Friday, March 23, 2007

This identity thing......again!

I published this recently and it got a few comments. To be honest the comments from someone called JIT initially pissed me off, quite a bit. But then I thought about them and decided to write this post to try to put my views across. Perhaps JIT didn't intend to sound as aggressive as my first reactions suggested but the comments made me think. They made me think about what right I have to call myself both Sri Lankan and British.

It's a topic I've ruminated on before and I'm sure this won't be the last time. Academics have done PhDs and numerous intellectual pondering on it and it's something that I have a keen, strictly non academic, interest in.

JIT asks me in his (although it may well be a her) first comment which team I would support in a cricket match, England or Sri Lanka? Then JIT goes on to say, in response to my answer of "Sri Lanka":

"Isn't that a form of disloyalty to your nation, whose citizenship and you hold, given that you enjoy the benefits of such citizenship! "

I'd like to expand on my answer.

In terms of passport and citizenship I am British and have been since the day I was born. I was born in London to Sri Lankan parents. Since then I have lived all my life in London, and I'm proud to think of myself as a Londoner and a Brit. I've got one of those dreary South London accents, Hounslow is pronounced "Aaarnsler" and a geezer is a bloke, not one of those things that spurt water out of the ground, or out of Iceland, or any other supermarket. Most importantly I understand the offside rule.

Oh yes, I live in London, work in London and adore it.

On the other hand both my parents are of Sri Lankan origin, I've travelled regularly there since I was a small child. I can kiss people by doing the cheek sniffing thing without batting an eyelid. I can stand in a lift and listen to people doing the nose clearing, throat gurgling thing that would get you arrested in London, without even noticing it. I can pinch the cheek of a small child and say "my how you've grown" like the best of them and I can wake up every morning with my sarong mysteriously wrapped around my ears like I always do. Come to think of it I'm unsure whether the sarong movement thing is just me or all sarong at night wearing men.

I have more relatives than I can count in Sri Lanka, far more friends than I deserve and many are people I feel as if I grew up with, such was the amount of time we seemed to spend in each other's houses. The older I get the more often I travel to Sri Lanka and the more I discover of its people and its places. The more I discover the more I grow to appreciate my heritage.

Yet none of that changes my affinity for London, England or Great Britain. It's not an "either or" situation, it's an abundance situation. My fondness for one doesn't reduce my fondness for the other.

Parents will recognise this straight away but it's the best example I can think of; When you have your first child you think that it's impossible to love anything any more, that your love knows no bounds and has no limits. Then, when you have the next one you feel the same amount of love for that one too, without reducing the love for the first.

Well in a way that's how I feel for my two Countries. The UK is wonderful in so many ways and I have been lucky that my parents were able to settle here and give me the opportunities I have had, many of which I may not have had in Sri Lanka. But I also think I have, and do, contribute in many ways to the UK and its economy. I work, I pay taxes, I employ people and, above all, I spend a vast amount of money in its drum shops.

Sri Lanka is my heritage, of that I am proud. But it's deeper than just an affinity for it because I went there once on a holiday or because I've got an Aunt there somewhere.

I met someone recently who told me a theory on what she called "third culture" people, a new culture of which I am a member. Third culture people are those whose parents are of one culture but who then live and are brought up in a different one, resulting in them having a "third culture". I scraped in as an honourary third culture person even though I was actually born in the UK.

Now there is an interesting angle to this theory. Said friend told me she thought third culture men are "deeper" in many ways compared to others and that this appeals to some women. I think I proved her theory totally incorrect with my shallowness and lack of sex appeal but it made me think. If I could find women who shared her opinion and I could talk about deep things then I'd be a lady killer, if I was good looking.

Apparently there are loads of third culture kids out there, I'm guessing at least twenty or maybe twenty five. But, do we share the same opinions on identity? Do we all feel that we are of one common identity? Or does the fact we are all third culture kids give us an identity in its own right?

I can't see it. I can see that a third culture, by the definition given, does exist. I'm just not convinced that it exists with many similarities. I've got two brothers, both brought up in exactly the same circumstances as me, we even have the same parents. Yet two of us share a passion for Sri Lanka and the other one doesn't. I've got a close friend born to Sri Lankan parents and brought up in the UK who would probably prefer to be white and of English heritage if he could choose.

There are others who share my passion for Sri Lanka, who have been born to Sri Lankan parents and brought up all around the world. Sri Lanka is actually a very easy Country to feel passionate about isn't it? Sometimes people ask me why I feel the way I do about it. People who have the same passion never ask, they just know.

There are lots of possible reasons; the most obvious is that it's a Country that has an abundance of natural beauty and colour. I wonder how I would feel if my parents were from a less exotic place, like Belgium or Norway. They're both lovely places I'm sure, I just wouldn't want to be from one of them. I like chocolate but give me a good rice and curry any day, I've got nothing against fjords but really do prefer a good tri shaw.

I was in Colombo a few weeks ago and was talking with the Warrior Bee lady. She mentioned that she saw me as very British compared to herself. Yet she normally thinks of herself as quite British anyway. Java, when we were out and conversing in intellectual mode, said that I was less Sri Lankan than he had imagined me to be. When we tried to figure out why this was the only feasible explanation was that my accent was pure "sarf London". I didn't sound Sri Lankan enough, yet from reading my blog Java had expected me to be slightly different.

Even more confusing is the fact that, if I meet someone here in London with a strong Sri Lankan accent, I'll usually think of them as more Sri Lankan than myself. I'm easily confused though.

The most interesting aspect about these statements is the fact that we often look at two cultural identities as being mutually exclusive. So, in my case, there's often a mindset that the more Sri Lankan I am, the less British I am or vice versa.

It's actually a scarcity mentality. Taking the approach that there's a 100% nationality which is then divided into its components. That's all well and good when we're looking at bloodlines and heritage but I don't accept it for myself. I would class myself as 100% British and also almost 100% Sri Lankan. Why? Because I really feel that I'm very lucky to have been blessed with both cultures.

My overall conclusion is that cultural identity is a matter of personal choice, of individual feeling. I don't think it's about your passport or which cricket team you support.

It's about what's in your heart.

What do you think?


the1truecoolguy said...

Very interesting post R! I only considered this when I went to SL for the first time a couple of years ago.

I took me a while to figure out what you meant by "3rd culture" as I saw your parents culture+your upbringing = 2. You mean the 3rd culture is the "Hybrid Culture" right? I'm going to call it that... :)

I definitely agree that your culture is definitely a matter of feeling. I was born in SL, so I can definitely say I'm Sri Lankan, but when I went there, I was OBVIOUSLY a foreigner. Here's something interesting I came across:

I met one of my cousin's friends who was obviously Chinese but he had been raised in SL. Imagine my surprise to see a Chinese[looking] guy speaking Sinhala and having all the mannerisms of a typical Sri Lankan. At the time I found it funny, but then I wondered why? I'm in Canada and although I'm SLan, everyone would say I act like a Canadian. As far as I know, no one finds that funny! :)

I believe this all comes down to the fact of homogeneity in these countries... I think we're much more open to accepting different cultures as our own because we live in more cosmopolitan places. Montreal is ESPECIALLY culturally diverse! It's very obvious to spot a foreigner or someone who "doesn't belong" in countries where everyone more or less looks/dresses/acts the same and thus there's a clear cut "culture".

I wonder if people would be surprised to hear me speak as I obviously don't have a SLan accent either. Maybe I should do a podcast sometime...

I guess I'm rambling now, but my conclusion is that most people in cosmopolitan countries/cities will have a "Hybrid Culture". Does that make the person deeper? I would think they'd be better rounded. Does it make them more appealing to the opposite sex? I hope so! ;)

N said...

Mate I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you feel it in your bones that your Sri Lankan thats enough! Think of all the sarong wearing, Sinhala/Tamil speaking traditionalists who are raping the country...those are the fake Sri Lankans. Identity's an odd thing, I think the more we try and define it the more it eludes, as you said...its whats in your heart.

I like this idea about a "third culture" people...I can identify with that, though I'm a bit more geographically confused:)

P.S. sarong around the ears, pretty common occurence!

QB said...

I think thats one of the best posts you have ever written! And i think you are right..i dont think loving one excludes you from loving the other. I wrote several articles on the issue years ago, when i guess i was in a little bit of a crisis situation as regards my identity. And i came to the conclusion that home is not a place ,but a state of mind. Since the question of "so where is home" is by far the hardest question i ever have to answer.. and often is determined by who is asking me the question, and not the answer itself.
In the last few years, I have now added another "home" to the list, and now at least for me I say my heart is in Sri Lanka, my mind is in England, and my body resides in Singapore.

Java Jones said...

Excellent exposition, bro.


jules said...

Agree with your conclusion, although you lost me on the 3rd culture thing (why 3rd?). It's a personal choice and if you are lucky enough to have two countries to draw your identity from, then why not make the most of it?! Our world is too rich and diverse to be constrained by what's written on your passport or birth certificate. I spent my first 10 years in the UK, then the next 7 years in Spain. I don't claim to be Spanish, but I don't feel 100% English either. I'm a unique mixture of both and no-one can tell me otherwise! :)

Beatrice Hannah said...

I was really interested to read what you said about identity. I have been in Sri Lanka for a year. When people ask if I am English I tell them no, Scottish. I explain that my village is Scotland, but I live in England. Why? people ask. I explain my country is very small, with fewer job opportunities. My partner couldn't do his job in Scotland. (he comes from the same place I do).

I support the England cricket team (unless Scotland are playing), but feel I would choke and pass out if I supported English rugby. This is obviously idiotic. I had a difficult time growing up in Scotland (often due to my English accent, inherited from my English mother), and I have not lived in Scotland since I was 17. But my sense of humour and world view are very much shaped by my home country.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Ian / Jules - Yed, the 3rd culture is the result of the other 2, one which is different to either of those on their own. At leaast that's how I understood it.

QB - "Home is not a place but a state of mind" - I could replace my whole post with that sentence, sums it up perfectly!

Java - Thanks!

Beatrice - Thanks for your comment. Sense of humour is a fundamental part of it for me too. I think mine is actually very British, which sometimes worries me!

Darwin said...

If you feel SLan, then you're SLan. If you feel British, then you're British. If you feel both, then you're both. I know this sounds overly simplistic, but why shouldn't it be? You don't need to pigeonhole yourself into either, you can easily have both, if you want to that is. Me, I just play it by ear and use all my cultural connections to my advantage where I can. I used to fake a British accent to charm the bouncers and get into clubs in America and to get random guys to buy me drinks:). I used to pretend not to speak English when random shopkeepers were rude to me in England, just to piss them off more and really bring out their prejudices. I love using Sinhalese to swear at people over here, even going as far as to teach them some of the words without explaining what it actually means!:)

Insecurity plays a big part in people wanting to pick one and not the other. I realise I'm making huge generalisations here so bear with me. If person A was born in SL but went off to another country for his studies and then adopted the accent within a week and suddenly 'forgot' how to speak sinhalese/tamil/whatever and started looking his nose down on fellow SLans and preferred/wished that he/she could be from that country instead of SL, to me it feels like a massive sense of insecurity. Similarly if person B was born in SL but lived in another country for most part of his life but still preferred SL without quite assimilating into the other country's culture and always missed SL and refused to make and effort to fit in and in extreme cases actually hated the so-called 'western influences', then again that stinks of insecurity to me. If you're comfortable in your own skin, then wherever you feel comfortable at can be considered 'home'. It's as simple as that. Apologies for the ultra-long comment!

Lady divine said...

I'm totally in with what Darwin says.. Let people say anything..who cares.. At the end of the day, it's you've to believe in yourself and live the way you want to..

and given the circumstances, it is a personal choice..I too have heard of this 'third culture' concept..:-) But hey, you belong somewhere right?

If people can't accept you the way you are, then it's their problem...

Pretty good, thought provoking post I'd say!

Indyana said...

You seem to be very lucky with the secure feeling you have in both places.Just a question,how would your sense of identity change were you to ever settle in SL?

Indyana said...

And for the record, I don't feel Sri Lankan at all.I'm an Indian, through and through wherever I live, and have no problems at all about my Indian identity!Actually, well, maybe blue eyes and blonde hair would have been fun, but, well...I'm fine!

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Indyana - That's an interesting question. I think, if I settled in SL, I'd start off feeling very British but that would diminish over time. But, that's something I'll only know for sure if it ever happens!

Mr. Evil said...

Since citizenship is only a status, it is the way in which one is given more access to a country and it's resources according to the ruling govts laws. So I believe JIT may have been refering to some form of patriotism.. The third culture is so true though, although some day I only hope everyone moves towards a global culture full of excellent communications, understanding and so much more.

Ami said...

I think you are torn between two cultures & are confused with split loyalties.
Personally this is what I believe:
Essentially,you are British & you should support your mother country, ie: Britian. Love SL as the birthplace of your parents & part your heritage.

“”Parents will recognise this straight away but it's the best example I can think of; When you have your first child you think that it's impossible to love anything any more, that your love knows no bounds and has no limits. Then, when you have the next one you feel the same amount of love for that one too, without reducing the love for the first””.

Ah but the two countries are not your children! All children live under one roof with their parents, who rear & fend for them.
The country/culture you were born to & grew up in, essentially should be in your blood than the country your parents came from. If it is not, then it is mostly imposed through talk, reminiscing of the parents, relatives still in SL/visiting there etc.
Nonetheless your loyalties at a war or in this case sports, should lie with the country that is your own, that provided & nurtured you, if you like.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Ami - Thanks for giving your view. I don't feel at all torn between cultures though, I feel that I have both in me. I don't agree with most of what you have said but my main point is that each person can take a different view on the matter and apply that view to themselves.

S said...

Too much analysing can hurt one's brain; six weeks living and working in SL made me realise I'm more Brit-Asian than anything.

I got pissed off after repeated exposure to things which are outside my Brit-built 3*/private sector comfort zone. Once off was fine, but on a daily basis, I wouldn't have coped. I have a very long list of things I hated during my time in SL, whereas my list for the UK amounts to just three things - the Labour party and it's want for a non-achievement culture, British men (non race-specific, easily-intimidated and emotionally constipated) and the weather.

However, my Britishness is only *really* going to be tested once I leave the M25 and the ethnic minorities within. Growing up in Dorset did enough to make me feel like an outsider - something growing up in London did it's best to try and correct. A wedding in Sussex last summer proved to me that there are indeed welcoming English-types outside the M25, so perhaps things have changed for the better since I was a wee 'un.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

S - I must admit I think your 3 things for the UK are pretty massive ones though! And you intimidate me, so I guess I'll fall into the British line there!