I have never defined myself by my location. I have never geographically identified myself. I didn’t ever view myself as ‘British’ or ‘English’. I don’t come from a place in England with a strong cultural identity. I come from a small city just outside London. Culture came from hanging on the coat tails of ‘The Big Smoke’, the capital city. I escaped to the bright lights and loud music of London as soon as I could. I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I don’t consciously identify myself as being from St Albans. That means nothing, what is a person from St Albans like? A dullard, a vacuum? There is no frame of reference, even for me.
A few of my friends have stronger geographical identities. They are from places like Dublin, Liverpool, Swansea, displaced to Brighton; they feel a stronger affinity to the place they came from. Plus those places have a stronger cultural identity, a history, a collective similarity to join people together. The fact that St Alban was the first Christian martyr doesn’t bond me with people from that city the same way that, for example, people from Liverpool feel about events from their history. Does this geographical identity offer people shorthand to your personality? A shared understanding? A preconception of who you are? Those people I know who have moved share a sense of frustration at both the prejudgment and the assumptions. They don’t like it, it can be repressive.
Does this make it easier for me? That there are no expectations of who or what I am? With less cultural references to hang my identity on, do I have a blank canvas to create my own story? Do my Scouse, Irish or Welsh friends have to overcome an expectation of them based on identity assumptions? Or can they hide behind pre-conceived notions of others, popping out from behind the caricature occasionally to prove people wrong?
Since I moved away from England my sense of geographical identity has changed. In Brazil I immediately became aware of the fact that my ability to speak English did not necessarily associate me with England but it did identify me as different, other. My voice in Portuguese wasn´t necessarily a clue to my background. I could be American, sometimes I sounded Spanish and other times, as this strangled strange accent, came out of my mouth I could have been from Mars! It certainly did not identify me as being from Hertfordshire. But I am often asked `Where are you from?` and my answer will suggest something about who I am.
I work in a school now with children from many different places. Some of them have moved several times. We were discussing the stresses this can bring, a transitory life, no ties to a ´home´ country. For some, their nationality is very important. There is a sense of pride and security in belonging to a certain tribe, an automatic connection to others.
This wide range of backgrounds brings such a rich range of knowledge and experiences to my classroom. They constantly enrich the experiences of learning. I am teaching texts I have taught many, many times in England. Here in Brazil, having to explain vocabulary, slang terms or cultural references is changing my perceptions of these tired old texts. Trying to make connections which will resonate in these children´s lives is a challenge but in doing it I can gain a sense of my own cultural identity and history. In moving away I have come to understand more about what it means to be British than 38 years living in England.
This doesn´t mean I will be putting up a union jack or getting a bulldog tattoo but I have been given an extra understanding of my place in this incredible, magical world we inhabit.
It is so diverse, each individual is crafted so carefully from the pieces of the life they have lived. We should celebrate and enjoy the difference we bring and recognise our unique identities which allow us to be separate and yet connect.