The Test of Your Life

After two years spent living in a new country, an immigrant probably has a pretty good grasp of things. They can feed and clothe themselves, know where to go if they’re sick, and they probably aren’t keeping their money in a mayonnaise jar. I know this to be true not only from personal experience, but because if they hadn’t done most or all of these things, they wouldn’t have lasted two years in their new home. See, becoming an immigrant is a kind of test, one where the prior answers you had to life’s questions no longer apply and new ones must be sought. How well you adapt to your new surroundings and get on with day-to-day life will determine whether you pass or fail.

Which is why I resent so strongly that the UK government requires immigrants to take a useless “Life in the UK” test as a condition of settling permanently.

Adjusting to a new culture is a process of delicate personal alchemy, mixing the new with the old to hopefully create something better. Deciding what of your new home to let in, and what to keep out, is how you take a sense of self firmly rooted elsewhere and update it for a new way of life. It is far more challenging, and has much higher stakes, than learning whitewashed versions of events in British history. Furthermore, the test concept is insulting because it’s the kind of thing you’d hear a racist taxi driver suggest after a tirade about his Pakistani neighbors. It’s a policy that sounds reasonable enough on its face to disguise its truly aggressive, punitive spirit.

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Fine, so the test has a few reasonable questions about democracy and tolerance, and they’re intended to teach people about bedrock British principles. I certainly want my neighbor to, at minimum, understand that they live in a liberal democracy, and to leave me alone no matter who I fuck or who I worship. And I’ll even allow, though it’s a stretch, that before they’re granted a visa, a person should know the maximum amount they can claim in Scottish small claims court (it’s £3000), or how they can contact their local MP, or other mundane arcana of modern life. But what possible utility to “life in the UK”, practical or emotional or spiritual, is the knowledge that when King Charles II was escaping Cromwell’s Parliamentary army, he hid up an oak tree? In what way will an immigrant’s chances for prosperity be increased by knowing that, unlike her successor James I, Queen Elizabeth I was deft in her dealings with Parliament? If it’s meant to make the immigrant feel more British, it fails miserably, since the vast majority of British people don’t know and don’t need to know shit like this. If it’s meant to aid “integration”, as so many of the most exclusionary parts of the immigration process are cynically claimed to, it’s a farce. The fact is that there is no utility. It’s pure trivia. And it’s trivia designed to do a very specific thing: aggressively signal to the immigrant that this is not their history and it is not their country. It’s a message with an especially severe sting since the immigrant already knows that, and is reminded of it every day in large and small ways.

My test was administered in a drab room in the basement of a college, on old business PCs, the type you imagine an overweight 40-something office drone shutting down one last time before going home and finally putting a gun in his mouth. I was among about twenty test-takers that day, and was the only white person, which tells you all you need to know about Britain’s anxiety over immigration. After thirty minutes of rigorous document verification and “processing”, during which three people were kicked out because their documents didn’t match to the letter what they had inputted on the website, we were seated and allowed to begin. (To the credit of the man tasked with rejecting people, he seemed genuinely remorseful, but as in any case of institutional indecency, the perpetrators sleep well at night with the knowledge that they’re merely following the rules.) Two seats down from me a fellow test-taker, an Indian housewife, couldn’t start her test because she didn’t know how to use a computer mouse. This is obviously fine, not everyone does, and she likely had never needed to before that day. But as is customary with bureaucracies, the Vogons in attendance weren’t allowed to help anyone with anything, so they just stood over her as she clicked the wrong buttons. I don’t know if she was ultimately able to take the test, but I do know the process didn’t make her feel more British.

I finished with a passing score and was out of the building in less time than it took for the damn thing to start. I was relieved, yes, but mostly I was angry. Angry because there is no way that a nerve-wracking test, in a language the test taker may not be proficient in, on a machine they may not have ever used, is the best way to teach someone these apparently indispensable lessons. Angry that the test-takers, and their gathered friends and family in the lobby, are presumed deficient to live among us until they solve some perverse Riddle of the Sphinx. Angry that the real purpose of the test, and of the whole visa process, is to remind the immigrant that they aren’t wanted here, that the UK government would rather not admit them and will look for reasons not to. It’s one long process of seeking begrudging acceptance. I felt all of this acutely, and I’m American, and white. Imagine how it feels for everyone else.

If the Life in the UK test must be administered, make it more accommodating. Have a pencil-and-paper option for those less technologically inclined. Print it in the most common native languages of test-takers. The US government offers immigrants resources in multiple languages. The UK government can certainly afford to do the same. I know part of the purpose of the test is to force immigrants to demonstrate a working knowledge of the English language, but that’s a bullshit requirement anyway. Learning English is a boon to every immigrant, but they shouldn’t be forced to do so as a condition of residence. There are plenty of people living in the UK who can’t read this essay and are still valuable members of society. If people who support the English language requirement really want immigrants to learn English then the government ought to provide them with information outlining the positive effects, mental and material, of doing so. If it’s truly a good faith gesture and you think it’s for their own good, prove it. If you aren’t interested in doing so, and only want to force your language upon them, you’re just a xenophobe and a chauvinist. We shouldn’t create policy to keep you from having to hear Arabic spoken on the bus.

As for the insulting, irrelevant British history lesson requirement: can it. It reflects neither a person’s ability nor desire to be a contributing member of society and it does nothing to create or deepen an affinity for the UK. I don’t care what horror of statistical manipulation some Tory backbencher created to justify the policy, it’s garbage. If immigrants were made to feel less like criminals and more like welcomed members of society, they may decide to learn about British history themselves. The real history, not sanitized tidbits of the national mythos. Maybe that’s the fear.

If they could stomach my bleeding heart this long, now is when some ultra-pragmatic scold would start explaining to me the necessity of these policies. He’d say that they safeguard British culture, protect the economy from ruin, et fuckin’ cetera. Whatever. I’m not advocating some anarchic open border state where anyone can come and go freely. I understand the necessity of cataloging who is living here. And I don’t want the Home Secretary, the Right Honourable Theresa May herself, to pat people on the back and offer them a beer when they’re granted a visa. I want immigrants to be treated with good faith and dignity, and to be given more support at the conclusion of their visa process (I received no information, no pamphlets; just my resident card. This is when all the minor details of civil life and maybe some history should be presented to people, to use or not at their own discretion.) I just want the process to be injected with a little humanity.

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