Peaches is a story, at its core, of identity, voice and belonging. Janikova has packed a huge amount of narrative into a tight wordcount and we loved this twist on dialect and 'local feel' writing. Take a glimpse through the author's eyes at a different and important perspective.
Author's introduction: This short personal essay reflects on my early experiences as an Eastern-European immigrant living in the UK. Peaches is a recollection of my fragmented memories of learning to understand conditional tolerance, xenophobic behaviour and everyday microaggressions, as well as the years-long compromising of my own cultural identity in hopes of acceptance, a sense of belonging, and, ultimately, safety.
by Tess Janikova
I remember the first time I heard it. I was so confused. Scared, even. I still remember the first time I heard real-life, proper British English. Until that point, I only ever encountered English from those tapes professor Blahušová used to play for us in English class. Until that point, I felt confident in my ability to speak and understand English, and I had the grades to justify this wide-eyed certainty. Until that crucial point in my soon-to-be-expired childhood, my moving to a strange country, full of strangers speaking a strange language, wasn’t real. But now, I’m here.
One year later, and I’m here. I’m going to class. I’m kind of terrified because everyone here speaks funny, but no one speaks to me. I’m the foreigner. I’m going to class and I’m counting down the minutes until my dad’s dingy silverish Hyundai, with that black bag taped over where the back window once used to be, pulls up outside and takes me home. I say home, it’s no home - just a bedroom my dad and I share in some English lady’s house. She likes us enough, because we pay rent on time. She likes us alright, until her shampoo, her beer, or, God forbid, her cigarettes run out. That’s when we become those bloody foreigners. Those bloody foreigners, comin’ over ‘ere, taking all those back-breaking jobs none of us good English folk would ever work for such a wage. Those fucking foreigners, comin’ over ‘ere, paying their taxes and abiding by the law, mind you, much more religiously than us good English folk ever need to. Those bloody foreigners, comin’ over ‘ere, sacrificing all familiarity for the empty promise of a better life for their children, and fleeing countries us good English folk can’t find on the map of Europe at the best of times.
Two years later, and I’m here. I’m going to a party. I made new friends and I dyed my hair black. My new friends tell me that my English is, like, so good and that they can’t even tell I’m not from Essex. My new friends and I go to a party and lots of people speak to me. They make jokes about Soviet Russia, and communism, and breadlines, and drinking too much. I laugh, because for the first time in two years, I feel a false and conditional sense of acceptance. I have friends, I think. Friends that still ask me what my native language is. Friends that, despite being born well past 1993, still call my home country its obsolete name. Friends whose identity has thus far only been challenged by the generic turbulence of teenagehood. Friends that I will not have in a few years’ time.
Few years later, and I’m still here, just some hundred miles away from a place which, despite its most sincerely half-hearted efforts, failed to sincerely accept me. I’m no longer terrified, though everyone speaks kind of funny here, too. They ask, ‘you alright, duck?’ and never wait a second to let me say that I am, in fact, not alright, duck. But I’m here, and I’m taking another shot at learning to call a strange place ‘home’. I work very hard and I drink often - some might say that I’m defeatedly leaning into a tired stereotype. They don’t really mind though, because my English is even better nowadays, and, honestly, they can’t even tell I’m not from ‘round ‘ere. Some might say that I don’t really have an accent, or that I don’t really look foreign. They might even say that sacrificing my late adolescent years to cultivate myself into a socially acceptable foreigner has paid off. Some might conclude that I pass. And I do.
Some more years later, I’m still here. The world has stopped. For the forty-seventh consecutive day, I’m stuck between the same four walls plastered with bright paintings and blurry memories of my early twenties. For the eighth consecutive day, I’m on the phone to my parents, who are some hundred miles away from the closest thing I’ve had to a ‘home’ in a long while. For the first time in years, they don’t have to work a back-breaking job. For the first time in years, they have enough time to tend to their plants, their books, their favourite shows, and each other. For the first time in all those years, they seemingly get to reap the rewards of moving to a strange country, full of strangers speaking a strange language. And for the first time in all those years, I notice that my speech is broken. My sentences barely make sense and I’m frantically searching for native words in the deepest, darkest corners of my polyglot brain. Despite my parents’ nonchalant efforts to help, I can’t remember the word for that one fruit I used to love as a kid. That fruit mum used to cut into little crescent moon-shaped pieces for me. That sweet, delicious, fuzzy-on-the-outside fruit, coloured like a summertime sunset. That fruit whose taste makes me homesick for the simplicity of my short-lived childhood. For the first time in all those years, I come to realise just how much of myself I’ve sacrificed for a life filled with an empty sense of acceptance, in a strange place I will never truly be able to call ‘home’.
What’s that fruit called?
Shit, what’s it called, mum?
Working-class woman. Circumstantial millennial. Life-long painter. Casual writer with a bookshelf of journals. Bartender enchanted by the magic of absinthe and power of tequila. Historian in the making. Communist at heart. New York enthusiast. Passionate reader with a wobbly wine crate library. A Beatnik. A Punkrocker. A Hippie. Forever Bohemian.
Check out Tess on Instagram: @tessjanikova
Cover image by Scott Warman via Unsplash