Black Friday UK: an immigrant’s experience

Traditions are one of the first manifestations of a host country’s culture to which the immigrant gravitates upon arrival. Whether consciously or unconsciously, most of us adopt them as ours, even if sometimes we only celebrate certain aspects of it.

Christmas is a good example. Because I did not grow up with it, it was hard for me to understand what it meant to British people. Add to this the fact that I arrived in London in November’97, as shop fronts go Crimbo-mad, and you can imagine what an eye-opening experience it was. It did not take me long to learn that the Christian ethos that this annual holidays is attached to has given way to a more consumerist-driven celebration. Still, I do enjoy my time off with my family and catching up with family and friends.

However, other traditions have not had the same impact on me. Especially those that are late-comers. Black Friday is one of them. This retail orgy is a recent — and unwelcome, at least from me — phenomenon in the UK. It apparently started with online behemoth, Amazon, half a decade ago and caught on very quickly with other businesses.

Unlike the bathos that surrounds Christmas (at least its uplifting sentimentality comes garlanded with a certain, typical British charm), Black Friday is a cynical US-import exploit to squeeze every single last penny out of bargain-hunters. I usually give it a wide berth but this year a conversation with my children around the dinner table made me wonder why on earth a tradition-rich country like the UK needs to latch on to this thinly-disguised capitalist display of retail power.

The chat with my children centred on the discounts most shops were offering, especially online. The issue for me was that these were not discounts at all. 15% or 20% knock-offs are still dear, especially when the original price is in the hundreds of pounds. It makes you ponder on the wisdom of shoppers and their ability to spot a good clearance or the lack of it thereof.

I confess that I felt funny having these thoughts about Black Friday. As usual my first reaction was: should I — a non-native of this country — be critical of this very recent US-led retail-friendly invasion? Yes, I should, was my immediate answer. Not only because it is a most unwelcome sight (last year, there were overnight queues and brawls at some of the major stores on Oxford Street) but also because I am part of British life now and one of the steps towards acceptance of and assimilation to the host country’s culture is to occasionally feel aggrieved with the rest of my British compatriots when unwelcome phenomena like Black Friday make their presence known. You could say it is a right that arrived with my British passport in the post many years ago.

I had a Scrooge-like reaction when I heard that in the end Black Friday was not the success most retailers had hoped for. Either online or at the shops, the windfall expected fell way below what experts had predicted. There is hope, I thought, there is hope that maybe in a couple of years’ time Black Friday will be the equivalent of a horrible dream we all had and from which we woke up feeling confused. After rubbing our eyes we will, a few years hence, hopefully take stock of our surroundings, think of the things that really matter in this short life of ours and hit our pillow again; this time dreaming instead of the arrival of Christmas and the meaning of it.

London-based, Cuban writer. Author of “Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, to be published by Austin Macauley. Has written for The Guardian and Prospect.

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