I overheard an interesting conversation yesterday. I was on my way to the grocers and heard two men, one Pakistani and the other Indian discussing going back home:
Indian: So you haven’t been back home for a while then.
Pakistani: No, my wife has got six suitcases packed with shopping for her family, but the tickets are so expensive. People back home don’t know how hard it is.
Indian: That’s true
Pakistani: You have to take something for everyone in your family, then your friends all start coming to see you and you give one 5,000 another 10,000 rupees. If you don’t they’ll be asking “Which London have you come from?”
Both spoke in Punjabi and looked like they hadn't been here for that long. The bad manners of ear-wigging aside, this seemed an all too familiar scenario. My family have been settled in England for the fourth generation now and for years and years every time someone went to Pakistan they stuffed every suitcase, hold-all and bag they could get onto the plane with gifts and clothes for everyone. They would manage to get on more than their luggage weight allowance and still complain that it wasn't enough. I think a big part of its is guilt at having made it abroad to a life of relative comfort, whilst they still have siblings or cousins and their families that are still in Pakistan in challenging circumstances. Another part is love and wanting to please your family and share gifts for them. Our family just happens to be ginormous.
It has only been in more recent years that I notice my relatives and family friends starting to get fed up and either travel lighter or just not visit as often. But the whole luggage issue really hides another problem. As the Pakistani gentleman said “If you don’t [give gifts] they’ll be asking “Which London have you come from?” People who have come to this country from abroad have often had to work very hard to settle, to establish themselves and to make ends meet.
My grandmother used to tell me about how my grandfather fared when he first came here. He found a job in Wonderloaf Bakery which paid £5 a week and out of that he had to pay for rent and food, save a little and send the rest back home to support his wife and children and pay off debts. The room he rented was shared with other young Pakistani men in the same position as him and they took turns to sleep in the beds as they were split between day and night shift workers. Over the years their families joined then and they moved to larger homes with whole families living in them. The men worked at any job they could find and the women worked from home doing piece-work sewing which paid a pittance.
But despite the challenges and hardship, whenever they went back home to Pakistan to visit family, you would find them dressed in their best, laden with the jewellery they had saved up for and handing out gifts and paying for everything from travel and meals to the family wedding they were attending. Their families seemed to think that they lived a life of luxury and were partly upset that they were left behind and partly felt entitled to a share of the wealth that seemed to have eluded them. The families here obliged by cutting back on their own expenditure and sending whatever they could. No-one wanted to own up about how life has as an immigrant and no-one back home really wanted to hear about it anyway.
Over the years, the families here became more affluent, their children did well at school and got good jobs. Their children also objected to sending money back home to relatives, many of whom seemed to deem it unnecessary to work and live off the land and property that their relatives in England had accumulated in their home country. The oldest generation went back to retire or died, my parents generation got jaded when they realised they had worked hard their whole lives and their entitled relatives were still trying to sponge off them. The final straw seemed to come when all of the fights over marriages started. Everyone seemed to have a relative in Pakistan who was trying to pass one of their children off to them in marriage so that they could come to England and open up new streams of income. The parents here tried to push their children to marry their Pakistani cousins out of a sense of family loyalty, to retain their ties or out of guilt. Some succeeded, others accepted their children’s decision when they refused and other entered into years of fighting and attrition over the matter, leading to break down in relations or children who ended up waiting years and not getting married both here and in Pakistan.
Now many years later, we slowly seem to be moving away from this situation. Parents have realised that marrying their children back home to their cousins is not always the best thing for their child and doesn't always help to retain family ties, especially if the child’s marriage breaks down. They are finally looking for partners for their children here and many have stopped sending money back home or trying to build big houses and buy land back home they know now that they will never go back to. Family members back home complain that the younger generation have forgotten them, with the complaints falling on deaf airs, after all, our own siblings and parents are here.
But listening to these two men, it made me think that perhaps things never change. That people will keep struggling here in order to maintain a false façade back home and that further down the line their children will pay the price, particularly as so many girls my age did. On the other hand, some things do seem to be changing. Young men come here from families wealthy enough to afford to send their son’s abroad leaving behind their comfortable lives in Pakistan. On getting here they realise that the work available to them is not sitting at a desk in a glass office with a suit and a laptop, but long hours in grocery shops, butchers and take-away’s. My husband came across businesses that offered to take on these young men for a “free” (unpaid) trial of a week and then at the end of the week told them they could not take them on and sent them off unpaid, often doing this with numerous young men. There were businesses that paid £1.50 an hour, far below the current minimum wage of £6.31. This meant that young men had to share rooms with numerous other young men, often with one renting the room in a house and the rest moving in with him and splitting the rent. Imagine a house with every room rented out in this way (the house two doors down from us was like this for a number of years).
These young men became more vocal about their conditions. They told their family members back home what was happening and how hard it was to spend twelve hours hauling meat out of freezers or standing at a grill making kebabs and then going back to a room they shared with five or six others and finding their food gone, or their things missing, or not being able to sleep because so many people were coming and going. This after being the golden child at home, being the one smart enough for the family to pin their hopes on and send abroad. Having been raised by mothers who did everything for them, home-cooked meals, ironed shirts, awards from school.
I have noticed a few songs in recent years about this kind of thing. Abrar-al-Haq’s song Pardesi observes the young man working in the take-away and this song (by I don't know who) tells the story of a man who comes to England after getting married and doesn’t fare too well at his in-laws hands (both have music, but you can watch the video’s with the music turned off if you are curious). Which suggests to me that people in Pakistan know how things are for immigrants here.
Another change I have noticed is the drop in young men that have come here to study from the subcontinent. Ten years ago you could get a visa to study, the fees were reasonable and you had permission to work for 20 hours at least which covered your study costs. Many of those students studied, worked, settled, married and now have decent jobs and businesses and have families here (lots of my husband’s friends fall into this category).
Now university fees have jumped to about £9,000 per year, students are not allowed to work and the cost of housing has soared (rent is £1,400/$2400 per month for a house on my road which is not an affluent part of the city). Sometimes even those with valid visa’s but whose college has shut down or who have some other problem get put on a plane straight back to Islamabad. The finances just don’t add up any more.
This has been the first time in 30 years that students numbers have dropped for the subcontinent (study visas issued to Pakistani students were down 55% in the year to December 2013, and down 21% for Indians according to this Times article). There seems to be something similar happening in Australia (article here) and America too (article here). The shops in our neighbourhood are looking for cheap staff and can’t find any, who wants to work in those conditions for those wages? Who knows, perhaps even the rents might drop (although I doubt it).
My local area (East London) has always been a first destination for many people coming to this country, so it’s almost like a microcosm for what happens across the country nationally in terms of migration and immigration. You can see the changes with immigrants coming from Europe instead, the existing communities from the subcontinent becoming well-established and more affluent and the new visitors from the subcontinent either returning or going underground as their visa’s expire or their colleges shut down. The immigration control van makes regular trips down our main street (which we live off the middle of) rounding up a few people here and there and only those smart enough to work the system or hustle and keep out of sight of authorities manage to stay.
It made me wonder what the situation of the two men having the conversation at the beginning of this post were. Their conversation made me smile, but I also wanted to say to them, be honest, tell people back home which London you really came from and what life can really be like, and let them buy you the gifts for a change.
Normal Calm by Hend Hegazi
1 week ago