Taken for Immigrant-ed

Immigration is a hot-button issue at the moment, so I think it’s time for an important re-labelling. ‘Expatriate’ may sound glamourous in a Lost Generation sort of way, but really it is just a euphemism for ‘immigrant’ – in fact, the dictionary entries for the two words are nearly identical, with some variation on length of stay. Expat seems to be a more temporary state: someone who goes to another country, works, creates, lives and takes their earnings home eventually. ‘Immigrant’ implies a more permanent move: a person who leaves one country and commits himself fully to a new one without plans to leave, therefore stimulating the new economy long-term and making lasting cultural contributions. Surely the latter is more favourable than the former, but immigrant remains a dirty word, expat an exciting one. What is more telling is the example sentences given for each in the dictionary: “they found it difficult to expel illegal immigrants” and “American expatriates in London.” Expats are privileged westerners moving to another country in search of adventure or culture. Immigrants are ethnic minorities looking for opportunity or often fleeing danger in their home countries. In the current xenophobic political climate it is too problematic to continue to use the whitewashed term ‘expat’. Call me an immigrant. And let it be known that other immigrants have as much a right to be here (or there, or wherever) as someone whose Syrian background is much less obvious.

So in this month’s installation let me take you instead to Immigrant Green Tea Club, a foreign culture within a foreign culture I found hiding in the privileged enclave of Hampstead, Northwest London.

While waiting to hear back from interviewers about jobs in publishing, I started pounding the pavement looking for a part-time waitressing gig. I found one nearby in a Japanese restaurant called Jin Kichi, a well-loved Hampstead institution for the last 25 years.

Popular with east Asian people, the Jet Set elite and local Hampstonians alike, and manned by employees from Japan, South Korea, Hungary, Hong Kong, Italy, Spain, England and America, the few hundred square feet of Jin Kichi can feel like the General Assembly, however its spirit is distinctly Japanese. Compared to other restaurants behind-the-scenes, Jin Kichi is spotless. The owners are meticulous. Each tiny object has its place and there is not an inch of the small space wasted. Meal time is a cultural experience in itself. Before every shift, the staff gathers downstairs for a family-style meal off sharing plates heaped with home-cooked food, often stuff not even on the menu. It’s the best part of the job by far.

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“You like Japanese food?” I am asked by Matsumoto-san (‘san’ being the honorific suffix used in Japan, and therefore necessary to show respect at work). I explain that beyond it being my favourite cuisine, I lived below a Japanese restaurant as a small child (one of the thousands in Hawaii) and soba, sticky rice, miso shiru, sushi, and tempura are comfort foods. I also of course thought this info may help get me the job, but I needn’t have worried. Giovanni from Sardinia had never even touched chopsticks before his interview six months ago, now he reads out orders in Japanese and snacks on pickled daikon. In fact, my degree in English does absolutely nothing for me here. Hiromi-san asked me the other day, “Why’d you want to work here? You speak such good English, could have any job you want somewhere else.” I felt silly not to have considered this. Sure, I could have found a job as a sales girl in one of the posh shops down the road, but for just a quick few weeks in between finding a place to continue a career, a Japanese restaurant sounded more exciting, exotic. But of course others have worked at the restaurant for years and because of their immigrant status, accent or look, don’t really have the same luxury of finding other jobs easily. Our new dishwasher, also from Italy, barely speaks English. But the whole operation would crumble without him, and the Spanish Ambassador or Harry Styles (both of whom came in last month) wouldn’t get their fatty tuna rolls…

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