In my previous post, I mentioned attending my first Sikh wedding over the weekend and this, in turn, made me think about the UK’s cultural diversity. While its rural areas still predominantly fall under the government’s classification “White British,” its capital is a world city comprising so many different nationalities, races, and ethnicities that have come to meld here over the centuries.
“Altogether, more than 300 languages are spoken by the people of London, and the city has at least 50 non-indigenous communities with populations of 10,000 or more. Virtually every race, nation, culture and religion in the world can claim at least a handful of Londoners.” – guardian.co.uk
One remark friends always make each time I visit home is, “I don’t hear an English accent yet.” Well, why would they? I’m not Madonna, after all 😉 Besides the fact that I work with people from America and Australia and return home to my American husband, from an anecdotal standpoint, since relocating to London in 2008, I’ve observed that I probably only hear English spoken in a British accent maybe one third of the time when out and about in the community at large. If the language spoken is even English at all, the accent coming across is often North American for first-language speakers, or any myriad of nationalities when applied as a second language.
Depending on the neighborhood to which you move, international cuisine will abound in far more excess than the local; sure, traditional British cuisine can be had in the pubs, but most restaurants are inspired by the culinary achievements of nearby continental Europe or from the further reaches of the East: Thai, Vietnamese, East Indian, Middle Eastern, to name a few quite generally. (tip: head to Brick Lane or Edgware Road for a superb concentration of Indian, Pakistani, Iranian, Lebanese, Turkish [and on and on and on…] cuisine)
While I can’t speak for other nationalities, perhaps, I can vouch that a lot of Americans moving to London do so with the expectation of immersing into a kingdom of tweed caps and pipes, of Dickens and Shakespeare; the highly touristed places of interest continue to center on Britain’s royalty and Anglo-Saxon past, the literary/political genius of the “dead white males” so dominating our childhood curricula. Don’t get me wrong—this is all very much a part of celebrated British tradition, but it isn’t the entirety of it, nor will be all that comprises your existence here as an expat. The exoticism of Britain’s imperial past comes through with all the immigration from those old territories, right down to the curry you can dip your chips in at the local chippy. When I briefly substitute-taught on the city’s northwest side, my ear met with British accents mixed with Caribbean and Somalian dialects. (coming soon, I’ll be writing about the Notting Hill Carnival held later this month, which carries on that neighborhood’s past Caribbean demographic)
Now, for better or worse, I had referenced Bend it Like Beckham in my last post, which from a Sikh perspective may contain a lot of generalities and stereotypes as films tend to do. Yet I do think its popularity raised awareness in the Western world of the cultural clashes and fusion that can occur in a melting pot like London. Being bookish by nature, I can also recommend a few texts that lend a multicultural perspective on this city: some I’ve already read include Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, and Yasmin Crowther’s The Saffron Kitchen, and one on my shelf that I’ve yet to read is Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani. Interestingly, all of these are debut novels populated by non-British characters who negotiate their identities within the UK.
Entirely coincidentally, I am now off to meet a friend I haven’t seen for a year—last I knew, she and her long-term boyfriend (both Indian—or Asian, as they actually say here in the UK) were in a holding pattern because, though they were both born in England and, along with being very Westernized, are not particularly religious, their parents who immigrated here are divided between Muslim and Hindu; consequently, my friend and her significant other had maintained their relationship as a secret from their families for seven years, as they feared being disowned by their respective sides. I guess I’ll get the updated scoop tonight.
At any rate, your move to London will entail much cultural tolerance and compromise as well (albeit hopefully on a less dramatic level than that relationship!). Not that the country you’re moving from doesn’t share in the same dynamic, but not all clients that we relocate are coming from big cities or otherwise heterogeneous areas. The best advice I can give to anyone making an international trip or move in that case is to stay open-minded and understand how cultural diversity can enrich your life.