‘Don’t throw your Britishness at me,’ a work colleague told me.
It was meant in a tongue-in-the-cheek way, and I took no offence, but the remark left me as confused as I was amused. Do I really come across as British? I wondered. That led us to an interesting conversation about identity, and how it is tied to language.
As an EU national who speaks four Indo-European languages and who has lived, studied, and worked in four countries on two continents, I’m as puzzled about my identity as I am about my putative ‘Britishness’.
British English is the language in which I function on a daily basis, interacting with people at work and outside work. It is also the language in which I consume the most content: books, newspaper articles, podcasts, movies… No wonder that I linguistically behave in certain ways that at times make me pass for a Brit. What surprises me, though, is that apparently, I don’t always realise that that’s the case.
I always thought that there existed an omnipresent part of myself who watched over my different linguistic personalities with detached interest, noting how I adjusted to different cultural environments while switching from one language to another. Is it possible that that part gets at times knocked unconscious by my British personality?
And who am I, actually? Not tied to one language or one place, a polyglot nomad yearning for a place where she would put up her tent to stay for good, for a language that she would make her own to the point of striking up casual conversations with random people without feeling self-conscious, but condemned to wandering like a hungry ghost, on a perpetual quest for happier times.
What if the happiest of times are right now? Perhaps the tent that I have put up temporarily in my current location will surprise me by braving many a storm. And who knows what awaits just round the corner: a rainbow on a clear sky or another hailstorm.
Stripped of almost all beliefs, I cling to this one still left to me: I can’t stop believing in the bends in the road.