The Reason I Took a One Way Flight Out of the UK and Never Looked Back
Booking a one-way ticket out of the UK was the best decision I’ve ever made, hands down. It opened up many opportunities I would have missed had I remained trudging through life, wondering what the greener grass felt like.
Granted, almost exactly one year after I left home I’m in a rented house with zero furniture, sitting on the hard floor, eating dry cereal out of the box, Googling “how to make money online.” But that’s another story for another blog.
I always wanted to leave the UK. That niggling feeling of restlessness bugged me as far back as my memory stretches. I never quite felt at home in the UK, for a number of reasons. I’ve come to the conclusion that my struggle with self-identity is one of the largest factors.
I’m mixed race. My father is white British and my mother is from the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Because of this, I’ve always struggled with the feeling that I don’t quite fit in.
Yes, the UK is a multicultural place, especially in places like London or Birmingham or even in the relatively small city of Cambridge where I was born. But before the formative teenage years of self-realisation were upon me, I moved out of town and into the sleepy, farmland area of the Fens.
Ah yes, the Fens.
The area in which I went to school was only around twenty kilometres outside of the city, but the differences in demographics and social attitudes are huge. To give a little example, the city of Cambridge regularly elects left-wing and centre-left politicians, whereas out in the Fenlands the voters elected members of the populist right-wing UK Independence Party to represent them in the European parliament.
This is just a microcosm of the differences between the two areas. The Fen population is largely white, jobs are harder to find and public services are not as well funded as they are in the much richer, liberal, diverse Cambridge. Out there the fear of the ‘other’ is more readily available for leverage by politicians willing to take advantage
At secondary school, during my teenage years, as my sense of self was forming and my awareness of my differences from those around me was sharpening, things weren’t too bad.
Yes, I encountered the odd comment, but mainly these were uttered by kids trying to bolster their own social standing by appearing tough or trying to get a laugh. The playground is a savage place.
But I had a pretty sharp tongue myself and although I’ve always been what some have referred to as a “lanky streak of piss” I had wits enough to look after myself, and these slurs, thrown around by children who didn’t really understand them or their history, didn’t really hit their mark.
What affected me more, however, was the internal feeling that I was different from all of those around me. There were only a handful of brown-skinned people in my year group at secondary school. As I moved up to sixth-form college this feeling developed into something different. I experienced the dawning realisation that I was neither black nor white. I was too white to be called black and I was too black to be called white. This left me with the strange conundrum of not quite knowing what my identity was. A cultural no man's land.
Even in family settings, the feeling was there. In fact here it was probably worse. My parents separated when I was very young and I can never remember seeing the black and white side of my family mixing. When I was around my dad's side of the family I was the darkest; when I was around my mum’s side I was the lightest.
Again, this was very much an internal dilemma, nobody ever pointed out these differences to me and I never spoke about them to anyone. But the differences were there nonetheless and they left me with the question; who am I? What am I? Where do I belong?
Now, to avoid the danger of slipping into the territory of a Guardian article, I have to tell you that I really dislike identity politics. I think it’s currently the biggest distraction from political and social progress in the UK and I suspect the same is true elsewhere. And I’m not here to blame anyone or to garner sympathy; all in all my life has been embarrassingly comfortable. This personal identity crisis was just the way it was. In fact, I’m glad things stacked up like this because everything that’s happened in my life has built me up into the person that I am today and I’m pretty proud of that person.
But things changed. The question of my race and identity, which up until now had been entirely internal, began to be asked of me from the outside.
In 2008 the bottom fell out of the UK economy. Growth stopped; the policy of austerity became the norm, jobs became scarce and public services were stripped back to the bone. The newspapers and politicians — even the liberal ones — fearing for their own existence, began to look for a scapegoat to deflect the blame towards for the mess that free-market capitalism had got itself into.
Foreigners and immigrants bore a large deal of the load in this blame-shifting exercise.
Can’t get a doctor's appointment? Immigrants are taking up your space. Child support payments have decreased? Foreigners are draining the welfare budget. Rising crime rates in your community? Nothing to do with police budgets cutback, brown-skinned perpetrators are the cause.
Whether the statements above are true or not is beside the point. The feeling I got from the press and government was that white British people have more of a right to a stake in society than non-whites and foreigners, regardless of if they were born and paid their taxes in the UK or not.
When one prominent loud-mouthed politician declared that foreigners should not be using British public services I wondered what he would think about me. My background was as much non-British as it was British. Would I be completely banned from these services? Or only be allowed access every other day?
When these kinds of political opinions became validated at the ballot box time and time again, it made me feel very uncomfortable. It’s one thing to have political mouthpieces spouting this kind of rhetoric for their own benefit, but when it became endorsed by the people around me it all became a bit too real.
You may say that I’m being overdramatic, that the majority of the people in the UK do not hold these kinds of opinions, that the UK is an open and tolerant society. And you’re probably right. But I cannot escape how this whole scenario made me feel inside. At times it felt as if I was a stranger in my own home. Like at any moment someone on the street would stop me and question my Britishness; if I went to the doctor's surgery perhaps people would suspect that I was just another foreigner taking their space.
Then Brexit happened.
The division over this issue was unparalleled in modern British history. I knew I had to go.
A million and one analysis pieces have been written about that referendum result, but again statistics cannot override personal gut feeling and emotion. To my mind, Britain had chosen nationalism, Britishness (whiteness), and a push-back against multiculturalism and inclusiveness.
At a time when I was already very uncertain about the direction of my life, this was pretty much the final straw for me. I still had commitments in the UK, but in the coming months and years, one by one they either dissolved naturally or I pushed them away, knowing that I couldn’t commit my future in that country.
I froze my business, severed relationships, and ultimately said goodbye to my friends and family. The hardest things to let go of were my cat and my Xbox, which probably tells you all you need to know about how ready I was to leave the country of my birth.
So here I am, a year after I left my home, sitting on the floor shoveling Cheerios into my face, trying to make a living with little more than a laptop and a Wi-Fi connection (actually I’m hot-spotting from my phone, the Wi-Fi is yet to be installed).
Since I departed the green and pleasant lands of the British Isles I’ve hopped a few borders, spent eight months locked down in the Himalayas, survived a global pandemic living out of my backpack, and landed myself in Nelspruit, South Africa.
Okay, okay, I know it’s not a country that has the best history when it comes to racial unity and dealing with its national identity, but at least I’m here by choice and not by a fluke of birth.
Where will I be in another year's time? I don’t know and honestly — I don’t want to know.
Wherever the wind takes me I guess.