"I've always liked when people ask me where I'm from. I take it as an invitation to talk a bit about myself and an opportunity to learn something about another person.", my friend reflected. We were finishing dinner and the topic of conversation had turned to our experiences of growing up with an immigrant background. "So the other day", he continued, "I asked a girl working in a coffee shop where I was having breakfast - she had beautiful high cheekbones - where she was from but she seemed really offended by the question." Where was she from? we all wanted to know. "Romania", he said, "so maybe that explains it."
We nodded, that might explain it. With the pressure that the current immigration discourse is putting on Romanians and Bulgarians living in the UK, it wouldn't be surprising if the girl with the beautiful high cheekbones didn't take my friend's question as a genuine invitation to talk a bit about herself and as an opportunity to learn something about him. In fact she might have even interpreted it as the intention of someone to expose her, to confirm their suspicion that she was "one of those". One of those that might set up camp in Marble Arch and claim free treatment on the NHS. One of those that they say arrive in 'hordes' on buses, hungry and desperate, to take jobs away and turn Britain into a 'Third World country'. One of those that the government insists we need to protect 'our people' and 'our land' from even if it means getting rid of the Human Rights Act in the process.
A simple narrative being consistently shared and re-enforced by influential and skilled storytellers can be extremely powerful and, if you happen to be the target of it, absolutely overpowering. The numerous negative stories about Romanians, Bulgarians and immigrants in general that the press and almost every other politician in the UK have been churning out this past year have collectively built precisely this kind of overpowering narrative. A narrative that could give any member of either of these groups a reason to be suspicious and displeased by a question as simple as "Where are you from?".
My friend's conversation with the girl with the beautiful high cheekbones ended with her reluctant one word answer to his question. All he found out about her was that she was from Romania. She in turn missed the opportunity to hear his stories about growing up with a Jamaican mother and an English father or the story about that time when he fell off a Boris bike in the middle of the night trying to cycle and watch a film on his iPad at the same time. They didn't even get a chance to discover if they share an interest in music, food or fashion.
Traveling in Italy a few years ago I discovered what became one of my all-time favourite graffiti scribbled on a door on a side street in Genoa: Bella vita = Condivisione - A beautiful life = Sharing. I found it to be as poetic as it is accurate. But if our opportunities to introduce ourselves to each other on our own terms are constantly being restricted, if the stories we would tell are systematically being highjacked and distorted by the press and the political debate, what else is there for us to share? And what then becomes of the beautiful life?
This blog is part of the Open Generation platform run by Migrants Rights Network. The platform aims to give a voice to under 30s on the issues of immigration and EU free movement. Find out more here: www.opengeneration.org.uk or follow us @opengeneration