Thursday, 28 July 2011

Empire State of Mind

Remember this lady? The "I'm allowed to call a Paki shop a Paki shop because I'm not racist" lady? Well, she may become a regular feature on these pages, if the last few days are anything to go by. Perhaps it should become a series entitled The Sun of Patronising People You Perceive To Be Different To You Never Sets.

Ah, the photocopier: where so many friendships are formed. Where so many important points are debated. And where so much random bigotry seeps out, poisoning the air of conviviality and also making  its recipient, me, and my partner in "let's have a philosophical debate about whether the word 'cunt' can be reclaimed while waiting for the laminator to warm up" discussions, piss ourselves laughing!

Dramatis personae: jolly hockey sticks frightfully isn't it middle aged white lady - let us call her Samantha. And a young British-Asian woman with keen sense of sarcasm and headscarf who, to protect her anonymity, shall be known as Samhita.
Samantha: So where are you from?
Samhita: Bethnal Green.
Samantha: Oh... but you have a bit of an accent?
Samhita: Um. Most people speak like this in East London.
Samantha: Yes.. but.. where are.. what are..
Samhita: Yes?
Samantha: Where are your, er, parents from?
Samhita: My dad's from Pakistan, my mum's from what was East Pakistan when she was growing up and is now Bangladesh.
Samantha: Oh I see. Your parents must not be enjoying this weather very much!
Samhita: They... have been here... for fifty years. I think they're used to it by now.
Samantha's lived abroad for much of her life (so has probably spent less time suffering through British weather than Samhita's parents!) - Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia - but unfortunately this hasn't triggered the realisation that most of the world's population isn't actually white and English. There is a certain kind of person for whom travel really doesn't broaden the mind; it calcifies whatever prejudices were there before, and reinforces them with the certainty of someone who thinks they've seen everything the world has to offer - and isn't that impressed. ("Well this is all very nice, but they still can't make a decent cup of tea.") However far you go, however many people you meet, if you still see everything through your lens of Britishness - decide the worth of a nation by how well it matches up to the way things are done at home - see your country and your culture as the measure of all things - then for all the understanding you've gained you might as well have stayed at home.

People like this seem to come back to the UK and feel they've somehow earned the right to be as cantankerously bigoted as they like. It's as if they now know more about Foreigners and have authority to argue with you if you gently suggest maybe they're being the tiniest bit racist.

One of the most entertaining examples of this was when a dude came back from his Gap Yah and proceeded to tell my BFF The Truth Of How Things Are In China. You'd think that said BFF, what with speaking fluent Mandarin, visiting the country regularly, having a number of friends and relatives in Hangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong - oh yeah, and ACTUALLY BEING CHINESE - would be something of an authority on the matter, relatively speaking. But no - apparently a better preparation for the position of Resident China Expert is six weeks of teaching English in Beijing!

I mean: Samantha Pseudonym wasn't trying to be offensive. She didn't mean to hurt Samhita's feelings. She was genuinely interested in Samhita's family history and cultural heritage, but just went about it in a dramatically cack-handed way: when I was chatting with Samhita later, she said that it's not the question itself that grates - "what is your ethnic origin, if you don't mind me asking?" doesn't bother her in the least - but the othering, the implicit message of "you are different and I must definitively categorise you before we can continue this conversation". You know, in the same way that people don't quiz me as to where my parents grew up, when and why they moved to Southampton; in the same way that they don't decide they've got the measure of me just because they now know my dad was born in Norfolk.

I think I shall let Samantha have the last word, given that this phrase is such a gem it really deserves to be savoured. She once actually uttered the words "Well, I think I do understand other cultures, because I have a Malaysian housekeeper".


  1. i love this.
    i just sent it to my colleague because we totally have a 'Samantha' in our office.

    the story about the GapYah guy and your BFF (to retain anonymity) is truly marvelous, also.

    As if the air around the photocopier weren't already poisonous enough!

  2. My current, fortunately temporary, boss has elements of Samantha - she is 'well-traveled', yet says some Officially Stupid Shit. I will tell you in person one day.