11 May 2012

Moving abroad can make you feel British

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What does it mean to be British, is the question posed in the latest issue of Woman & Home magazine.

Interestingly, when asked to list three things that make them feel British, all three writers gave very different answers, showing just how specific and personal one’s sense of Britishness can be. Because writer Jenny Colgan lives in France, it is drinking large amounts of wine and not thinking a size 14 is fat that make her feel British. For author Yasmin Hai, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, an Indian takeaway in a remote British village is a reminder of just how multicultural Britain has become. As someone born and raised outside of Britain, it is the more general British characteristics of its countryside and sense of humour that make journalist Louise Chunn feel British.

Although their answers to the key question differed, the common connection from their experiences seems to be that feeling British is not a fixed thing, but one that continuously evolves and adapts to one’s own personal circumstances. Recent British Future research has shown people see pride in a variety of aspects of being British, from pubs to language to comedians and food, we essentially see a range of symbols of our pride.

It’s great to see a glossy women’s magazine giving space to discussion of identity, something that has been surfacing regularly in the newspapers, and among the political commentators in the last few months, and obviously enough the Queen’s Jubilee has been the spark for them.

Novelist Jenny Colgan spoke about her experience of being a British immigrant in France and the strangeness one can feel when in a place where “you will never be mistaken for one of its people”. Her sense of Britishness is largely a reflection of the differences she has noticed between her own behaviour and that of the French. When listing the three things that make her feel British, she came up with practical, everyday details that differentiate her from the specific culture she now finds herself in: drinking wine in larger glasses, not thinking a size 14 is fat and being more inclined to tell jokes than speak about politics. Her own experience demonstrates how living away from one’s country of origin can lead to your original identity being heightened by the tiny cultural contrasts of daily life.

The second piece in the feature is from journalist and author Yasmin Hai, one of three children born to Pakistani parents that moved to Britain because of their father’s exile. Upon moving to Britain, her father was determined that his children integrate and assimilate into British culture. He was extremely successful, as Hai remembers her and her siblings “often [being] held up as immigrant role models for seamlessly fitting in”.

Despite fitting in, as she grew older she did not feel like she belonged and so looked to her Asian roots to provide her with this sense of belonging. In her personal quest to seek out her own identity she visited Pakistan, but, like Colgan, going abroad “taught {me} that I might be more English than I realised”. Worried that now she did not belong anywhere, it took Britain’s own gradual identity shift to eventually quash her anxiety:

“Britain was changing…I started to realise that I belonged to the country of my birth more than I had ever believed possible. Britain had gone multicultural”.

Hai’s experience shows just the extent to which personal identity can fluctuate and change depending on society at large. What constitutes Britishness has changed dramatically over the past few decades. As Britain has become more accepting of diversity, more people have become comfortable in feeling British. In Hai’s own words, “I now cherish many of the quintessentially British traditions that in the past triggered such conflict in me.”

Psychologies magazine editor Louise Chunn was the final point of view, and her story reflects just how strongly many people born abroad feel a sense of belonging in Britain. She was born in New Zealand and lived there until well into her 20s, at which time, after spending one year in the US, she moved to London. Although not enamoured with Britain at the beginning, her sense of identity slowly began to shift:

“I would visit my family every two years and each time NZ would feel slightly more alien to me and returning to the UK would seem slightly more like my natural habitat”.

Chunn’s sense of identity morphed and transformed gradually as she spent more time away from her birthplace. Nonexistent at first, her sense of Britishness is now so strong that Chunn now considers herself more patriotic than most, a surprisingly common trait among British immigrants. She thinks that “we shouldn’t be afraid to loudly extol all the things that make Britain great.”

Even though all three writers represent the same demographic of professional women married with children, all have specific, intensely personal ideas of what it means to be British. It is a testament to just how far our society has come that the variety of their responses is par for the course in modern Britain. The diversity apparent in their responses to the question ‘what does it mean to be British’, reflect just how varied and diverse Britishness really is.

Richard Miranda


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