By Joel Ramlill
I’m meeting new people. Any new people. The second question they ask is always a loaded one: where are you from? The answer is so complex and I don’t particularly want to bore them.
“England.” I reply.
And almost robotically, they answer back with the question I’ve heard so many times that I know it’s coming. I brace myself.
“No, but where are you really from.”
The simple matter of the fact is that I have one passport. The British one. I sound British, have family all over the UK and love tea and fish and chips. All the defining characteristics of a quintessential brit. Except one. I’m not white.
Now I’m well aware of the fact that I lead a very privileged life, and that my struggles are nowhere near the severity of people living in abject poverty all around the world. But what fundamentally surprises me, growing up in an international city, surrounded by well-educated, tolerant people, is that while they say I’m British, they mean I’m not British British.
Perhaps it’s just the environment I grew up in, where multiculturalism is so celebrated, people get annoyed with bland answers on your nationality. I tell them I have one passport, but I don’t tell them I could have five very easily. I simply do not wish to tell them. If I tell someone my nationality I would hope they respect that, no matter how boring it is in their eyes coming from a brown person like me.
I don’t just get this question from the well-educated, tolerant people of Geneva. I also get it from people that have not had the same opportunities, and do not believe that I am British or that I even belong in Britain. Those are the ones I worry about most as I personally feel undeniably British.
This is strange because England, the country of my birth but not of my ancestors, has fundamentally shaped my identity. I support Labour, drink beer in the pub and cry when England inevitably gets knocked out by some micro nation in the World Cup. If anyone comes up saying that New York, Los Angeles or Tokyo is the best city in the world, I have one word for them: London. How am I not British?
A strange incident comes to mind whilst I write this. I remember my cousin, who is born and raised in Cyprus yet has the British passport through his mother, telling my older sister that he is English. My sister turned back around and told him simply, “you’re not English.” I froze. How could it be that my sister, who grew up in the very same situation as I did, could say a thing like that? I wheeled around to face them. “Karim is English, as it is right as a citizen to say that he is. He is a British passport holder and therefore one of the Crown’s subjects. His nationality is determined by his feelings as long as they can be backed up through actual ties to the land, and I’m frankly offended, sister, that you could say such a profoundly insensitive remark to a ten year-old searching for his identity!”
It turns out that they were playing a video game and my cousin had selected Denmark thinking it was England. My sister was trying to explain to him, in the simplest possible terms as his English is not the best, that he had not picked England correctly.
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