Tag Archives: identity

The Label Fell Off

3 Mar

Recently, following a criticism about “expats living in warm countries meddling in British politics that no longer affect them“, I have been reflecting on the labels used to describe those living outwith their own countries.

Let’s start by examining the term ‘expat’ (expatriate) which was used in such an obviously denigratory sense by the critic.

The term “ex-pat”, which is only applied to folk from the UK (or former predominantly white colonies) who are living abroad, has a casual arrogance about it that hint at colonialist and racist undertones.  It typically refers to those living abroad long term who intend to return to their homeland at some point (often unspecified) in the future; or, as is so often the case in Spain, folk who have a home in both the host country and their country of origin, between which they alternate according to season and/or family ties.

Unfortunately, for I am sure that they are lovely people, the expats I have encountered here in Spain almost all adhere to a nauseating British stereotype, which was already well out of fashion in England in my infancy.  Given their intention to return to their country of origin at some point in the future, their interesed  in the current politics of their homeland is both pertinent and permissible (given that they can continue to vote for the first 15 years of their residence abroad – a privilege which the Tories would like to make lifelong) and should be encouraged rather than curtailed.

Although I now eschew the label ‘expat’, I have been one in the past. I was an expat all the while I was living in England (some 35 years) – something only Scots are fully likely to understand – never feeling settled or really at home there and always harbouring a secret longing to return home to Scotland. It is bewildering, given the much vaunted myth of the heterogeneity of the UK that I feel far more at home living in Spain than I ever did living in England!

Moving on to migrant, which is a term used to describe a person who moves abroad for reasons of work, which I did not when I left in 2008. In fact, I was unemployed for the first few months I was in Spain, having given up a good job (and turned down another offer of work) in London in order to emigrate. Yet, I have to also confess to having been a migrant; first, in 1980, when I moved from Sussex to Belfast in search of work, and again, following the completion of my bachelors degree, when I was willing to migrate to any part of the country for work, but ended up migrating to London because of my first wife’s PhD.

So, if I am not any longer an expat or a migrant, what labels are apposite?

It would be more apt to call me a partial émigré than either expat or migrant, as part of the reason I fled the Benighted Kingdom (as Cammie, Clegg & Co have made it) was to escape just that political eventuality. The continuance of a virtually unfettered Tory reign of terror against the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable in British society while lining the insatiable pockets of their ultra-wealthy pals, combined with the government’s rising xenophobia, is one of the greatest deterrents to ever returning to the land of my birth, where they have but negligible electoral support. Yet, when all is said and done, émigré (even if just partial) is too flash and fussy for me.

My personal choice would be for the simplest descriptions; either ‘immigrant’ or ‘emigrant’ both of which are felicitous to my circumstance. I am not ashamed to be an immigrant, despite its pejorative connotations for the small-minded. It is, after all, a factual description as I have immigrated to Spain; but I am equally comfortable with the term ’emigrant’, given the long tradition of emigration from Scotland to all parts of the globe; I am a Scottish emigrant who has chosen to permanently live in Spain.

So, when relabelling this particular person, please stick to the straight talking terms immigrant and emigrant.

Musings on Home and Identity

23 Mar

It is our history and ancestry that whether we want it or not, creates a large part of the cloth from which we are cut.” (Anna Jauncey)

The above quote from a blog exploring the relationship between home and self-identity struck a chord with me and set me to thinking about identity and its relationship with home.

Let’s start with some thoughts about identity.

While I agree that the cloth from which we are cut is formed out of our ancestry, family history and our inherited culture, it is our experiences (our personal history) which form the myriad threads, be they bright or dark, that make up the tapestry of our lives.  Unfortunately, many of us try to make sense of the emerging images, which will ultimately make up the story of our lives, from behind.  That, of course, can  only  lead to a sense of confusion and dislocation.  While this is common in youth, it is by no means exclusive to it.

It is only when we move to the front of the tapestry that we can examine what has already been woven.  Then we can see whether we want to (or should even) continue the pattern or change it – and we alone have the power to make those decisions – if we but have the courage.

Sadly, there are some who never learn to change the perspective and so see nothing but prejudicial patterns that were never meant to be; some are so horrified by what they see that they flee from facing it; some are trapped by the expectations and explanations of others, and lacking either the strength or the courage to escape, live a life interpreted by another.  None of them attain the self-awareness necessary to find their own identity.

But even for those who do find the way to view their tapestry from the appropriate angle, the path may be strewn with riddles and paradoxes that have to be solved before we can move on to the next panel.  This becomes easier with experience and knowing who we can trust to help us interpret and solve the enigmas that confound us.  Age helps, but of itself is insufficient.

But let’s change the metaphor: life is a book.

In this conceptualisation, the cloth, rather than forming the canvass on which our lives are delineated, forms the covers of the book so that the story being written is wrapped and bound in our ancestry and inherited culture, but not necessarily dependent on it.

Just as some never move to the front of the tapestry, some are content never to open the book but to rely on the cover to tell the story for them; others never even glance at the cover but rush past the preface to the story they want told; others want to read the final page first, in the hope that it will  provide the clue to their path through life; others are content to entrust the work to the “Author of Life” who will transform the tale from pulp fiction into a bestseller; yet others are determined to write their own masterpiece unaided.

But does our understanding of home depend on our understanding of our identity? Or is the matter more complex than that?

For some, clearly, it is simple:  identity and home are inextricably entwined. In my experience, these are often people who have never left their homeland and, thus, are submerged in their culture and history without ever examining it or having had it challenged – it is as natural as the air they breathe.  For others, it is more complex: identity and home are (or maybe have become) entirely separate.  Such people have usually been displaced from their own culture and history and so have had to construct a new concept of home that may be independent of their heritage.

When one has been transplanted to another culture (albeit even one very close to one’s own) the sense of home, I think, depends on two factors: the willingness of  the incomer to surrender their existing identity, jettison the past and adopt the local culture (to a greater or lesser extent) and/or for the natives to accept the immigrant (providing s/he at least  respects the local culture) as s/he is.  This view may, I admit, be limited as it is a case study based on my personal experience along with my interactions with refugees and other immigrants to the UK, USA and Spain.

In my own case, I tried for many years to adopt the new culture and discard my past, but the unshrunk cloth from which I was cut would not patch onto the new culture without one or the other tearing.  This was in part because the new culture was unable to comprehend my established cultural identity as being subtly different from theirs and so could not accept me as I was.  Consequently, though I had homes there, they always seemed temporary and neither the towns and cities in which I lived, nor the country, ever became “home” for me.  Yet on the other hand, I am almost as much at home living in Spain, where I am fully accepted as Scot, as when I was living in Scotland despite the culture being patently different.

So where is home?  Is Scotland still my home after so many years away?

I’m not sure.  I still identify myself (and am seen by others) as a Scot; Scotland is very precious to me; I have a deep love of Scotland, its landscapes, people, history and culture; I am passionate about Scottish Independence; and, above all, I feel at home whenever I return.  But I don’t know how it would be to live there after so long away.  Would I still feel as at home as I do when I visit?  Or has Scotland, like an express train (The Flyng Scotsman springs to mind) sped away from the place I knew while I have stood stranded on the platform?  What is clear to me is that it is still my homeland – and always will be – but perhaps no longer my home.  And in that, I think I am typical of the Scottish Diaspora – we have been successfully grafted onto the new tree of our adopted land but without losing our own Scottish identity.

Perhaps my ramblings are best summed up by Zyriacus, who is older and wiser than me, in his comment on Anna’s blog:

The only place you are really at rest with this world will be in yourself. All places, all people you meet on your way through life will be but points, where your self-understanding may take a turn that directs you this way or another. In the end the only safe harbour you will find in your own self. So make you[rself] feel at home there, furnish this place as cosy and comfortably as possible.