Racism is a word that gets bandied about a lot nowadays. And
with good reason. It seems as though, despite years of PR about
being PC, most cultures are just as insular and isolated as
they’ve always been. Since the EU and the opening up of
borders to diverse cultures and peoples there has been a
significant amount of emigration and immigration. But this has not led to a merging of differences, a fusion of
mixed races, religions, ideas and identities. We have not all
joined together in the proverbial melting pot. At first sight
this is a bad thing. Networks of Europeans come to England, to
live by the language, suffer the climate, prosper (hopefully) by
the economy. But, mostly, they continue to live and work within
the same groups that they came over with, a reassuring stability,
perhaps, in a new and perplexing life. For it is always easier
for true natives to experience the excitement of other cultures
on their home turf. The English can enjoy the delights of Indian, Chinese, French,
Italian, Spanish cuisine on a daily basis, not several metres
from their front doors. But if they chose to take this further
and actually emigrate (a popular phenomenon of late) they too
tend to flock together, finding refuge in the ex-pat community,
fish and chips and Radio Four. True, we all love to experience other cultures, sometimes even
immerse ourselves in them completely, but, after all that, we
will still yearn for things that remind us of home, little
touchstones that reassure and comfort, things that tell us we
belong. Travelling has to be one of the most stimulating experiences
in life, new sites, new foods, new languages, new lives. But,
oddly enough, at the same time as expanding one’s world view
it can also shrink it, bring one’s own cultural identity
more sharply into focus. It’s an incredible thing that when you are halfway across
the world and you suddenly hear your native tongue spoken in your
native accent. Instantly a bond appears. ‘Are you
English?’ You enquire excitedly. ‘Yes’, they
answer, ‘I’m f r o m Derbyshire.’ ‘Oh!’
You e x c l a i m . You’ve never been to D e r b y s h i r
e, you have no intention of ever going there, but this is a bond
between you both. Out there in the big wide world, among people who sometimes
seem so different from you they could be from another planet,
these tiny things feel important. Most English – reserved at
best, and bloody unfriendly at worst – who won’t talk
to their fellow inhabitants in a lift unless under duress, will
spend hours in intensely irrelevant exchanges when encountering a
fellow ex-pat abroad. We travel to see other things, know other countries, this is
wonderful and exciting and stimulating. And, after a time away,
in a country where you don’t understand the jokes,
don’t quite get the cultural references and can’t get
hold of Marmite or Marmalade for love nor money, a little piece
of home can seem like an oasis in a desert, or a good cup of tea
on a cold, drizzly winter’s day. We use our cultures to connect to each other, find reference
points that we can share, reassure ourselves that we are
understood, we are not alone. Whenever I met an English person in America I just used to
talk about English TV. After six months of weird American cable
drivel I delighted in recalling old episodes of Faulty Towers and
Blackadder. I am about as unpatriotic a person as one could hope to find.
I despise our weather, am embarrassed by our politics and bored
by our food. I love to travel to other countries and love to
experience other cultures. Yet I am not, and perhaps sadly never could be, completely at
home in them. England is home to me, and long after I’ve
left (for I’ll emigrate as fast as I can get a job and a
visa) it will still be a part of me. I’ve been raised in
England, steeped in its way of life for so long that my identity
is obviously inextricably fused with my culture. There is no
escape. This is why it takes generations of living in a country other
than your own before you can reasonably feel part of that
country’s culture, before you can reasonably call yourself a
native. And what does it matter? The beauty of this world is its
diversity. I love that I can experience different, strange, weird
and wonderful things wherever I go. It would be a sad day when we all dropped our cultural
identities in favour of some kind of fused oneness. We must keep
our differences, celebrate them, and take oppourtunity to
experience as much of other people as possible.ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2004