Wednesday, November 2, 2011

When 'where you come from' really matters...

It is a truism that some families are rooted, their offshoots remaining in the same place for generation after generation, while others cast their seedlings abroad to rest wherever the wind may take them. My family is among the latter.

I have always found the typical Scottish social query, 'Where do you come from?' a particularly irritating one. What does the question mean, I ask myself. Does it mean.... Where was I born? Where did I spend my childhood? Where have I spent most of my adulthood? Where is what I call 'home' just now? What is it the questioner is asking and of what significance is it anyway?

For many Scots, the answers to most of those questions would be straightforward: one location, with, perhaps, an adventurous sally fifty miles away to the other end of the Central Belt in pursuit of a job. When I first moved up to the north east of Scotland, I worked with people who had been born in Aberdeen, went to school in Aberdeen, went to university and teacher training in Aberdeen and regarded themselves as making a real break for it when they got a job in Kincardineshire fifteen miles down the road. And it is not just northerners: Glaswegians are among the most conservative (I nearly wrote the word 'parochial', but crossed it out) of all. Rooted people.

Well, not all Scots are like that, certainly not if you go back a couple of centuries ago. Highland Scots, like Cornishmen and Irishmen, left in their thousands because of evictions, poverty, unemployment and starvation. Willingly or not, they left their native lands to people vast tracts of New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA. Welsh miners went to Patagonia. Huge numbers of Highlanders even went to Glasgow. More people speak Gaelic in Glasgow than in its heartland, or so I have been told.

These travellers were the original economic migrants, and some of them could even be classed as refugees and asylum seekers. Fortunately they usually received a better welcome from their new countries than some refugees and asylum seekers receive in Britain today, though most of them never forgot their roots. In fact, despite the use of that rather disparaging term 'economic migrants' to describe some newcomers to our shores, over the last couple of centuries most Britons settling abroad have been economic migrants themselves, some of them often not very admirable ones either - settlers in Rhodesia, South Africa and Kenya, for example. Land grabbers many of them, not to put too fine a point on it.

What about my family then? Well, I was born in Bangladesh (East Pakistan, as it was known then), though I only remained there for two years. I have, as you may be aware, been living in Uganda for the last fourteen months. My father was born in Saint Helena and lived there until his family moved to South Africa, returning to England - not their native Wales - when he was still a boy. I have cousins who were born in Nigeria and cousins who were born in China. I have second cousins who have spent a lifetime in India. All eventually came 'home'. And all of us, parents and grandparents included, have contributed to this country of Great Britain, as well as to our more exotic temporary homes, through the professions for which we were trained and, for some, through the voluntary work undertaken. We have also paid our British taxes and National Insurance, in my case, for the whole of my working life. I am still a British taxpayer. This matters.

How do I feel about my Bangladeshi origins? Well, when I was a child, I was rather proud of them. Ironically, at the time I was living there, the streets of the Lancashire mill town where I was brought up were inhabited only by rooted people. They didn't move very far, except, perhaps, to a neighbouring valley. When talking to my childhood friends, I felt my background was interesting and unusual. I had stories to tell: only second hand, of course, but involving perilous journeys by steamboat and bus, roaring lions (or was it tigers?) and rioting crowds (for this was not long after Partition). Our family narrowly survived small pox epidemics, malaria and numerous unromantic water-borne diseases. Of course, nowadays the Lancashire street in which I grew up is inhabited only by people from the Indian sub-continent and by their children and grandchildren, for we are into the third generation now. They, no doubt, have their own tales to tell.

As I grew older, I became less keen to impress my friends with my exotic origins, partly because it became pretty obvious that I had no directly personal memories and people generally knew more about the world beyond their own patch by then, partly because other things were more important and it was all so long ago and partly because I got tired of explaining why I was born in Bangladesh. In fact, I became quite embarrassed about the whole thing. You see, my family was a missionary family: a thoroughly outdated concept these days. They were never the happy clappy, force-the-natives-into-church kind of missionaries. My family were nurses, doctors and teachers. They saved lives and educated people. Nothing embarrassing there, but the whole surround, the presumptions on which their work was based, is not an easy one to explain or justify to an increasingly sceptical and secular society.

My family were very definitely not part of the Raj and would have been no more welcome in the British Club than the Bengalis among whom they lived and with whom they made friends. My mother routinely wore a sari and both parents were fluent speakers of the Bengali language, and others as well. Memsahibs and their ilk were anathema. My parents paid for their commitment to East Pakistan with shattered health, but at least they did not have to sacrifice their children, unlike previous generations of missionaries. And, of course, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis - like Ugandans and other East Africans - have made enormous sacrifices for Britain. Not only did they sweat in her cotton fields and jute mills, they also fought her wars. Britons only tend to remember the Gurkhas, who have the advantage of being photogenic. In fact, during the Second World War, thousands of Asians and Africans died to help Britain defend democracy, although they were consistently refused it themselves. Four million Bengalis died of starvation in 1943, not long before my parents went out there. The priority of India's British rulers was to win their own war not to distribute Indian rice to the Empire's Indian subjects.

A few years ago I visited the leprosy hospital where I gulped my first breaths. It is in what were then the 'remote' hill tracts and I was the first 'white' baby the staff and community had seen. The hospital is still doing a remarkable job that is recognised throughout that part of Asia. As an adult, it took me a day or so to get there by plane and road. It took my mother a couple of days to get to Dhaka and then three or four days up the waterways by steam boat from the port at Sadarghat. These changes are all very positive. The world has moved on. Bangladesh has moved on.

And how do I feel about my Bangladeshi background now? Funny you should ask that.  Over the last few years, I have become increasingly aware of the significance of my birthplace for the way I live my life: not just the choices I have made, but the way people like me, with slightly unusual histories, are regarded in modern day Britain.

Britain has changed, as well as Bangladesh, and not just in terms of infrastructure. Where one was born has become so much more important than it used to be, strangely enough. It is not just a story told to pass the time or impress the listeners. I was quite shocked when I got my first photo driving licence a few years ago. For there, right in front of my eyes - indeed, right in front of the eyes of any policeman checking it - was inscribed the place of my birth - BANGLADESH - in capitals. Why is birthplace one of the first things a policeman might want to know about you, me or anyone? I was quite bemused, and, to be honest, rather uncomfortable.

And, this week, I have become increasingly aware that having lived abroad for any length of time can be a mixed blessing. I had sort of assumed that I could walk straight back into the waiting rooms of the National Health Service. After all, I've only been away just over a year. My National Insurance is fully paid up and I still pay my taxes. I am a British citizen and have been since birth. I have a British passport (though my father's place of birth has never been particularly helpful in that respect). However, instead of spending my last day in Kampala packing my suitcase with presents for family back in Britain, I spent it collecting evidence at very short notice and far from my precious personal files, that I had actually lived there. (Education Scotland, you came up trumps!)

Part of the problem was that for various reasons, not least that I had nowhere to live, I couldn't go back to Edinburgh and had to register as a temporary resident elsewhere. And then, some way through the bureaucratic process, I was phoned and asked to give my place of birth. 'Bangladesh,' I said, immediately realising the significance of my answer. I was a foreigner, but not a welcome white foreigner like an Australian or New Zealander. No, I was one of those foreigners who we give the impression are not really wanted here. People like me only had the right to primary health care, I was told. Secondary care has to be paid for. I think someone should tell this to the right wing agitators who believe that all foreigners living in Britain are scroungers, get all social and health services free and take precedence in any queue over 'native' Britons.

My problem was minor, fleeting and easily dealt with. Fifty eight years spent living in Britain can't be brushed away quite as easily as all that. It is also probably quite helpful that I have an educated accent, am clearly a confident professional who is more than capable of dealing with bureaucracy and do not dress in a salwar chameez. At no time was I spoken to rudely and the issues were always explained to me courteously.

So, 'where do you come from' really does continue to matter in today's Britain, sad to say. I am looking out of my son's sitting room window just now, watching the people walk up and down the street. Yesterday I wandered past the shops. With the exception of the temperature and the orderly traffic system, there are many similarities with Uganda. The varied skin colours of the people are one, the beautifully elaborate women's hairstyles are another and, particularly on Sundays, the fantastic African outfits complete with headdresses, little boys in three-piece suits and little girls in what look like white net bridesmaid dresses, are a third. And that is without even starting on the food. All these people, from Africa, Asia and the West Indies, some born here, some not, all contributing to British society. They fight our wars, teach our children and care for our sick. In fact they are not 'they', 'they' are 'we'. Perhaps we should stop being quite so obsessed with where we all came from, and start being rather more interested in where we are all going, in particular, in what we are doing to create a society which is mutually respectful, mutually appreciative and mutually supportive.

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  1. Wonderful blog, just the right sentiments......
    PS get well soon

  2. Many thanks - can't wait to get back. That's probably the best medicine!