The realities of bilingualism in the 21st century (2.0)

Sometimes, when I am speaking to my mother, I will catch her smiling at me. When I ask why, she laughs and tells me ‘You’re just so English!’ This always makes me feel self-conscious, even down to the way that I am speaking. After all, my mother hears all my thoughts filtered through an English accent, which influences both the way I vocalise my thoughts and the way she responds to them. Sometimes, after she comments on this, I will switch into her native language, but I inevitably fall back into English as the conversation continues since it is the language I am now most comfortable in.

After hearing this, I often stop and think about how my ‘Britishness’ has influenced the person that I have become, as well as the way that my mother sees me. In an increasingly globalised world, more people are aware of the sacrifices that cross-cultural couples have to make in order to make their relationship work, yet the fact that this also extends to parent-child relationships is rarely discussed. My mother has had to come to terms with having a predominately ‘British’ child, when her cultural identity still firmly belongs to a country on the other side of the world.

Being at this junction between two cultural identities has made me consider to a greater extent what it means to ‘belong’ to a country, as well as the way people consider those who are ‘foreign’. When I spent time in my mother’s native country as a child, I would often become annoyed by the myriad of stares that I drew from strangers. My attempts to make friends with other children in the playground would more often than not end in failure, as the other children would often draw away from me. When I asked my mother about it, she told me what I realised I knew all along: ‘You look too foreign. You look like your father, and that marks you out as different.’ As an adult, I have realised the full implications of this: no matter what I do, I will never be allowed to make my mother’s native country a definite part of my cultural identity. I will always be, first and foremost, British, whereas my sister, who looks more like my mother, will have more flexibility in defining her cultural identity. In my mother’s country, I will always be a visitor from the first world, with all the pejorative associations that tends to have in the third world. My ability to relate and engage with my mother’s extended family is always in the context of our different cultural perspectives, in a global system that makes being white European the normative.

Faced with the knowledge of what I am not (a complete member of my mother’s culture) I have increasingly come to question what it means to be ‘British’. Britain, despite its attempts to present itself as a liberal country that is welcoming towards those from other countries, is also hostile to foreigners, just in subtler ways. I was always confused by the fact that we were taught at school that values of common human decency, such as being kind, were somehow intrinsically ‘British’, when the kindest people I knew were immigrants. Even the othering of terms such as ‘BAME’ struck me as vaguely unsettling, in the manner that it presents white Britishness as the standard from which everything (and everyone) else deviates. Immigrants and their descendants, particularly from the third world, are made to fit into boxes prescribed by the white British standard. Being non-white in the U.K. automatically makes you an ‘ethnic minority’, when ethnicity in reality is nothing to do with the colour of your skin, but about the cultural tradition that you belong to. Thus, many people in Britain who are not white have their Britishness constantly questioned. Many people in the U.K. do not acknowledge the fact that I am only half-British even after I have told them, because the way I look does not match up with the stereotype created by the media of what people from my mother’s native country should look like. I do not know whether I should count this as a success, as I know that my mother wanted me to be able to pass for British, even to the extent of giving me an English-sounding name.

Now an adult and living away from home at a notoriously predominately white university, most of my friends come from solely English, or at least European, backgrounds. Reflecting back on my childhood spent amongst immigrants, I wonder about the extent to which I ‘pass’ as one of them, or whether I truly ‘am’ British. I have often heard that people with dual nationalities struggle to fully belong to either, and this seems to be true, at least for me. For, if I am neither British nor from my mother’s native country, then where do I really belong?

Image: Anna & Michal on Flickr 

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