Monday, 6 January 2014

Negating My Britishness (During an Awkward Taxi Ride)



“Where are you from?”

“I'm from this area, I'm visiting family.”

“No, where are you from?”

I was confused by this seemingly unnecessary question. But not wishing to stand in the way of polite small talk, I thought I'd better oblige and give the taxi driver some more information. I opened my mouth but only got as far as aspiration. I suddenly became conscious of the scarf draped around my face, a new addition since my last visit home. With a withering realization, I began to regret getting into this particular taxi.

The driver continued to squint at me through the rear view mirror, waiting for an answer. Unfortunately, what tumbled out of my mouth was the cringeworthy and instantly regrettable reply, “I'm English-English.” I didn't have time to reflect on the problems with that statement and I just had to leave it hovering ambiguously in the air between me and the taxi driver.

”But you're one of them Muslims, aren't you?”

There was nothing else to do but give an affirmative nod and face the backlash that would surely follow. The driver needed no further encouragement and began a passionate rant, peppered with the usual suspects of, 'coming over 'ere,' 'violent danger to society' and 'taking over.' The fluidity of his delivery suggested that he'd recited this spiel to many an unfortunate backseat passenger. Meanwhile, I just fiddled with my luggage tag, hoping that if I rubbed it hard enough, I might magically find myself at Grandma's house.

A natural pause for breath was signalled by a red traffic light. The driver's arm stretched out to hug the passenger seat and he turned to face me, expectantly.

I smiled. The same awkward, toothy smile one might give a passport control officer to reassure them your face and the decade-old photo are one and the same. The driver clearly wasn't satisifed with my reserved politeness in the face of conflict:

“Look, you seem like a nice lady, why on earth would you become Muslim?”

Realizing I couldn't avoid the topic any longer, I gave a paint by numbers runthrough of my story. Along the way, I gently corrected some of the more outrageous generalisations he'd made, but when his interested 'um's' turned into disgruntled 'hmph's,' I let my sentence tail off with a clumsy 'so, yeah...'

After a drawn-out shrug of the shoulders, the driver continued,

“I don't get it. You're British but you don't drink beer or eat bacon? There's something not right there.”

Being defined by what we eat isn't a new concept for Brits. Historically, we've been known as 'le roast beef,' 'limeys,' and 'poms.' Even in my capacity as a teacher, students feel strangely assured of my professional “Englishness” by the tea tin nestled under my arm and the mug constantly cradled in my hands.

But these stereotypes, whether outdated or reflecting a singular aspect of British culture, do not define what it is to be British. The idea that a teetotal lifestyle somehow negates my Britishness is as absurd as claiming an Italian who doesn't drink espresso is an imposter. In fact, aside from a brief flirt with Italian wine during my year abroad, I hadn't drunk alcohol as a Christian either. Although sometimes I'd received raised eyebrows or a barrage of questions, my “Britishness” had never been in doubt.

The concept of “Britishness” is entirely relative and can't be reduced to a simple check list. Yes, cultural markers are useful. They give us familiar reference points which can reinforce our sense of belonging. Understanding the emotional significance of the last Rolo and being able to quote Monty Python's Parrot sketch verbatim can bring us closer together, but you wouldn't disown someone for not having seen Only Fools and Horses (however shocking we may find that confession at the time!).

The concept of “Britishness” is constantly shifting, squeezed into whatever form gives the greatest advantage to opportunist politicians, the media or the far-right. And contrary to what they might have you believe, being British doesn't make you an automatic Royalist. It doesn't oblige you to wear a poppy if the support-the-armed-forces-at-all-costs mentality makes you uneasy. If you were feeling really bold, you could even try tea without milk. Although I can't vouch for your safety on that one!

Integration within a society doesn't mean assimilation, being stripped of what makes us individuals. We don't all have to think in the same way to be part of the same nation. Assimilation would only lead to a band of British Borg with bowler hats and brollies!

Being comfortable with our own pluralism, accepting our contradictions and complexities, makes us better equipped to deal with those who try to pigeonhole us for their convenience.

Of course, sidestepping simple categorization can lead to confusion. Not least for my poor taxi driver! He became increasingly frustrated when my answers didn't fit the mold of the fantastical Daily Mail Muslims he'd read so much about. He began to sway between pronouns, muddling 'me and you lot' with 'us and them.' Spiky accusations became inquisitive questions and as the taxi drove up to its final stop, the transparent screen seemed to be the only barrier remaining between us.


11 comments:

  1. What a horrible situation to be in! Its not as if you can move away - you are stuck in a Taxi!

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  2. Beautifully written, I could see it clearly and felt for you.

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  3. Sarita - jzk for such a fantastic article - it's a scenario that I, as a second generation Asian muslim in the UK frequently encounter:

    "Where are you from?"

    "Erm, Essex, originally"

    "No, where are you really from?"

    And so it goes on...dialogue is the best way to counter assumptions and stereotypes.

    Keep us the good work sis!
    Nx

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  4. Sounds like a red-neck where I come from LoL we have people like that here in Saudi Arabia; they get all nosy like "why do u dress like us??" or "why did u come here??" ummm it's called NONE OF BEESWAX haha but they don't know what beeswax is sooooo...

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  5. I'm just gobsmacked that he actually talked to you that way! Not only is the level of ignorance unbelievable, but the disrespect...I didn't realize how bad it could be. Let's hope at least your incredible grace opened his eyes even just a little...

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  6. I totally recognise the first question whenever you get into a taxi "where are you from" BUT for me it's usually a Muslim taxi driver and they seem to be just curious and asking as they see a fellow Muslim, never had that kind of grilling from a non muslim taxi driver and it does seem quite awkward as you are stuck in the back of taxi for however long!

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  7. Sadly the only way to break down ignorance is often to answer the questions of the ignorant. Sometimes this leads to more frustrations but a willingness to speak up can change the stereotypes put forth by biased media.
    I admire the woman you choose to be - many can and are learning from your example :)

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  8. How fortunate that you and he were able to talk. Certainly some of his ideas have changed since. :-)

    No beer or bacon, lol.

    Tea without milk--purse your lips and bear it. The next time hopefully there will be milk and you will appreciate "a real cup of tea" all the more.

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  9. Had a similar moment when someone realised I was a conviction convert and not a convert for marriage convenience. Its like choosing to be religious, and specifically a Muslim, winds you into some kind of dark evil pit and telling people that isn't the case just annoys them more.

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  10. Fantastic, well-written post. I think you handled the situation quite well under the circumstances.

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  11. That must have been pretty bad for you. People should not be judged based on their religious choices and affiliations. Furthermore, I think it was insensitive for the driver to question your personal choices. It's sad that prejudice is still very rampant at such a culturally-advanced country.
    Grady Mann

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