement. You can’t say that everyone in America likes red, white and blue, nor can you say that everyone in France loves baguettes. Not everyone in Britain likes tea. Yet somehow, some people seem to think that it’s fine to brand not only one country as thieves, but a massive geographical region.
I have only one thing to say to the women who made these slurs, “Go home, you fucking wankers.”*
*I realise most of them are at home but… I like the whole ‘full circle’ sort of vibe in that sentence.