Bang in the middle of the four-day Platinum Jubilee weekend, came one of the sadder comments I’ve heard in and about 21st century Britain. It was delivered by a British Asian man from York.
His Punjabi father, son of an immigrant from India, was born and bred in Britain. That made my interlocutor a third-generation immigrant.
He owns three takeaways and is on the verge of starting a PhD. He is blessed with a charming wife, appeared to be in his mid-30s, is prosperous and intellectually curious and altogether, seemed a thoughtful and well-adjusted person.
But when I asked how he saw himself, this articulate and well-spoken man seemed lost for an answer.
“I’m a citizen of the world,” he said finally.
“You’re not British?” I asked.
“Well, I could never be English, could I?”
“Obviously not, because English has become a racially distinct identity. But what about British? Aren’t you British?”
“No,” he said.
“Why?” I persisted.
So he told me about the few occasions that he interacts with customers at his chippies. He is prosperous enough to not need to work in his takeaways every day but the few times he goes in, he runs into customers. And they always ask, he told me: “Where are you from?”
“Is that because of your beard?” I said, gesturing towards his lush, black facial hair.
“My colour or my beard, whatever,” he replied.
What upset him, it seemed, was that the customers never seemed satisfied with his response to their question “where are you from?” He would reply, accurately and truthfully, “Huntington,” a small town in north Yorkshire. But they would follow that with another question: “Where are you really from?”
He rolled his eyes as he recounted the customers’ persistent questioning. “How many generations back do you need to go?”
“Is that the reason you aren’t able to admit to being British?” I said.
He nodded. “I don’t feel it.”
It made me feel sad – both for him and for Britain. Imagine being born and bred in a country that you cannot acknowledge as one of the markers of your identity. And imagine a country that actually believes that multiculturalism is about the more obvious, possibly vacuous expressions of integration – bunting and biryani street parties, for instance, as The Guardian reported over the Platinum Jubilee weekend.
The conversation made me reconsider what the Platinum Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign revealed. A country that has changed beyond recognition in seven decades, but still has a very long way to go to feel comfortable in its own skin.
If anything, the Jubilee knees-up has shown the critical importance of examining what keeps pockets of the country so cruelly insular in its understanding of fellow Britons.
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