Growing up in Britain I was never really sure of what made us unique as a nation, what made us great, why was it a good thing to be British. I always looked forward to holidays abroad and loved films set in far away lands. When I was 18 I was lucky enough to be accepted onto a Degree program that included a year in Japan, I couldn’t wait to live in another country and experience all it had to offer.
Reality hit me almost as soon as the plane touched down in Narita airport, I couldn’t even understand the immigration officer who welcomed me to Japan. Over the next year I made many close friends, became conversational in Japanese and learned to understand and love my new home. But I always felt that Japan had never accepted me.
I was told in the street by an old man to ‘go home, Japanese people are the only correct human beings!’ I was also laughed at by people due to my accent and pointed at and starred at in the street. Being an ethnic minority can be very difficult and something you don’t truly understand until you find yourself in that position. Why was my hair, eye colour, skin tone and accent so different to my fellow students and why did it matter!?
I have just returned to the UK after living in Malaysia for three years. Malaysia too became a home for me and I miss the people, culture, landscape and mostly the food. Malaysia consists primarily of the three core ethnic groups, the Malay, Chinese and Indians. Wonderfully for cohesion and for tolerance everyone’s religious celebrations become public holidays! Three equally distinct cultures living side by side but barely mixing, barley enriching one another and unable to evolve into a defined Malaysian culture.
Now that I am back in Britain I have a clearer picture of who we are and why we should be proud to be British. We may not have Japan’s clear cultural definition and simplistic beauty and calm. We may not have Malaysia’s multi-cultural clarity and embracement of celebration. But what we do have and have always had is an amalgamation of all that has been forced onto, taken by or offered to us. We have a malleable cultural identity; and confusing as this may be sometimes it is indeed a blessing. We can adapt, evolve and grow like almost no other nation.
Our history is draped with foreign influence from Roman and Norman invasion to our colonisation of much of the world and various waves of migration. It is almost impossible to find a British family tree that doesn’t have blood from overseas. Historical evidence suggests that the Belgians gave us chips, the Portuguese gave us fried fish and the Indians gave us tea. Perhaps that global mix is exactly what makes fish and chips with a cup of tea so British.
How would you define ‘Britishness’? Join our friends at The Great British Community in their debate and celebration of what is truly British: @tweetgbc