I am a mongrel. It’s the proven best way to describe myself. It readies people to the fact that I’m not going to fit into a neat category for them and that I’m okay with that.
I was born in The Gambia to a Malaysian mother and a Welsh father. When I arrived in the UK to live at the age of 10, I quickly found out that Westerners are obsessed with where people ‘are from’. It took be a day or two to understand that meant ‘where do I see you belonging?’.
On my first day at school in the UK, I answered the question of ‘where I was from’ by saying ‘Africa’, an infinitely sensible answer as no-one would know where The Gambia was. My answer was met by scrumpled faces of confusion, then more elaboration was needed:
“But you’re not black?”
“Correct” (children are so amazingly good at stating the obvious).
“OH!!! So you’re SOUTH African?”
“No” (at this point, utter helplessness at the ability to comprehend).
I would then have to go through the synopsis above and it would greeted with suddenly unfurrowed brows and sheer delight as my peers would exclaim, “Oh, so you’re BRITISH! I don’t know why you didn’t just say so!”
After a few rounds of this sort of interaction, I tried to explain my sense of affiliation to an African soul. I remember pleading that surely where a person is born has some impact on their sense of identity. I was told that it didn’t affect my genetics nor my passport so the point was invalid. So British I became for the sake of ease and acceptance.
The label was banked and all things invested in myself made sure that I was, indeed, seen as British… until I was a teenager. I remember two occasions very clearly.
The first was when I was walking into town by myself. I was lucky enough to grow up in a relatively safe and beautiful town and this was the age before the fear of ‘kiddy-fiddlers’ was rife. I looked up and, heading towards me, was a man about 6ft tall, shaven head, white vest, black jeans, braces and bomber boots. I didn’t know much as a teen and this wasn’t a familiar sight on the streets where I lived, but I knew the stereotype that went with the outfit of choice. I got closer and I heard him singing in German… I crossed the street. I didn’t know if he would see the difference, or even if he would care, but I knew I felt the difference in me and it was enough.
The other was late at night. My best friend, a Filipino girl adopted at birth, and I were playing outside a friend’s house. A group of guys rounded the corner and, as they passed us, glanced in our direction. Eye contact was exchanged between us and then them and then one of the lads headed over to us. He told us there was a group of lads out that night who were out for some ‘Paki-bashing’ and that, even though we were girls and young, we ought to head inside. To this day, I’ve no idea if it was true, but I felt my difference enough to retire indoors for the night.
My ethnic mix confuses people. I’ve learnt that now. From being told not to talk about it because it seems like ‘showing off’ to being categorically told by others what my (national) identity is, people all have an opinion. To the Malaysians, I’m white. To some whites, I’m half-caste. I’m neither.
There was one conversation in my entire life that allowed me to express it properly. I was asked where I came from and I gave the sentence above – my stock standard answer. And I steeled myself for their interpretation. Instead I got asked where I called home. Bewildered and beyond grateful, I had to take a deep breath as I calculated a new equation. This is who I am:
‘I am African in soul. I’ve been told by Ghanians, Nigerians etc that there is no such thing as African, but that is what my soul is. When my feet hit African soil, I cry because I am on a land that I yearn for from my core. It’s where my soul resides. Horizons that stretch beyond the eye and a raw energy that fills me completely. I was born in a land by the coast and water runs in my veins. I watch programmes on the abundance of nature on my great continent and my heart swells with pride. I see programmes about our many people and hear the tones of condescension amongst many and my heart bleeds.
I am Eurasian in culture, I live the fusion of Malaysian-Nyonya food, new spirituality and non-Western femininity. I resonate with some of the core Eastern philosophies but filtered with a more Western slant. There is a rhythm in thought that I understand and a value in silence that I uphold. I don’t condone the more foreign of the cultural aspects but respect that they were borne of the same foundation as the aspects I love and embrace. It’s where my spirit sits most comfortably.
I am British in lifestyle and in sound. It’s my day-to-day home of the familiar. It’s the country in which I’ve lived the longest and the humour that I’ve gained. It’s the accent which the internationals can identify and the dress sense that the Europeans can pinpoint. It’s the place that holds most of my affection for it houses the majority of my nearest and dearest. It’s the expletives I choose and the terms of endearment I share. It’s the grace and the manners and the love of parochial differences.’
I understand now that people need to put other people in boxes. I understand that sadly, to the vast world out there, I am British to most. But I tell you now, I am a mongrel and I am proud of it.