By Celeste Yeo
In the recent Durham Book Festival, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown talked about her book Exotic England and what Englishness means to her, with respect to England’s history and cultural changes. Her words prompted me to think deeper about my self-identity and my identity as perceived, in England. To her, the English language is a gift of expression. This appealed to me greatly. One of the things she said that also stuck with me is that empire cannot be the defining element of relationships, because all empires are corrupt.
I’ve never been insulted because of my race or nationality, but there are instances of British xenophobia or ignorance that make me feel uncomfortable. Fresher’s week was exhausting. Self-introduction was exhausting; telling people that ‘I’m from Singapore’ seemed like one of the most pointless statements at the start of every conversation. I remember the frustration of correcting people that Singapore is not part of China, nor is it even geographically close, to which the next question would be, oh is it in Japan? Those three words felt like they were better left unsaid. I remember the patronising attitude of interviewers, to whom the number of years I spent in England seemed to be a measure of my aptitude. Elsewhere in England, a friend of mine received the comment, “Your English is pretty good. Did you study it in Singapore before coming here?” He said, “Oh, yeah, because of colonialism.”
Unlike bigger countries like China and India, Singapore is a tiny country. I don’t blame people for not knowing that it exists. If I were British, and didn’t scrutinise the list of British colonies during the war, I wouldn’t know about Singapore too. Yet bigger Asian countries don’t seem to benefit from the size of their territories either. A friend from India was asked, “Why is your English so good?” to which she replied, “we received a very Euro-centric education but apparently that isn’t enough to impress you.”
Why is my English so good? I am from an English-speaking country; I didn’t have to do an English test before coming to the UK to study. Why should you think that English is more difficult for me just because I speak it differently? Is then, the British accent more English than the American accent? Is the Southern accent better than the Geordie or Scouse accent? Why are Asians assumed to be ignorant of English by virtue of their physical appearance? In Europe, people adopt multiple languages too. If Europeans are not judged for speaking and utilising the English language differently, why should people from other parts of the globe be treated with contempt, in a conversation? Just as empire cannot be the defining element of relationships, language shouldn’t be exclusive. Most of all, English shouldn’t define superiority.
Nationality shouldn’t be a privilege, but I am sad to say it sometimes is. Privilege comes in different forms but whatever it is, a privilege is a kind of burden. The world is big, England, and you’ve got a lot to learn. So do I, but you’ve made a lot of people feel so small, I challenge you to understand your history of empire better and to step out of your own self-entitlement. English is not something only The English can possess, it is my language too, even though I don’t have a British passport. And each time you question my relationship with the language that has dominated my consciousness since I was born, you question my very fundamental mode of existence, and I have to fight so hard to protect that, in your presence. I’ve learned that identity is not a given, it has to be articulated. It has to be articulated and defended, when you are not the majority.
I love being in England and Durham has given me some of the best memories I could ever hope for. However, Durham isn’t multicultural or cosmopolitan until people in Durham understand how to appreciate diversity. Being different has made me more conscious of who I am and how I want to be understood. While British people make up the majority here in Durham, they are not the only ones who jump to conclusions – so do people of other races and nationalities. A friend told me that I’m struggling with Old Norse because I am trying to learn a language from another language, although English is my first language. Yet that is the same friend who anxiously passed me some ice when I got injured. I don’t believe that this human flaw is distinctive of any one place or country, but I believe that we can all forge deeper relationships if we take a step back from our own knowledge and beliefs, to embrace new voices and faces.
“What makes you British? If you had to describe your sense of being British, or your Englishness, how would you do it?” I asked a few of my good friends. One of them said behaviours suggesting stoicism, keeping your feelings repressed, a vague sense of being isolated from the rest of the world. The other said one distinctive feature is what he associates with people back home: observational and situational humour. A guy I met while doing some voluntary work said complaining about the weather makes him British! I’ve also asked friends from other countries how they relate to their own national identities. Everyone has a different idea of what their nationality means to them, which just goes to show that intellectual discourses are completely irrelevant when it comes to interacting with people; so they shouldn’t be relied upon to understand any individual. ‘Colonisation is bad’; theories of post-colonialism or imperialism are merely institutional ideas. Politics shapes culture, but cultural divide among individuals is mostly influenced by intolerance and apathy.
The internet has gifted us with instant communication, but it only takes one wrong word to break a conversation. Globalisation can create a more interconnected world, but it cannot remove stereotypes; it cannot bring people closer together. This can only be done if we all regard each individual with an open mind, resisting the impulse to place labels on others. All we have to do is step into the shoes of others, so that those who are less represented feel less small. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says that it is the porousness of the English language that appeals to her most, and this gift of language is inextricable from the spirit it encapsulates: one of autonomy and freedom. These ideals of democracy, I believe, point towards an accepting attitude to others. With events like the Durham Book Festival celebrating a diversity of voices, the rich literary culture in Durham is testament to its spirit of openness. And I hope that this spirit of openness continues to be experienced between individuals.