My background is not as culturally diverse as some. But I’ve always been exposed to, and been interested in, different national cultures.
I was born to English parents in Billericay, Essex, UK – a small, not very culturally diverse, London commuter town. When I was 7 years old, my family moved to Bedford, a bigger commuter town further out of London with a stronger local identity and several established non-English communities. I didn’t realise it growing up, but my parents made a good choice for giving me an intercultural grounding.
Bedford has the largest Italian immigrant population in the UK (outside of London), and its influence is noticeable, from the many Roman Catholic schools to the cafe culture and excellent restaurants. Two of my best friends at school were half-Italian. My first boyfriend was called Guiseppe – his mum made the densest lasagne I have ever eaten (not much sauce, just loads of pasta). Bedford also has strong Polish and Afro-Caribbean communities, among others.
Memorable intercultural moment: The town going crazy for Italia 90, the football world cup, with people driving round in Fiats, beeping, flying massive Italian flags out the window.
At primary school I learnt about the Hindu festival of Diwali, was introduced to the beautiful/frustrating French language, and walked past houses perfumed by curry every day. Most of the people I knew well were middle-class ‘white British’ like me, it’s true, but multiculturalism was the backdrop to our lives, so normal we didn’t really notice it.
When I reached 18 and left school, I took the opportunity to do a bit of travelling before continuing my studies at university. I got an Interrail ticket and hopped on trains down through France and into Spain (and lost my fear of arriving in an unknown place not knowing the language). Then I secured a place on a kibbutz in northern Israel, where I spent two months working alongside Israelis and other international volunteers (Danish, Canadian, South African, Faroese, Austrian, Swiss, Australian… all young and mostly bonkers!), while only being (sadly) vaguely aware of the Arabic culture that co-exists there. I also travelled to Egypt, Greece and Turkey.
Memorable intercultural moment: Watching Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ in a Danish bar in old Jerusalem.
I learnt so much on this trip, about other people and how they live, and, of course, myself. I started to realise that people may come from different places and do things differently, but essentially we all want the same: a fulfilled life, and healthy and happy loved ones*. I also began to be aware that I needed to speak a different kind of English to be understood by my impressively bilingual acquaintances. My confidence in myself grew, along with my belief in my ability to cope.
This was to be tested again by my next intercultural challenge. Off I went to university (in the North of England, which has a history and culture distinct from the South in many ways) to study American Studies, and in my third year I landed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA for my year abroad. I was completely on my own; knew no-one. I wasn’t expecting culture shock going to the USA – it seemed so familiar from books and movies, and we speak the same language, right? – but it was my first time there and it’s really different to the UK. Everything was so big! People were more open, rules were different, the language is different. And New Mexico’s unique mix of Native American, Hispanic and ‘Anglo’ culture make it different to the rest of the States. At first it was terrifying but it turned into the best year. I made wonderful friends and became much more comfortable with being an outsider. I appreciated the difference between how somewhere is from the inside and how it appears from afar.
Memorable intercultural moment: dinner in the family home of my (American) housemate’s (Native American) colleague.
On my return, I got settled back into the UK then for many years, though I was always a Southern outsider in a Northern landscape. But even South Yorkshire – a traditionally working-class, ex-industrial part of the country – is a rich source of cultural diversity. In Sheffield, I lived in a predominantly Asian neighbourhood, where the shops and restaurants are halal and the traffic around the mosque for Friday prayers is a nightmare. My favourite places to eat were Turkish, Lebanese, Chinese, Sri Lankan… In fact, ‘English’ food is international food. Something like 34 languages are spoken in Sheffield, and in my last year there I joined a volunteer project to help speakers of some of these with their English.
Memorable intercultural moment: My student neighbour from Oman popping round with some sticky sweet thing made of dates.
Then I got itchy feet, became obsessed with speaking the Spanish I had learnt but forgotten, and found myself at a point in my life where I could go and live abroad, like I always wanted to. So I moved to Spain and ended up in Barcelona.
And I love it here! It’s strongly and proudly Catalan, yet noticeably part of Spain too. The metropolitan population is from many places: South American countries, Pakistan, France, Italy and China are very dominant. And in the coworking space I work from, as well as Spanish and Catalan people, my colleagues are from Finland, Germany, Argentina, France, Brazil, the USA… I speak Spanish most days and I’m learning Catalan.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to overcome those ingrained cultural habits, and I do miss the UK’s multiculturalism. So in many ways I feel I haven’t immersed myself quite as deeply in local culture as much as I was hoping. Yet.
Here’s a blog post I wrote for CREC about the intercultural interactions I have found there.
*Although now I am becoming more interculturally competent and discovering research on how much culture influences our way of looking at the world, I am learning that differences are significant and important. We need to be aware of and respect them. But I do believe it’s equally crucial not to view differences from a position of fear, superiority, or stereotype.