Poor, gay and Asian: growing up as an immigrant in Northern Ireland
Life in the UK is hard for many, but even harder for immigrant families coming here in search of better prospects.
But the impact of such a dramatic life change is often felt most by the children and young people arriving here. Jay, 22, from Tyrone, is sharing his story to raise awareness about his experience growing up as an immigrant in the UK.
Born in the Northwest of The Philippines, Jay’s childhood and upbringing were much different than his life today.
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What can you tell me about growing up in the Philippines?
“The Philippines is such a beautiful country, but it’s also not the most developed. There aren’t any real job opportunities for us, so we got by as best we could. My parents took any work they could, but it was down to luck really. All of my uncles all have degrees—good degrees at that—in Business, Maths… but there’s just no work.”
The economic situation in the Philippines forces many people to look elsewhere for a source of income:
“We’re a family of five, and we had to be clothed and fed. My Dad found work abroad as a nurse for the elderly all the way over in Northern Ireland. He would send all the money he could back to us, but it often wasn’t enough”.
Up until the age of nine, Jay lived and studied in his small hometown in Ilocos Sur, about half an hour from Vigan City:
“At home, we spoke the language of my region, Ilocano. It’s more a spoken language than anything, but to me, it was my mother tongue. I was taught in Tagalog, the national language – I had some lessons in English, too. It definitely helped with what came next”.
In July of 2007, Jay’s parents decided to make the permanent move, so that they could join their father in Tyrone. He remembers the move well:
So what can you tell me about when you left the Philippines?
“I remember feeling excited at first, but when it meant I couldn’t see my family and friends, I was heartbroken. I didn’t know when or even if I would see them again. We arrived sometime during the morning in Belfast, and I remember thinking how weird everything looked – it was all so clean, and the landscape just looked so weird to me”.
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The summer ended, and Jay soon started in a local primary school:
“It was a lot of stress for a 10-year-old going into a school – I barely spoke any English, I didn’t know anyone, and I wasn’t from here. I felt overwhelmed in classes – in the Philippines, I was top of my class, but here I felt so stupid, and my parents couldn’t understand why I wasn’t doing as well as I had been”.
Do you feel more could have been done to help you?
Probably, to be honest … I remember this one irritating little brat would always pick on me, he just thought I was thick and stuff. I just remember breaking down at my desk in front of everyone. It all kind of came to a head. It was a lonely time, really. Lots to adjust to.”
Did it get better once you got to secondary school?
Short answer: no. The picking on became a bit more severe, and I was bullied a lot. The things they’d say about me – it definitely became more racial. It just made me feel like I fitted in less.
In secondary school I was an easy target: a closeted immigrant who couldn’t afford the nice clothes and phones and shoes all the other kids my age had. And because my family sent most of their paychecks back home to the Philippines to help out all my family there, money was always tight.
We were on our own in this new country, with no family or friends to help us, so at home it was me who had to put food on the table (for seven of us), clean the house, help my siblings. All my friends had hobbies or hung out, but I didn’t even have time to think about that stuff. As dramatic as it sounds, I feel like it robbed me of my childhood – the kind of things I had to do at 11, 12 years old just wasn’t normal.
Even now I still can’t be financially independent from my family. I’m paying for their car, I’m helping to pay off their loans, and I even give my younger siblings pocket money.
How would you describe your relationship with your sexuality and your identity over the years?
Even when I was in the Philippines I knew I was gay. Of course, I don’t think I knew the word for it or how to express it but, I just knew I was different. Like most Filipinos, my family is deeply catholic. At one point I even wanted to become a minister, and I used to love going to church. But people aren’t as open to homosexuality and things like that. Being gay is not an option for a lot of people. My parents aren’t the most accepting. My Dad more so – I remember once he threatened me, saying he would reject me if I turned out gay. So I learnt pretty early on that the two don’t really mix.
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As far as my identity goes, I think I’ll always see myself as mostly Filipino – even though I speak and think for the most part in English, at home with my family it’s always been my culture, and I have always been made SO aware of the fact I wasn’t born here. People can be really ignorant, or just outright inappropriate. In the press, even the word “immigrant” feels like a slur. We’re not seen as people; we’re just made to feel like a burden.
Even within the gay community, I had so many people tell me they weren’t “into Asians”, that it’s “just their preference”.
“Now I am so much happier with my sexuality, and since then I have met so many amazing and accepting people who have made me feel like I belong. But that feeling of “you don’t fit in anywhere” has just stuck with me, and it still affects me I guess. I’m still yet to come out to my family, and I don’t know whether they will accept me or not.”
Lastly, what do you think needs to change with regards to our attitudes on immigrants and immigration?
“I think people need to be more understanding of other people coming from afar. When you have so many different people from all sides making you feel different, or making you feel ashamed about who you are, and no one around you seems to be able to recognize or identify how it may be hard for someone coming to a different country, or the expectations and pressures that may come from home.”
At school, at home, and in wider society, these children are exposed to unforeseen pressure, abuse or discrimination. Despite research from the OECD calling for greater support for immigrant children and young people both inside and outside the classroom, such findings seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
We live in a time where the conversation surrounding issues such as immigration, migrants or refugees is incredibly negative: from xenophobic news outlets to Twitter trolls of the Alt-Right, immigrants, even children, are dehumanized and demonized on account for simply being different.
More needs to be done to make sure vulnerable young people are protected and not made to feel ashamed of their identity. Yet in the same vein, we must also recognise a moral responsibility to provide adequate emotional or logistical support to vulnerable members of immigrant families against the effects of migrating, and how the child’s personal identity may conflict with that of their culture of origin.