Are you still here? Being an immigrant and overstaying the welcome

You have to pardon me if I hark back often in coming days to the immigrant experience in Britain: it’s an inevitable result of going to London on a visit. Today, what struck me was the simple point that many hosts can take visitors, but are always worried that they overstay the welcome.

I think that few of us who have stayed with friends or relatives for any length of time have not heard something like “Don’t you think it’s time for you to be moving on, now?” The intention may never be malicious, but it marks that your stay was only viewed as temporary and you were tolerated on that basis.

The idea of ‘having your home back’ is not odd, either. You’ve built and shaped it to your tastes and you like it the way that it is. Other people and their ways can just keep themselves in other places.

That’s essentially why people feel awkward to the point of hostile when immigrants start to make the place like their home, by bringing in trappings that make them feel comfortable–itself, a very natural thing to do, like walking with your own pillows and blankets.

Many immigrants have been assaulted with “Why don’t you go back where you came from?”, which is a statement, not a question. Of course, those who look or act like foreigners to the host, but were born and raised in the country, will feel more than a little slight. I love the sight and sound of the girl with Indian parents who speaks with such a deep and strong Glaswegian accent, who’d answer something like “Back to the Gorbals?”


Along with the hosts’ desire to get rid of the guests is the latter’s hope to get away. But, that part is complicated. What if the ‘guest house’ is nicer than home? It’s easy to see, for instance, why people who came from places with civil turmoil, or natural disasters, or poor economic situations would want to stay longer in places that did not have that, even if the people you meet hate you. Then, your visitors also start to put down roots, even if not intended. Stay more than a few days and need to move around? You start thinking about your routes and your patterns of travel. You start to meet people again and they start to make you like ‘fixtures’, and so on it goes.

Sometime this week, I hope to get to an exhibition about the ‘staying power’ of immigrants in the UK. It should be fascinating.

As I walked through one of my old neighbourhoods in London yesterday, I was not expecting to see anyone I knew. I was young back then and I expect many have moved out and also age has changed them dramatically. Men and women I saw could easily have been babies when I was a teenager. But, social shifts have also happened that are very dramatic. In streets that had few cars, I now saw every kerb filled with a vehicle, and many of them were not ‘old bangers’. No, I just wanted to get my feel and then leave.

I’m staying as a guest in a home, and I asked my daughter if we should tidy up. “Not if it means disturbing anything,” she replied. In other words, get comfortable only so far and no further. Migrants often never get that memo.

The whole process of social integration is very complex, and it not only involves hosts and guests, but also involves how new guests and old guests get on with each other and with the host, and many other permutations of social interaction. It involves the tangible and visible, as well as the subtle and hidden.

IMG_0940It involves who gets other support, and who is left to find their own way. People talk about integration and assimilation as if they are natural and simple. How many people really get along with those whom they call family and friends? Answer that then move on to how strangers are supposed to just get along.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)