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.

Maurizzio: Studying Abroad

Maurizzio, originally from Peru, has studied at universities in the US and the UK. He shares how those experiences are shaping his career, and offers some advice for anyone planning to study abroad.

Looking Back

I walk into the Starbucks and order a cup of coffee.

The man waiting for me gives me a quizzical look. ‘You take your coffee black?’ he asks. I nod.

We sit down and start to chat. It looks simple enough, but this man is here to evaluate me for a job. The atmosphere might look relaxed, but here I am, at 31 years old, seeking employment as a professor in one of Peru’s most prestigious universities.

His eyes scan my CV. ‘Maurizzio Zamudio, Peruvian. MA in History.’ He recites my information as if I he were teaching it to me for the first time. ‘I see you studied abroad. Where exactly?’

‘University of Exeter,’ I reply.

Fast forward one year and here I am, at 32, a full-fledged university professor lecturing in 2 different departments on topics related to Art History. Apart from that, I also give conferences on crisis management because, as my mentor says, ‘History is the history of crises’. In my spare time I’m polishing my two novels for their future publication.

That’s a lot.

Sometimes I wonder how it got to this point. I’m not complaining – I just really want to know how I came from being unemployed to having too much on my plate. Part of me knows the answer.

Let’s roll back the clock to 2005 when, at 17, I left home to do my Bachelor’s Degree in the US. Then to 2015 when I went to the UK for my Masters. The years spent abroad studying are definitely one of the many reasons employers jump at my CV.

Feels good, but I must give credit where credit is due. Without those experiences abroad, I probably wouldn’t be in the position I’m now.

‘Are you going abroad by yourself?’

I got asked this question multiple times. It makes sense, because leaving home for a foreign country on your own is a daunting task. It isn’t easy to adjust to a new language and new culture. You will make mistakes and mess up. But the important thing is to remember those are natural things. The whole ‘fish out of
the water’ feeling is what you are supposed to be going through.

Is it really that bad?

It doesn’t have to be. Granted, you will feel alone at first, but that’s natural; in my case, I knew no one on campus when I arrived. To me, what made my experience abroad were the friendships I made. You will make them too. You will meet people like you, newcomers who are just as lost as you are. Don’t feel embarrassed; everyone is just as scared as you are.

However, let me stress something; do go out, do meet people. I’m an introvert and I had to drag myself out to talk to people. I’m not the kind who does well in big groups, so I ended with a small circle of friends, but I knew I could count on them. Those people are lifesavers.

Depression is real, and being far from home, international students are more prone to it. Don’t give it an advantage.

Finally, I know you are there to study, so do study and get good grades, but don’t let studies take you away from enjoying the place you are in. Organise a road trip, go watch a film, do touristy things.

You are only in that city for a few years. Enjoy it.

Find Maurizzio on Twitter @Maurizzio_Z.

Samantha: Where I Belong

Samantha was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she attended international secondary school. She studied her undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, and now works with Friends International in Scotland to support international students.

Ethnically I am Chinese. But in terms of national identity, I have never felt a strong tie to my Chinese heritage. The reason for this may be due to growing up in a multicultural environment.

I lived in Hong Kong, but grew up listening to and watching American pop culture. At home, I spoke Cantonese with my parents, while at school I spoke English with my peers. I studied in an international school under the UK education system, where my classmates were the children of expats and immigrants from all over the world.

In class, our teachers referenced things from the UK which I had never seen in Hong Kong: Jaffa Cakes and scones among other things. They also shared stories about themselves from their childhood years, waiting eagerly in the mornings for the milkman to deliver glass bottles of unhomogenised milk, and how they would then fight with their siblings to be the one to sip the cream on top. They were experiences which I had never encountered and can only imagine.

Since most of my education was in English, it became my dominant language. I remember once my Chinese tutor said to me: “you are not Chinese”, because of my poor ability to communicate in the Chinese language. It stung. I held back tears, determined not to cry in front of her. Looking back now, I do know why that hurt me.

As humans, we deeply desire to belong. Our sense of belonging impacts our identity.

Living in Hong Kong, I struggled to fit in with the local Chinese people no matter where I went. I always thought it was because of my poor Chinese, but after going to the UK for university studies, I found that I could not fit in with the local British people either. Although I had the language, I did not have the culture.

We International school kids are a community of our own. We have our own culture – a product of the east meeting the west. There is nothing else quite like it.

Though quite at home in our own little circles, we were very much foreigners to the locals. So then where did I belong? And what determined this? My ethnicity? The language I spoke? The place I spent the most time in? My culture?

One summer during university break, I joined an international student outreach. It was run by Friends International, a Christian Ministry organisation that aims to reach international students in the UK with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On our team that year, we had nine members from eight different countries. We were all from different places, with very different upbringings, and all spoke English as a second language. But as I listened to the stories of these people and shared with them mine, we connected in a way closer than I have ever felt to any community. This was very interesting to me, and as I probed at it in my mind, I slowly began to realise that it was because we are united in something bigger, something that transcends language and culture, place and time.

You see, when we believed in Jesus and gave our lives to Him, we began to share life with Him and with others in Him. We became united in His family, in wondrous fellowship with brothers and sisters of every race and age around the world, and this is a bond profoundly deeper than anything else!

I found where I belong: in God’s family.

Jude: Human Amongst Robots (Poem)

Jude was born in Brazil, and moved to Italy when he was 11 years old. He moved to England as a young adult, before later returning to his beloved Italy.

When I was 24, I decided to leave Italy and have a ‘London experience’. I arrived there alone, and I had to start from zero – that meant a new job, new house, new friends, and a new culture. It was the most wonderful, painful experience I’ve ever had.

London is amazing – loads of culture, hundreds of things to do…but mostly you are alone. And when you come from a Latino/Mediterranean culture, you are taught to expect a ‘mi casa es tu casa‘ welcome. In the UK, I had to face the fact that ‘mi casa es tu casa…if I want you here.’ I was living with deep depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

For the first three years, I had a love-hate relationship with the country.

I didn’t share my experience with other immigrants that were in my position. It was only after I published my poetry book ‘Words/Wars’ that a few people reached out to me: “I thought I was the only one that lived in that loneliness.”

I would say this: this might not be the last place you live in. Give yourself the opportunity to live more experiences and see more places. Don’t build boundaries; be open, because life changes, and you will change with it.

LND
The fog is in town and
my heart is gone.
I am drinking a hot cappuccino
in Starbucks,
and voices are all around me.
Memories of my life get
louder in here
because this place is so empty,
and people
look like crazy robots.
I don’t miss being a robot.
I am real now.
A human amongst robots.
I have a heart that pulses hard.

Jude tweets at @JsaintJude, and his debut poetry book is for sale on Amazon.

“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

Girls Abroad

Disclaimer: every country has different stereotypes about different groups of people, and I am by no means saying that white girls are the worst off here. I am saying that I have only experienced travel as a white girl, and as such all my examples will be from this perspective. Thanks for listening!

Dear fellow women, here’s what you should know before you travel anywhere.

People in the country you’re travelling to may never have met someone of your race before. They may be basing their presumptions about you on what they’ve heard, or seen on the news, or have been told via Hollywood movies. And ladies…it’s not always positive.

There are probably people at your destination that think – through no particular fault of their own – that white women are without exception rich, immoral, and promiscuous.

I had a Nigerian friend once, who came to England for his studies. After a few months he wrote on social media to his friends at home something along these lines: “England is great, but I came thinking white girls would be easier. If you’re thinking of coming here to find a girl, I don’t recommend it.”

Now, all of the examples in this post are one-offs, and only represent the views and misconceptions of individuals, rather than the countries they are from. My point, though, is that there are people who think like this, and it’s better to know that than to be caught off guard.

I remember sitting crammed into a little public bus in Rwanda, setting off on a three hour trip. The guy next to me was delighted that I could communicate in French, so we started chatting. It was very chill – an absolutely normal conversation. After a few minutes, he said to me, “Shall we get a hotel room after this?”

I was so shocked that someone who had been politely chatting a moment before would ask me a question like that! “No,” I sputtered, too shaken to think of anything else to say, and ended the conversation.

“What?” he said. “Don’t you think it’s romantic to sleep with someone while you’re on holiday?”

We sat the rest of that journey in silence.

I don’t think that man meant me any harm – I didn’t feel in any danger, and the friend I was travelling with was close by! But somehow, to my embarrassment and offence, he felt like that was a reasonable question to ask me.

These aren’t just the perceptions of keen men – let me take you to China for one last little anecdote. I was in Beijing, a city that is pretty accustomed to foreigners in most areas. I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes, so made my way over to a pharmacy to get some cream.

I walked into the store, and realised I had no idea how to ask for bite cream. The shopkeeper, a middle-aged lady with a slightly disapproving expression, made her way over to me as I fumbled with the dictionary on my phone.

“Don’t worry,” she said, taking my arm. “I know, I know.”

She led me over to the shelf of condoms.

Not that there is any shame in needing to buy condoms, but I was surprised that her first, confident guess of what this awkward white girl needed was contraception. Not sanitary products, not make up…condoms.

In case you’re interested, I did find the word for bite cream, and the shopkeeper suddenly became a lot more friendly.

So, why do white girls abroad have this reputation? Do we earn it? Maybe in part. Maybe foreigners haven’t been as careful about respecting the local moral code as they should have been. Or maybe people have just been misinformed by the movies and TV shows they’re fed, where women are often sexualised.

But what do we do about it? I personally don’t want people to hit on me because they assume I’m ‘loose’, or an easy target. I don’t want people to think I’m immoral because of what they’ve seen of my country in films. But I also think getting angry or overly-offended about these things isn’t the answer. (That is, unless you have had a crime committed against you in which case please do make a fuss! Report it.)

Here are my general tips for women travellers who want to shake free of those stereotypes and unwanted advances:

  • Talk to women who know the area. Not just the country – cities and even streets will have different reputations and varying levels of safety, so do your research. If possible, talk to women of your race! They’ll be able to tell you how modestly you should dress, whether it’s appropriate for you to go out alone, or if you should stay with a group. It’s also worth asking if it’s normal for women to go out at night, and which establishments might be seen as ‘immoral’ (for example, in some countries respectable women don’t go to pubs). Take all the advice you can get, and do your best to respect your host country’s culture. When in Rome, do as the Romans do – because you’ll be much safer, feel much more comfortable, and you’ll be a much better and more respectable ‘ambassador’ for your country!
  • Question your local friends. Wait, was what I said accidentally flirty? Is it normal for a guy to hug me? Is spending time with him giving the wrong impression? Cross-cultural friendships can be a minefield for this sort of thing, so be brave and quiz your local friends. They’ll know what’s up, so trust what they tell you and act accordingly!
  • Watch the alcohol. If you can’t trust yourself to make good decisions and continue respecting local rules and customs when you’re under the influence, you need to watch how much you’re drinking. British people in particular have such a bad reputation for this – we are the noisy irresponsible tourists! If you want a holiday just to get drunk, choose a country where that won’t be as scandalous. In fact, in some countries, you’ll need to avoid alcohol altogether. Do your research, and put safety and respect before your right to drink alcohol.
  • Wear a ring. When I went to Marrakesh, one of the items on my suggested packing list was a fake wedding ring. And to be fair, if you are going somewhere for a short visit and don’t have the language, what better way to wordlessly say ‘please don’t even try’?
  • Walk confidently. I use this tip wherever I go – it doesn’t matter if you’re lost, if you have nowhere to go, or if you’ve suddenly realised you’re walking in the wrong direction. Move confidently. Walk with a purpose. Don’t keep checking your phone. Wandering or looking obviously lost can make you look like a target for unwanted conversation or flirting, or worse.
  • Be kind. Ultimately, if you don’t like the way people view you, don’t be the negative stereotype. There’s no need to get preachy about it – be your kindest, truest self and show people that there are other types of foreign girls: that there are nuanced, respectful people from your country that they can befriend. The only way we can beat this kind of stereotype is to be an exception.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were all judged for ourselves rather than the media that portrays our people? That works both ways – let’s not base our ideas about people on fiction. Let’s meet people where they’re at, with love and respect for their countries and cultures. Let’s be people that prove the movies wrong.

Oh, and girls? Stay safe!

Love, Dani

  • What are your experiences as a women abroad? Have you ever had any problems?
  • What advice would you give to women travellers?

“I’m Still Here”: Staying Friends From Afar

The worst part about living in globally mobile circles is the constant stream of ‘goodbyes’. What do you do when your friend leaves the country? They’re off to build a new life in a new place and with new people, so would it be best to just let them forget you and move on?

It’s true that they might have less time to talk to you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to! I’m going to talk about this in terms of Third Culture Kids, but this is also true of ex-pats and global nomads.

TCKs often spend good chunks of their lives moving from place to place, in a cycle of new beginnings and fresh starts. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t need stability. If your friend is going to go to a new place, don’t back off. Be understanding that there will be new pressures on their time, but if you can make the effort to let them know “We’re still friends, I’m still here,” you can help them make the transition. You can be a steadying factor in a world that keeps changing: a reminder that their past lives haven’t disappeared. “I’m still here,” can be the most meaningful and comforting words.

And if you’re like me, and you’re questioning whether you were close enough friends to merit staying in touch, or if that person really liked you enough to want to keep talking to you…message anyway! You can make that decision, because the chances of the other person appreciating it are pretty high. And what’s the worst that could happen?

Excuse the bad-quality picture, but one of my favourite ways of keeping in touch with English-speaking friends while I was in China was finding funny translations. For those who can’t make it out, this is a notebook with the following poem: “Rain. / Rain is falling / all around. / It falls on field.”

When I moved to China, I loved my new life: my friends, my routine, my lifestyle…it was such a positive move. I was living my dream. That said, every time I opened my laptop a little part of me was desperate to see a new Facebook message, or a new email from someone from the UK. Every little ‘hello’ from someone who knew me in my ‘old life’ suddenly meant the world to me – even though I was so happy in China. Moving will change you, but it doesn’t turn you into a new person. I didn’t want my UK community to forget me, because I absolutely never forgot them.

And all of this is not to say that long-distance friendships are not hard. They are! They take discipline and effort and creativity. Being an “I’m still here” friend can be as rewarding, as it is emotionally challenging.

What does a good long distance friendship look like in 2019? There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, but here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Snail Mail. Post things to each other! Whether that’s postcards, Christmas newsletter, or little mementos from a place you’re both familiar with, being able to send something tangible can make the friendship seem much less abstract.
  • Voice Messages. Texting is great, but I love sending and receiving voice messages. It just seems a lot less clinical, and it makes the friend feel a lot closer. They are also less effort than having to type, so they can be much chattier!
  • Remember Birthdays. And other important days – let them know they’re on your mind, even if you can only send a little message.
  • Send them things that remind you of them. Memes, news articles, jokes, photographs…you don’t have to be in full-blown conversation all the time, but you can keep enjoying the things you have in common! If you have the chance to make your friend smile, just go for it.

It’s not realistic to keep in touch with everyone you’ve ever met. But it’s also not realistic to ask yourself or others to constantly be making new relationships, and forgetting old ones. We can actively decide who to maintain contact with, who to put in that extra bit of effort for. And we can treasure and foster relationship with those who do the same for us.

So if you can be an “I’m still here” friend for someone (even if the ‘here’ is metaphorical), all the better.

Love, Dani

  • How do you maintain long-distance friendships?
  • Are you, or do you have an “I’m still here” friend? How has that helped with your/their transition?

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?