Eloise: Finding my Feet

Eloise is from England, and is studying her final year of a bachelor’s degree in French and History. She has just completed a year’s internship with a church in France.

As I sit down to write this, it’s actually a year since I got on a plane and went to live in the South of France for ten months. Probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I’d known it was coming and had been mentally preparing for a while – I’m a languages student and so knew from the start of my degree that I’d have to spend third year abroad – but felt completely unprepared when the plane took off and it hit me that I didn’t have a return flight booked in a fortnight (or at all, actually, as I didn’t know what dates I’d be coming home for Christmas).

Obviously, I was there to improve my French, a language I’d supposedly been learning since the age of eleven. And yet, for my first month or so, I felt like a complete fraud; here I was, claiming to be a university student studying French and yet it felt like I could barely string a sentence together. It didn’t help that the region I was in, Languedoc-Roussillon, had a regional accent, and so even the basics of communicating in French were made even harder!

Culture Shock

I was interning in a church, which threw me straight into the deep end of having to interact with French people from many different walks of life on a daily basis, as well as living with a host family from the church. For the first few months, this meant that it felt like my brain was constantly switched on, and I had to work twice as hard as everyone else all the time. Even social situations that were laid-back and relaxing for everyone else were exhausting and stressful for me. One of my overwhelming memories from my first few weeks abroad is how tired I was, all the time!

Having grown up going to France for summer holidays, I thought I’d be able to cope with the culture shock – how different could it be really? Turns out, culture shock was a massive issue for me, and I never really got over it, though I did get used to it. I learned to laugh things off as a ‘cultural thing’. I felt like I didn’t fit in – from the sense of humour, to the food, to the fact that I’m stereo-typically English and drink a lot of tea, and the French don’t.

It took me ages to feel like I’d made friends, in part because I was so shy and scared no-one would like me. Now I’m back in England I regret not being more outgoing to begin with; when I did make friends, we did some really fun things together and I wish we’d had time to do more and develop our friendship further. At the end of the year, whilst part of me couldn’t wait to go back to England and embrace home comforts and not having to speak French for a while, there was a part of me that wished I was staying longer, as I felt like I’d finally found my feet and could actually ‘do’ this whole living abroad thing.

Living the Language

I think a misconception of a year abroad is that you’ll learn the language with no effort; you’re living there, how could you not? Whilst this was true to some extent, I actually found that I really had to make myself go out and find opportunities to practice my language skills, from trying to make friends instead of staying in and watching Netflix, to going to museums and taking the French leaflets instead of the English ones.

My language acquisition seemed to come in stages; I didn’t notice any difference for ages, and then when I went back to France after spending Christmas in England, I suddenly noticed a huge improvement. I also felt like I started to rapidly improve again in the last few months of my stay, and if you’d shown me at the beginning of my year abroad how confident and comfortable I’d be using French day-to-day, I wouldn’t have believed you.

A year abroad,  in my experience, is definitely not the idealised study break everyone assumes, in which language students spend their year posing for Instagram and getting a tan, all in the name of ‘immersing ourselves in the  culture’ (although I did do both of those things). It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and there were so many moments when I wanted to run away to the airport and get on the first flight home. But it was also one of the most worthwhile and rewarding things I’ve ever done. Living in a new culture and pushing myself out of my comfort zone meant I learned so much about myself and grew in confidence.

Don’t be afraid to be different

To anyone about to head off to live abroad, or thinking about it, can I give you a piece of advice? Embrace the new culture, but also don’t be afraid of being a little different- one of my fondest memories is hosting an English meal for a group from church and introducing them to English food, from fish and chips, to Lancashire hotpot, to a Devon cream tea, merging where I grew up with where I go to uni. Introducing them to a part of my culture strangely helped me feel more at home in theirs. Although I never managed to convert any of them to tea drinkers!

I started my year abroad crying on the airplane, convinced I would completely fail and never be able to speak French. Ten months, a lot of tears, some incredible highs (eating ice cream on a beach, surrounded by mountains, staring at the bluest sea I’ve ever seen and realising I  actually got degree credit just for being there, wine tasting in Paris living the year abroad dream for 48 glorious hours, the moments when I realised I’d been speaking fluent French without trying…) and some awful lows later, and I ended my year abroad crying on the airplane, because I’d somehow found my place in this strange little corner of France, just as I was leaving it all behind.

If you would like to hear more about Eloise’s adventures in France, you can read her blog ‘Eloise in Roussillon’ here.

“Have You Heard of London?”

I’m pretty British. If you asked me where I was from, I would say Britain. When I was living in England, a lot of people would look at my Spanish name, or pick up on something different in my accent and say, “No, no – where are you really from?” And I would think about it, and shrug. “Britain?”

My mother is Scottish, my father is South American. I was born in Scotland. I lived the first four years of my life travelling with missionary parents, and then we moved to England. I lived there for about seventeen years, before moving to China, and now Scotland.

So you see, it’s confusing for me when people tell me I’m not really English, because…what else would I be?

Languages Are Suspicious

There’s a joke in Catherine Bohart’s satirical video ‘How to be an immigrant British people like‘* that “British people are suspicious of people who speak more than one language…why do you have a secret code that only you and your friends understand?” Because the thing about your average Brit is, they don’t have a good reputation for language learning.

*This video is full of British humour, which is very dry and sarcastic! It’s meant to poke fun at some of the racist stereotypes in society today, not to be offensive.

In my family, we started learning Spanish as kids. And then when I had to start studying French at school, I was good at it because a lot of the grammar and vocabulary was similar to Spanish. At university, I jumped at the opportunity to learn some Mandarin Chinese. I love languages – every time I travel to a new country, I’ll try to learn at least the basic phrases to get by. I’ve collected bits and pieces of Swahili, Zulu, Rufumbira, German, Thai, and Indonesian along the way.

Now, of course there are so many British people that also love to travel and learn languages. But that wasn’t the case for my friends. They would get annoyed with me for going to European summer camps, or to visit family in Scotland every school holiday – “You just disappear,” they’d say. “We never see you.” And now that we’re adults, I keep missing reunions because I just live too far away. My school friends all live in the same county that we grew up in.

Have you heard of London?

I loved living in China, partly because Chinese people would accept my ‘English-ness’ without question. They wanted me to comment on English politics, or cook English food for them, or recommend some British TV shows. And I could, because I grew up British, more or less.

The only problem was, when I met other British people in China, they couldn’t identify me as one of ‘their own’. I remember taking a group of British students out for dinner, only to have one of them turn around and say, “Oh, Dani, I forgot to ask – which state are you from?”

Another time, someone at my church stood up to give a notice in a perfect cockney accent. I went up to talk to him after the service, introduced myself, and said, “Whereabouts are you from?”

“Well,” he said. “Have you heard of London?”

Have I heard of London?

“I’m British,” I said, and he quickly changed the subject.

I’m not offended by things like this. I know that my accent changes, especially when I’m outside of the UK. But it does make me feel a little like a fraud, that I almost shouldn’t be telling people I’m British if my ‘country-mates’ can’t back me up on that.

Fake-British

When I was in England and people would do the whole “Where are you really from?” thing, I would just tell them I was Scottish, and that would usually satisfy their curiosity.

Now I live in Scotland, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not really Scottish. I don’t do small talk quite how they do, my accent is different, and I’ve never heard of half of the famous places here! The only problem is, Scottish people actually know what an English accent sounds like, so “I’m English” doesn’t really cut it here, either.

It’s not at all that I’m ashamed of my South American heritage – I love being with that side of my family, and I love visiting in that part of the world. But I’ve never lived there. My Spanish isn’t even that fluent. It’s part of my identity, and so is my British-ness.

I was sort of hoping that writing this up would lead me to a conclusion ‘British people don’t really think I’m British, but I’ve learned…’ That would have been a really nice way to end. But I don’t have a neat answer. Sometimes it still hurts me that people from a country that I identify with so strongly don’t accept me as one of their own. More often, these days, I’m trying not to care.

I’m trying to enjoy the places that I get to live and explore, and to remember that in the grand scheme of things, nationality is a social construct. We (humans) drew up borders and claimed ownership of them, and those borders have changed, are changing, and will change. We’re all just people living in cultures and within land boundaries that other people pretty much just made up. That’s not to say those things aren’t important, just that they are not permanent.

So to be honest, you can ask me if I’ve heard of London. (I have.) You can ask me about my accent, or my name. It’s okay. I’m going to keep calling myself British, though, because at the end of the day – who’s to say I’m not?

Love, Dani

Kirstie: The Perils of Change (Poem)

Kirstie Sivapalan is a Geordie-born writer based in the south of England. She lives with ME, but spends her time writing stories and poetry, and helping people with social media.

“Change often involves dissolving of ideas, beliefs, relationships and structures in our lives that we may think we are ready to leave behind, but when those changes start to happen around us it can feel like our whole world is falling away.  Not only that, we then realise we can no longer go back and even more fright-inducing is the dawning that we don’t know what the world will look like ahead of us […] All you can do is keep moving forward carefully, one foot in front of the other.”

This poem originally appeared on Crystallising Dream, and has been reproduced with the author’s permission.

You’ll find more of Kirstie’s creative work on her blog, which focuses on connection and disconnection with the world around us. She tweets at @KirstieWrites.

“Our Colonial Masters”: Being European in the Aftermath of Colonialism

“Hi, I’m Dani from the UK, where are you from?”

“Oh, Malawi,” he replies with a genuine smile. “British, huh? You are our colonial masters!”

This is a real conversation that I’ve actually had multiple times, with people from different African countries. Every time it has been said with a smile, and every time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I didn’t even know that Malawi was a British colony. The truth is, I didn’t learn a thing about British colonial history at school. I had to start learning the hard way – from the people who almost exclusively learn about the shadier British/European exploits in history class, because they bore the brunt of it.

What is Colonialism?

The ancients, by their system of colonization, made themselves friends all over the known world; the moderns have sought to make subjects, and therefore have made enemies.

Jean-Baptiste Say

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what do we mean by colonialism? National Geographic puts it like this: “One nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.”

Colonialism is not a thinking machine, nor a body endowed with reasoning faculties. It is violence in its natural state.

Frantz Fanon

Now, building empires and taking over other peoples’ land is not a modern phenomenon – think of the Ancient Romans! But what we think of as modern colonialism kicked off in around the fourteenth century with the Age of Discovery. Basically, a number of European countries (notably Portugal, France, Spain and England) began discovering new trade routes around the coasts of Africa and the Americas. They found that a lot of these countries were rich in materials not found in Europe – so they took what they wanted.

So by the time the twentieth century swung around, the majority of the world’s countries had at some point been colonised by Europeans.

This may all seem a long time ago, but let me put this in perspective: Macau belonged to Portugal for 400 years. It was ‘returned’ to China in 1999 – that’s only 20 years ago! Comoros only gained independence from France in 1975. Seychelles got independence from Britain a year later.

There is a widespread view in many of the former colonies that decolonisation has not brought about significant economic or cultural independence.

Maja Mikula, Key Concepts in Cultural Studies

The fact is that a lot of decolonisation – that is, the ‘conquering’ state withdrawing to let the colony become independent – is not distant, long-forgotten history. It has happened in peoples’ lifetimes, or their parent’s lifetimes. And hundreds of years of history leave their mark.

Asking people to face up to the problems of racism in their midst is not always welcome … It is always easier to point the finger of blame than to look hard at our own prejudices.

Mary Robinson
All the pink countries have, at some point in time, been colonised by Great Britain.
If you want to see a full list of former British colonies, click through to the World Atlas site.

Facing Today in the Light of History

How can I, as a pale-skinned Brit, respectfully and thoughtfully travel to and befriend people from countries that my ancestors oppressed?

Ignoring or downplaying colonial atrocities is the moral equivalent of Holocaust denial.

Nathan J. Robinson, ‘A Quick Reminder of Why Colonialism was Bad’

I don’t go out looking for conversations about how my country went out and built an empire. It makes me so uncomfortable and angry to think that my ancestors ever thought that they were superior to their ‘exotic’ friends, or that they had any right to kill, destroy, and take control in the way that they did. I hate that that’s what history looks like. But I also can’t ignore it.

That said, what I’ve found is that many people would never accuse me of those crimes. I remember walking around the Old Summer Palace in Beijing with a Chinese friend:

“It’s so sad that this beautiful place got destroyed,” I said, as we wandered through the marble ruins. “It…it was the British, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, well,” she said. “I think the French helped too.”

“Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry,” she chuckled. “It was a long time ago. And it wasn’t you.”

So if my friends aren’t too bothered – if my Kenyan friend likes to joke that things went downhill after ‘my grandparents’ left, and my Hong Kong friend cheerfully shows me around the British-built police station – do I still need to think about this? It’s all in the past, forgiven, right?

First of all, if I’ve hurt someone, I don’t get to decide when they forgive me. So although in general, my travels to previously colonised countries have been completely pleasant, I know that there may still be people who don’t look kindly on Europeans. It’s hurtful, but it’s understandable.

Secondly, in a horrible, subliminal way, colonialism affects how we view ourselves as a nation. We’ve grown into ugly habits of seeing ourselves as the helpers, the teachers, and just generally doing things the right way. Everyone else is ‘the other‘. Can you see how this kind of deep-rooted false assumption – even if we’re not aware that we’re thinking it – will make us seem arrogant and patronising as soon as we leave our own countries?

Imperialism never ended, but merely mutated into new forms. The virtual empire knows no boundaries. Until we begin to recognise and confront it, all of us, black and white, will remain its subjects.

George Monbiot, ‘Imperialism didn’t end. These days it’s known as international law.’

So…can British people still go to places like India and Egypt and Papua New Guinea? Of course!

Here are a few points I like to remind myself of when I travel to countries like that.

  • I am not at fault, but I represent a country that is. That means that although I had no part in what happened, I acknowledge that they did, and that they were wrong.
  • Cultural superiority is a lie. My country is not better than yours, our art/language/food/philosophy is not to superior to yours. We are different, developing and working things out at different rates. I do not go to other countries to educate them on the ‘Western way’.
  • We are equals. We are humans of equal value, and I will treat you as such. Your story is as important as mine, so I’ll listen.

Visiting previously colonised countries is not necessarily awkward. Be aware that there have been past hurts, but that your friendships can transcend them. We remember history so that it doesn’t happen again – maybe your next friendship can be a symbol of a more united, more loving world.

Can we be a generation that doesn’t shy away from past suffering, but tries to heal relationships, and build a better world learning from past mistakes?

I think so. I hope so.

Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.

T’Challa, Black Panther (don’t judge, it’s a great quote)

Love, Dani

These are issues with no easy answers. What’s your take?

How important is it to keep wrestling with these concepts, and addressing the past? How do you do that in a respectful and humble way?