Friday, November 16, 2007

Where Are You From?

Cerno's "Are you Indian?" post reminded me of something that still frustrates me. It used to annoy me but I've calmed down about it and now just feel that bit of frustration.

It's something that happens about several times a day whenever I'm in Sri Lanka. Now, you may be aware of how I look or you may not be. I could go off on a diatribe here about my good looks and all that but I'm making a concerted effort to resist the temptation. It's enough to say that both my parents are Sri Lankan, I was born and brought up in London, I wear clothes that have a London look to them, whatever that means, and I feel as if I'm both Sri Lankan and British.

And, probably vital to the story, is the fact that my accent is about as London as you can imagine, somewhere between David Beckham and Ali G, with a hint of drummer thrown in for good measure, and, to my chagrin, I can't speak or understand a word of Sinhala, except "machang".

So my main mode of transport when in Sri Lanka is three wheelers. I jump in them and do the usual haggling, eventually settling on a price somewhere in the region of four times the local rate. There's a strange line to be drawn between the knowledge that the money I'm haggling about is so little compared to my cost of living and the fact that there are principles involved and I'm not just another suddha, which incidentally is another Sinhala word I know.

After the price has been agreed I sit happily and wait for the offer of a herbal massage and all the "add ons" that these tri shaw chaps can supply, or take me to. I know that they have to do some sort of ice breaker in the conversation too, it usually goes like this:

"Where are you from Sir?"

"I'm from London" I say.

It's funny how I always answer that, yet if I'm asked the same question here in London, which is very rare, I'll always say I'm Sri Lankan but brought up in the UK.

Then the chap will look at me in his mirror with a look of bewilderment, at which point I offer explanation by saying that my parents are Sri Lankan but I was born and brought up in the UK. The chap normally goes on to say that I don't look Sri Lankan, that he thought I was from Thailand or Malaysia or somewhere like that.

All my life I've never expected anyone to look at me and think I'm British. After some thought on why I've realised that it's because of colour, nothing more, nothing less. I don't think I look British because I'm not white. Is that wrong?

But these days cultural identity isn't about colour. It's not about parentage and it's not about language. My humble opinion is that it's about how we feel, with some limitations.

And I'm definitely not a Thai or a Malaysian ok!


ravana said...

Dude, you're British Sri Lankan, or Sri Lankan British, whichever way you want to look at it. Be glad you have access to the best of both worlds.

The British

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately 400 years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

Mix some hot Chileans, cool Jamaicans, Dominicans,
Trinidadians and Bajans with some Ethiopians, Chinese,
Vietnamese and Sudanese.

Then take a blend of Somalians, Sri Lankans, Nigerians
And Pakistanis,
Combine with some Guyanese
And turn up the heat.

Sprinkle some fresh Indians, Malaysians, Bosnians,
Iraqis and Bangladeshis together with some
Afghans, Spanish, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese
And Palestinians
Then add to the melting pot.

Leave the ingredients to simmer.

As they mix and blend allow their languages to flourish
Binding them together with English.

Allow time to be cool.

Add some unity, understanding, and respect for the future,
Serve with justice
And enjoy.

Note: All the ingredients are equally important. Treating one ingredient better than another will leave a bitter unpleasant taste.

Warning: An unequal spread of justice will damage the people and cause pain. Give justice and equality to all.

Benjamin Zephaniah

Sam said...

If there is a cricket match between SL and UK, what side you cheer for – that is who you are :)

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Ravana - Thanks for that, I agree. Brit Sri Lankan suits me fine.

Sam - SL every time!

T said...

someone asked ME if i was british once. i was qute confused..

Times Eye said...

I love British accent , can u talk like H. Grant? ;-), then u r British

Darwin said...

I get asked if I'm Indian all the time. Gah, such insults.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean you dress like a "Londoner"? Does this mean you wear Ben Sherman, River Island, Burberry etc? Because then you have a majority of the population of any large British city dressing like "Londonders".

If you really want Ranga Putha and co to think you're a Brit/expat then dress as follows, head to toe.

1. Homburg hat
2. Designer sunglasses (make sure they're not mirror reflective because that's tacky)
3. Some high street brand shirt with the name on it. Not Topshop mind you, and the logo has to be on it.
4. Capri or white linen trousers. Note, that capris must be magnolia or white. Linen trousers MUST be white.
5. Tastefully expensive leather sandals.

You can thank me later. Also, try and affect some pidgin sinhala in a weird southern accent.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and Ravana, what do you mean the best of both worlds? Government tells the yard to drop the investigation into government sanctioned backhanding by BAE to the Saudis, members of the public offered "expenses" to side with the government on local referendums regarding the NHS, idiotic target driven public services resulting in worse than 3rd world healthcare and a nation with one of the highest tax rates in the world.

How is this the best of Britain?

Bea said...

If you earn English money, and can't speak Sinhala or Tamil then you are pretty much bound to be overcharged in a 3 wheeler, not sure that you can expect anything else. When I was earning a Sri Lankan salary(LKR 20,000) and did speak/write basic Sinhala it was very trying to be charged huge amounts for being "just another suddha".

Darwin said...

Bea, it's actually suddhi since you're female:)

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Times Eye - Sorry but my accent is really nothing like Hugh Grant's, far more Ali G to be honest.

Darwin - The cheek of it eh?

Anon 1 - I habve made a note of your fashion tips and will be out buying the required items later. Thanks!

Anon 2 - Erm, I'm not sure Ravana actually said that those things represent the best of Britain.

S said...

The only place I've had taking issue with 'I'm from London' is the homeland. No idea why they can't get their heads around someone having a different colour to the natives of that land!

Maybe they just want all cute brown people to be SL ;)

Truthfully though, I rarely get questioned on it in SL - speaking Sinhala has it's advantages. The only time I run into pricing differences is in hotels where they ask for passports :S

I agree that identity is about how you feel. Putting the American concept of hyphenated identities to one side, I'm not so sure where I belong; parts of my thinking/attitude are slightly too foreign to fit neatly into either camp. I'd definitely pick a life here over SL though :)

Bea said...

Oops Darwin, never did really get to grips with Sinhala

cerno said...

Its all part of this sad misconception that skin colour and head shape dictates your cultural identity (indicated by accent and language fluency). Essentially is the notion that culture is a biological thing - like skill colour.

I have to confess that in ancient times I did have that mind set. Thankfully got over it very quickly on realising how absurd it is. But that happened only after I was living outside this island.

Anonymous said...

Ravana seems to think Britain is all happy and multicultural and respectful to its people with freedom and justice for all. This is bullshit.
People who grow cannabis in warehouses are let off with a few hous of community service but a hoody who makes fun of Cameron is carted off to gaol for having a gram of weed on him.
Whitehall grows mroe bloated and corrupt everyday, the justice system is a joke, healthcare and welfare are being abused, police become more and more apathetic as they are robbed of their powers, doctors are made convenient scapegoats when issues of real national importance are swept under the carpet.
Modern Britain in Sri Lanka is just a testament to how good its spin doctors are, not to the reality in it. It has lived on its reputation for far too long. Wish these people would actually have a look at what the place is like instead of blindly praising it.