I am British Sri Lankan…or am I a Sri-Lankan Brit? My answer always changes when people ask me where I am from. Lately the spiel goes that I was born in the UK but my parents are from Sri Lanka. It’s a tiresomely long-winded explanation but such is my story; someone born on one island to parents from another. For me it’s been a particularly troublesome pairing. One island a former mighty colonial power that conquered and subjugated the other- my native homeland. This is me, my heritage, the dichotomy of my cultural identity. Both nations are central to who I am. But tell me to pick a side and I can’t pick a side because I don’t feel completely at home on either island. Here is my tumultuous tale of two islands.
The year 2022 was weird for me. In March Sri Lanka was going through its worst economic crisis in history. News channels ran stories of fuel shortages, surging inflation, mass protests and people starving. I had been depressingly inured to the absolute mess of my beloved mother-island. A developing nation doing what a developing nation does best: fuck up. But in the Autumn my birth island went through some pretty a-typical political eff-ups of its own. As PM after PM fell, the sterling plummeted and strikes mounted, I didn’t feel Sri Lanka was so singular a screw up. Here was a G7 country that takes pride in its power and world standing in a complete tailspin with less excuses.
While my islands dealt with their inner turmoils, I re-examined my own. I’ve tried to intellectualise my way out of this question mark over who I am but logic fails to resolve the deadlock. Born and bred in the UK, I speak with what people tell me is a posh accent thanks to a private education. I’ve lived and worked here most of my life and am a graduate in English Literature. English is my mother tongue. I believe in equal rights, democracy and freedom of speech.
But I love rice and curry, heat and sun. I relish sari shopping and the way they turn heads at western weddings. Palm trees, golden sands and wild ocean waves are the exact frequency of my soul. Eastern spirituality and family values are the touchstones to how I lead my life. I really can’t say my Asian heritage doesn’t inform my view on things.
As a result, I am now at the centre of a cultural tug of war. I’m like a ref in a boxing ring having to arbitrate between two powerful brutes. It doesn’t help that in Sri Lanka I am instantly outed as foreign before even uttering a word. Nor does the casual racist slur uttered my way during a night out in London make me feel so welcome. Hell I even have to adjust the way I pronounce my name according to who I am talking to for fear of being either judged for being westernised or because the sound doesn’t quite register in the Anglo-Saxon ear. And don’t even get me started on the dreaded rigmarole of spelling it out or hearing a fellow Brit pronounce it like they learned to read yester minute!
The constant need to juggle between my dual identities is exasperating, not that either side really appreciate just how it feels:
I’m a coconut…at least that’s what my dad calls me. In front of relatives he bemoans how I and my sisters refused to take Sinhalese classes as kids. He periodically hates on my lax attitude towards marriage and that I cook him bland western food. With frustration, I remind him that it was he that chose to have us in the UK, to enrol us into private school and settle our lives here. He argues that it was to give us a better economic future, but it seems he didn’t bargain on the subsequent uprooting of our Sri Lankan values.
For the record, I don’t consider myself a complete coconut. But the guilt at how bad a Sri Lankan I am made to feel is palpable – my dad’s unfair (and plain incorrect) comments cut deep! It’s normal for kids to feel misunderstood by their parents but when your nationality and cultural mindset are different to theirs, that discord hits a new height. You feel so other to them and that sets your experiences further apart. I may as well come from another galaxy!
(My dad) periodically hates on my lax attitude towards marriage and that I cook him bland western food. With frustration, I remind him that it was he that chose to have us in the UK, to enrol us into private school and settle our lives here.
While I was butting heads at home my friendship circle also had me on the ropes. As mentioned my dad sent me to private school hoping that I would fulfil his obsession of going to Cambridge and be a career high-flyer (sorry Dad not sorry). Singing Christian hymns each day at assembly, immersing myself in the bastions of English literature such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen and hanging out with mostly white girls, my brownness got watered down. But that didn’t stop my friends from making little digs. While watching the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an English girl at school mocked Sri Lanka’s meagre team of nine. I remember how ashamed I felt and that being Sri Lankan was an embarrassment. At university my housemate – a brassy Yorkshire lass – turned her nose up at seeing me eat rice and curry with my hands (which is the best way to do it by the way) calling it “gross”. My insides clenched as I felt like a savage in her eyes. Looking back I wonder how much I had to repress of myself just to fit in.
While watching the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, an English girl at school mocked Sri Lanka’s meagre team of nine. I remember how ashamed I felt and that being Sri Lankan was an embarrassment.
You Live and You Learn
So here I am: a bilateral cultural reject with multiple personalities. But I wasn’t so conflicted in the beginning. At a young age I was a proud Brit; I took “Great Britain” quite literally thinking well if it had the word “great” in the name, it must surely be a brilliant place. I was a steadfast fan of Damon Hill in the F1 (only because he was British) and swelled with pride when British actors, musicians and films won accolades internationally. Due to being exposed to the hype in the British media, I saw the Royal Family as my own- I even had a Princess Di paper doll that I lovingly played with. Yes, I felt firmly on the side of the British. I still embrace its progressive outlook and enjoy being a part of the cultural melting pot in London where no one bats an eyelid at your skin colour. Also as a girl it’s far more liberating to be somewhere where you don’t feel like a freak for being single and childless.
On the flipside Sri Lanka was a distant entity. Somewhere I went on holiday- well dragged on holiday by my parents. The warm weather and beaches were nice enough, but I felt like a visitor. My grandparents spoke an alien language, I was barred from going anywhere on my own for fear of being harassed by lecherous men, I couldn’t wear revealing clothes for the same reason. Not so fun when I’m used to life in chilled out London. Couple that together with hating the frequent visits by creepy crawlies, I just felt very detached from it.
At a young age I was a proud Brit; I took “Great Britain” quite literally…On the flipside Sri Lanka was a distant entity…I just felt very detached from it.
Then in my 20s I felt a click. A gap year working in Sri Lanka immersed me in the tropical wilderness and warmth of its people- so starkly opposite to the rigid British stiff-upper-lip temperament. There was something nice about eating rice and curry with my hands without eliciting a look of disgust from people. There was a palpable ease of not needing to justify my Asian-ness to others- they got it because they were in on it too.
Soon I started writing for a British-Asian women’s magazine and grew an appreciation for Asian culture (though with zero knowledge of Bollywood, I was often the butt of colleagues’ jokes). Fusional artists such as Meera Syal, Nitin Sawney and Radio DJ Nihal Arthanayake revealed a lyrical beauty of East-Meets-West and showed me that they can co-exist. At the same time I was eager to learn to cook Sri Lankan curries and started embracing my naturally curly hair- a huge symbol of my Sri-Lankan roots. So as my shades of British pride paled out, a love for the motherland intensified.
The Rest is History
I loved History at school and gobbled up tales of brave rebellion in the Tudor Period and patriotic heroism in the World Wars. Then I got older and was no longer subject to being spoon fed my learning. I started to delve into the untold parts of British history, such as the darker side to its colonialist legacy. Books like Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland and stories from the older Sri Lankan generations in 70s Britain saddened me- one family friend recalled how a man refuse to serve him at a cafe.
I learned how literary giants such as Rudyard Kipling and Charles Dickens were staunch imperialists. I actually imagined these men who I had come to respect looking at me -a brown face- with racial disdain. The list goes on: how white-washed World-War movies have been. How the coloured servicemen who died in these wars weren’t given a proper burial. Bit by bit the blinkers came off and that blind patriotism of my youth gave way to a more focused understanding of how my two islands came to be connected- and it massively unsettled me. I felt betrayal because all this time the UK was a hypocrite playing the white knight in World Politics when in its high time it had played downright dirty! Not so great anymore!
But by bit the blinkers came off and that blind (British) patriotism of my youth gave way to a more focused understanding of how my two islands came to be connected- and it massively unsettled me.
As a result I’m no fan of the Commonwealth- frankly it’s the UK’s last-ditch attempt to cling on to power – and now view the Royal Family as irrelevant and a symbol of white privilege. But then here’s the kicker. Despite all of this, I found myself glued to the screen on 19th September 2022 with tears streaming down my face as I watched Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral. I really cannot explain it but I think it perfectly illustrates my inner turmoil. Clearly the proud Brit of my younger years is still there.
But maybe that’s the point that. I don’t want to not be proud of being British. I certainly prefer it to being from other places. It’s just that I and many who are living in the Black Lives Matter era, can see that the UK is no angel and needs to acknowledge the fact that it preaches from a privilege built on so many wrongs. Perhaps then I can call it a country I am proud to be from.
A Tale of Two Islands: It is the best of times, it is the worst of times
Too brown to be white, too white to be brown. I realise that I will never get the external acceptance from my British nor Sri Lankan cultures. And the more I learn about their shared history the more unmoored I feel. But I am slowly realising that wanting to belong is a fruitless exercise. I can’t find the belonging because I am neither British nor Sri Lankan. I am something else. A hybrid, a human mash up of polar opposites that allows me to shape-shift along this path in life. But being British Sri Lankan puts me in a great place to question the blind allegiance
And let me tell you, there’s nothing quite so empowering as mis-fitting the cultural stereotype. At some point I hope to stop pulling myself in different directions and instead rock this curious space in between.