It was on the Malaysia-Thailand border that it really hit home, the advantage of that burgundy-covered book that an accident of birth had gifted me. An entire train-load of people had been politely asked to get off and line up for a passport inspection. It was early in the morning, with a hazy idea of exactly where we were and a head full of track-rocked dreams, the jungle not very far from the station. Trying to remember every detail seems almost redundant, your brain drinks it all in and stores it away for later without you really noticing. The train staff, inspectors and regular travellers knew the drill, the backpackers and first timers tried to affect an air of the same and that same patient mood that hovers all over anything bureaucratic in South-East Asia soon lulled the crowd back into half-sleep.
It took about 30 seconds for me and my friend to pass the inspection and get settled back on to the train. That burgundy and gold front page, enclosing the request in the name of the Queen that you get afforded such assistance as may be necessary, really is one of the winning tickets in the lottery of nationality. As people from other countries waited in line and explained why they were going where they were going, or backed it up with other documentation, we were waved through. And I remember remarking that you would think after the antics of our not-that-distant Colonial past doors would be slammed in our faces everywhere, but no, we get welcomed pretty much wherever we set foot.
When I think back further, to the first few weeks in Japan, among all the novel sights and experiences is a blend of work, eat, sleep and paperwork. I couldn’t get a nice mobile phone without a bank account. I couldn’t get a bank account without a residency card. I couldn’t get a residency card because I hadn’t managed to find my local ward office. Eventually I asked the right person and they drew a little map from the private train line station to where I needed to go. There was a lumber shop marked on the way and I remember drawing up to it, gaining confidence that I was going in the right direction. I got my residency paperwork. I opened a bank account, I got a smart phone and I was away. Gave back the temporary constantly-needing-top-ups flip phone to my employer in favour of Twitter on the train to work! Emails! Google Maps so I would never get lost again (ahem). It took about eight weeks for me to become a legal alien.
The year I left the UK, I was among one of the lowest numbers of people emigrating for the past five years. I do recall my paperwork taking a while to come through, but I don’t remember any fear that I wouldn’t be allowed in. My education, my skills, the language and culture I had been steeped in from birth, were considered valuable. When you teach in Japan, the category of visa you usually get is the badass-sounding ‘Specialist in Humanities and International Services.’ I got to arrive by plane, after a journey spent glued to the window, catching my first sight of desert mountain ranges – somewhere over Iraq, I think – and sleeping off the jet-lag in an airport hotel before meeting a company rep who delivered me through the labyrinthine train system to my new front door. Although functionally illiterate in Japanese, I went to work in air-conditioned schools in a suit and earnt a decent amount of money that was paid to me every month without fail, all by dint of having been born at the right set of coordinates.
We can’t have a conversation about immigration to Britain without involving those of us who have left. From the former colonies and Commonwealth members where we have long assumed we will jump any visa queue that exists, to the European sun-spots that guarantee us freedom of movement and excellent NHS-funded healthcare, to the old Eastern staging posts and finance centres where you can still have a maid and a sundowner and a pretence that you rule over anything, is domiciled a statistically significant number of people hiding their ‘immigrant’ status behind the much gentler term ‘expat’. Not one of them, it is safe to wager, has ever had fluency in their host country’s language demanded as a condition of residency, nor been denied access to emergency healthcare. Anec-data exists to show that foreign teachers in Japan who qualified received unemployment benefit when a major employer went to the wall.
It is absolutely vile for us to go about the world expecting to have red carpets rolled out, when what we give back in return is suspicion and hatred. The double standard of sending Royal Navy ships to extract our own citizens from war zones and then trying to wriggle out of accepting even a meagre number of refugees should cause us all to choke on our imported cornflakes. If globalisation is to mean anything more than a licence to plunder weaker countries, it has to involve a partnership between those who live in their country of birth and those who have moved on, for whatever reason. Perhaps it is also time for us to drop the use of ‘expat’, and join with the campaign to celebrate immigrants and their contributions to British society.