Reverse Culture Shock
Returning to the UK has always been a mixed blessing; I love going back to the family, but find it increasingly hard to adjust to the ever evolving landscape of the UK and my former home of Newcastle upon Tyne. Minor changes, such as a new shop opening or a pub closing, accrue an added significance, one that is not readily observed by friends or family. For someone returning to their former home, the changes that have occurred gradually for relatives, happen all at once and take time to fully process.
This is, of course, quite natural. Reverse culture shock has long been understood as a side-effect of leaving, but it is often seen through the prism of someone returning to live in a country. For those who have chosen to live their lives in another city or in another country, who do not intend to return, they often find themselves in a purgatory of reverse culture shock, unable to remain long enough to adjust, but there just long enough for it to do some serious damage to their psyche.
This is clearly a problem when a former home is relatively stable but add a potent mix of social and political unrest and the result can be catastrophic. This was essentially my experience the moment I stepped off the plane at Newcastle Airport.
The very first taste of what the UK had in store for me was at passport check-in. In the past, I’ve sailed through this process, sometimes it would take mere minutes to show my passport, say “Cheers” to the border security officer, nod reassuringly to the plain clothed police officers who tend to mill around beyond the border guards and then leave. Last year, I saw the signs that Brexit was changing this process and not for the better. At Easter, they were building a new waiting area, in the summer they were training what appeared to be a school age group on the how to manage the people waiting and by December, one of the graduates of the training directed all British passport holders to wait in a 20 minute queue to be seen by a border guard. The non-British passport queue, for that is what we now have, was practically empty, which meant that non-British passport holders sailed through the process with relative ease. If that isn’t a metaphor for how badly the British government has handled the decision to leave the EU, I don’t know what is. This initial experience was one that would essentially continue for the whole of the Christmas break.
To be very clear, Newcastle was not a Brexit supporting city, but like the referendum as a whole, the result was close (1%). I have, in the last three years, had only one bad experience personally with Brexit, when one of my relatives opined that it was “better I had left” because my opinion on Brexit was so negative. Yet, all around the city are signs that Newcastle along with those areas with the lowest incomes and fewest opportunities, will not have a smooth transition to the supposed “sunny uplands” of Brexit Britain. There was a buzz around the decision to create a North of Tyne Combined Authority between Newcastle, Northumberland and North Tyneside, but there was also an acceptance that what is promised and what finally materialises are rarely the same thing. In the minds of many British politicians, the North is Leeds and Manchester, Newcastle is often ignored or left to its own devices.
Case in point, the Newcastle West End and East End foodbanks that have had to be created by volunteers, to make sure that those who have seen their benefits cut under targeted austerity, have been subject to sanction by job centres for ridiculous reasons or have been “employed” under zero hour contracts can actually feed themselves and their families. Across the whole of Newcastle, 36% of children are growing up in poverty. If that is the scale of the problem now, how will it be when we leave our largest trading partner? Perhaps the confidence of my Brexit voting relative will see the city through, but I doubt it.
The statistics don’t stop there, according to a written submission by Newcastle university and Newcastle City Council to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights:
The median household net property wealth in the South East is 233% larger than that in the North East.
The median wealth increased in the South East by 14% between 2012 and 2016, it fell by 7% in the North East.
The North East is one of the UK regions with the highest number of deprived areas.
Levels of fuel poverty in the North East are higher than average at 13.8%, and higher again in Newcastle at 14.4% (approximately 17,268 households).
Councils’ spending on adult social care fell by 10% in real terms between 2009 and 2015, and it was budgeted to be 3% lower in 2018 than in 2009
Cuts to council funding in Newcastle equate to £268 per head.
The city has received gut punch after gut punch and again, I doubt it will be improved in the coming years or with whatever Brexit is finally decided upon.
For the outsider, which I now am, what is clearly seen is the closed shops, the growth in homelessness, the clear disparity between incomes, these are obvious. What’s more, speaking to friends and family, the shattered systems are fully exposed. Schools with hundreds of thousands of pounds missing from their budgets and teachers being made redundant, while adverts are shown on TV for private tuition firms to ensure your child excels in school, but only if you have the money. Nurses, especially in psychiatrics, unable to continue in their jobs because they are continually under staffed and under-funded. Relatives who are terrified to retire, for fear they won’t be able to support themselves.
Yet, despite the clear neglect that has been suffered, the city keeps going. It is a testament to the remarkable nature of the Geordies that the city is not a hollowed-out husk. Volunteer work, to support the homeless, volunteer work to support food banks, donations and simply a warm interaction are readily offered and received. Pride can often come before the fall, but it can also be the reason we get back up again.
Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as my assessment makes out. Maybe I am the doom and gloom monger, maybe I am suffering from some form of German Angst that only allows me to see the worst. I wish that was the case. Maybe I’m no longer 40% German, maybe I’m 70% German, and I’ve become one of those out of touch expats that I quietly despise. Then again, maybe I’m not.