Thursday, 5-November-2009

I recently passed the Life in the United Kingdom test, which foreigners have to pass to apply for either citizenship or unlimited leave to remain in the U.K. (I’ve been living in the U.K. for three years now.) The test’s purpose is, apparently, to ensure that foreigners are sufficiently British. Sufficiently British to what? It’s hard to say. I brew a decent cup of tea, which should weigh in my favor, but that’s balanced out by my accent, which is unrepentantly American.

The official study guide claims that the tests have “been a real success” and have encouraged people “to learn more about our culture and institutions.” It claims that the benefits “in creating strong and cohesive communities are clear.” Uh huh. Sure they are. The introduction is so upbeat that it reminds me of the recently developed American method of breaking bad news: For your convenience, we are closed on Saturdays. For your convenience, your water will be shut off between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Here’s a smattering of what, for my convenience, I memorized: The patron saints of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, and the dates on which they’re honored even though these are no longer public holidays. The date on which Hogmanay falls, although the guide doesn’t tell me what Hogmanay is—it’s just some mysterious thing the Scots do when the days get short and the nights get long. The fact that there are four bank holidays, but not when they fall even though these are public holidays and the saints’ days are not. Mine not to reason why, mine but to memorize and regurgitate when asked. (I get no extra credit for knowing enough to mangle that quotation. Or for the tea. I need to answer the questions and nothing more.) The four sports that are popular in Great Britain: football, cricket, rugby, and tennis. Are car races popular? Is gig racing? Are surfing and running sports? Yes, but they don’t count. These four sports are popular because the study guide says so. Nothing else matters.

What’s the point of knowing these things? I imagine myself on a train, sitting across the table from a British couple, and starting a conversation by saying, “Cricket is very popular in Britain, is it not?” I follow this up by reciting the populations of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland in 2005, followed by the percentages of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, and nonbelievers in Great Britain and the absolute numbers of white, Chinese, Bangladeshi, and Afro-Caribbean Britons. At this point, the couple across the table discovers an intense need for a cup of tea and leaves for the buffet car, relieving me of the need to remember whether these figures are also from 2005 or, as I suspect, from the 2001 census.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that the book contains some useful information, including emergency phone numbers, what forms of discrimination are outlawed, how to use the National Health Service, and what identification I’ll need to open a bank account if any banks are still functioning. But it does no service to this information to lump it together with a list of every nation in the Commonwealth (Tonga, Fiji Islands, Malta, Vanuatu; Nauru is a special member, although it doesn’t explain what that means). And I question whether testing people on this information is the most welcoming form of presentation.

Now that I’ve taken the test, I’ve discovered that much of what the guide asked me to memorize was useless. Ditto for the government’s web-based list of what you need to know. The questions are fairly general, most of the numbers I crammed into my head were unnecessary, and the study guide could be slimmed down from 145 pages to—and I’m being generous here—20.

When I was a child, the history books in American schools were very much like the study guide: packed with figures and with statements that sounded remarkably like facts although they weren’t necessarily (“The causes of World War I were the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Germany’s invasion of Belgium, and the breakdown of a network of European treaties”). Nothing held these bits and pieces together, and the only workable strategy was to memorize as much as we could and hope we’d chosen the right bits. Outside of class, I was fascinated by history, so I was baffled by my inability to carry anything away from my studying.

It’s easy to make fun of the Life in the United Kingdom test, but I’m deeply suspicious of the assumptions and attitudes behind it. I grew up in the 1950s, during the American red scare, when the most dangerous political insult you could hurl at someone was “un-American,” so this obsession with Britishness worries me. I’ve seen what happens when a country becomes fixated on the purity of its culture, when everything that comes from the outside the culture is seen as either a threat or a step down. Instead of encouraging what’s best in the culture, it encourages conformity, rigidity, fear.

Human cultures are no more static than our languages are, and no purer. They change and they absorb parts of the new. That involves both loss and gain, but they will change, no matter how we try to stop it, no matter what cultural decontamination process a country demands of its immigrants.

As the granddaughter of immigrants, as a citizen of a country of immigrants, and now as an immigrant myself, I’m aware of the riches each wave of immigrants brings to its host country. I’m aware of how much immigrants can gain—and also of how much they lose. I’m aware of the fears that greet them. Immigration brings complexity, and complexity brings fear. Only fearful politicians could possibly have introduced the Life in the United Kingdom test. It may not encourage anyone to learn more about British culture and institutions, and it may not build strong and cohesive communities, but it just might placate someone who would otherwise vote for the ultra-nationalist and openly racist British National Party.

At about the time I became aware of the national conversation about how to maintain Britishness in the face of immigration, I heard some politician—it might have been Gordon Brown, but I wouldn’t swear to that and it’s not on the test anyway—say on the radio that fairness was the essential quality that defined Britishness. That sounded lovely for a second or two, but if fairness is the essence of the British culture—the one quality that distinguishes it from other cultures—what does that say about the cultures of the world? Do the rest of us organize our cultures around something less noble? Isn’t implying that somewhat, umm, unfair?

I once asked a group of community college students in the United States what being American meant. We had read an essay by a Korean-American that used the phrase “being American” as if all Americans had some single way of being in the world. Our discussion was lively and confused and illuminating: None of us could say what being American meant. We’re a nation of many cultures and even more subcultures. No one of them has a monopoly on Americanness. I haven’t heard anyone accused of being un-American in decades. I don’t pretend we’re a model of perfection. We’re not free of racism—far from it, in spite of Obama’s election—and each wave of immigrants is greeted with a new wave of fear and suspicion, and with accusations that they’re not as well-behaved the older waves of immigrants, who in retrospect were just terrific, thanks. We’re not free of nationalism, and many of my fellow citizens will say, without a clue about how offensive they’re being, that America is the greatest country in the world. But in spite of all our shortcomings we are a nation of immigrants, and I love that.

If there’s one gift that, as a foreign resident on British shores, I’d like to offer—other than the recipes for New York cheesecake and the brownie—it’s the knowledge of how to live in such a nation. 

– Ellen Hawley

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