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Becoming a Scot – Scottish Review of Books
by Theresa Munoz

Becoming a Scot

August 3, 2014 | by Theresa Munoz

I COME from a family of immigrants, though I never thought of us that way until I became an immigrant myself. My father’s ancestors migrated to the Philippines from Madrid, taking the name Muñoz with them. My mother’s grandfather was from Taiwan. As legend goes, the family name was Tan but after arrival, my great-great grandfather changed the surname to Tansingco. The second part was derived from the Spanish word ‘cinco’, indicating that five Tans had made the journey. The change of name also had the effect of making it sound more Filipino and thus tapping in to the most basic desire of most immigrants – the desire to fit in:

Twenty-two (for my mother)

The age you and I immigrated to cities

we had never been, years apart

but some things might have been the same:

same church-like shuffle

down the jetway,

same keyhole window seeping light.

Same long-haul flight leaving us

sand-tongued, the chilled air

like a punch in the face

when you landed in Toronto mid-winter

shocked by the giant concrete towers,

and lost your first payslip

down a gutter,

the snow falling like large moths.

And me from Vancouver to Glasgow,

35 Kelvinhaugh Gate, a flat so damp

I slept in a wool hat for months

and got lost coming home from a place

I’d been twice, so in a pub’s doorway

I spread out my map, worn leaf-thin.

Once I heard you say,

twenty-two is the age I left Manila

left the only patch of land you knew

to wonder as I did, on that cold step:

should I go home now, or have I begun again?

My parents immigrated to Canada separately from the Philippines in 1969. They met in the stationery aisle at Simpson’s department store in Toronto. I often imagine them now as they were then: two small, young, dark-haired people who had never seen snow before they flew north. I wrote about them in a poem entitled ‘Simpsons Dept Store, Toronto’:

You laughed when I asked where.

Oh, it was in the stationery aisle.

Soft-tipped pens and bright paper.

Mom, you hunted a present for a nun,

a certain Sister Bernadine.

Dad, you spied tins of paper clips.

For the job selling insurance you just received.

Two years later, married at St. Michaels.

Dad in a loaned suit, Mom in a bargain dress.

Grasping a bouquet of winter roses.

In 2006, it was my turn to continue the family tradition when I moved to Scotland to do a Masters in Creative Writing at Glasgow University with poet Tom Leonard as my tutor. I had never been to Glasgow before. In fact, I had never been outside of North America before. My mom sewed seven hundred pounds in cash into a secret pocket inside my jeans, perhaps imagining the worst. I ended up working two days a week at the Glasgow University gift shop, where again I explored the connection to my father in a poem called ‘Any kind of job’:

In a new country, any kind of job will do

my dad knew this already, he knew

in the Toronto YMCA

eyeing the corkboard for work:

a day in the eraser factory

or sweeping the bank in his clip-on tie,

his dark brow lifted, his pulse knocking

as he left quickly

for the relief of plenty,

the sour smell of cash in hand.

And I was the same, new to Glasgow

working days

in the uni gift shop,

selling monogrammed t-shirts

or silver jewellery

male lecturers gave to their wives,

and those square-cut magnets that shouted:


so masculine, rigid like the clock

eyeing me when I came in

on time, because my dad and I were never late,

never slept in

and stroked windows

slowly, completely

so the inside and outside glass

bore the same clear sheen

and if a passerby in the rain could see

blue shirts hung in the corners

or in my dad’s case, the bank’s long counter

lined with people yawning into a day,

it was a way

back then, to measure our worth.

I thoroughly enjoyed my course at Glasgow and afterwards I received the now-defunct Fresh Talent visa for two years, so that I could stay and work. I worked as an events planner for a new-age classical ensemble at the Centre for Contemporary Arts and freelanced for the Herald and the List. I then received a student visa and an Overseas Research Student scholarship to do a PhD in Scottish Literature on the work of Tom Leonard. In the meantime, I published a poetry pamphlet called Close and moved to Edinburgh where I work as a researcher and tutor.

Seven years and an array of wallet-crippling visas later, my partner and I found ourselves nervously waiting outside a New Town Edinburgh office. I was there to sit the ‘Life in the United Kingdom’ test which is a required part of the permanent settlement process. My partner took my well-thumbed copy of the official preparatory guide and waited for me in a cafe across the road. I opened the navy blue door feeling slightly bereft without my book which I had been studying from for weeks.

I am not the first person to take a close interest in the book’s contents. Dr Thom Brooks of Durham University found that it contains 3,000 facts, any of which can reappear on test day. Candidates are asked twenty-four multiple-choice questions and need to score eighteen out of twenty-four for a pass. Brooks also noted that the book suffered from gender imbalance and in an earlier edition, got the number of MPs wrong (later editions addressed this by simply removing it as a potential question).

As far as the test itself was concerned, Brooks conducted a withering analysis of its content in the New Statesman. He wrote that it had morphed from a test of ‘practical trivia’ to one of the ‘purely trivial’ where, for instance, candidates had to memorize five dates concerning Sake Dean Mohamet: birth (1759), first came to the UK (1782), eloped to Ireland (1786), opened first curry house (1810) and death (1851). The test has a failure rate of about 30%, not including David Cameron who thought that Elgar composed ‘Rule Britannia’, and did not know what ‘Magna Carta’ meant in English when quizzed by David Letterman, the American talk show host.

I found the book heavy on English history as I set out to learn it verbatim. Though there are focus questions at the end, it is difficult to know what is important and what is not. The test may be ‘purely trivial’ but that is no comfort to those who actually have to pass it. As much as anything, it seems to be assessing the applicant’s language level, which is another contentious issue in today’s immigration debates. I was disappointed that there is little evidence of Scottish life beyond Edinburgh. The few Scottish topics seeded through the index included: Edinburgh Castle, Bannockburn, Chris Hoy, Andy Murray and haggis. Our wonderful ‘Scottish Parliament’ gets only a brief mention. I think I also found a mistake to add to those identified by Brooks: the book contends that £50 is the highest currency denomination in the UK but Scottish and Northern Ireland banks issue £100 notes.

Still, there is no way around taking the test if I wanted to stay and I did get something from the fact retention process. I was happy enough to memorize some things about unusual people like Emmeline Pankhurst who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, the group which became the first suffragettes. And the aforementioned Sake Dean Mahomet is forever committed to my memory. The curry place that he opened in London in 1810 was dubbed the Hindostane Coffee House. I will never again forget any of Henry VIII’s wives: three Catherines, two Annes and one Jane. I now entertain my pals with my 3,000 facts and look forward to employing them in debates and pub quizzes. I wrote about it in my poem ‘Life in the UK’

To take the test, I studied for days.

I know everything. I know the English Kings,

the rough coins of the Iron Age,

the rock steps of the Giant’s Causeway.

I know how many jurors on Scotland’s High court.

The age you can drive, the age you must stop.

Ladies, don’t stay married if he hits you.

What you do with a broken fridge.

I can tell you the time and day the Concorde first flew.

Back in the New Town, the test was administered by two kindly women who took time to register each test-taker beforehand. Upon seeing my passport, one told me cheerfully that her brother lived in Canada and he loved to ski. She seemed surprised that I was so keen to live in Scotland. I sat with other applicants in a gray, airless room staring at the thin-necked computer screens. Pens and lined paper were doled out. We were told there were no second chances: ‘Once you press start, there’s no turning back’.

I felt the way I used to before childhood races, when you stood tense before the line. I pressed start eagerly. Multiple-choice question emerged on the screen. As I clicked through the test, I was surprised to find that only 3 of 24 were directly related to Scotland. What is the maximum amount that can be dealt with in a Scottish small claims court? What is the function of the Sheriff Court in Scotland? Where did Bonnie Prince Charlie raise his army? In addition, ‘the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh’ provided a comedy option in a question about which British universities competed in the boat race. I was disappointed not to be asked one of the questions I had giggled at during a previous practice test: ‘The Westminster Government consists of the House of Commons, House of Lords, House of Fraser (pick two from three)’.

Everyone was given forty-five minutes, though I admit I finished in a lightning-quick seven. I alerted the administrators and was herded into a side waiting room, eventually followed by some of the other applicants. We sat drinking water from the cooler and tried to smile at each other, though the atmosphere was tense. A young woman said ‘Congratulations – you passed’. ‘What score did I get?’ I asked her. She said that they didn’t give out that information; they only let you know if you passed or failed. ‘So you can tell everyone you got a perfect score!’ she continued. Leaving the centre, I noticed that the 30% failure rate identified by Brooks was taking on a human dimension. Some people leaving the room looked distressed.

As I walked down the street to be re-united with my partner, I speculated about questions I may have got wrong. I was tripped up by one about the Home Secretary’s responsibilities. I didn’t include ‘policing’ as I was confused by the fact that it is on the Justice Secretary’s patch in Scotland. Also, does the Queen’s speech look forward or backwards? That was something I wasn’t sure about, though it is probably obvious to people born and bred here.

When word of my pass got out, well-meaning friends started to send me ‘welcome to Scotland’ messages. However, the process wasn’t quite over. The pass certificate was just another piece of paper that had to be added to the pile that my partner and I had been collecting for years. It already included gas bills, evidence of tax returns, pay slips, job contracts, rental agreements, doctor’s letters, photographs, and so on. There were long forms to fill in and the many pages or so of identity, solvency, residence and occupational proof had to be photocopied. A week later we presented ourselves and our life well-documented to the United Kingdom Border Agency in Brand Street, Glasgow. This too was a stressful day, as it feels as though the direction of your entire life is in the hands of a few people. Four hours later, I battled my way through the Govan wind and rain as a ‘New Scot’.

The system that took me in as an international student years ago eventually spat me out as a permanent resident, and I’m happy that it did. The question I am asked most frequently these days are ‘what are you doing here?’ or ‘why on earth would you leave Canada for Scotland’? It’s a good question. Canada is a multicultural country with low-cost healthcare, a very high standard of healthy living and excellent universities. I was born and raised on the West Coast with its rugged mountain ranges, orca-filled sea and warm summers. But while at university, I sensed a growing materialism and a desire to always have the best of everything: food, wine, holiday and house. And sometimes living in a city of such stagey, towering beauty can feel oppressive, or numbing. Its idleness seeps into your life and you are afraid to not be happy all the time. Everyone else makes a point of going on about how good life is. I grew tired of pretending after a while.

I was twenty-two when I packed two suitcases (one of clothes, the other of books) to come to Glasgow. I have been here seven years now and see so many things to love about living in Scotland. It’s liberating to be around so many people who take politics, culture, history and literature so seriously. There is an imperative in Scotland to be bold, honest, critical and not to be afraid to speak your mind. It’s true that people can speak gruffly or sharply which unnerved me at first, until I understood the inherent kindness in the voices. I see a lot of compassion for others here and people committed to making the place even better. People take friendships very seriously and that is something I have grown to appreciate and depend upon.

In Scotland, I feel supported in the literary arts. I love reading and writing and it has been refreshing to find others who value the same things. Here I have reviewed countless books by Scottish authors and have been able to interview Liz Lochead and Jackie Kay among other writers. I have even interviewed Canadian poet and two time Griffin Prize winner Anne Carson when she was on writer’s retreat at Cove Park near Helensburgh. Being a poet in Scotland has also been a positive and encouraging experience. My recent inclusion in the Scottish Poetry Library’s Best Scottish Poems and my appearance at various literature festivals in Scotland help me to feel part of the current scene. These are things I never thought I would get the chance to do. The longer I stay, the more can feel myself being drawn deeper into Scotland.

But one thing I find puzzling is the absence of language for multiculturalism. Being a visible minority, I stand out in Scotland in a way that I never did in Canada. One afternoon while I was running to meet friends in Kelvingrove Park, a man leaning in the doorway of a pub yelled ‘nice tan’ at me. Other people around him laughed. Once when I was reading in a Glasgow coffee shop, three local kids plunked themselves across from my couch. I smiled at them and in response they pulled at the corners of their eyes, asking: ‘Are you Chinese?’. I am often surprised to be asked where I am really from when I answer Canada the first time. I am tired of having to insist that I am not Chinese (or a ‘Chinky’ as one taxi driver put it seemingly without intending to offend). Once, an elderly man in the public library in Dumfries asked me if I was from the Far East and I said ‘Yes, I’m from Edinburgh’. These things happen less often now than they used to and I wonder if I am presenting myself differently. Not so diffident perhaps, but pleased to be here, settled here, belonging here.

Still, the public narrative in Britain around immigration isn’t very helpful. Canada is a country of immigrants and it would be electoral suicide for even a right-wing government to suggest that immigration and multiculturalism aren’t good things. Here, the loudest voices often say the opposite. This can still occasionally get personal. Recently, I delivered a speech to a National Collective gathering in which I said some positive things about multiculturalism. When the text was posted to the NC website, someone commented that they wanted no part of this in Scotland (‘the country of my birth’). The anonymous person also told me that if I supported a multicultural society I should go live in London or, bizarrely, Pakistan. Last summer, I attended a panel session on immigration at the Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament and a handful of loudmouthed, ruddy-faced, rather scary, men in the audience made it quite clear what they thought about immigrants.

I take comfort, however, from the bigger picture in Scotland. At the same panel at the Festival of Politics, the rubicund men at the Scottish Parliament were opposed by almost everyone else in the room. I have heard MSPs of various political stripes speak out in favour of immigration and read, pro-immigration editorials in Scottish newspapers. I see the concern over Yashika Bageerathi, the teenager originally from Mauritius who was deported before finishing her A-levels and others like her. The immigration reforms that enabled my parents to move to Canada in the first place weren’t just about immigration. They allowed Canada to shed its ‘edge of empire’ legacy and become bigger in a metaphorical sense and better in every sense. This is something Scotland can do too if it chooses and more people can have the wonderful experiences I’ve had. And yes, I will be voting ‘Yes’.


From this Issue

Becoming a Scot

by Theresa Munoz

Northern Lights

by Malachy Tallack

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