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Can I be English?


Photo credit: Michaela from Pexels

Those of us who left Sri Lanka in search of greener pastures, elected to become citizens of foreign countries, in all five continents of the world. We probably think more often than we would like to admit; Can we be locals? Is this possible at all even if we truly wish to do so? Are the cultural values, customs and traditions hard-wired so much into our system in childhood that change is just not possible?

As I live in England, I contemplate, can I be English? Then what is necessary to be English? The first time I thought about this issue was when one of my friend’s two children asked their mother, “when am I going to be white?” The reason being they wanted to be like their friends, the “locals”. A well-known cricketer when selected to play for England had 3 lions tattooed on his arm, probably thinking he would be accepted as an Englishman. The English public was perplexed! The tattoo does not make him English.

Englishness is a strange thing to foreigners, it has many layers, in fact the number of layers are so numerous you will never find the core, it is something akin to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There are rules to be English but none of them are written in a book that you can study and follow. If they were it would be much easier to be English, after all we are the masters of read, remember, and regurgitate, the education system followed in Sri Lanka. I find it is very frustrating why it is such an enigma!

The rules for Englishness are indoctrinated in them they do not have to follow them; it is in their culture. One must be born and brought up in the country to assimilate Englishness, it is a form of civilisation. Some common rules: you do not talk about money, never ask the price of something belonging to others, this is a cardinal sin and often the first hurdle the foreigners fail. You do not jump queues, you do not speak to strangers, but perfectly fine to speak to strangers’ pets. This, I have learnt is not through snobbery, but due to an overwhelming desire to be private and mind one’s own business.

It is true that they have a class system, but it is shrouded in secrecy unlike Sri Lanka, where the first meaningful conversation starts with the inquiry of the school one attended, the strange way of measuring social status. Perhaps Sri Lanka is the only country where a person is defined by where their parents sent them to school! English shy away from revealing the name of the school, especially if they have been to Eaton or Harrow, out of embarrassment; remember boastfulness is totally prohibited!

One of the most difficult rules foreigners failed to understand is how to remain unemotional in most difficult circumstance, classically described as “stiff upper lip”. The ability to remain unemotional even in the most compelling situations is something unique! When they see someone get emotional, they immediately know they are “foreigners abroad”, locals cringe.

English Cricketers who play all over the world in international competitions astonish their foreign counter parts by their ability to remain stoical on returning to dressing room whether they scored a hundred or were out in the first ball.

Their humour is second to none, served with a good dollop of sarcasm. They are the masters of this skill. When they see a European politician ranting at British and say so many derogatory things about English, during the Brexit debate, their reaction is simple and straight forward, well if not for us we would be hearing this rant in German.

What made them be like English is difficult to define. A famous model had tattooed the legend “Made in England” on an unmentionable place. When discovered by similarly famous foreign actor marvelled why didn’t he think of that before her!

Now you see the challenge; to be English you need to know innumerable number of unwritten rules; does not mean those who live here as foreigners, lead a miserable life. Out of the top ten on the rich list for the UK seven were not born in England, they may not pass the test to be English but employ thousands of English people! Three of the most important cabinet posts in the country, are held by children of first generation immigrants, this is in addition to the Mayor of London.

We foreigners fail one important test miserably that is the famous cricket test defined by Norman Tebbit. Who would you support when we play cricket against England? The child who wants to be white may be supporting England because they do not know any other country. Recently I discovered that one of my friend’s children had been awarded a Hunterian Professorship for his research whilst in surgical training. His father never mentioned this to me. Another friend’s son is a member of SAGE committee (Committee set up advise the government regarding COVID-19). When I encountered his father with great joy, his reaction was, “Jayantha do not tell anyone”, such is the modesty.

Have they become more English than? I. I reassured myself thinking they will still fail the Tebbit’s “cricket test”? After all if you can achieve all that you want, who needs to be English?. I will conclude this blog referring to Peter Starstead’s song “where would you go to my lovely when you are alone in the bed”

You can take the boy out of the village, but you cannot take the village out of the boy. Those of my batch mates who have strong feelings about their country of residence are welcome to blog on their views.

Jayantha Premachandra


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