Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My First Anti-Immigrant Experience

A few weeks ago, Selena blogged about her first experience with anti-American sentiments as an expat in the UK.  She was shocked, and didn't know how to respond.  "Easy," I thought.  "If I had been there, I would have strode up to the band and given them an earful about their dated prejudices and closed-minded stereotypes.  They would have known never to sing that song again, regardless of their audiences.

Well, I can now tell you that I probably would have been just as poleaxed as Selena.  How do I know this?  Because I just experienced my first run-in with anti-immigrant hatred, and I was so shaken by the situation that I simply shrunk into myself and prayed that I would be transported elsewhere.  I'll tell you what happened - with the help of a nifty little diagram to help you understand.

[door]            4

x / x                       x / me
2 / 3             mother / child

I was on the bus, coming home from grocery shopping.  We were in the second half of the bus; the exit door was on my left and woman 4 was facing me on her seat.  Just after the mother and child sitting behind me got on the bus, they started listening to loud music on the mother's cell phone.  I tried to ignore it for a while and kept reading my book, but it was distracting and annoying, so I turned around.  "Excuse me, I said, catching the mother's eye, "could you please put on headphones?"  She pointedly looked away.  Second attempt, still polite: "Excuse me, but would you mind putting on headphones?"  She responded, "Just read your book."  I said, "I'm trying to, but it's difficult with your music playing so loudly."  She said, "I don't want to hear you speaking."  "I'm sorry, but I don't want to hear your music," I  responded, getting irritated, "so could you please put on headphones?"

At this point, woman 4 got involved.  "She's pregnant," woman 4 said to me.  "Why are you bothering a pregnant woman?"  "I'm just asking her to put on headphones out of consideration to the rest of us," I answered.  Women 2 and 3 agreed, quietly, "Yes, it would be great if she could put on headphones."  Woman 4 snapped at them, "This isn't about you.  Stay out of it."  She then said to the mother, "You listen to your music.  Don't listen to them."  Emboldened by her new ally, the mother said to me, "This is my bus.  I live here."  I was totally confused; "I live here, too," I said.  "Yeah, but I pay taxes here," the mother sniped.  "You don't pay taxes."

Taken aback, I answered, "Yes, I do pay taxes."

She looked at me for a second, and then looked back at woman 4.  "These people.  They think they own the world."  She said.  Woman 4 nodded and smirked at me.

I was floored.  Absolutely floored.

I sat in silence for the rest of the journey, only looking up when the mother and child got off the bus.  I had thought I'd be strong in that sort of situation, but I was astonished by this woman's vitriol.  I mean, how do you respond to that kind of blind hatred?

Now, it's possible that this wasn't an example of anti-immigrant bias; it's possible that this was racially motivated.  After all, I am white, as were women 2 and 3, while the mother and woman 4 were black. It's even more possible that the situation was a result of both racial and nationalistic prejudices.  Who knows?  I didn't have to courage to defend myself or to call these women out for their bigotry - I was just shocked.

Have you ever experienced this sort of thing, all you expats out there?  And tell me: what should I have done?


  1. Ugh, how unpleasant. I never would have even spoken up about the music in the first place - that's something I just bear through gritted teeth. Good for you for saying something. I bet that kid of hers is going to be a real stand-up citizen, too.

    The thing is, she's obviously just a rude, abrasive person, and she jumped on you for the first trait she could identify. If you'd been English, I imagine she would've attacked you for some other readily apparent trait - race, socio-cultural, gender, clothing, body type -- whatever. I don't think rude, angry people really have a lot of thought going on behind their aggression... just aggression that comes out however it can.

    It sucks that by opening our mouths we give those people that particular tack to take against us, but the end result would probably have been the same no matter where you were from.

    And I completely understand not being able to respond. How can you respond to anything so ungrounded? All that would have happened is that the situation would have escalated. And while you may feel like you've been punched and not been able to punch back, that feeling of retribution is so not worth the potential escalation.

    Looooong way of saying I think you did the right thing to speak up in the first place and to leave it when you did. There's no hope reasoning with unreasonable people.

  2. Wow, great to read your post Betsy! I've been around a lot..can't say that' I've come across that before. However, be emboldened to then have a discussion about it. By keeping your calm, and calling them out on their ridiculousness, they will get all flumoxed and you look the victor...while giving the rest of the bus an education. Although I won't lie, I probably would have just gone to the back of the bus where I belong anyway :-/

  3. Wow! I can't believe this! I agree with Karen that the mother was making a personal attack and the easiest thing for her to pull was an unfounded/ill-informed argument. I was annoyed enough already with her rudeness, but on top of it she is ignorant. Yikes.

  4. Betsy!
    Now you know why I never catch buses - as my Gramps always says "A lower class of person" he's not wrong!

    Sadly small minded people crop up more often than we'd like, but I don't think they're England specific..

    You raise a hot topic regarding the issue of race. I've encountered many a verbal (and once physical, as you know!) attack from people, which have been racially motivated whilst living in London - sometimes because I'm doing just what you did and commenting on unacceptable behavior. As a white woman I often feel vulnerable on public transport, and rarely will venture out after dark on my own now.

    I'm sorry that you've had this experience in London, we're all grateful to have had your light shine upon us for the time you've been here.. Please don't let these people define us.

    And in the meantime brush up on your English accent :)

  5. This kind of thing happened to me all the time when I was there. It's actually one of the reasons I left - I just couldn't deal with it anymore. I remember once I was standing in a tube station talking with a friend about a homework assignment, and a man standing near me looked straight at me, rolled his eye, and muttered, "fucking Americans". Note that I was not talking about football and Brittany Spears - I was discussing a paleography assignment. I got it at restaurants, at the grocery store, all over the place. I even know a girl whose "About Me" section on facebook reads: "Yanks irritate me. A lot."

    Honestly, it's one of the bigger reasons why I left. I just couldn't take the prejudice anymore.


  6. I agree with Karen, had you been English she would have said something else rude.

    Unfortunately, I have had to deal with the same situation a number of times in America. I moved from England in 98 to Virginia. I remember a number of snide comments about my accent which caused me to change to sound more American.

    The worst is the comment about taxes though. I have paid all my taxes from day one but people feel like ALL immigrants don't have to pay, they just live here for free.

    I recently got my citizenship and people have been lovely in general but a lot of co-workers have been flat out rude and hateful.

    A few said well now you have to pay taxes dont you? When I asked what did they mean they said "when you become a citizen you have to pay taxes" I responded with "I have always paid taxes" sometimes that would be the end of the conversation, sometimes they would argue, tell me I am lying and state that the government doesn't make you pay taxes. At first I tried to laugh it off, but then it got annoying, that so called educated people have opinions on things they don't research before speaking. One time a person wouldn't stop making a politcal point about immigrants and taxes that I ended up frustrated and offered to show him my W2 just to stop the conversation.

    Its sad that there are streotypes and people assume things before speaking, because for me it was hurtful. I realized my co-workers although nice in general were resentful or judging me because of a misconception about immigrants.

    I really hope it doesn't happen to you in England again. I would hate for that situation to tarnish your memories from your time there!

  7. Hi Betsy,
    That's happened to me when I've been in London. Not very often, but it is just as tacky for them to do it as it would be for us to make anti-British remarks in their presence. Don't let it get you down. There are jerks everywhere. Just focus on all the lovely people you've met there. Let it be like water off a duck's back! As a matter of fact, it's a good idea to do that about a lot of the junk that happens, if you can!
    Love from all of us in Cville!

  8. Wow, that is crazy. I never had that happen to me in London in 3 years, and I rode the bus all the time! I agree with whoever said she would have attacked you on something else if you weren't American. Good for you for saying something about the music to begin with!

  9. I was in a meeting recently (I'm a Brit in the US) and a colleague referred to English people as being cold and unfriendly. She said it in an off-hand way and even though I was looking directly at her, didn't connect the dots and realize that I was offended. I couldn't believe it! I was totally affronted and couldn't imagine being in a situation where something was said about my nationality with actual malice. Unfortunately I think you'd find that anywhere where you're culturally different than others, even in the US.

  10. P.S. I'm really sorry that happened to you. I also agree that they would have just focused on something else if you hadn't had an accent. There are jerks everywhere and they just pick on things that are easy to pick on because they're too dumb to defend their behaviour any other way.

  11. Wow! What a story! Is it not illegal to listen to music on a bus so everyone else can hear, like it is here in the US? Not that I ever have the guts to say anything to them - so good for you! I'm impressed that you spoke up, but sad for you that you had that experience :(

    Although - as a person who takes two buses to work each morning, I'm not a fan of Emma's assessment of people who ride buses :/

  12. While taking a bread class at River Cottage (a well known business) in Axminster UK when sitting down for lunch a mother told her son when trying to move my friends stuff from her chair "No, the Americans are sitting there"... Really? I thought... Did she just say that? Is that a proper way to describe me and my friend to her young son? NO, I immediately thought. So I kindly looked at her and her son and said, "Why yes we are Americans, but our names are Ena and Wendy". Neither of them said a word. Not a "our names are", not a "nice to meet you"... nothing... We were in fact the only Americans amongst say 20 something English people, but I thought who cares, we are all humans who want to learn how to make bread... it was a really weird feeling... The majority of the group treated us very kindly while others would not talk to us. It's strange that in 2012 this would happen, but sadly it does.

    I'm a vocal person and so my vote is for someone to also speak up when someone is doing something wrong/hurtful in a kind manner of course. I have found that most people who say those things will quickly shutup when they find that those people aren't weak or willing to listen to their ignorance.

  13. Urgh. Nasty situation. I hope it doesn't tarnish your view of us all. I promise we aren't all such morons, and you were just seriously unlucky.

    Some people are just rude, thoughtless, and a bit mouthy.

  14. Urgh I'm sorry this happened to you. It sounds like she couldn't come up with anything relevant to say and went for the personal attack, which is so wrong and unnecessary.

    (RE Emma's comment, because I can't let it lie: Now you know why I never catch buses - as my Gramps always says "A lower class of person" he's not wrong!

    I grew up not being able to afford to taxi it everywhere, so the bus was the only option. We were would never have done or said what these women did, because frankly we were brought up better than that. I get bored correcting spurious assumption that a higher class of person makes for less bigoted people.)

  15. Firstly, I'm sorry this happened, I would hate it if it happened to me.

    However it's very likely that it wasn't based on the fact that you were American at all. What I mean by this is that on busses, tubes, trains in the UK sadly it is quite common for people to play their music loud and disturb others. However it is very very rare for Brits to speak up and ask them to turn it down, like you did. This is generally because the people who play their music loud are extremely likely to either ignore you or get defensive, like that woman did to you. I.e. asking the, to turn it down would have no effect and would probably lead to them verbally attacking you, like you experienced.

  16. yeah, a few friends commented that her reaction probably had nothing to do with me - it came from a place of insecurity and was about her just being a jerk and grabbing at the most insulting things she could think of. I do try to remember that!


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