Tuesday 23 August 2016

Sorry, who am I supposed to be again?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the concept of being a global citizen. I suppose it makes sense that I would do, given that I’m currently living in a country that’s not my own, and I haven’t been an active citizen in my homeland for 17 months now.

When I left the UK, I didn’t know how long I’d be going for. Not really. I didn’t know what was going to happen, what I was going to find, or how I was going to feel, about anything. I was (still am) very closely attached to the people I love, and I think if I had not had someone influencing me to do it (my partner) I might never have left the UK for longer than a holiday. But I would have always retained this sense of, ‘well, I would like to travel.’ It was that intangible feeling which helped me to decide to go in the end. This curiosity about what was outside of my door; the idea that life could be lived very differently to how I was living it. Not that I had a problem with how I was living it, not at all, but I also didn’t feel driven to do any of the things the people around me were doing (getting married, having children, buying homes, having the faintest idea what kind of career they were pursuing, that kind of thing) so the lack of any other direction to aim toward pretty much left me with a bottom line of, ‘well, why not this?’

When we left for Vietnam I was excited, and terrified, and those feelings didn’t leave me for the entire nine months we were there. The intense pace of life, and the lack of opportunity for me to procrastinate, defer to other people, or find excuses not to take chances, forced me to grow. I don’t think I’ve fundamentally changed who I am or what I’m about, but I feel that I’ve expanded on it in ways I never would have expected and I’m not really sure whether I would have learned the lessons I have done had I not left in the way that I did or lived in the manner that I have since. Or maybe I would have done, but maybe it would have taken me another ten years or more to do so, and I do feel it’s past time that I apply some of what I’ve learned to how I want my life to be. I want to run with this idea of actually making some kind of plan for what I want to happen, within the context of life not being perfect and with an understanding that you can’t always get what you want, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever try to work toward the things that will fulfil you as a person. I know I’m years behind most people in getting to this kind of thinking, but I’ve always been a little slow on the uptake!

I guess my reticence to settle if I wasn’t sure it’s what I wanted, combined with not actually pushing myself to think about what I wanted, has been a mixed blessing in the truest sense. It’s meant that I’ve spent a lot of time not working toward things I want, and putting other’s priorities first, but it also meant I didn’t have a mortgage tying me down when it came time to up-sticks and skedaddle. But bigger than all of this personal development stuff, I feel that I’ve developed a better understanding of people in general, and the world at large. What I have witnessed, through those I’ve met along the way, is snapshots of peoples’ lives. I’ve met people at the start of a new journey, in the middle of one, or at the end of one. I’ve met people from home who never want to go back, and those that wish they’d never left. I’ve met people who have nothing and work harder than I ever have done or likely ever will do, and people who have had everything handed to them and don’t even seem aware of it. From all of this influence, I’ve learned one thing that feels like a truth: we all have so much in common. No matter what language we speak, who our parents are, where we come from or what job we do, we all yearn, we all love, we all cry, we all laugh, we all hate, we all fear, we are so similar, it’s ridiculous. The bits where we clash and disagree and see the world from completely opposing view-points, they’re interesting, and relevant, but sometimes we focus so much on the difference that we don’t see the shared connection of human experience staring us right the face.

If you’ve watched any news of been on the internet at all recently, you will have noticed that the UK voted to leave the EU (the annoyingly titled Brexit referendum) I’m not going to get too political on you, because there is no faster way to alienate a readership than by getting all tub-thumpy (politics being just too personal to be balanced about) But the reason I mention it is because it ties into my feelings regarding living abroad at the moment, and the consequences of it will have a direct impact on me, my family, my friends and the world at large. I’m actually still somewhat in shock at the outcome, and I can’t quite believe that a decision this big has taken place during my lifetime. The fallout of this vote will have ripples that will last decades (at least), and my being on the other side of the planet while it’s happening is both a relief (in some ways) and makes me feel impotent and disloyal (in others). I know you might be thinking, typical imperialist attitude, assuming that what happens in Europe will affect the rest of the world. But to think it won’t is to completely misunderstand how interconnected the world has become. For every country at the moment, there are so many things happening from an internal perspective, in some cases very terrifying and damaging things that incite fear and anger, that it’s very hard to look outside of our doors and see the bigger picture. The bigger picture being that ALL of these world events matter, and they affect all of us eventually, regardless of where we live.

So recent events have pushed my thinking on to something I really feel needs to be said, the life I am currently living, has only been made possible through the concept of immigration, the idea that a person can live and work in a country they were not born into.

New Zealand is a country comprised of immigrants. People from all cultures, races, colours and religions live side by side here. Even the Kiwis mostly all hark from Europe or the rest of the world originally, the only native race here being the Māori. This chaotic genetic pot isn’t a point of contention here though, it’s a point of connection. Through my being here now and living in Vietnam before, I no longer only feel part of a British community, or a European community, but a teeny, tiny part of a much bigger whole. That feeling is derived from the connections I’ve made in the places I’ve been to. I look at the world as a whole and see my part in it, all of our parts in it, and our responsibilities as part of it. Our difference is what makes the world interesting, but it is our similarities that should be pulling us together. We need to be moving closer, not further apart. 

Just like all the other stuff I didn’t know about myself before I left, I didn’t know how I felt about my homeland, or my cultural identity. Recently I’ve been saying to people that I really do feel British, because it is only when you’re living in a culture that’s not your own that you feel the intrinsic otherness that’s at the core of who you are. I didn’t feel it as much in Vietnam, but I think that’s because the difference was more obvious, so I didn’t associate how I was with being British, I put it down to being from a westernised country. Now that I’m living in a westernised country, I realise that many of those differences aren’t all born from economic or social difference, so much as culture. I’m a Brit, I’m not a Kiwi, and those definitions are more complex than merely a change in accent. But this whole Brexit thing has made me reconsider the concept of my Britishness, because what exactly does it mean to be British?

Most people in the UK are immigrants, you just need to go back a lot further in some cases to find proof of this. Looking at my colouring and physical build I don't think I have much Celtic ancestry in me, at best I’m descended from the Saxons, if not some mongrel mix of them, Normans and Romans. However you break it down, I'm not a native. Should I then complete a complex family tree, in order to find out exactly where I came from? Without doing so, how I can I truly know who I am or where I belong? Say if we hypothetically and arbitrarily decided that your family has had to have lived in the UK for four generations, or whatever, in order to class themselves as ‘British’, if you do that, most families of Asian or European descent living there would also qualify. The more you think about this concept of belonging, the more it starts to fall apart. Until this point, the four freedoms allowed through being part of the EU, free movement of goods, capital, services and people has meant that Brits can go and work in other member countries without the need of a visa and it has allowed us to import and export without worrying about various taxes and restrictions, amongst about a billion other perks. What happens now that the UK has to leave the single market party?

Am I British? Am I English? Am I from the Midlands because I was born there and lived there for 18 years, or can I now class myself as being from Yorkshire because I spent all of my adult life there and it’s the place that feels most like home to me? Is belonging a right? What if I decided I wanted to move to NZ permanently, does a piece of paper or a new passport change who I am and what I’m about?

It’s at about this point that it all breaks down into being complete nonsense.

We are all, each of us, a product of everything we have ever been and whatever we choose to be right now. I can’t tell you where I belong, I can only tell you what I feel connected to. I feel connected to that town in Yorkshire where my friends live, I feel connected to the village I grew up in, I feel connected to that little place in Wales where I spent all of my childhood summers, I feel connected to Saigon, that super charged, super-heated city that challenged me to the core, I feel connected to Wellington where I live now, I feel connected to Christchurch and Amsterdam and Paris… I feel connected because I am connected. The places that define us, that affect us, aren’t dictated by that little book we are told is proof of our identity. The people we love don’t have to be, and often aren’t, sat in the room next to us all of the time. My heart stretches across oceans now, and you’d literally have to tear my personality apart to separate me emotionally and idealistically from the people and places that went into creating that.

So this is where my head is at right now: I exist in the here and now but I don’t belong anywhere, and nowhere belongs to me.

I’m a global citizen, and I’d be gutted if somebody was able to stop me from living and being in another country, when I know that I’ll work hard for my right to be there, and I’ll engage with and respect whatever culture surrounds me. It saddens me to think that other Brits might not be able to do the same with as much freedom in the future, and on the flip side, that we as a nation might end up isolating ourselves and preventing others from coming into the UK and doing the same. You don’t realise how highly your homeland is thought of until you leave it. And the UK is very well thought of. Or it was. Perceptions do change, and they already are changing. Maybe this will be a time of hardship and learning, just like the last 17 months have been for me, and the country will emerge stronger than ever. Or maybe it won’t. Whatever happens next, people in the UK need to really think about what they want out of their lives right now and for the foreseeable future. Stay and fight for new rights or freedoms in the wake of these events, or leave and find a place that better fits with who they want to be.

Either way is valid, as long as it’s the choice that’s right for them. For me, I didn’t run away from my life, I just went to live it elsewhere for a bit, and I’m grateful every day that I came from a country that allowed me that freedom. Am I proud to be British? I was, yeah, but now I think I’m just proud of the people I love who are British, and all the people I love who aren’t. I’m proud of people, ideas, and actions I believe in. I didn’t swear allegiance to a flag, or a piece of land, I am my connections, I am my difference, and at the same time I’m proud of the similarities I share with the rest of this beautiful, terrible, wonderful mess of a world. I want to be a part of making that world a better place to be in. Not one country, nor one cultural identity. We’re in this together, when all is said and done, unavoidably, inescapably, innately, together.   

I’m not a global citizen just because I put my first world travelling shoes on and decided to work abroad for a bit. Doing that simply opened my eyes to what was already a fact: we’re ALL global citizens. We can’t just decide we aren’t a part of the world any more than we can opt out of the human race. Do you remember when you were a kid and you wrote out your address, and at the end you put ‘the World’? You stopped doing it because it’s silly and the postal service doesn’t need this information when delivering your mail, because you’re clearly, obviously, on the planet and a part of the world.

Clearly, obviously, a part of the world.

When did we start to forget that?

I genuinely feel that now is a time when we need to remember this and think about the idea of being part of the bigger whole, and to not feel trapped or obligated by any restrictions other than that. I’m a global citizen, you’re a global citizen, and the world is changing, fast. So I guess my question has really become, not who am I, but, who are we, and what do we do next?

C xx