“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

What’s ‘culture’, anyway?

We’re all people, we all have (pretty much) the same survival needs, internal organs, emotions…when we have so much in common, why is it so hard to fit into a different country or community?

The answer, my friends, is culture. (Usually.)

Culture is more than creative expression: maybe when you think of culture, you think of paintings, or traditional crafts, or national music. And you’re not wrong: the arts are a big part of culture, but culture is not the arts. Are you following?

If you’re picturing ancient Chinese paintings, or African tribal masks, or ancient Greek statues, then again, you’re not wrong. Those belong under the ‘culture’ umbrella. But don’t let a colonial superiority complex make you think you or your country are “above culture”, just because you don’t see it manifested in the way you might expect. You have it, because you are human and you are surrounded by humans.

In fact, some would argue that culture is not what we make, but what makes us.

“Society or culture or whatever you might want to call it, has created us all solely and wholly for the purpose of maintaining its continuity and status quo.” – U.G. Krishnamurti

Our cultures shape our language, our manners, our humour, our relationships, our values, our beliefs… In a weird, brain-twisting paradox, we are forming culture as culture forms us.

The uncomfortable part is that a lot of cultural indicators are subliminal: you might not even realise that you think or behave in a certain way, because it is so deeply ingrained in your experience of life.

Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of. – Ellen Goodman

So it’s no wonder moving to a new country, or working in an international company, or marrying into another culture is so hard! We are all human, we are all valuable, and we all function more or less the same way, but we are all wired a little differently. Out cultures have gifted us with different perspectives and traditions and ways of being, and sometimes those cultures contradict.

Maybe your Brazilian coworker wants to hug everyone, but that makes your Japanese office buddy uncomfortable. Maybe your female Muslim neighbour won’t shake your hand, or your Jewish uncle won’t eat the bacon sandwich you made him. (These are all quite black and white examples, I’m sure you’ll come across much more confusing and subversive ones!)

But here’s the key. Your culture is not right. It’s not wrong, by any means, but it is human and that means it’s complex. It means it’s changing, evolving, and adapting to the circumstances around it. The same goes for other peoples’ cultures.

Your culture(s) almost definitely played a big role in defining who you are today, even if you were fighting against it! But what’s a culture without a people to subscribe to it? You are still free to question the things you have always been taught. The more you travel, and the more people you meet who are different to you, the more you will realise what you are like. You’ll notice quirks about your own country: things you love, and things you wish were better.

So…what do we do with this knowledge? We have all this terminology to think about people groups and how humans function socially, but what, practically, needs to happen now?

You tell me. Would thinking about culture explain that conflict with your foreign neighbour? Would a deeper awareness of your own culture help you settle as an ex-patriate in a new country? Or, would an understanding of different cultures give you a more balanced view of your country’s place in the world?

Again, you tell me.

Love, Dani

  • What do you think are some defining features of your culture?
  • If you have lived abroad, what did that experience teach you about yourself?
  • Do you have an awkward culture-clash story to share? (Please do. It makes us all feel better.)

Wait, You Too?

I’m Dani. I’m biracial – Scottish-Latina, to be specific, although I never lived in either of my parent’s countries as a child.

I spent most of my teenage years (and a little of my adult life) wrestling with insecurities: I was never Scottish enough to be Scottish, and never Latina enough to be Latina. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, like I’d been made wrong, and that I would never be able to fit in.

I remember one day at university broaching that subject with a British-born Korean friend. She looked at me wide-eyed for a second, then said, “Wait, you too?”

Living between cultures is a huge blessing – think of all the food, language, and travel people like us get to experience thanks to our multiple heritages! But it’s also a confusing place to be in. Having a friend to talk about these things with was a huge help for me, even just to recognise that those feelings and insecurities are actually pretty normal.

So maybe you’re a TCK, maybe you started travelling as an adult, or maybe you’ve grown up in an international home. Whatever your situation, my hope is that this blog might be your ‘Wait, you too?’ friend – a place where you read stories that you can relate with, and that will help you work through all the challenges, tragedies, and joys of living a globally mobile life.

I hope you’ll stick around. And I hope this content will be as helpful to you as it has been to me.

Love, Dani