At first, I wasn't sure who the crazed-looking man was yelling at. "You can go home now!" he shouted.
There wasn't anyone else around, and I realized he was screaming at me.
"You can go home now!" he yelled again. "We voted to Brexit!"
I was stunned. I tried to tell him that I am from Canada and Hong Kong, but he didn't care. "Go home!" he said one more time before shuffling off.
I was more than a little shaken. London was the last place I thought I'd encounter this kind of hate. Where had I moved to?
The week before I moved to London this March, ISIS attacked Brussels, killing more than 30 people in a series of co-ordinated bombings. I was living in Washington, DC, and the coverage of the attacks quickly focused on how the presidential candidates reacted. Donald Trump responded by calling the city a "total disaster" and boasted that the fear of terrorism is "probably why I'm number one in the polls."
The puffy billionaire wasn't totally wrong. He'd been riding on the coattails of terror throughout his improbable presidential campaign. And even after becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, he wasn't about to stop.
The Brussels comments came after Trump attacked a judge for being Mexican, promised to build a wall on the southern border, and stop Muslims from entering the country. Oh, and he also didn't disavow support from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Las Vegas on June 18, 2016. (Photo: David Becker/Reuters)
His disrespect of anyone not white and male was making me sick to my core. After three years of living in the U.S., the vitriol that has polluted political discourse there was getting to be too much. Xenophobia had found its voice in a country that always called itself a melting pot, and it was a growing crescendo that started to really shake the roots of my immigrant soul.
It was definitely time to leave. Moving to London brought with it the possibility of escape from this growing cacophony of hatred and simmering racism. A truly international city, made up of people from different corners of the world, it held for me the promise that I might fit in in a way I never truly did in Washington.
I looked forward to dim sum in Chinatown and chicken tikka masala in Brick Lane. And I thought of it as a homecoming. After all, I had essentially spent my formative years in the last vestiges of the British empire: I was born in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony and I moved to Canada six years before that country severed its final legal ties to the United Kingdom in 1982.
Worst kind of fear-mongering
I arrived in London as the Leave and Remain campaigns were in full swing. I watched in growing horror as a man who looked like the Grinch and spoke the same language as Trump (albeit with a British accent) spewed the same lies about immigrants and terrorism as Trump did.
I watched with dread as another man with hair that looked like a messier version of Trump's read from the same script, urging voters to reject the post-war world order and break up Europe because it was the only way to keep migrants out.
I read headlines in the Sun and Daily Mail that demonized refugees and blamed outsiders for the country's problems. And I realized that xenophobia and racism had also found their voice here, which was incongruous for a country that had spent the better part of its history conquering and colonizing remote parts of the world.
I saw that Grinch-looking man unfurl a poster that made me sick to my stomach the same way Trump makes me sick to my stomach. The poster: a picture of desperate refugees with the words "Breaking Point" printed beside it in blood red. It was the worst kind of fear-mongering possible, blaming people who are trying to flee bombs and bullets and death.
And then, news of Jo Cox's murder, a week before the referendum. If it had happened in the U.S., I would have been less shocked, given the tenor of the debate and the access to guns. But this was Britain, and she was trying to convince her constituents that it is better to be united than divided, to deal with problems together rather than going it alone.
For that, she was gunned down, by another crazy man, who was heard shouting "Britain First!" as he shot her at close range. I started to wonder what kind of country I had moved to.
I registered to vote after that. As a citizen of a Commonwealth country and a UK resident, I was afforded that right and I knew I had to exercise it. As I headed to the polling station last Thursday, I was hoping that common sense would prevail, but as the results started rolling in early Friday morning, I was less optimistic.
By sunrise, it was all over. Fifty-two per cent had decided on Brexit. I tried to rationalize it that morning as I walked to the bank in Camden. Perhaps, I thought, it's a just rejection of globalization and a whole lot of Euroscepticism and not an indictment of Britain as a whole.
Many people in smaller towns across this grand country feel alienated from London and from Europe and they just want to stay in their little world. But does that make them racist and intolerant?
And then I heard someone yelling. "You can go home now!"
A few days later, the hashtag #PostRefRacism is trending. A Polish community centre in Hammersmith was vandalized. Polish construction workers working on a neighbour's home were jeered at by a bunch of young white men, screaming "Losers!" as they drove by.
A Channel 4 reporter, Ciaran Jenkins, tweeted that he saw people shouting, "Send them home!" as he was shooting a report in Barnsley.
A woman shouted "There's one of them, send that back" as a Sri Lankan child walked past with his mum.— Ciaran Jenkins (@C4Ciaran) June 27, 2016
My taxi driver, who moved here from Afghanistan 15 years ago and has a British passport, told me long-time customers are showing their true colours. One man, after a £42 ride, simply refused to pay. Another said: "I could kill you now, and no one would care." He says he is scared -- not just for himself, but for his four children.
No, Brexit can't simply be chalked up to a rejection of globalization and a fatal convulsion of Euroscepticism. I'm afraid it has unleashed, legitimized, and given a strong voice to the true horrors of racism, xenophobia, and hate. And that is a toxic mix, much more dangerous than any other consequence of Britain's short-sighted and narrow decision to leave Europe.
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