The Good Failed Immigrant | Miz Zoe Hashimoto

CN: Immigration, depression, anxiety, suicide mention, abuse

Let’s begin where all immigrant stories do: the moment where your parents, or grandparents, step off a boat. Of course, like many other immigrants here, my family came here by plane; perhaps unlike many other immigrants here, they came from Japan, my dad as an employee in the Japanese electronics industry looking for promotion, and my mum as his stay-at-home wife. A set-up typical of most Japanese families of that era. Also typical of the electronics-industry-born migration network was how we came to England not from Japan but from Amsterdam, where I’d spent a year learning how to speak: not only could I say hello in Dutch (goedemorgen – thanks Google!) and count to twenty in English, but my native language, Japanese, was coming along nicely too, leading to nuggets of wisdom such as: ‘mummy, that dog has a weird face’. When I arrived in the UK I was shy in public and annoying at home, and already equipped with the taste buds needed to fit in – a massive love of chips, now my go-to food for when I’m drunk, and also often when I’m sober. I was about two.

The experience I had over the next decade was probably pretty similar to most other second-generation immigrants growing up in nearly-all-white neighbourhoods in the 90s, albeit with a Japanese twist: white kids asking whether I ate sushi every day, and their parents asking me where I was from and telling me that my language was good; worrying if my friends would understand when my family asked them to take shoes off in the house; being embarrassed about speaking English better than my parents; thinking that the white girls around me were prettier than I was; being simultaneously obsessed with Japanese girl-groups and acting as captain of my House’s netball team (it was…one of those schools), and so on. I still identify with a lot of writing on growing up with immigrant parents, such as those experiences published in The Good Immigrant (ed. Nikesh Shukla), and on the rare occasions I get to talk with other people of Japanese heritage about growing up in the UK, it’s pretty fun to let off steam while laughing and groaning in recognition at the experiences we’ve all had.

So what makes this different from other immigrant stories? It’s easy: I’m not actually an immigrant. Let’s back up. My parents didn’t settle here, even though I was granted permanent residence when I was a child (which has now expired). My stay in England was always supposed to be temporary; growing up, I was always reminded by my parents that ‘it might be my last year in England’, because the story was, as it was for so many other Japanese children of electronics-industry employees, that this displacement was temporary. I would grow up in England, have the privilege of an English education, and then go back to Japan, to slot into society there again. It was quite common, and I understand why my parents did it without hesitation; I know a lot of people my age in Japan who went through the same experience, and are now living functionally, maybe even happily, in Japan. And so, like these children who grew up in Western, mostly English-speaking countries, my family moved back to Japan when I was eleven. And I didn’t come back to England until I was eighteen, to re-do my A-levels after dropping out of a Japanese high school due to depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety that in part started because, I have to add, I didn’t fit into Japan and was homesick for the country I grew up in [1].

This is a point for confusion for most people. But you sound British and are basically English, so you must be from here, right? You’re as awkward as any other Brit, you seem well-versed in British politics and love the late great Tony Benn (like, really love the late great Tony Benn). You even do the weird whimsical stand-up thing for god’s sake, and you must have done the years here, so you can’t be facing the threat of deportation, right?

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Permanent residence expires after two years, and my glorious, depression-ridden return to the UK was on a Tier 4 international student visa. I’m aware that I’m incredibly lucky that my parents managed to cough up the money for my British education (after telling me they couldn’t afford it – I’m not sure if they could afford it and were being fiscally responsible, or actually couldn’t afford it and are now in a fiscally un-responsible pile of debt, but I’m still grateful), but I can’t help but wonder what my life would had been like if I’d just been allowed to stay in England, like my friend’s brother Shun who was old enough to make his own decision about whether to stay – I suppose he would have been about thirteen when his family moved back without him – and who is now a junior doctor.  But perhaps that wouldn’t have helped. The immigration rules are so tight that being in education, even if you’re under 18, doesn’t count towards the years that make you eligible for permanent residency; I have a friend who has been here since secondary school and is still on the same visa, in the same fragile state of existence.

In a world pre-Conservative government (do we remember that? When there was a lot of political comedy about Gordon Brown being mean to a bigoted woman and Nick Clegg, with his rolled-up shirt, was popular?[2]) I might have had a chance. Non-EU international students were allowed to stay for two years after our degree finished, meaning we could get onto those longed-after graduate schemes or unpaid internships that could give us a leg up into jobs that could sponsor us. But those days are gone thanks to Theresa May’s stint in the Home Office, and last time I checked – oh no, my dream career is writing funny plays for BBC Radio 4. This is hard for anyone who doesn’t have the luxury for instability in any case, not least someone who can’t even get the right to work here. I’m sometimes impressed at the entitlement I feel. What do you mean, I can’t have a shit day job in an office while trying to do as many open mic comedy gigs as possible?

Perhaps I could migrate here for work if I became a consultant, or – squinting at the shortage occupations list – an animator in visual effects and 2D/3D computer animation for the film, television or video games sectors. But another degree in something I don’t really care about seems a bit too expensive. Oh, if only I’d decided to do mechanical engineering and done internships at PricewaterhouseCoopers instead of studying the history of political thought and doing poorly-attended stand-up comedy gigs! It’s not even that I’m not capable. I do well academically and have won competitive internships in the political polling sector. But still, careers advisors look at me with pity, because, as someone without the right to work in the UK, it’s pretty useless being a high-achieving Cambridge graduate if you’re in the humanities.  Some friends have offered to marry me, but then realise they have to earn more than £18,600 a year since I’m from a non-EEA country. Again, the worst bit on my part is the entitlement I end up feeling – I grew up here, this is my adopted country, why don’t I get to have the same millennial crises and unpaid internships and heartbreak as the people I identify most with? Being a failed migrant in this way is both the different and the same as everyone else: you have similar experiences with those around you, you identify with the culture – you laugh at the same memes and are concerned with similar political issues. But you’re not actually allowed to stay here, since you only have one, non-British passport and no residence permit. Sooner or later, you have to either fight for your right to stay [3]. A fight that is getting harder under the current government [4]. Or, you leave.

It’s the old immigrant feeling of pain and loss, not being able to stay in the country you consider your home. I feel like my heart is being punctured repeatedly by an old nail.

It’s a terrible state of being, not belonging. If I was so depressed in Japan that I tried to kill myself, how likely is it that five years of studying in the UK (still with depression and anxiety, I have to add) will make that move back easier? The answer is easy. Of course it makes it harder. And now I’m no longer eleven and far more aware of the various constraints that will be placed on me in Japan, as a woman, as a bisexual, and as someone who suffers from depression and anxiety. The prospects are not particularly inspiring.

My experience, though, is not reflective of many people’s. If the experiences of black, Asian and other minority ethnic women and non-binary people – especially those who are queer – are still categorised as too niche to enter mainstream media, who wants to listen to the woes, and possibly self-pitying ramblings, of someone who hasn’t even managed to migrate? Not a lot. Yet here I am, and so here is my experience. Existing in a state of flux is tiring, but no less tiring, I guess, than fighting for rights as a sex worker, dealing with eating disorders or abusive parents, or any number of struggles, whether they be personal, political or both. Ironically, it seems, the one thing my state of non-belonging has shown me is the importance of being kind to others. I often feel alienated from the concerns of those living around me. It’s hard not to be bitter when other immigrant women talk about their experiences – at least you have the right to stay in a country where you don’t want to kill yourself – but that’s how it’s been for a long time, and it doesn’t make the truth less true: it is difficult being alive, for all of us who are oppressed and battered and tired and live with a thousand anxieties. This is why comedy is important to me; you have to be funny, so the pain makes you kind and not bitter. Life is difficult, but at least it has possibilities.  

[1] I don’t want to go into too much detail of my mental health problems here, but needless to say there was a lot of truancy and crying, one suicide attempt, and a many repeats of Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’ while looking at England on Google Earth.

[2] I don’t know why but whenever I picture post-2010 Nick Clegg, it’s always with his forearms on display. Is that just me?

[3] In 2014, only 5,639 students were granted leave to stay in the UK under a Tier 2 visa which the work visa needed post-graduation, see: ‘Get a job or get out: the tough reality for international students’ (The Guardian, 2015). This is compared to 124,575 non-EU students in 2014 (UKCISA, 2015), although this number presumably includes non-EU students with permanent residence.  Even having a serious medical condition doesn’t help. And as for further education: a quick internet search of international fees clears that one up.

[4] ‘The non-EU workers who’ll be deported for earning less than £35,000’ (The Guardian, 2016)

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