Although I was born in London and my Dad was a Londoner himself, I spent most of my time growing up in Asia after he got posted there for work. My parents never returned to England after that, as they were happier staying in Asia.
We had an elderly English neighbour living next to my childhood home in Singapore, who was divorced from his Singaporean wife and had a grownup daughter who had already flown the nest. He remained in Singapore and never came back to England. One of my memories growing up was seeing him every day walking his huge dog, which had grown old with age as I grew into my late teens. He was a man of a few words. Actually there are many English people in Singapore from past to present because of Singapore’s history as an English colony, and a good number of English men who marry Singaporean wives do prefer to stay on there afterwards.
I decided to return to England when I was in my late teens. I always wondered what it was like, because my parents talked about their fond memories of England. Also, because it was my birth place, I was always wondering how life would have turned out if my parents had chosen to remain in England and raise me there.
I made the brave decision to come back here although my father was worried for my safety. He got in touch with his close friend in London, who would be my guarantor and help me find a decent place to stay. They found a rental room for me in an elderly lady’s semi-detached house in a posh district in north London, but within months, I came to hate living there.
The elderly lady wanted me to stay home more because she was lonely, but all I wanted to do was go out with friends. She frowned at my hair – it was dyed all sorts of colours – and she frowned at my dress, and she frowned at my lifestyle. She would often comment “Oh I feel cold just looking at you. Brr…” She didn’t like that I often overslept on weekends.
She would often knock on my room door late at night asking me if I had a cigarette I could give her because she’d ran out of them. I wasn’t a smoker, I am asthmatic anyway and regular smoking causes a lot of throat and nose infections for me (believe me, I’ve tried.. I wanted to be cool when I was a teen, and do what my friends do, you see). The only times I’d smoke would be if I was in the company of certain friends who did smoke, and who would offer me a ciggie. I certainly never had a packet of ciggies in my possession, so I would tell her that sorry, I don’t have any. But she would always try her luck and ask me for a cigarette again in a week or two. The biggest gripe I had with the place was that at £80 per week for a tiny box room, it was not cheap, nor was it that convenient for me to go to central London to work or meet friends. The tube journey took nearly an hour one way, and tube trains stop running around midnight. Night buses don’t run there and whenever I went clubbing, I was forced to pay more for taxis to take me home.
Central London is fun. It is an arts, music and books Mecca for me. I made loads of friends while I was there, and they were made up of a rainbow of nationalities and races. London has an abundance of good, cheap, and a fantastic range of international cuisines (once you know where they are）. There are fantastic museums and events happening there all the time. Always something to do, always something to see. I soon decided that I wanted to live there, in central London. I started planning my move.
About 8 months after moving into the elderly lady’s home, I moved out, having found a bedsit in central London. We did not part on good terms, as she was upset that I was leaving too soon for her, and that she was going to lose a source of income.
On hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have applied for a credit card a few weeks before moving out. The card arrived later than it should and I never received it whilst I was living in the elderly lady’s house.
After moving to my new bedsit, I telephoned the card company to tell them I haven’t received it. They said that it was impossible I hadn’t received it because their records showed that the card has been signed for and just over £200 had been spent on the card at one petrol station in north London! I was incredulous as I don’t even drive or have a car in London and neither do my friends!
The credit card company accepted the card had been stolen and misused, and said they would send me a replacement and get the police to investigate. More importantly, I would not be liable for the purchases made on the stolen card. Thank goodness.
So I worked in London for a while and eventually met my husband. When we had our first child, we made the decision to try moving to northern England for a new job as we figured the lower cost of rent in the north would mean we would be able to raise our child in a larger space.
Moving to northern England from London though, was a major change. Not only did I find it difficult to understand the different northern accents, I found the locals to be quite provincial-minded. For the first time, I started hearing really racist things being spoken about non-whites AND whites whom they don’t consider local. It was quite shocking to say the least, and some of the things said were truly awful. It is acceptable speech here apparently, and quite a few people do it unabashedly.
First, we have to be clear that being English and being British are two completely different concepts. “British” is a nationality and anyone who has followed the correct application procedure to obtain British citizenship can be considered “British”, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be considered English. “English”ness is completely determined by family background – you can only be “English” if your parents, your grandparents, your great grandparents, etc. were white, born and bred, on English soil. The more ancestors you have who can be considered English this way, the more English you are. So an American is not considered English （just because your great grandparents were English is not enough I’m afraid）. Australians, New Zealanders and other nationalities which were settled historically by English immigrants, are not considered English… or rather, not English enough.
Non-white British people whose families have lived in England for generations will never ever be considered English, no matter how long they’ve been here, unless they have intermarried English people for generations and they can pass for being “English” by appearance and speech. Non-whites, no matter if they are British or not, will encounter racism at least once here, especially if they have lived and worked here for years. If they are British and speak good English, they are more likely to be able to defend themselves if challenged by rude behaviour, and that helps. Non-white non-British folk who can’t speak English very well are disadvantaged because they either can’t or don’t know the best way to challenge the perpetrators or defend themselves, and that just allows the perpetrators to get away scot-free and continue doing that to more unsuspecting people.
As for white non-English people, well, they are not immune to occasional racist treatment either. But they have the advantage of being able to pass for an English person in appearance, as long as they keep their mouths shut. Once they speak and reveal the fact they aren’t English though, things might go south. Of course the English are not all racist, and aren’t all horrible people, but the longer a non-English person stays and works in this country (outside of London), the more likely he/she will experience at least one jarring racially-motivated encounter with an English person.
Americans especially have to be prepared for racist encounters with the English. The way Americans speak gives their identity away in every social situation. Once identified as an American, be prepared. If you’re not being ridiculed for your accent or size (people here like taking the mick out of Americans for weight-related issues), you might also be confronted by irate English people and asked to justify, on behalf of your entire country, why your ex-president Bush committed all those war atrocities in the Middle East and Afganistan, or you might be interrogated on your opinions of American gun laws and then asked to justify, on behalf of your country, how wrong America’s permissive gun laws are and how they endanger lives. Also be prepared for off-the-cuff negative remarks/insults about Americans to your face, in daily life, from local English people.
To alleviate this problem, Americans may wish to consider introducing themselves as Canadians to strangers in order to avoid any potentially unpleasant situations. This is a very good strategy especially when encountering drunken English people, unless Americans don’t mind getting into a fistfight. The hatred of Americans is real amongst a sizable number of locals (though not all), and it is not always done in good-natured jest. Canadians are less hated than Americans, although by the fact that they are not considered English, they might still encounter some racism from locals here at some point, just like the Australians and New Zealanders do.
Germans may find themselves the butt of unpleasant Nazi jokes, especially if they are in the company of working class English men. For Germans, this can be very distressing when it happens, as most Germans are ashamed of what happened in the past and Germany has made huge strides over the years to make amends. In fact, a person of colour today would feel less threat of racial provocation whilst walking around alone in Germany, compared to England （with the exception of London of course）.
The French are traditionally hated by the English, but in today’s day, the hatred is much milder and the worst that could happen is a piss take.
The Polish and other East Europeans have a tougher time. It is true the English tend to view them with suspicion and hostility, under the impression that they steal jobs from the locals. Verbal abuse and physical altercations may happen as a result.
Meditteranean Western Europeans however, tend to be treated quite benignly by the English. There might be a language barrier but apart from this, the English do actually seem to quite like them and their culture.
It has to be reiterated that the chances of any non-English people encountering the above-mentioned negative scenarios are still quite low. Some English people are truly nice people. It is possible that those negative things may never happen during a short stay, but the longer the stay, the higher the possibility. It might be that something unpleasant happens once in a year, but although it seems little, for some people, that could be enough to make them want to leave. On the other hand, I know of non-English folk here who have experienced these negative things for years but have no intention to leave just yet. It really depends on how thick-skinned someone is. The thicker one’s skin, the longer one will survive in this place. After all, bantering is a national English pastime.
Even if you are considered English, that does not mean you’re safe from prejudice. The English even discriminate amongst themselves. Southerners typically make fun of Northerners/Welsh/Scots, and Northerners/Welsh/Scots frequently slag off Southerners. Northerners/Welsh/Scots dislike Southerners because of their wealth, and Southerners look down on Northerners/Welsh/Scots as uncouth and only suited for manual labour.
Southerners and Northerners can tell each other apart from the way they speak. Once an English person’s origin is identified from his accent, insults and petty fights might ensue, depending on how drunk or grumpy the partakers of this exchange are.
A quick Google for the term “northerners hate southerners” always turns up a lot of results – various anecdotes and endless discussions on this phenomenon. Even Northerners discriminate against each other – for example, a Yorkshire man or a Manx can find himself treated with disdain by a Scouser; if drunk, they may even get into a war of words and fight.
On top of that, all the different English groups I’ve just mentioned hate the Brummie accent. Brummies are English people who come from the English Midlands, or what’s also called “the Black Country” here. Neither considered Southern, Northern, Welsh nor Scottish/Irish.
Almost forgotten to mention the Irish. Traditionally-discriminated against in England since medieval times, it came to a head again from the 70s till the late 90s with many IRA bombings in London and Manchester, although IRA bombings in London have been ongoing since the 17th century onwards. I don’t think most of the younger English generation even care that much anymore about this though.
There seems to be an inherent tendency, on the part of the English, to want to put someone in a “box” the moment they meet them. This is more evident the further out you go from London. These were all aspects I was never aware of before moving out from London to the North. I can’t say I like it.
There are good things about moving out of London though. More green space, more bang for the buck when it comes to accommodation costs, a more relaxed pace of life and a generally more laid-back attitude of the locals. I can’t say that food is cheaper out of London, as I’ve found that for everything from Japanese food to fresh Jewish bagels, Chinese cuisine to Italian goodies, I get the best quality and authenticity from well-known London food joints for the best price, and these good food joints are all concentrated in London itself. Londoners are very lucky indeed, with all the best tasting foods easily accessible and not necessarily costing an arm and a leg.
At the end of the day, I just feel I’m a London girl more than anywhere else in England. Now if only there was a good job opportunity for us to move back there again… Yes, London is gray and a little grotty.. but I’d rather live in a tiny little flat in London than to live in a 3 bed semi elsewhere.