THERE THERE
EASTERN EUROPEANS FOR DUMMIES

“Intuitive respect for the law just isn’t part of Eastern Europeans’ psychological or cultural makeup. Legal is anything they can get away with; moral is anything that pays an immediate dividend.” Alexander Boot

Part one/theory: Who are Eastern Europeans?

Eastern Europe was invented in the Enlightenment. Before then, Europe was divided into North (bad) and South (good); when the power structures changed, the West employed liberal amounts of imagination and induction to conjure up its opposite face: a barbaric, dirty, regressive, and poor Eastern Europe that helped define the prosperous West by negation. Therefore, Eastern Europe is not simply a region, but rather a concept, best defined by Larry Wolff as a ‘work of cultural creation and ideological self-interest’[1] that constantly aligns itself to emergent sets of socio-political circumstances. Still, for most of its life, Eastern Europe embodied a notion innately attached to a geographical territory—firstly, it was only vaguely defined (for one thing, it was difficult to decide where it starts and/or ends), then it was susceptible to changes (no one considers Prenzlauer Berg Eastern Europe anymore), and, ultimately, crucially distant (due to borders, visas, as well as a lack of infrastructure and/or Ryanair). Eastern Europe was scary and different, but, for everyone’s sake, it was far away.

This remoteness and inherent attachment to a specific place were two of the few constants of Eastern Europe. But then the 1990s happened; the Cold War ended, countries in the East of the continent underwent speedy economic transitions toward (neo-)liberal capitalism and some, eventually, joined the EU. Peoples of Eastern Europe were granted the right to free movement (with some restrictions), and some moved Westwards.

When they did, they did not bring Eastern Europe with them - Eastern Europe only exists in the West. It was hovering around, abstract, and devised for lands far away, when physical representations of Eastern Europe started appearing everywhere in the West, in the form of immigrants from Poland, Slovakia, or Latvia. Eastern Europe, with all its ancillary meanings—of barbarism and savagery—got plastered on immigrants, and they became Eastern European. In other words, Eastern Europe metastasised into Eastern European, a hybrid identity carried on by a heterogeneous group of immigrants. Eastern Europeans have the same interests, the same relationship to the state, and the same institutional hurdles; group members recognise each other even when they don’t know each other because they fall under the same stereotype.

Eastern Europeans are an imagined community, a nation born out of transition, imposed and defined by others, rather than its nationals. Not all of us carry around the same passport, but Eastern Europeans are made up and treated as a nation. And the locals know it too.

Despite the criticism, owner Eddie Whitehead stands by his decision to put up the sign. He said it was the only thing to do to "prevent Eastern Europeans from stealing fish". He said: "I am sure they are Eastern Europeans. I've had no problems with people from other countries.”[2]

Part two/practice: My name is Bojana and I’m Eastern European

No one knows exactly how many people from Eastern Europe live in the UK; passports are not checked when exiting the country, and EU nationals are not required to register their stay, at least for the time being. The Office of National Statistics’ best guess is around 1.3 million[3]; the 2011 census revealed Polish to be the second most spoken language in England.[4]

What is more certain is that the anti-Eastern European sentiment has been rising with alarming speed since 2004, when the A8 countries joined the EU. These days, many are shocked at the steep rise in hate crime against Eastern Europeans[5], following the EU referendum, but it seems that the decade-long torrent against the same population has been erased from collective memory. Yet, the post-referendum violence, which includes everything from flyers to murders [6], is the mere logical conclusion of a decade in which Eastern Europeans were called intuitively criminal [7], accused of having no regard for the local culture and history and working for less money and settling for less [8], slammed down for sending money back home rather than investing it into the local economy [9], demonised for working too hard while only coming to the UK to claim benefits [10], and, of course, dressing like thugs [11].

The media has spent a considerable amount of time building an image of a typical Eastern European, but there has been little effort to dismantle it. The reason is simple: while Eastern Europeans are constructed and treated as a nation externally, the individuals belonging to this imagined community are not actually organised into a palpable community internally. Diasporic cultural centres, community organisations, and informal groups alike tend to stem from and be engaged with specific countries, maintaining a relationship to the homeland, and promoting its culture and citizens inside the UK. Eastern Europeans don’t exist institutionally and since the identity is markedly negative, not many will claim it for themselves; consequently, there’s no one to defend it—or, for that matter, to reclaim it.

Equally important is the fact that there are few alternative spaces for this defence to happen; even the ‘liberal’ media often adopts a patronising attitude toward Eastern Europeans, systematically labelling them in a negative and/or condescending fashion [12]. Other forums show no interest in the topic, and performance and theatre, where the practice of There There is most commonly found, are an excellent example of this tone-deafness. Just a few months ago, a prominent critic wrote about how the referendum is none of theatre’s business [13]; a venue geared toward alternative performance and theatre put together two festivals inspired by the referendum—one before and one after 23rd June, 2016—which between them featured zero Eastern European artists.

This silence, and the media-constructed hybrid Eastern European identity are the starting point for the work of There There. Creating agency within the term Eastern European, while exploring what Eastern European means and how we can subvert its meaning, is an important consideration of our practice. The label we use for the process of de-silencing is audience development: creating a network of diaspora and migration organisations, building audiences that are as diverse as the streets they walked in from, engaging with immigrant (and especially Eastern European) audiences that rarely go to theatre/performance, and, most importantly, doing all of that in order to create opportunities within our performances for audiences to share their experiences of immigration, of being an immigrant (or not), Eastern European (or not).

Claiming the term ‘Eastern European’ for ourselves has not always gone down smoothly. For diasporic organisations, especially those funded by governments, supporting a project on Eastern Europeanness made by non-nationals is often impossible; some Western programmers, producers, and curators have denied the existence of Eastern Europeanness (sometimes because they would ‘never call us that’), some called us confrontational (and Polish), but, for the most part, especially prior to the referendum, convincing British venues that the treatment of Eastern Europeans is a relevant topic, and that Eastern European audiences exist, was the first and often the biggest task. Remarkably, the same wasn’t true of the audiences—what we know from direct feedback, evaluations and critical responses is that dissections of Eastern European identity are relatable not only to those from Eastern European countries, but also to immigrant audiences from around the world as well as to British minority audiences. When it comes to issues of contemporary European immigration in the UK, the gulf between audiences and venue policies is substantial—turning away, if not outright rejecting those who are already less likely to feel like an equal part of the wider British society.

Eastern Europeans for Dummies—Who’s Fooling Whom?

“Are you Polish or Irish?”

“Neither.”

“But there’s no one left!”

Just everyone else. If you have heard the clichés about citizens from Eastern Europe, you have also learned that most of them are like walking middle fingers, a cocktail of ebullience and contempt, with an appetite to devour lily-livered Brits. But if you happen to come from an Eastern European country, and have experienced David Hare asking how you manage the extraordinary performance of speaking English fluently; receiving compliments for your style despite your country of provenance, where, allegedly, all women are prostitutes; or English strangers immediately barking poorly-worded Polish phrases at you, then you too may be starting to simmer. You may even take a second to check you haven’t been mistaken in thinking you were Romanian all along.

When you migrate to a new country (usually to escape your own), these collective experiences give you the impetus to do yourself justice, to dispel the myths - not so that you boast with self-righteousness, but so you can resume your existence without daily attacks. And, as a consequence, it is little surprising that when you walk down the streets, wearing a xenophobia-proof vest, a slight patriotic feeling activates. You have made the decision to move to a new country, without ever questioning your feelings for your own, and suddenly you have become your country. It is almost as if you need pills to cure your patriotism—but, alas, in the UK, they only prescribe paracetamol.

Eastern Europeans for Dummies, a performance revolving around all of the above, was born out of the wedlock of stereotypes and routinely-encountered frustrations. Bojana and Dana (one Serb, one Romanian) united to allay one-dimensional expectations and to start conversations around these delicate subjects. Some of those occur in day to day confrontations such as mispronunciations of your name: my MA convenor refused to say my name as Dana—Dah-nah—despite hers being Anna. She persisted in using the American Day-na, which was an intriguing choice, given the British stance of superiority over American articulation. Others, more urgent ones, extend to the typical scapegoating of tabloid headlines (“One immigrant a minute enters the UK” [14] or “One in five homeless in London are Romanian” [15]) and politicians’ vituperative attacks on fragile communities.

Eventually, you have to decide which of these slurs you can tolerate. And, obviously, you will start the process of concession, and choose the mispronunciation of your name, as it is least problematic. But it is naive to think that the micro and the macro are not interlinked. As Chimene Suleyman brilliantly explains in her essay, My Name is My Name,[16] “difference is a thing of difficulty for the British”; their existence is tone-deaf and cannot make out our words—so you become “conciliatory and afraid” to avoid conflict and inconvenience.

It was precisely these negotiations we wanted to avoid in our performance. Conceived in a squat’s bathroom and subsequently going through various incarnations, it was initially a gallery piece in various fine arts spaces and underground museum tunnels, then a theatre show in black box studios, followed by a part performance/part participatory piece allowing audiences to meet and discuss immigration. Eastern Europeans for Dummies (occasionally misspelled as Eastern ‘European’ for Dummies, as some believe Eastern European to be a language), dissects Eastern European stereotypes and encourages open dialogue between the naysayers and the discriminated against.

Performing in front of theatre and art-savvy audiences can be rewarding, yet alienating. Preaching to the converted ranked low on our list of priorities, and our interests pivoted when an audience of black British teenagers told us how much our show mirrored their own and their parents’ experiences. By highlighting this equivalence—and without ignoring the historic differences—, we explore ways in which white migrants from Eastern Europe have come to be similarly subjected to institutionalised xenophobia. This triggered a desire to reach out to these communities, to compare what is being presented to the nation with the daily realities. Similarly, it certainly didn’t feel like a coincidence when the only person who accepted a request to photocopy the Romanian Blue Card—into a dozen duplicates—for another performance, was Nigerian, and recognised the scapegoating as a personal experience: “First it was the Nigerians, now the Eastern Europeans; next they’ll destroy the Chinese. They’re only finding newcomers to blame for their own failings.”

By contacting different diaspora groups in the UK and establishing partners with whom to tour the piece, we attempted to locate an Eastern European immigrant audience that wouldn’t normally be found in cultural venues. Some of those experiences materialised when British people mixed with these diasporas and were interrogated about their country of origin—surely, Brits are never asked where they come from; their frightfully lordly accent is informative—enabling the conversation we expected.

However, with post-referendum Europe tattered, our plans to tour the UK in search of these communities suffered the consequences. Some were targets of extreme violence, with people’s lives in danger and their businesses and houses set ablaze. Over the years, we had been told we were exaggerating, victimising the Eastern Europeans when they were benefiting from the UK’s permissive and non-discriminatory system. In the newly-emergent post-referendum vista, all Europeans started feeling subjected to this xenophobia, which, to us, only emphasised the differences derived from entitlement, and people’s oblivion to others’ experiences.

Eastern Europeans for Dummies developed yet again and we extracted a participatory element, whereby the audience can play games inspired by tabloids’ headlines, conducive to debate and sometimes competition. We have created a range of interactive English fête games depicting Eastern Europeans’ perceived trajectory in the UK, from stealing jobs to scrounging on benefits. Passport in a bucket enables the visitor to win a British passport if three out of five tea bags can be thrown into a teapot from a considerable distance; Hook a job abandons the duck and gives insight into the plethora of available jobs (spoiler alert—they disclose an impecunious existence), while Wheel of benefits - once a wheel of fortune—offers benefits galore under the Universal Credit system. We are focusing on giving voice to these games, some of which will be invigilated by ‘real’ Eastern Europeans in March, when we present them at Tate Modern in the company of other foreign artists’ work.

We no longer know what to expect from British politics. Ironically, they are almost as complicated as the politics at home. Our practice is centred around our identities in this Western world, defending them and giving voice to these societal inconsistencies. But, much to our amusement, when/if the UK leaves the European Union in 2019, Romania will become the country at the helm of the European Council’s rotating presidency.* This fated coupling, the paradox of this entire absurdist situation, plants seeds for a complete make-over of Eastern Europeans for Dummies. One which could be realised in a call-out for all Eastern Europeans to come and occupy the Parliament for a day, or in the cessation of “low-skilled” labour for the duration of the presidency. We are awaiting chaotic and confusing times; nonetheless, it gives us unequivocal pleasure to employ the Romanian proverb ”he who laughs last, laughs best”.

References:

* Editors' note: This text was written a while ago. Paradoxically, and much to our amusement as well, the UK still hasn't left the EU, yet Romania was at the helm of the European Council's presidency with low or no real effect.

[1] Larry Wolff’s book Inventing Eastern Europe is quintessential reading on the topic and provides theoretical backing for much of this article.

[2] 'No Eastern Europeans', Warwickshire sign reads, The Telegraph, April 10th, 2013.

[3] Population by Country of Birth and Nationality Report, Office for National Statistics, August 28th, 2014.

[4] Data from 2011 census reveals 546,000 people in England and Wales speak Polish, The Guardian, January 30th, 2013.

[5] European embassies in UK log more alleged hate crimes since Brexit vote, The Guardian, September 19th, 2016. 

[6] Anti-Polish cards in Huntingdon after EU referendum, BBC, June 26th, 2016; Man, 29, charged with murdering Czech man in east London, The Guardian, September 25th, 2016. 

[7] To Eastern Europeans, legal is anything they can get away with, Daily Mail, January 21st, 2012 

[8] Britain’s disdain for eastern European migrants is a betrayal of memory, The Guardian, July 1st, 2015; Hungarian jobs firm offering low -paid work in UK that undercuts British workers, Mirror, 18th August, 2013.

[9] Romanian migrants send home £500,000 each day from the UK, Daily Mail, June 9th, 2011. 

[10] Boris Johnson blames ‘lazy’ Brits for losing out on jobs to hard-working immigrants, Metro, April 8th, 2013; Immigrants more likely to claim benefits, be jobless or on low wages, says report, The Telegraph, July 21st, 2015. 

[11] 4NBoyz - SLAV SQUAT (UKIP DISS) 4K, David Vujanic, YouTube, May 4th, 2015. 

[12] Britain’s Poles: hard work, Yorkshire accents and life post-Brexit vote, The Guardian, October 25th, 2016; Bulgarians and Romanians in the British National Press, The Migration Observatory, August 18th, 2014. 

[13] Matt Trueman: Why theatre didn't tackle Brexit, What’s on Stage, June 27th, 2016. 

[14] One immigrant a minute arriving in Britain, Daily Mail, December 26th, 2006. 

[15] One in five homeless in London are Romanians with figures doubling over the past year, Daily Mail, February 26th, 2016. 

[16] In My Name Is My Name, Chimene Suleyman explains the importance of the correct spelling and pronunciation of one’s name as formative and personality defining, in Nikesh Shukla’s, The Good Immigrant, Unbound, 2016.

There There was a London-based performance company active between 2010-2019.  The company’s practice explored topics that emerged at the intersection of politics and personal experiences, including contemporary immigration, immigrant and national identities, exclusion, and heritage. Their performances were often participatory in nature, gaining their true shape in contact with the audiences, and consider audience development, focused on engagement with immigrant communities, an essential part of our creative practice.
Featured photo: Eastern Europeans For Dummies c. Patricia Oliveira