Cicely Blain, (UK/Gambia/Jamaica UWCiM 2010-12)
So far, and not to my surprise, the experience of attending a United World College, with as many as 90 different nationalities represented, has been one of self-discovery, and more importantly, of realisation.
Today, I realised that I have totally disregarded my origins and my ancestors and therefore, part of who I am.
This thought process came about because whenever I meet a new person, knowing their nationality is just as important as knowing their first name. Whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I always say simply that I’m from England – and sometimes just London because, well, it is the centre of the universe. It frustrates me when people ask, ‘no, but where do you come from?’ just because I’m not white. I stick to my guns and say, ‘I am from England’. I have a British passport, I was born in London and English is my first language… I like tea (WITH MILK), I’m good at queuing, I eat roast beef, potatoes and Yorkshire puddings most Sundays, I say ‘ta’ or ‘cheers’ instead of ‘thank-you’, I am very aware of which social class I am in and I feel out of place when it’s not raining.
But is that the entirety of my identity? Is that everything that I am?
My biological father originates from Jamaica and my mother is half English and half Gambian, making me, well, very mixed up.
I’ve been to both countries just once in my life, Jamaica because I have little contact with that side of my family and the Gambia because of the political unrest and general dangers for young ‘western’ women. There is also, of course, the financial cost of hailing from such exotic and distant locations that stops me from jetting over there for some family-bonding whenever I so wish.
Today, my Greek friend asked me the correctly phrased question; ‘where do your parents originate from?’ and I replied with a fairly lengthy explanation… well, as opposed to my usual one-word answer. She seemed amazed and excited at the idea of knowing someone with such interesting heritage. To me it’s always been average, boring and insignificant – until now.
In the U.K. it’s not uncommon to come across a Jamaican (with it being a former colony and a nation with a prominent diaspora), in fact I can’t recall the last time I met a Caribbean person at home who didn’t originate from there. After all, 800,000 people of Jamaican origin live in the U.K. 143,000 of them are Jamaican-born, making Jamaicans the 11th largest ‘foreign-born group’ in the U.K. Furthermore, 7% of London (the city in which I was born and raised – bar one year spent in southern France, where, for the record, my mother and I were the only people with any remote air of foreignness) is of Jamaican heritage and a further 2% are mixed black Jamaican and white British. For these reasons, it was never interesting nor necessary to mention this part of my heritage. In a lot of cases, it was a given. A mixed raced individual with a reasonably sized behind, semi-afro hair and a slight penchant for fried chicken is automatically partially Jamaican.
Gambia, on the other hand, is probably the complete opposite. Practically every time I mention it someone asks me to repeat the name and even after the repetition their expression still hints they have never heard of the smallest country on mainland Africa with its population of fewer than 3 million inhabitants. How my white British Grandma managed to find it and marry a man from there, well, that’s another story for another day. Unless I meet someone who also has West African heritage, I tend not to go into detail. Okay, that’s not so hard to come by in Thamesmead, my area of London that is 17% Nigerian and Ghanaian, but you get the idea. As much as I have, over the years, developed an interest in this tiny yet historically and culturally rich country, to many it will always remain ‘just another African nation’.
All in all, being the lazy person that I am, and I’m sure you can go some way to agreeing with me, I find it so much easier to just say ‘I’m from England, Goddammit!’
But now, like so many other things since arriving at UWC Maastricht in September 2010, that particular opinion has changed.
I have a Brazilian friend who grew up in Israel, a Belgian friend who lived in Bolivia, a friend from the U.S. who is part Korean, part Italian, a South African friend who was born in England, an Australian friend who originates from Bosnia and Herzegovina… and the list goes on. Furthermore, we are all living here, in the Netherlands, hundreds, if not thousands of miles from our homes. Their cultures fascinate me; I grow genuinely wide-eyed when people list the countries they’ve lived in or visited to see family, or the languages they’ve grown up speaking with their multilingual, multi-faith, multicultural families.
It made me think… why am I so fascinated by their culture but so surprised when they are fascinated with mine?
I vouch from now on to fully embrace my cultural heritage!
I’m off for a cup of – I mean some Jollof rice with plantain…