Bus Ride Home: “Go back to where you came from!”
Having deep conversations with people is much better than waiting for a change. Someone else will not come to the rescue. You can make things happen yourself.
Written by Iram Sammar
Date: 13 Ramadan, 1443 AH (15 April 2022)
After a long day at work in school, I waited for the 207 bus to arrive. The rain was pouring down on me, I had no umbrella and I just wanted to get home. As I looked on, my bus was approaching, so I waved my hand frantically so it would stop for me. I stepped on to tap my Oyster card, tired and ready to just wind down, when I heard someone shouting at me.
“Don’t let her on. Get off! Go on, go back to where you came from”. Said an elderly man looking at me with a walking stick and wool-blended cap. “You’re all over the place, I tell ya…GET ‘ER OFF”. This elderly man really wanted my attention.
“Sorry sir, are you talking to me?”. I looked to see if someone was behind me – the doors were shut and the bus began to move. My anguish turned to rage, then a calmness in my heart followed. Secretly, I hoped he was not referring to me. My heart sank. It was not the time or the place to give him a piece of my mind – so I oystered in my card and looked towards the bus driver for some sort of sympathy. None found.
“Don’t talk to me”. He muffled as he looked out of the window. “You’re going to take over Britain” he muffled. Every time his gaze swept my way, his discomfort strengthened. So many thoughts flooded my mind. It was embarrassing, it was hurtful, it was demoralising. So, I plucked up the courage and decided to sit, right opposite him.
This man had made his mind up, he decided to embarrass me publicly. He shouted “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”, then slithered “…sitting in front of me?”
What struck me was that he really wanted a conversation. So I gave him one to remember. I plucked up the courage and carried on sitting opposite him so he could see me. “I’m a British citizen…Sir”. Many questions flooded my mind, but I gently asked: “Why are you talking to me like this?”
“GET LOST” was the response. “I’ve got nothing to say to you immigrants. You’re taking over. GO…BACK…HOME” he shouted.
“I am going back home…” I took a deep breath “…to Hanwell”. I responded sarcastically, but I chose to look straight into this stranger’s eyes. All I saw was sheer disgust and hate. I felt like my ears were popping and sound was fading, until I took another deep breath and thought to myself, I can challenge this, I do this for a living. After all, I am a geography teacher.
So there I was, alone, me and just this elderly man sitting directly in front of me. He leaned forward a little, so people couldn’t catch his comment: “You know what I mean, go back to where you are from – where your people are from. The same colour as you, the same smell!”
“Where do you think I’m from?” I said, after regaining courage after onlookers rolled their eyes at his arrogant behaviour. Somehow that gave me courage, I took it as a hint of solidarity. I leaned into his territory to replicate the intimidation. Slowly I spoke, “Take a guess”.
The intense pressure of the confrontation switched his mood from conviction to passiveness. He was getting uncomfortable, so he continued, “Oh, I don’t know Tuvalu…I don’t care. Just get out of here”. His shouting subsided as he was confused as to where I was actually from, which I found extremely amusing.
In my teacher soft tone I said said, “Sir, do you know where Tuvalu is?”
Although this wound him up, he gazed out of the window and said, “you know where you are from, wherever it is, it’s not here”.
“Ah, you mean, the place my parents were born, my heritage?” I helped him in his confusion, as it seemed to me he wanted to know. At this point there were a few passengers looking on helplessly, not knowing whether it was appropriate to intervene – almost like they too wanted an answer.
“Shut-it.” He broke the discomfort. This gave me the confidence to probe in search for his better nature.
“By the way, my parents are from Pakistan. Is that where you would like me to go back to?” I said. “Do you know where Pakistan is…Sir?”
I gave him a chance as you would when you meet your Year nines for the very first time. “I don’t want to talk to your kind. This is England not Pakistan.” His words were now disengaged with his heart and soul. Little did this man know that I was a geography teacher and challenging misconceptions and stereotypes had become a part of my job. In fact, I started to smile as I would in a classroom full of questioning eyes. The subaltern speaks, the orient is human, the other does not fear the self proclaimed master in his alleged house.
“Well, you are right about this being England, but you are wrong about Pakistan being my home. It is my heritage and I absolutely love going there, but I was born here. England is all I know. Alright let’s say I agree… but before I go, I want to ask you something. What is English? The cup of tea you drink? Or perhaps chocolate you eat? Sir…do you like tea?”
“Of course I like my tea, that’s what makes us English” , he replied in a smug and satisfied manner.
“Ah, that’s good, but where is your tea from?” I asked and waited for an intelligent response.
“TESCOS, where do you think it’s from?” He sniggered to himself.
“Well actually do you know tea grows in Asian countries, mainly as you mentioned India and China. You do know that tea was introduced to England by Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza because she couldn’t survive without it? Another thing, the tea trade was like no other for Britain. So it was actually traded from India through the British East India Company – actually I would argue that tea was taken or even stolen from over there. You’re now probably wondering about the chocolate, right? Well you do know that cocoa doesn’t grow in the UK? It’s not hot enough, in fact, it doesn’t rain enough either over here. In fact, let’s make a deal. You give me back all the tea, all the chocolate and even the fabric your clothes are made from and I will … go…back…home.”
After giving this gentleman a Year seven or eight geography lesson on Where does our food come from? He fully engaged in conversation. Hook, line and sinker.
“I never really learnt geography in school, I…I…I didn’t know that.” He said in a calm and almost friendly manner. “No, but you can understand how I feel, anyway they never had teachers like you, did they?” It was as if he wanted to reason with me, even befriend me. “I just miss the good ol’ days where English people walked about the streets, now it’s full of different people”. I started to empathise with him. I began to understand what is meant by white fragility as he started to shed a tear. However cruel it sounds, this conversation did start with abuse, but turned into something quite beautiful.
We carried on talking as he was intrigued about where his beloved chocolate was from. So I narrated: “You know what, this reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my students, also a white British boy, just like you. During a geography lesson he told me to ‘go back home’ too just like you did, but after learning about fair trade and the UK’s connection with countries that produce the food we love so much…like chocolate or cocoa, grown in the Ivory Coast and Ghana, he too mellowed up. Also we teach Year nines that, in 1842 the French declared the area their own country, the Ivory Coast, but people were already living there. Do you know the Ivory Coast was a French colonial rule, which was introduced in the 1880s following the scramble for Africa? Not by choice, by force.”
“What right did they have to do that to Africa. It’s interesting that, I thought Africa was a country.” Said this gentleman, now smiling, yet concerned. “What happened to that Coast thingy country?”
“Yes, so…later in 1904, Ivory Coast became part of French West Africa until 1960, after which the country took back their independence from France.” I continued to talk more about the beauty of learning about the indigenous communities and civilisations within places around the world – we talked about racism and how to be anti-racist.
This man now was ready to enter the zone of learning as Ibram X Kendi suggests. He was ready to be an anti-racist. He began to collect his thoughts: “Scramble for Africa, eh…Jesus! All that time I thought Africa was a country! Ivory Coast you say? Maybe I need to read the packet of my chocolate next time…? Haahaha…oooh…ha, chocolate is from the Ivory Coast, never heard of that! So what about Pakistan? What’s the difference between Pakistan and India? Tell me about Pakistan”
“Pakistan, where do I begin? For me it’s a place where most of my extended family lives. More importantly a place where my parents were born. Pakistan was created in 1947, by the collaboration of great leaders like a Pakistani scholar called Jinnah and also Indian scholars such as the wonderful Ghandi…also Nehru. You know these men studied here in England and were very well-spoken and articulate in speech – they organised to get the British Raj out of what was then India – no Pakistan. You know, Pakistan means Land of the Pure. So when they call me a ‘Paki’ they are saying ‘oi pure person’ [we both laughed thunderously]. Unfortunately a British coloniser called Lord Mountbatten was involved in the final negotiations of the partition between Pakistan and India, this left certain territories under dispute, such as Kashmir, Bangladesh and many other communities. What followed was a revolution within those countries and sometimes civil war and…well a mess for the displaced to make sense of the new borders. Bangladesh came out of Pakistan’s final British influenced colonial grip and saw independence. Kashmir…well, they are still in a struggle for self determination, but no one in the UK gets to hear that news. Many ex-colonies were abandoned in a destructive manner.”
As me and this old man talked and talked, I realised that I had missed my stop, as did he. Instead of Hanwell we ended up in Shepherd’s Bush. So we both got off the bus and crossed the road together to get to the opposite side and waited for our bus back. Both of us were so engaged in conversation that several buses passed by before we actually decided it was time to go home. When we finally got on to a bus, this gentleman gestured to let me on first! Like a true Englishman.
I have told this story umpteen times in the classroom and the reaction gets better and better as I retell the story. During the Teach Meet 2022 event #GAConf22 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHqKzM9rwtI&t=7948s) I shared this story once again briefly with fellow geographers, so I wrote this piece for those who requested a full account of events. My engagement with the incredible Decolonise Geography collective (https://decolonisegeography.com/) has opened many opportunities to share my stories. I have tried to recall it the way it happened, but because of memory accountability, forgive me if my recall is not as accurate as real life. My students respond well to this narrative because I get them to talk about how the gentleman was feeling at the start of the conversation and how he changed as he got to know me. I ask my students to question what might have happened if I did not take the time to listen, engage and educate. We get talking about ‘race’ and ‘racism’ without much complication, because if you use real life experiences your students will relate to you and open up about their own experiences. I found this approach to be extremely effective in challenging stereotypes and negative representations in textbooks and various online resources. To be fair, it can be extremely time consuming for teachers to edit and decolonise the curriculum, so a little storytelling can go a long way. I have narrated this to primary and secondary school children all the way up to adults, now you. Having deep conversations with people you feel are ‘racist’ is much better than waiting for a change. Someone else will not come to the rescue. You can make things happen yourself, little by little. The religion of Islam has taught me that there is a wrong and a right, so as long as you choose the right path, good things will start happening.
A warm thank you for reading this reflection, it comes from the heart.