Crossing borders in the wake of the Brexit vote.
By Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Between Norwich and Colchester my phone sleeps signalless in my lap. In this half of the journey, I notice the way the light swoops over stretches of water and punches through twisted trees. The British love to complain about their trains, but I am grateful for the Abelio Greater East Anglia Norwich to London route. In the year I have been taking it, we’ve avoided the infamous delays caused by “leaves on the track” and the “wrong kind of rain.”
Someone has left a paper on the seat next to me, but I don’t want to pick it up. The news has not been good. The country is upside-down with fear and anger and confusion. No one knows what it means that the UK has voted to leave Europe. The papers are full not so much of news, but of speculation. What will happen to us all?
I was visiting friends in New York when Britain voted for Brexit. Suddenly, I was the expert on events. They asked me: how could this happen? Why did this happen? Why do the English want to shut the world out? I didn’t understand myself. I have a body that can’t exist without border crossing. It takes some geographic maneuvering to breed flesh that is a quarter Japanese, quarter Chinese, three eights Scottish, and one eighth English. If a woman had missed her train sixty-seven years ago, I would not exist.
You don’t have to marry rich, my great grand father says, Just kind.
Why not both? his daughter replies.
In 1949, my grandmother was about to leave Shanghai for Hong Kong. Her father wanted to get her out of Shanghai now that the Communists had taken over. Everything was packed and she was ready in her navy travelling suit. This would be the last time she’d see him for years.
The train stalled in the station. No explanation was given. Passengers whispered that the Communists had stopped the trains. The air was humid with rumors. No one knew what exactly the Communists wanted. No one knew exactly what Communist rule meant. Shanghai had survived opium dealers and the Japanese occupation, surely the rule of its own people would be better? But as a factory owner’s daughter, my grandmother was certainly one of the bourgeois. My grandmother did not yet know the things that would happen to the family members who did not make it out. But she knew that her father thought her departure was urgent. It was feared that soon the Communists would not allow travel to the British colony. She sat in her first class seat, shivering with anxiety. Then, with just as little explanation, service resumed. It was the last train to make it to Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, she applied to an American university. It was a time when few girls in China or America got degrees. She was only nineteen, but she already had a bachelor’s degree from the University of Shanghai—considered the Harvard or Yale of China. Under the Communist regime, it would be shut down and its President executed.
In 1951, an admission letter from Columbia University in New York City arrived. On board the SS Wilson, she practiced introducing herself as Jean to missionaries also fleeing the Communists. They complained about returning to their servantless American lives. In the buffet, there was steak, which she ignored in favor of watermelon. She had never tasted it before. She ate the pink fruit every day. It tasted of America. Later, when the money from her family stopped coming, steak would be hard to come by. Today, she won’t talk about what happened to the family members who stayed. Her strongest memory is of how lucky she was to make the train.
When I read the news, I see a fear older than Hadrian’s Wall and one that can be found everywhere that strangers meet.
As the Norwich-London train heads south more fences stitch the landscape. Hedges furl their summer greenery. Sparrows speckle the air. It is here in this grassy land that the people wanted to leave. Norwich voted to stay in the EU, as did London. The land is pocked with more and more houses. I get signal and open up my newsfeed. So many non-white friends and acquaintances are scared. They feel they are being told to go home, when until recently they thought this was their home. Many are British citizens.
American friends are posting about how the English are racists. We’re a country of bigots it seems. I wish we were special. I wish England was some especially awful place or that this were an awful year. Because, when I read the news, I see a fear older than Hadrian’s Wall and one that can be found everywhere that strangers meet.
My grandmother did not marry rich. She married a young Japanese student who she met at Columbia. He, too, was studying Political Science. They grew up on different sides of World War II, but this was New York, and her husband was too young to have fought in that war. They were starting a new, beautiful, American life. In many states, there were anti-miscegenation laws to prevent people from marrying beyond their race. But no one in the American government knew enough to care if a Japanese man married a Chinese woman. What the Orientals did between themselves was strictly their own business.
She had a baby. A legion of amahs raised my grandmother, and yet now she had a child of her own and no help. All of New York was sweating with the pressure of the summer. The sun squeezed sweat from the baby’s small head. My grandfather wanted to take his wife and their baby girl to the sea—somewhere with salt air and a breeze to smooth their skin. He counted their savings. It wasn’t much. In the day he had a junior position at a Japanese travel agency and he moonlighted as a bookkeeper. He chose Florida. It was cheap. Daytona was affordable. This was before Disney World made it to Orlando. Daytona was just a beach and a brand-new car racetrack. My grandfather called and reserved a room for Jean and Tommy Tanaka. The reservation was accepted.
They rented a convertible. Jean wore a silk scarf wrapped around her hair. It fluttered in the breeze just like the scarf of a Hollywood movie star. The motel was a collection of cottages near the water. Jean carried the baby inside. Her husband said, I have a reservation under Tommy Tanaka to the woman working the desk. How could he know he was the first-ever Asian person to walk into this motel?
The manager pulled them into her office. She was apologetic. She smiled at the baby. There was a problem—the Jim Crow laws.
She explained, You’re not white people. You’re not black people. As if he had not noticed. If you were black I wouldn’t legally be allowed to let you stay. We don’t have a coloreds section. We’re a family business.
She looked at the ceiling. She looked at the baby. You have a reservation, she said. He knows. You can stay, she says. But, if the cops come I may have to ask you to get in your car and drive around. I know them, they’re good boys, they’ll let me get you to your car. I hope you’re not offended.
The cops didn’t come. My family was lucky. When my mother grew up, she told her children that when she scolded them it was nothing. If she had cried too loud, her whole family might have been made to leave. The borderline between accepted and unaccepted can be as slippery as a baby’s drool.
We all want to be the good guys, and for there to be good guys there must be bad guys.
Arriving into London, I hear people all around me talking about Brexit and they are angry. They do not want to leave. They joke about London getting independence and breaking away from those idiots. I remember a friend describing Norwich (remainer-territory) as an island in a sea of shit (Brexit-territory.) Some remainers are talking about buying all the champagne before it gets taxed. Others are trying to show refugees that they are still welcome. Some worry about stock portfolios. Some worry about safety. Already there are arguments. Is it wrong to worry about Parma ham, when someone else is worrying about their mother? Whose fault is this? Are Brexiters idiots? Uneducated? Or just protesting a culture that has given them no future? Everyone is trying to mark the guilty. I am angry, too. We all want to be the good guys, and for there to be good guys there must be bad guys.
In 2014, my brother was studying at Columbia. My mother married a British man, and my brother and I are a scramble of genetics. I am pale-moon-faced, with wavy hair. People often ask: are you Mexican, Italian, Russian? My brother is taller, he wears his hair in a topknot, his skin laps up the sun, his nose is long and beaky. In school plays, he was always cast as the villain.
It was the end of Christmas vacation and we had been at our family home in London. We were flying to New York. He was bringing his vintage-style amp. It was full of twisting glass tubes and about the size of two shoeboxes. It was very fragile, far too fragile to be left in the belly of the plane. When we reached the front of the security line, carefully, carefully, he placed it in the tray. It slipped under the black tongues of the scanner. The belt stopped. The woman looked at the screen. She called over her colleague. He called over another colleague. They looked at the screen. They frowned. They asked to whom this belonged. My brother ambled over.
What is this, sir?
For my guitar.
All three stared at him. He was young, male, and ethnically ambiguous. He was carrying a box of wires and glass tubes. The conveyor belt was frozen. They weren’t looking at the screen at all anymore. One leaned close to the other’s ear.
We had not escaped their boxes, but we were now in one labeled: safe.
My mother, who had been waved through the body scanner, looked back wondering at the slowness of her children. She saw the stares. She called out, Everything okay, Poppet? She was so clearly a Mom. She was an East Asian woman and not a threat. That’s his amp, she said. They smiled. They handed over the amp. They wished us a safe flight. We had not escaped their boxes, but we were now in one labeled: safe.
My family has again and again been lucky. We were lucky when a nineteen year-old girl did not miss her train. We were lucky when a young married couple on their first holiday away were not incarcerated for their choice of lodging. Although, at one time I studied economics, I’d be hard pressed to quantify each of these risks. My brother is probably safer than my grandmother was, but by how much I can’t say. When will the day come when a safe crossing is not a matter of luck?
When I tell people my family stories they shake their heads. Wasn’t that a strange time? Isn’t it odd to think your mother was alive during segregation? Yet, as I get off the train, in the crowd pushing past me are bodies that contain stories of borders where the fee for crossing was far higher. In fact, as a family we’ve had fewer perils than most. So many families are shredded at border controls. The Jim Crow laws pummeled so many people. These days we let families cross the Mason-Dixon line with ease, but we are drawing new lines all the time. This slash that we’ve marked in the British Channel is so large that no one can ignore it. But that doesn’t make our smaller borders less divisive. The invisible line you draw when you look at someone and think them rather than us matters. Whatever happens to the UK, I hope we can learn to fear borders more than the people on the other side.
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the author of Harmless Like You, out in the UK (Sceptre, Hachette) on August 11, 2016, and USA (Norton) on February 28, 2017. She is an editor at No Tokens Journal and has had writing in the Harvard Review, TriQuarterly, and NPR’s Selected Shorts among other places.