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French and Russian undergraduate student, trying my hand at the real world.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

On piecing together a sense of cultural identity

Evening ребята,

So I am in the process of a mini project I have set myself, in order to liven up my next few weeks of slogging away in the library. A spoonful of sugar, or something. I have sent questionnaires to my peers who I know to come from a multicultural background (with their volunteering of course!) because I want to explore the balance that people of diverse cultural backgrounds establish for themselves in day to day life - to explore the clashes, the balances, the benefits and so on. I'm really enjoying working on it so far, so hopefully you won't have too long to wait for it. As it is, I can't wait to get cracking on my write up.

I want to attempt to piece together what it means to be "British", as I  have dedicated this academic year to experiencing so many other people's cultures.
It was time to come home and back to my roots.

A topic that I did for AS Level English Literature in England is entitled "The Struggle for Identity in Modern Literature". At least, I think it was AS Level, it may have been GCSE come to think of it. I think an issue with the topic is that at that age, most students haven't yet formed their own personal sense of identity, so it is a difficult topic to fully get to grips with. I know if I was to go back and do it again, I would approach it with a different perspective, especially after this year abroad.

This year has distanced me from England and therefore given me the space to really think about my own culture. I feel it fills a fundamental part of my personal identity, but is not my sole personal foundation.

I suspect this post is going to end up cheesy and sentimental, but if that's how it turns out, so be it.

My first point is that the human mind is a strange thing. It likes to attach itself to places, towns, locations, and develop a strong love and affinity with them, to the extent that you yearn for them when separated for long periods. When you return to them, the relief is indescribable. The only way I can put this into words is to call it one's "soul home" - I know, cheesy, but it stands nevertheless.
For me, this is Wales. I have a lot of ancestral roots in Wales and the borders with England, though I have never lived there myself. We recently upped sticks and moved from the south of the country to the north. This bothered me less than it may have otherwise done, as our proximity to Wales remained largely the same. I can't describe it, but I just have to travel through the valleys and see the Black Mountains and for some reason, I feel an overwhelming sense of peace within myself. I don't think you have to be "from" a place to feel a connection.

Secondly, I want to pose the million pound question of "What does it mean to be British?". This is a very contentious issue at the moment, what with the emergence of the so-called "Racist Van" that has been doing the rounds in areas of North and East London that have a large immigrant population. It is a sad state of affairs when I feel uncomfortable writing that word - even when it is just a statement of fact. People do come to live in England from other countries, nothing more and nothing less than that. There has also been mention in the British media of high profile, and highly public, spot checks from UK Border Agency officials at Elephant and Castle tube station. All of this seems to have come into the public conscience at the same and most crucially, during Parliament's summer recess. I'm not a political expert and the point of this post is not for the sake of controversy, so I will leave you to draw your own conclusions before I make any misguided sweeping statements.

We must of course remember the old statement that "Everyone's an immigrant if you go back far enough" when reading this post. I want to pinpoint the British stereotype and by British I mean anyone who would refer to themselves as "British". I think this is probably the fairest assessment as it transcends any kind of bureaucratic judgement. I strongly believe that British is a state of mind as much as a nationality, and as such, you can be British without technically being a British citizen - given that some countries automatically grant you a citizen because you are born there.

I have been watching the documentary on Channel Four entitled "Why don't you speak English?" as part of my wider research for this blog and to examine the differences between the British host families and their guests, who came from Rwanda, China, Columbia and Poland. Actually it really surprised me that the second most widely spoken language in England is actually Polish; I had previously thought it would have been a South Asian language or French.

While it is important that cultural roots are not abandoned and forgotten, wherever they come from - British or otherwise - it is an inevitable consequence of exposure to a culture that you pick up elements of it and adopt them as your own. For example, living in Russia, I gained a stronger sense of self and the confidence to challenge authority, as well as smiling and showing my emotions less. I also cultivated a stronger sense of femininity and started wearing make up more.

British culture, then. I think this is most deeply rooted in our history and our now essentially defunct class system. I would argue that we are one of the most tolerant countries in the world, politically. We allow freedom of religion and our newly enacted Gay Marriage laws mark us out as one of only 15 countries in the world to allow this practise. While it is incorrect to say that we, universally speaking, are not a racist country, rates of racial violence are considerably lower than many other countries. You just have to look at the US as a similarly advanced economic country to establish this.

Our previous political imperialism has left us, I think, with a sense of post colonial guilt which has led to our better track record of racial tolerance. Furthermore, we also hate rubbing people up the wrong way. I think we have the Royal family (especially our current Queen) to thank for this, for instilling values of politeness, diplomacy and deference in our nation. I speak here with awareness of the Second World War and how the country's figureheads conducted themselves through such adversity, as the King and Royal family had a much more political role then. The stiff upper lip attitude was very much cultivated during this time and prior to this was the notion that one must conduct oneself with a sense of grace and decorum. In fact, I miss this idea. Call me a snob, but I think we could all do with more self respect as a nation and stop eating so much, stop swearing in public and stop revealing acres of bare flesh in the street and just took more personal responsibility. It's just not nice. I'm not saying that we must be Victorian and rigid, but when you see a woman swearing at her child in public for the slightest misdemeanour, there is something wrong.

We should all be more like the Oxford university don, Professor Mary Beard, and less like the dregs of society who take it upon themselves to send her death threats for deigning to appear with grey hair on the television.

I'll be frank, I have little time for Republicans who have this class based mentality that the Royals are a waste of tax-payers' money. Look how miserable the French are. It's not like the Royals are requisitioning lands from the paupers any more, we've reined them in since then. They do form a hugely important part of our national identity as one of the last vestiges of our history - and that, I think, is something worth hanging on to. Frankly, far more tax-payers' money is wasted in other areas due to the amount of bureaucratic shuffling that takes place due lack of solid policy, than on the Royals, as indeed they are tax payers themselves...

It is true though that snobbery is absolutely rife in our culture, and I am not talking about a top-down concept here. Rather, it is the opposite. The last social group it has become acceptable to judge is people of wealth and status. The term "old-Etonian" has become a stick with which society can beat a person, whether or not there has been any prior judgement of their character. (Usually the case is not). My stance on this is clear. A person cannot help their birth status. They can avoid being born into a poor family just as well as they can avoid being born into a family of wealth, just as well as they can avoid being born a woman, avoid being born into a particular ethnicity. You wouldn't assault a person based on their skin colour in this country, so why on earth would you assault their upbringing? Fair enough, if you don't like the person, then disagree with them on a human level. Otherwise mouthing off about a "rich" person says so much more about the fact you cannot see past a person's outer layers, or past their accent.

As such, I have got rid of my twitter account. Twitter is full of too much of the depraved and darker parts of our culture, and there aren't enough pictures of cats.

Britain, then. We have a ridiculous system of bureaucracy, people, by and large, follow the rules here and we are lucky to be in our position. We are so keen on tolerance to the point that we are haplessly socially awkward. This is Britain now, and I am both proud and lucky to consider myself British. In our increasingly globalised world, it is so important to understand other people's cultures, and to share positive cultural values - more so than it has ever been.