“Where are you from?”
“I'm from this area, I'm visiting family.”
“No, where are you from?”
I was confused by this seemingly unnecessary question. But not wishing to stand in the way of polite small talk, I thought I'd better oblige and give the taxi driver some more information. I opened my mouth but only got as far as aspiration. I suddenly became conscious of the scarf draped around my face, a new addition since my last visit home. With a withering realization, I began to regret getting into this particular taxi.
The driver continued to squint at me through the rear view mirror, waiting for an answer. Unfortunately, what tumbled out of my mouth was the cringeworthy and instantly regrettable reply, “I'm English-English.” I didn't have time to reflect on the problems with that statement and I just had to leave it hovering ambiguously in the air between me and the taxi driver.
”But you're one of them Muslims, aren't you?”
There was nothing else to do but give an affirmative nod and face the backlash that would surely follow. The driver needed no further encouragement and began a passionate rant, peppered with the usual suspects of, 'coming over 'ere,' 'violent danger to society' and 'taking over.' The fluidity of his delivery suggested that he'd recited this spiel to many an unfortunate backseat passenger. Meanwhile, I just fiddled with my luggage tag, hoping that if I rubbed it hard enough, I might magically find myself at Grandma's house.
A natural pause for breath was signalled by a red traffic light. The driver's arm stretched out to hug the passenger seat and he turned to face me, expectantly.
I smiled. The same awkward, toothy smile one might give a passport control officer to reassure them your face and the decade-old photo are one and the same. The driver clearly wasn't satisifed with my reserved politeness in the face of conflict:
“Look, you seem like a nice lady, why on earth would you become Muslim?”
Realizing I couldn't avoid the topic any longer, I gave a paint by numbers runthrough of my story. Along the way, I gently corrected some of the more outrageous generalisations he'd made, but when his interested 'um's' turned into disgruntled 'hmph's,' I let my sentence tail off with a clumsy 'so, yeah...'
After a drawn-out shrug of the shoulders, the driver continued,
“I don't get it. You're British but you don't drink beer or eat bacon? There's something not right there.”
Being defined by what we eat isn't a new concept for Brits. Historically, we've been known as 'le roast beef,' 'limeys,' and 'poms.' Even in my capacity as a teacher, students feel strangely assured of my professional “Englishness” by the tea tin nestled under my arm and the mug constantly cradled in my hands.
But these stereotypes, whether outdated or reflecting a singular aspect of British culture, do not define what it is to be British. The idea that a teetotal lifestyle somehow negates my Britishness is as absurd as claiming an Italian who doesn't drink espresso is an imposter. In fact, aside from a brief flirt with Italian wine during my year abroad, I hadn't drunk alcohol as a Christian either. Although sometimes I'd received raised eyebrows or a barrage of questions, my “Britishness” had never been in doubt.
The concept of “Britishness” is entirely relative and can't be reduced to a simple check list. Yes, cultural markers are useful. They give us familiar reference points which can reinforce our sense of belonging. Understanding the emotional significance of the last Rolo and being able to quote Monty Python's Parrot sketch verbatim can bring us closer together, but you wouldn't disown someone for not having seen Only Fools and Horses (however shocking we may find that confession at the time!).
The concept of “Britishness” is constantly shifting, squeezed into whatever form gives the greatest advantage to opportunist politicians, the media or the far-right. And contrary to what they might have you believe, being British doesn't make you an automatic Royalist. It doesn't oblige you to wear a poppy if the support-the-armed-forces-at-all-costs mentality makes you uneasy. If you were feeling really bold, you could even try tea without milk. Although I can't vouch for your safety on that one!
Integration within a society doesn't mean assimilation, being stripped of what makes us individuals. We don't all have to think in the same way to be part of the same nation. Assimilation would only lead to a band of British Borg with bowler hats and brollies!
Being comfortable with our own pluralism, accepting our contradictions and complexities, makes us better equipped to deal with those who try to pigeonhole us for their convenience.
Of course, sidestepping simple categorization can lead to confusion. Not least for my poor taxi driver! He became increasingly frustrated when my answers didn't fit the mold of the fantastical Daily Mail Muslims he'd read so much about. He began to sway between pronouns, muddling 'me and you lot' with 'us and them.' Spiky accusations became inquisitive questions and as the taxi drove up to its final stop, the transparent screen seemed to be the only barrier remaining between us.