Happy Sunday everyone! I’ve been thinking, brainstorming, writing, editing and deleting ALL FREAKIN DAY. I just can’t seem to get my point across clearly, but here’s one last shot.
When you introduce yourself, you start with your name right? Your name is the quickest, easiest thing to identify with. If it’s not your name, it’s a funky nickname. Then we say where we’re from.
Here is where I have a problem.
If where we are from is where we’re born, should we base our identity on it?
Take this guy for example, he asks “I am an Afghan born in England, am I English?“. Should he identify with his Afghan roots or embrace where he was born? Some people trying to help him out asked, “Do you feel English?”, No, I don’t, I think to myself. “Do you speak English with an English accent?”. No, I lost that over the years. “Do you have British values?”. What is a British value? Is it Brexit? I guess then I don’t.
I decided to take the British Citizenship online quiz for a laugh. It turns out if I wasn’t British by birth, I’d have been rejected for citizenship.
I don’t live in England, I don’t speak to English people very often, and on the whole I’m not sure if I act English anymore. Since leaving England, my accent has changed dramatically. When I lived in Italy I basically became Italiana. It was very difficult to revert my body language and mannerisms back to British. I tried so hard to control my intonation and stop kissing everyone on the cheek but the Brits saw through it.
I distinctively remember working behind in England earlier this year and a customer looked at me with pity and asked, “Where are you from, dear?“. This wasn’t the first time I had this sort of attention, my friends and family had given me enough stick for my ‘foreign twang’ as they called it. “Born and bred here!” I told her, and I could sense her desire to ask me, “no but where are you really from?”. What a rude question that is. Not only does she want personal information from me- where my parents were born, where I was raised, which passport I have, she’s also subtly inferring that evidently, I’m not British and there has to be an explanation for it.
I’d love to be able to say, “Oh, well my mum’s from X and I’m a quarter Y and my great-granddad came over from Z.” But I literally can’t. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents were born in England. I do have Jewish heritage, does that count for something?! Is that the reason I don’t feel British?
When did it change? When did I stop feeling like I came from England?
I’ve only been on the road for about 3 years, and I’ve already lost my accent and sense of identity. I thought it would take at least a decade! I felt very much at home in Italy. While in Vietnam and Maldives I embraced the culture and food and saw and did a lot, I think having a large circle of Italian friends really started to blur my English edges. There were times where I never felt more English. Like when they wanted to go out for gelato when I just needed a cup of bloody tea. But then there were times, like when the results of Brexit came out, where I cried and couldn’t understand my own people. Living in Maldives I developed a great understanding of Islamic culture and made many Muslim friends, but liking Muslims doesn’t seem to be a British value. I know it’s a controversial topic, but I actually FELL OUT with family members because our views were so polar opposite.
Yesterday I came across a fantastic TED Talk by Taiye Selasi where she challenges the notion of being “from” somewhere. “A person cannot come from a concept“, she argues. “Our passports do not define us”.
I was born in a seaside town in England and lived there for 19 years. Yet the time spent in other countries has taught me a hell of a lot more.
Different places have shaped my experiences.
My experience is where I’m from.
Am I suppressing my Englishness? Perhaps. Or just embracing other sides of me? Notice that Denver famously sings, “Country roads, take me home to the place I belong”, not ‘to the place I was born.’. Does it matter if I don’t identify with being English anymore? Little odd for an English Language Teacher…
I’ve started getting really anxious about being around Brits. What if they look at me and think, she isn’t British! She isn’t one of us! She doesn’t belong here! I already feel like a foreigner when I land at London Stansted, with my Kenyan bracelets and Indian pants and Italian ham and Maldivian shells. But this is why I said before my 30th birthday I’m going to travel extensively around the UK and Ireland. How can I say I don’t feel English if I’ve hardly seen any of it?
There’s something lonely and scary about not knowing where you’re from, where you belong, where you’re supposed to go back to.
Anyone also struggling to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ Do you resonate more with a foreign country or countries than with where you were born? How has a place shaped your experiences? Should we base our identity on where we’re from?
If there’s any English out there living abroad who feel they’re losing or have lost their sense of being ‘English’, please get in touch. It would be wonderful to know I’m not alone.