I remember as a child thinking I was terribly clever asking whether Brazil nuts were just known as 'nuts' in Brazil.
Or asking what's 'Déjà vu' in French?'
We all did that right? As a kid? Silly games and playing with words as we began to learn about how to use them.
Back to the Brazil nuts though....
Apparently, they are not actually a nut (rather, a seed) and it turns out Bolivia harvests more of them than Brazil. And it's not just Brazil; they grow in other parts of South America too.
But it got me thinking about labels.
What narrative do you tell yourself about who you are?
How do others describe you? Do you like the words people use?
In many ways it could be argued that we need labels to help us to function as a society. On a civil level, it protects our rights and entitlements to services (health, housing, social benefits etc) and also allows us to prove who we are.
But what about the labels that aren't for government purposes? The ones which the newspaper touts as a headline like:
MIGRANTS take ALL new jobs in Britain (The Daily Express)
the Mail Online:
How they make YOUR lunchtime sarnie: Migrant workers use their BARE HANDS to churn out three millions sandwiches a week... I refuse to link to the Mail Online, so here's the Huffington Post article that discusses it.
These are fairly extreme examples, but they are real headlines from British papers. They incite hatred and provide a slow drip feed of hate and fear that isolates and demonises different sets of people.
And I hear you saying, "but that's the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. They're known for writing like that."
Yes they are, but those headlines filter down to local communities and become the accepted facts. Too often no one checks to find out if the headlines are actually correct or what their motives might be.
I thought to myself, 'but I'm not dark-skinned or Eastern European or any other 'otherness' that's deemed 'foreign' am I? I really wanted to say that out loud, but I let it slide as it was a new job and I was worried about being seen to cause problems. I've regretted it ever since.
Yes I am a migrant in the UK, but when does that descriptor become a label?
It comes when it's used negatively against you. A while back a friend asked me what words I'd use to identify myself. I surprised myself by instantly saying, 'red-headed Australian'. I wondered why and realised that at home in Australia this was a given. It didn't need to be expressed.
My experience in the UK has been quite different. I am the one that is 'not from here', and referred to as the 'foreigner', 'the 'convict', the 'red-head', the 'ginger', 'ginga' or the 'colonial'. I've been in business meetings where people have talked about 'drowning gingers at birth'. I've had people say, 'another bloody arrogrant Australian' when I've politely answered a question. Another told me that 'all Australians are arseholes' whilst someone else even looked at my ankle and asked 'where is the ball and chain?'.
It certainly doesn't make you feel welcome. I must point out at this stage that I have met many lovely people too and live in a wonderful community. The more negative comments are definitely not the majority, but they are said with enough regularity to have an impact.
For them it's a throw away line.
For me, it's my every week, sometimes my every day.
So you decide to try to fit in more to make yourself less noticeable, not as open to the passive aggressive 'jokes'. But you're unaware that you have every chance of losing yourself. Without really realising, you slowly chip away at the fundamental descriptors that make you who you are. I ended up not sure who I was anymore and where I belonged.
However, last week I heard the most wonderful talk by Dalia Elmelige, on Radio 4's Four Thought. Her story of being a Muslim in America after 9/11 was fascinating especially her comments about being split between 2 cultures - Too Muslim for America, but not Muslim enough at home.
WHY DO LABELS EVEN MATTER?
They matter for two reasons.
And to end....
Here is to more conversations.
I've been here over 11 years now. Am I still am expat? I don't have a contract that I know will end in 2-3 years and then I'll go home. I moved for love. My wife is British and I moved to England to live with her. So....lovepat it is.
So how does a one way ticket feel for a lovepat?
It's quite something to sit on a plane, having packed up your entire life and know that you're leaving home, but not know if you will ever return. I felt excited and enjoyed the feeling of the unknown, but I was also a bit scared and slightly unsure - was I doing the right thing?
But deep down I knew that I still had choices to return home to live if I wanted to.
But what if you can't go home?
I heard the most amazing play on BBC's Radio 4 this week. 'Minority Rights and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - The Fernhill Philosophers'. In it the Eritrean character - a highly educated man, who was unable to go home said, "Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live".
It's a powerful statement isn't it? 'Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live.'
Imagine living with that everyday. Imagine our friends in Syria who cannot go home as home no longer exists. Imagine the exiled LGBTQI person that will be murdered if they go home. Imagine knowing that you will never go home to all the people and places you hold dear.
It's beyond painful....
But exile is not just about people from other countries. Imagine feeling like you're in exile because no one understands you and your autism. Imagine the stress of trying to do your job well, but your dyspraxia plays havic with your ability to remember what your boss asked you to do. Imagine people always looking at you oddly because your muscles make you walk differently.
We need to care and support people. We need to ask them what they need, because until we've walked in their shoes we know nothing of their lives.
But we can listen. We can listen openly and with love, and we can see ourselves in everyone we meet. If we listen we start to learn differently and we also start to learn the similarities. I love the Vietnamese expression, 'same same, but different'. We are the same but we are all different too.
We are all a piece of the giant puzzle of humanity. No two puzzle pieces are the same shape, all rounded slightly differently, but I know that I can't make up the picture without another puzzle piece, and another piece.....and another, and another, until we all fit together; different, but each forming an integral part of the same picture.
We need each other.
Whomever we are - what ever country we come from - and whatever our abilities.
Sometimes we're that lone piece of the puzzle that doesn't seem to fit anywhere. We can't seem to find our way. But suddenly the piece of puzzle is turned around and with a shift in perspective there's a connection - a connection to another piece and another, and as more and more connections are found, the puzzle bonds together more firmly.
It's much like life and community. On our own we may feel unconnected and wonder how we fit into 'the bigger picture'. But start to shift perspectives and you start to see others more deeply.
You start to see the intangible layers, the personal stories in people's eyes, the body language that shows their discomfort, the way they eat food that shows a rich cultural heritage, the non-stop talking that tries to hide their nerves, the accent that makes them 'not like me' and makes them hide the other 5 languages they speak, the jokes they make so you love them, the respectful silence you take as shyness, the constant movement that helps them to focus, the clothing they wear with pride but you don't understand......the.....the..... The list is endless.
All I ask of you is to pause.
Open your ears and eyes.
Open your heart.
Be the shift in persepective.
None us of want to be that lone puzzle piece.
Despite the 'technical difficulties' of me not being able to hear or see anyone, I hope you enjoy it. It's certainly very weird talking to yourself, but definitely a hoot!
Any questions? Please post them for me in the comments below.
Drawn to a story arose from me venturing across an ocean, well, a few actually.
It was an adventure with expectations of wonder and a feeling that I was really grabbing at life. Moving from Australia to southern England seemed familiar in that I knew England well, having visited several times before, but I also felt a sense of something new and unknown, just as Jean Batten describes beautifully:
The opportunities and experiences of different cultures, of meeting new people, of trying new foods, watching different TV programs, learning new social 'rules' and local traditions, is incredibly enriching and enjoyable. However, it is also a particularly strange experience.
You naturally evolve. It’s a constant change, so subtle that you’re almost not aware of it – you use a different word here and there or the foods you start to hanker after shift slightly. And then you go home for a visit and you realise that you don’t quite fit there anymore....and you start to question.
Who am I? Where do I fit? What does it mean to be Australian? What does it mean to be British? or English? Complex thoughts and feelings running through me in ways I couldn't verbalise. At the same time I was very grateful for the conflicting thoughts as it's through this discomfort that the best thing comes.......personal growth.
I always been fascinated by stories and people and how people make meaning, how they cope with difficult experiences. As a young adult I thought I wanted to be a historian, but I realised it wasn't so much what happened that interested me, but why and how people coped...and so then I found myself in the hot seat...away from 'home' wondering how to cope with challenging thoughts and feelings around identity, culture and belonging. And it is here that this story begins...... picking up a pencil, and over the course of a year, creating a set of drawings that utlimately became a book about life 'elsewhere'.
But it's not just about me. It's about all of us who live elsewhere, all of us who love it, but also who are equally challenged by it. I am excited about having created Drawn to a Story to explore all our stories - to inspire, to support and to break down walls of 'the other', whomever that may be. After all our similarities are more than our differences.
Next time you meet a stranger, why not start up a conversation and find out their story? You might find that it's not too different to your own.