How we need to be 'other'

I met a French friend at the weekend and we had the predictable conversation about Brexit. She told me how she was totally devastated, having lived in London for 42 years, to be told to go back home, with a finger pointing at her face, when she was handing out leaflets supporting the Remain campaign.

I sympathised, and told her that I feel just the same; that as an Irish person, my Europeanness is somehow compromised by the vote, just because I choose to live in the UK.  I've been musing on this idea for a few months now. In 1987 as a fresh faced graduate, I came to London as an economic migrant, as my friend did when she came from a village in Burgundy to practice law in London. 

In the new rhetoric, economic migrants are the lowest of the low; grasping, seeking entitlement, looking for handouts. They are not even refugees from some terrible war. I proudly declare that I was an economic migrant almost thirty years ago.

It's salutory to remember now that Irish people were not hugely popular in London in the late eighties, and I found myself softening my 'r's and dropping my 't's at work to blend in better with the estuary English of my colleagues.  Over the years I have done what those grasping economic migrants do, and taken places at the local primary school for my children; even now they are taking up places in the local sixth form college.  Free childbirth, dental treatment, A&E queues - yes, I admit to freely availing of the NHS over the last three decades.  I won't even do the sums about the tax and NI I've paid, but there is the eight years of being a school governor, the five years of volunteering in Brixton prison, the nine years of being a charity trustee, and the many hours of community work for local young people, which  I hope would balance the see-saw of give and take.

But that's not the saddest thing - I realised that over the course of the evening, from when my friend said 'But you're Irish, you're ok, the Irish are special, you will be fine,' that I wanted to declare myself as special as her; even though I've lost my accent, as different as her; even though she's lived here twelve years longer than I have - I wanted to claim my 'otherness' - it is important to me.   So over the weekend I wrote this poem.

Who are you?

I am other

by my fate, my genes, my choice.

I am other

by my skin, my lips, my dress.

I am other

by what I drink and eat.

I am other

by what I don’t.

I am other

By the scars I bear.

I am other

by the veil I wear

or the one you see me through.

I am other

by my tongue, my creed, my journey

to this moment where we meet.

I am other

Because if I am not other,

Who are you?