See when, like, I’m out with my pals? And they start moaning about Polish people, they go “oh, they always annoy me” I’m like “hey, I’m here!” and they’re like “oh, we don’t count you as Polish”. I’m like “right, I don’t count any more or something?” They’re like “you’re just Scottish now. We don’t count you. You just act like us.”
Zofia was born in Poland, and moved to Glasgow when she was 8. Now she’s 15, and people often assume that she’s a native of the city. She calls herself Sophia, she sounds like a Glaswegian when she speaks English, and she won’t be caught dead speaking Polish in school. She says that if she has kids, she doesn't want them to speak Polish, because she wants them to be ‘normal’.
Zofia is one of the young people I worked with during my PhD, in which I explored language use and integration in a high school in Glasgow. Many would call her a highly successful migrant; she's learned a new language, adapted to her new environment, made strong connections here. Some might also say that she's been forced to minimise her difference, blend in, become invisible; that she's changed her identity, under significant pressure to do so, maybe even losing part of herself in the process. It’s worth noting that she didn’t have the idea to change her name to Sophia; that was one of her teachers in primary school, who thought that people in the class might struggle with the Polish pronunciation.
‘Integration’ is a funny word. It can mean merging, blending, coming together. But often it’s used to charge migrants with a task; to tell people that if they want to live in Britain, they need to erase their pasts, change their names, leave behind their native languages, become more like British people (whatever British people are like), and in doing so become invisible. Afua Hirsch points out that in public discourse in the UK ‘it is immigrant communities, rather than society as a whole, who are encouraged to integrate’. She adds that political discussion of migrant integration ‘represents the unspoken hope that eventually these visible “others” will have their otherness neutralized by British culture. They will eventually disappear, leaving nothing more than a trace of curly hair, a splash of extra freckles, a liberal, harmless version of a foreign faith, or the memory of a funny-sounding name’.
When I hear people saying that Britain has too much immigration, sometimes they add a footnote. Often they add it when I tell them that I’m half Polish. They say ‘well but the Polish are OK aren’t they? Because the Polish have integrated.’ It’s a strange line, but I’ve heard it more than once. I suspect that what they really mean is that Polish people tend to be white, making it easier to disappear in majority-white Scotland. I recently met a man who came to Scotland as an asylum seeker, and has two children who were born in the UK, and who are black. He told me that the children see themselves as Scottish; they have Scottish accents, they are culturally Scottish, they have completely ‘integrated’ – but he believes that they will never be seen as Scottish, because Scottishness and whiteness are closely linked in people’s mind.
When people tell me that ‘the Polish have integrated’, I always think of my grandad. My grandad died a few years ago, at the age of 96. He was born in the mountains on the border between Poland and Ukraine. When the Nazis invaded Poland he was 21, and he had to leave his home. He was captured and placed in a Hungarian prisoner of war camp, an experience he later described as ‘not too bad’. He escaped on Christmas Eve, and fled across Europe to France, where the Polish army were re-grouping and training. He entered Britain with the Polish army and was sent to Edinburgh. He stayed in Edinburgh for the rest of his life, as did many of the Polish soldiers who had been stationed there. And I can’t tell his story without mentioning, as a side-note, that when the Polish army came to Edinburgh, they brought with them a Syrian black bear called Wojtek.
My grandad didn’t ‘integrate’ in the sense of changing himself or letting go of his heritage. I don’t think he ever felt that he needed to. His name, Kazimierz, often presented a challenge to people who didn’t speak Polish: but he never changed it. As far as he was concerned, they just had to keep trying. He continued to shop in Polish shops, eat Polish food, go to Polish church and work with Polish people until he died, with the staunch resolve of someone who once described his time in a prisoner of war camp as ‘not too bad’. I didn’t often hear him speak English.
Was my grandad a ‘bad immigrant’? In refusing to integrate, did he break the rules? Maybe someone’s rules, but not his. As far as I know, he didn’t ever consider returning to Poland. At first this was because it was impossible; there was nothing left of his home, and no safe route back. Later, it was because Scotland had become home. He wanted to live in Scotland, he liked it here, he just didn’t see why he should change himself in order to do so. He didn’t see why his identity needed to map neatly onto the piece of land he lived on. For me, my grandad’s attitude to integration will always be tied up with the knowledge that when he first came to Scotland, he came with a bear.
His daughter is my mum. She talks to strangers on the street when she hears them speak Polish. She’s Scottish too, but she has both. I’m one more step removed, half-Irish-ancestry and more Scottish than I am anything else. Now I work with a new generation of young Polish migrants and I’m learning more about what my grandad’s experience must have been like. When I was little, I had a My Little Pony named Wojtek, after grandad’s bear.
Integration shouldn’t be a duty that migrants like Zofia need to fulfil – a disappearing act that becomes a tick in a box that means you’re allowed to live on British soil. I want to live in a place where you can settle without having to become invisible: no conditions about who you’re obliged to become. A place where you can bring up children and grandchildren who speak your language. A place where you can ‘count’ as part of more than one group at the same time. A place where you can bring you food and your religion, keep your name. I want you to bring your bear.