Saturday, 16 May 2015

"Don't Ask Me Where I'm From!" Or, Identity in Post-Colonial Britain

You see a stranger. It's someone new. You know nothing about them and perhaps aren't interested in them at all, but they're staring at you, scrutinising. It's only a matter of time till they voice what's on their mind, and you know what's coming.

"Where are you from?"

At this point, I always know which way the conversation will turn, but this is how it goes with me:

"Yes, but where are you REALLY from?"
"I'm from London."
"No no, where were you BORN?"
"Oh no no, where were your PARENTS from???"
"My mother was born in east London."
"What about your FATHER, where is he from?"
"But what about THEIR PARENTS??????"

After this, depending on whether they seem obnoxious and demanding, or just curious but misguided on  basic social etiquette, I might end up giving them a hint.

I get interrogated on a regular basis by complete strangers who believe that their curiosity, perhaps even confusion, about my appearance gives them the right to ask demanding and very personal questions. These people are relentless and don't take 'no' for an answer.

This happens to me nearly every time that I leave the house. I could be: buying groceries at the supermarket, waiting for public transport, at a bar, being introduced to new people at a meeting, or just walking down a street, at any time of day (busy morning, quiet day time, or the lairy night filled with drunk-and-disorderlies). I could be alone, with my boy-friend, or in a group.

I get asked all of these questions because I look like this:

Recent selfies, looking (left) great and (right) pretty tired...

Now these nosy people do vary. When I lived in provincial, conservative, and dominantly white Bournemouth for three years at art college, locals looked at me like I was a strange alien creature. Random old white people spoke to me with curiosity ("Where are you from, dear?") and I answered "London!" in my best cockney accent.  And I will never forget the weekend I visited a friend in Exeter, where just walking down the road with her elicited stares and suspicious confusion. And the bar staff at the pubs didn't think I could speak English. And when I made my order, they talked to me like I was either stupid, deaf, or did not have English as my first language.

I now live in London again, and yet I still get asked this question. A lot of the questioners are caucasian, and grew up in a place which was distinctly not a multi-cultural city like London. I think that they should really get used to seeing people of different colours pretty quickly for they ain't in the village no more. I don't always fancy being someone's point of education: it's tiresome and repetitive. 

Sometimes it is by East or South-East Asians who think they can see a bit of themselves in my features. I don't mind this as it's a way of reaching out and finding community. But most of the time, it's by people who don't understand diaspora or the effect of migration and the Empire. 

Often these people are white. Recently it was a middle-aged (and middle-class) woman who had lived abroad and only returned to England relatively recently; therefore perhaps did not realise that our society's attitudes to all this has changed since the 1980s/1950s/whenever. I also spent a whole year working with a truly lovely person from a very small village in South Wales, who just could not get his head around the fact that my mum was born in London, not China; that all of my family were fluent in English; and that we celebrated Christmas. 

But it ain't always the ang mohs. I have had a LOT of South Asian (Indian/Pakistani/Sri Lankan/Bangladeshi) men be very inquisitive towards me, in varying degrees of friendliness and aggression. And also the black community in London, who are culturally outspoken and - from my direct experience - are always unabashed by asking questions. This includes women: I once spent a whole 15 minutes at a bus stop trying to deflect the ceaseless questions of a septuagenerian Jamaican woman  insistent on discovering my family tree and utterly dissatisfied with the factual answers that me and my mum are from London and that my father's family live in Scotland. "I think you should look into your family background you know," she told me. "You might find that someone in your family is Chinese! You should look it up! You should discover it! I think that not everyone in your family is from here!" 

Well thanks, you're really telling me something new…

Now, these nosy people are united in being very insensitive, even being hurtful. They act this way on several levels. First, often the curiosity comes as a strong impulse and people ask you where you're from before they ask anything else about you. Your name, occupation, how you're feeling, what you're doing - all these things become irrelevant! This is pretty rude.

Then there's the deeper stuff. To take myself as an example, I grew up in a single parent family as my father had (still has) no wish to have a relationship with me. He is of a different ethnicity to my mother. Single parent, mixed-race families are very common, and it's a difficult and often hurtful situation to grow up in. So if you know nothing about one of your parents - let alone their heritage and details of their ethnic origin - the last thing you want is for a complete stranger to start asking you all sorts of questions about your origins! 

Nosy and/or Ignorant People (henceforth referred to as NIPs) also tend to make gross assumptions about appearance, ethnicity and heritage. What these bloody NIPs tend to overlook is that migration of people happens in waves, and is an ongoing process that has been taking place for centuries. I am now going to refer primarily to the overseas Chinese communities as that's my direct experience.

My mother (left) and her sister were born in London. They look like this:

My siblings and cousin here look similar to me; we are half Chinese and half Caucasian and we were all born in the UK. We also resemble our grandfather.

However, nobody in my family has anything at all to do with this:

My family are ethnically Chinese, yes. But we are not really from China. My great-great-great grandparents left China between 1890 and 1915, and settled in what was then Malaya, a British colony. Specifically the British-run town of Malacca. They left China long before anything to do with the cultural revolution. Overseas Chinese communities (big ones in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong; but also more places around the world including Jamaica, Guyana, Mauritius…) are very different from mainland Chinese (or PRCs as they are often referred to). I believe that this is primarily because they didn't live through communism. An obvious facet is the presence of spirituality in their lives, which the communists tried to rule out. Another is the use of Chinese dialects, which were overruled when Mandarin was made the official dialect in China, in 1913. The overseas Chinese I know speak Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese; not Mandarin. My grandparents, growing up in 1950s Malaysia, were educated in English. Malay was not used in education until 1968, long after they had both left, so they technically don't speak the languages of their homelands. 

My grandparents entered the UK as (ex) Commonwealth citizens, and met in London. They were part of a Chinese minority community in Malaysia but this community was non-existent in the UK when they arrived; it is still negligible. By the time that people from these communities reach the so-called West, they form a multi-layered migratory pattern, which further contributes to their identity. However, both in Malaysia and London, my family has proven that success in immigration relies on integration. We speak primarily English but also a pidgin mix of Mandarin and Hokkien. My grandfather makes an amazing curry rendang; but also a mean Sunday roast. When any of us go back to Malaysia, we are different. That country has changed massively; and we are part of Britain.

So why don't people, and those frustrating NIPs (Nosy & Ignorant People) accept that? 

Keeping your post-colonial identity and referencing your heritage is fantastic. It is a really great thing to learn about your family history, and even keep cultural traditions alive. This is not even mentioning religion. Yet, in a multi-cultural but dominantly Caucasian setting, heritage informs identity rather than entirely forming it. You could be said to be holding two or more cultural identities at any one time; yet being born in the West, often but not always in the relevant diasporic community, your identity will always be influenced, at least equally, by being a Westerner; in this case, by being British.

It's rather like being an Italian or Irish or Polish Jewish immigrant and then moving to the USA: you are your diasporic community, but you are also American, the end of your journey; or your family's journey. It's something that Americans both WASP and not are very good at doing: holding a dual identity of country and history.

This is surely a natural and healthy part of integration (note that I'm speaking of the Western-born, second-generation children of immigrants); and it will be stronger as the generations continue and the link with the so-called 'motherland' of people's parents, grandparents, great-grandparents is weakened. Until someone reclaims their cultural identity, that is. Please note that (for example) keeping a family altar in the house and making offerings to it in the UK is a conceptually different practice than the same actions in South East Asia. Ethnic minority communities in the UK are renown for being either far more lax, or conversely much more extremist, in upholding cultural/religious traditions than in their homelands.*

Where are you from? Surely the answer to this question must always be local, not global. If you go back far enough then the answers are rarely clear - as I have demonstrated with half of my family history here. In the UK I am apparently not British enough (i.e. do not look caucasian) to make London a satisfactory answer. But I would definitely not pass for a local in either China or Malaysia. And why should I? My family last lived in Malaysia nearly 60 years ago, and those countries have far less influence on me as a person than the UK. What forms Britishness in a post-colonial society is far wider than it was a century ago. To hold people utterly accountable to their ancestors' places of residence is to suggest that there is no real change made by migration.

But also, it's nosy and irrelevant. And not really to the point. They don't want to know where you're from. They just want to know the precise details of your ethnicity.

And to that I'll say for now,

It's none of your bloody business.


I've got so much more to say on this subject, but for now I'll just end with a photo from the Asian American Student Collective's 'Where are you REALLY from?' campaign.

Oh alright, just one more.


*This is a blog post, not a formal piece of journalism or academic analysis; but please be assured that my statements are based on many conversations over the years with people, though predominantly women, from minority ethnic groups of varying religious beliefs and practices. If anyone's really interested I will actually go out and formally interview people; just let me know...

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