It was the first time I ever voted. I felt proud and useless at the same time. I grew up in China, and there we don’t vote. It’s not part of our autocratic tradition. I never heard of the term ‘referendum’ in my native country. Since leaving China, I’ve found myself wandering Europe, though my base has always been Britain. I’ve spent time in Paris, Berlin, Hamburg and Zurich. I’ve soaked up many European scenes. And it’s always felt to me the West is in turmoil, compared with the seemingly steady hand of the state in China.
Still, until the EU referendum I had that outsider’s tendency of not really participating in the political life of my adopted country. Like a camera, I merely observed and recorded reality. After a decade of living in Britain, London became my home, and I became a British citizen. I wasn’t enamored of the Tories. After seeing how Ed Miliband was humiliated by the media and then defeated by David Cameron, I decided that I wanted to become a participant. I started venturing out to protest.
Then came the referendum. On the afternoon of the 23rd June 2016 – as a ‘qualified’ British citizen – I exercised my rights and voted. I put a cross next to Remain on a small sheet of paper in a pokey-looking polling station in East London. It was a little underwhelming, and I thought the ultimate result would be too. Remain would win. How could it not? The next morning, I awoke to a new reality. The word Leave had strangely intruded onto the front page of every newspaper. It seemed at first like an absurd April Fool’s joke. My first venture in voting had ended in defeat. I found myself nearly in tears.
I called my best London friends (they are mostly Europeans living in Britain for years) and invited them for a referendum wake. We drank bottles of Belgian beer and Italian wine (the origins of these products had suddenly became hugely important). Midnight came and we ended up walking along Regent’s Canal, grieving under the starless English sky. The lights had gone out across Europe, and the invisible clouds overhead foreshadowed a gathering storm.
The next morning my head was heavy. I left my flat without aim, and started walking the streets. They were unusually quiet. Even the normally energetic London Fields had lost its luster, the old maples drooping in the still air. Under one of the trees, I saw my massage therapist Anne, a German woman who works in my local health centre. She was on a bench drinking a cup of coffee, absorbed in what seemed like heavy thoughts. I waved at her and walked over.
Without even the merest mention of yesterday’s outcome, words burst from her like water from a broken tap: ‘I can’t believe what’s going on in this country! Did you know that Winston Churchill was one of the founders of the EU after the war? He started the idea of the ‘United States of Europe’. And now no one in Britain knows what the EU is! This morning I spoke to two other Germans, they have also lived in the UK for long a time. We are so upset. But what can we do? We are not British citizens and we never needed British citizenship to live here! Now what?’
This was the most I had ever heard my masseuse say. Our conversations have always been restricted to short exchanges about body parts and pain. But now I felt like we were comrades in arms. I sat down beside her and started expressing my own rambling feelings about the situation, about how I first came to this country with a different idea about what it was.
She launched into her own history: ‘I left Germany and came to the UK in 1984. I thought I would just come here to have a look. When I arrived, I found myself in the middle of the miners’ strike – this was still during the Thatcherite years, really bleak. It was the bad old days in England. You couldn’t find a cafe and the food was disgusting. The flats I rented never had an indoor loo. For the last thirty years, I have seen London change a lot. The migrant culture has really enriched this country – but we migrants have suddenly become the scapegoat!’
‘Where do you think you will go if you have to leave Britain?’ I asked her.
‘I don’t want to think about where I will go now. I don’t really want to go back to Germany. The Germans are very fussy about work certificates and qualifications, I will have to get more training in Germany before I can get work. Maybe I will go somewhere else, somewhere like Portugal or Spain. I have had enough of this cold weather!’
She gazed into the distant maple trees and released a crisp sigh. I thought to myself: at least she can return to Europe. I cannot return to China, since I traded my Chinese passport for a British one. I had lost my native country, now I was going to lose a continent.
‘The tone of the EU referendum campaign was so anti-European,’ she told me. ‘I felt so uncomfortable about it. I didn’t expect this current of negativity to get so strong so quickly. It’s gone too far already and it is very dangerous. Today I even heard there’s a celebration of Brexit in Southbury with the burning of a European flag!’
I looked at her, quietly wondering where Southbury was. It sounded ultra English. I imagined desolate streets, quaint, squat semi-detached houses, St George’s crosses draped from windows – one of those bastions of ethnic identity, a last refuge of the English empire. Migrants have the opportunity to learn about identity through losing it. Or they can cling on to their identities, becoming a kind of caricature of what they used to be. But then all ethnic identity is a kind of performance. When the locals feel under threat, they gather round the flag and shout their slogans: ‘England first!’ A lot of theatre, but what do the words actually mean?
‘Do you feel more German or European?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. My history is German, but it’s also London. And London is about outsiders living together. I have faith in the EU because it allows people to be European, if they want to be.’
‘But what is being European?’
‘It’s being able to live in the family of Europe. Families with similarities and differences. It’s a way of being free! If Europe is just a bunch of divided, small countries, what are we going to do with our future? But this system is now being damned by cockfighting. Why can’t the Brits see themselves as a part of the bigger picture? It’s irresponsible!’
Then her phone rang. She stood up, still venting anguish. She said she needed to go back to work. Her customers were waiting. I watched her disappear up Broadway Market, and decided to continue my wandering.
As I passed the bed of wild flowers planted by Hackney Council, I thought about what she’d said. I thought of native and non-native plants. Red poppies are not native in England, nevertheless, the British Empire domesticated them and now they are the symbol of Britain’s war dead. Even the countless maple trees standing here are introduced. Nothing is native. Native is just a matter of time.
I found myself standing in a queue at my local bakery, trying to get a loaf of Hackney Wild. There I saw Nigel, an Australian lecturer who teaches neuroscience at UCL. He was writing an email in a furious manner on his laptop while a noisy family fought over croissants at the next table.
‘Suicidal emails, Nigel?’ I asked, ordering a coffee.
‘Suicidal it is.’ He raised his head while still typing mechanically. ‘This result is fucking awful.’
‘But at least you were quick to react!’ I knew Nigel had just applied for British citizenship, foreseeing the possibility of a grim outcome to the EU Referendum. ‘So did you get your passport?’
‘Got it four days before the referendum! But I only wanted this British Passport because I want to live in Europe! I want to be able to live in Germany or France! But what now? I am being stripped of my European citizenship by a bunch of right wing twats.’
I encouraged him to continue – how did he end up here?
‘Where do I begin? Ten years ago, when I left the suburbs of Melbourne for London, I thought I was on my way to Europe, away from a monocultural mentality. And what now? My brand new British passport still has this golden lettering on the cover: ‘European Union’. Will they have to change all the passports next year? That’s a shitload of work!’
‘Tell me more about your feelings.’
Nigel continued in a more self-composed and genteel manner: ‘I feel symptomatic of an awful strain of politics. Cameron was so incompetent calling the referendum after imposing six years of austerity on working people! The workers blamed the wrong people, the EU. Given the level of misinformation and ignorance around, how can Britain proceed? Things will only get worse and many of the people who voted leave will only get more angry. I personally feel my rights being violated – my European citizenship has been robbed from me. Brexiters go on about freedom and independence, but we are stripping ourselves of freedom and rights. So we can be controlled and contained within this island.’
A certain philosopher from Geneva wrote that man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. I think humans are born neither free or unfree – their liberty depends on the world they find themselves in. Society, and its forms, bestows freedom. A certain British prime minister said: ‘There is no such thing as society.’ That was not a statement of fact but her vision of the future. The right wing wants to dismantle society, and curtail freedom. They are succeeding. Brexit may be only the latest stage in the unfolding program.
I had to stop the conversation when I suddenly realized that I had an appointment with my Algerian friend who runs a second-hand computer shop – he was going to fix my broken laptop screen. I apologized to Nigel and said I would return in an hour to see if he was still there. I ran off.
As I got to the computer shop, Mussa was fiddling with a second-hand MacBook. When he saw me, he said: ‘I didn’t replace your screen. It will cost around two hundred pounds, so I thought I should ask you first.’
‘Two hundred pounds?’ I shook my head. I would just have to write my novels on a screen criss-crossed by strings of wobbling color bars. Before taking back my laptop, I asked if Mussa had voted.
‘Yes, of course I voted.’ Mussa said calmly, with his computer engineer’s manner. He was always very tidy and polite. ‘Remember I told you that I came to Britain twenty-five years ago? I was only nineteen. I feel like Brexit has divided this society very badly. Since I left Algeria, I have seen Britain as an open country, a multinational free society. It looks like Britain is going to lose its unique advantage – something you cannot find somewhere else. In Algeria we used to fight with the French and that was the reason I didn’t immigrate to France in the first place, but came here instead.’
‘What about your children?’
‘My children – maybe they will not have the same freedom like before, and racism will come. Britain will become more selfish and say: this is mine, mine, not yours! Before this referendum, everyone in the government looked like a perfect idealist; now the politicians begin fighting with each other. This shows the reality. The reality of politicians.’
‘What about your business? Do you think it will be affected?’
‘I think the impact of Brexit will only be on Europe, not so much elsewhere in the world. For example, North Africans will still do business with both Europe and Britain. This will not change. For me, I still prefer to live here. Because the way one lives in Britain is very different from how one lives in Denmark or Sweden.’
He smiled and handed back my computer. As I closed the door behind me, I realized I had never asked about his Algerian past, or whether he had a happy or unhappy childhood there. We were, as always, distant and polite, like characters in a Wong Kar-wai film. I passed his shop everyday before I entered my flat. We nodded in the street, sometimes smiled, depending on our mood. But this was the first time we had spoken at length.
Before I went back to my building, I passed by the local charity shop to see if they had any sandals. I wanted a pair, even though I live in summerless England. Sheila, the middle-aged shop owner, is ‘a hundred per cent’ east Londoner, as she once claimed to me, even though her last name sounds Polish. Over the past few years I have donated my unwanted clothes to her, and we were on friendly terms. As I walked in, I found her munching on a white-bread sandwich. The shop was empty apart from the mixed odour of old clothes and mothballs. I said hello and looked around for sandals. But there were only sad-looking pink and black trainers lined up on the floor.
‘I am looking for some summer shoes.’ I said, quietly wondering how she was reacting to Brexit, or whether she voted. ‘By the way, are you pleased with the voting result?’
She pointed to the area with shoes, then said unflinchingly: ‘Yes. Happy with the result.’ She bit into her soft white sandwich again: ‘I just don’t think we can have more people in this country. There are too many people around!’
I gazed at her, slightly surprised to hear this. Maybe I should find out about the other side – about those who had got what they wanted.
‘Maybe there are lots of people in London, but not in the rest of Britain.’
‘We don’t want more foreigners! I don’t mean you. You are good. But you know I stopped taking the Tube a year ago. I just take the bus now if I have to go somewhere. Have you been inside the Tube? How many times a day do you have to go down into the Tube, being squeezed on, with no air, no space at all? Too many people! I just cannot see how this small country can take more refugees and more immigrants!’
As Shelia munched on her cheese sandwich, I nodded uneasily, looking downward. Every item was cheap here. Tea cups 50p each, a pair of jeans £2, a loose shirt £2.99.
Sheila kept speaking: ‘Another thing that made me want to vote Leave – the government said they could scrap VAT on energy bills if we left the EU. These days, my gas and electricity bill is about one thousand two hundred pounds a year. If they cut VAT by five per cent, it would save me sixty pounds a year. That’s a good thing, don’t you think? I am not a big fan of spending. My shop doesn’t make much money.’
‘Right.’ I nodded again. To save sixty pounds per year we cut off our freedom in Europe. I didn’t expect people to value freedom so cheaply. I thought the Chinese were practical, but the English had us beat. After all, their true philosopher is the utilitarian master Jeremy Bentham. I bet freedom also comes with VAT in this country. ‘But Sheila, you have been to Europe for holidays haven’t you? Don’t you enjoy it when you go to France or Italy? Sun and beach and all the nice food?’
‘Yes, Spain is not bad. And I went to Croatia once – a bit like Brighton. But I am fine with where I am. I don’t think I will move anywhere else. No. Nothing is like home. I have lived all my life here. My son lives in Essex, and they are expecting a second baby. So I go there every now and then. They are doing all right. Not easy, but they manage. I’ll stay here. You know, I just don’t need all these foreigners telling me what to do with my life. We are English. We are not Europeans. We have our way of life. It was better before. What’s all this talk about being in Europe? I just don’t get it!’
It was time to leave. There were no sandals for me to buy anyway. I also felt slightly giddy, even intoxicated. Perhaps it was the mouldy air in the charity shop. Perhaps it was the smell from Sheila’s cheese sandwich. I nodded to her again, not smiling, not hiding my disagreement. As politely and as elegantly as I could, I emerged from two rows of baby clothing, heading to the exit. By the door, I tripped on the doormat, which read: Welcome Home, with a price tag of 99p.
Photograph © SMcGarnigle