This week I attended a evening of talks at China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown whose mission it is to create ways of exploring Chinese culture and China’s influence on the world. I fell across them late last year in attending a provocative discussion between Sir David Tang and Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan and have been keen to attend something else ever since.
This one-night-only event featured five speakers who had eight minutes each on their allotted subject followed by questions from the audience. They covered a range of topics from Chinese medicine (and what is it really?), Hinkley Point C and the role of Chinese investment, feminism in China and the opportunity that Chinese tourists represent for the British economy.
I know very little about China and Chinese culture. During an emerging market project about 18 months ago, I was surprised by the level of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa and I’ve only had limited exposure to ‘Chinese’ medicine. Needless to say I found it an educational and thought-provoking evening.
But the eight minutes that really left me thinking were delivered by Dr Victor Fan, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College. His topic was ‘white washing’ in the entertainment industry i.e. non-Asian people playing Asian roles. It was every bit as interesting as the others but it was when he spoke about his experience of getting a visa to live and work in Quebec, Canada – one that specified that he would speak French and adopt local practices – that something struck a chord.
Two years ago, I became a British citizen and among the 30 or so of us in the room agreeing to honour queen and country, 21 different nationalities were represented. At the time I marveled at what an extraordinary thing it was to live in a community which welcomed such cultural diversity, particularly when you consider the hoops you have to jump through – like the Life in the UK test – and what it costs you to apply for British citizenship.
But it takes a lot of services and infrastructure to support this and there are times when a part of me bridles at the presumption and entitlement of those who want to make their home in a new country yet make no effort to assimilate or adopt any new practices, complaining that it’s not how they would like it or that they are not supported (financially or otherwise).
I should say here that I have retained my Australian citizenship. I still consider myself Australian first and foremost and while I have lived in London for the last thirteen years, I am proud of my roots. But my home is here now: I feel like I’ve worked hard, paid my taxes and contributed, having made my way through the first six years here as a Highly Skilled Migrant with Limited Leave to Remain. Essentially this means that I got access to the NHS but no access to public funds (no benefits like job seekers allowance or rebates on council tax etc) so in between regular work contracts, I typed letters and got coffee for others (among other things) to make ends meet. And I think that this is right – who am I to turn up with my hand out when I’ve made no contribution?
One of the biggest challenges was definitely assimilating to life here without losing who I am. How much of my mix of Australian-Dutch directness should I hold on to? How many of the peculiarities of language – words, pace, pronunciation – should I adopt? It’s all very well to say you should be yourself but when you have been living in one culture for 34 years, isn’t turning up on another country’s doorstep and expecting it to fashion itself around you and your idiosyncrasies presumptuous and entitled?
I often think about it like this. I appreciate it that when I’m invited to someone’s house, they make an effort to make me feel comfortable and at home. But there’s a limit to how ‘at home’ I would ever make myself. I mean would you turn up at someone’s house, ‘crap’ all over their decor / tastes / habits and demand that they accommodate all of your whims and fancies? If you don’t like what’s being expected of you, then don’t come. (And by the way, if your answer to that earlier question was yes, you are not welcome at mine!)
The internet has made the world feel very accessible and a place where you can go anywhere you want. But in reality we don’t have the right to go and be wherever we choose. It’s up to each country to decide what it wants its cultural jigsaw to be and how it wants to participate in any humanitarian crises regardless of any prevailing view about the benefits of cross-border alliances and being part of the wider global village. Whether we like it or not.
So the question remains: How far should you go to assimilate versus defending your culture’s right to survive? How much should we embrace a new culture – a polite hand-shake, a light arm-around-shoulder or a whole-hearted, full-body squeeze? What should your new homeland demand of you and how do you balance the books in such an exchange?
Let me know what you think. What are your experiences either as an expat or as the people dealing with those of us who want to make our new home in your neighbourhood?
In the meantime, I’ll be hovering around North Finchley waiting for the Bunnings’ sausage sizzle to make their small cultural mark on Britain.
You can take the girl out of Australia and all that…