“Where are you from?”
Here’s a not-so-secret: sometimes I feel like an outsider. I grew up in London but most of the time, I don’t feel English enough. When I’m in the Philippines, I’m not Filipino enough. I speak broken Filipino, with an accent, struggling for the right word and stumbling over tenses and plurals.
My inability to grasp the essence of the Tagalog language feels ironic, coming from a writer and journalist with an English Literature background, coming from someone who so prides themselves on their gift with words. There’s a cultural humour I feel disconnected from. I feel a wall between myself and many of my Filipino relatives.
I feel searingly envious of anyone native to their home country: the English man who’s had the same hometown upbringing as his father and his father’s father, or the Filipina girl whose family has lived on the same rice field for over a century; both possess the same inherent certainty that they belong completely to their environment. These sorts of thoughts have weighed on my mind since I first began to think about it in my teens. What’s my place in the world? Which environment can I call mine? Where do I completely and utterly belong?
The good news is, I suppose, that slowly, I’m getting more comfortable with the space I occupy. The identity crisis of my early twenties aside, instead of seeing how certain cultural things I’m disconnected from might take away from who I am, I view them as things that add to who I am.
Instead of feeling that I don’t belong wholly to either place, I’m learning to understand that the space I occupy is a unique one, a bubble, where it’s okay to feel like an insider and outsider at the same time, and that millions of others navigate their own ‘third space’ on a daily basis.
In 2019, at a book reading in London, I had the fortune of hearing Filipino-American author Elaine Castillo utter these magical words to her audience:
“Diaspora kids experience this ‘stuck between two cultures’ mindset – I resist that idea, that I’m incomplete or incoherent. Filipino American is the space I occupy. Sometimes I feel very Filipina. In London [by contrast], I feel very American. Diasporic kids don’t have to make a perfect whole – it’s OK to be in that mixed-up place.”
I thought that was so eloquently put. No matter who you are, or what your background is, it’s OK to be in that mixed-up place. You’re not complete or incoherent. You’re just you. And that’s more than OK.
Not English, but British
On a daily basis, despite rising English nationalism threatening to strangle the essence of modern British identity, I feel closely aligned to my Britishness. To me, being British means being one small part of a unified whole. It’s an umbrella term for all these cultures and ethnicities that make up British society.
As a London-born 90s kid, being British feels synonymous with being a child of immigrants, a child of the diaspora; it means being connected with people-from-other-places, of second-gen children born in a western city.
Colonialism and systematic, institutional racism aside, there are few other places in the world where you can step out of your house and see a rainbow of skin colours, restaurants from at least five different countries, and as a minority, feel acceptance (or rather, feel comfortingly commonplace).
I suppose the term ‘British’ means something in the way that second-generation kids in America call themselves American, or use it as a term of empowerment – again, despite rising nationalist tendencies and the hair-raising but unsurprising landslide of out-and-out racists. (What’s up with those guys? Seriously. Cool it.)
Britishness hints at unity, togetherness, at globalisation. That said, the very term Britishness is a trigger point for many — they are, after all, one of the most insidious imperial powers in the western world. I understand it. But I grew up in its culture too: I have love for the weird, wonderful ways of Brits.
More than anything, if we’re talking about a physical location, then London feels most like home, because London is a reflection of the world. Of brown, black, white. Reflections of England – or rather, imperialism and racial division – show up in the workplace, in academia, in all the structured and hierarchical places you’d expect in society. But as for the rest of the city, on its streets, in its food, in its culture and its people, London is the world.
We’re not alone
When I posted about this topic on my Instagram, originally, my direct messages blew up with strangers, friends, and people from my past getting in touch to agree that they felt the same way. How bizarre and wonderful is it, that the feelings that alienate us are the feelings that bring us together? It makes me feel like I belong.
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