Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Assimilation in England

September 3rd, 2010 · No Comments

When discussing the sphinx of Taharqo at the British Museum, the Kushite king of Egypt, the narrator of A History of the World states that “it makes sense to keep using a language of control that everybody is accustom to accept.” This is in reference to the fact that during their reign in Egypt, the Kushites adopted Egyptian customs to appease the people they were controlling. In response, the Egyptians likewise attempted to absorb the Kushites into their own culture, “blandly calling the reign of the Kushite kings the 25th dynasty, thus quietly incorporating them into an unbroken story of an eternal Egypt.” It’s clear to me from this that naming something, the smallest thing – the ethnicity of an emperor, the description of a statue, the favorite food of a people – is away to secure power. Speakers in history will always maintain their superiority.

These strategic cultural “inclusions” smack of what Tarquin Hall points out of imperialism in Salaam: Brick Lane when Aktar states in frustration “you people are quite capable of making absolutely anything English if you choose to do so” (247). Imperial nations absorb parts of a culture they conquer to please the people, water it down, and spit it back out as only barely recognizable, a part of the empire. This is what I sense other people worried of Afro-Carribbean culture in their analyses of the Nottinghill Carnival, and possibly with good reason. What was once a celebration of culture could easily become a sort of spectacle for dominant groups. Maybe people come to the carnival to party rather than celebrate a culture. Maybe they come looking for something “authentic” and tokenize Afro-Caribbean culture rather than really respecting it.

I’ve been seeing this pattern all over England. There are curry shops everywhere. I’ve had more opportunity to buy it that than fish and chips. I keep seeing women on the Tube in head coverings, but otherwise wearing Western clothing, and I have to wonder if England and it’s vestiges of imperial culture are somehow swallowing other cultures as well. I see mixed race couples, and wonder what they call themselves since hybrid identities like Asian-American don’t really seem to exist in Britain the way they do back home.

I have always been taught that assimilation is a tool for silencing so marginalized groups can’t write their own history. In the United States, when someone tells you to speak English, straighten your hair, and embrace the American Dream, it really means your people are ugly and unimportant; pretend to belong and maybe we will tolerate you. But at the same time, the absorption of different cultures in England really could be a compromise. I haven’t heard any racial slurs yet. The fact that there is so much diversity and interracial mingling without conflict suggests that people don’t feel marginalized. Rather being coerced or having their customs forcibly erased, maybe new immigrant English consciously choose to adopt some dominant customs as a way to gain acceptance Maybe assimilation in this case is really the kind of cultural sharing that a society needs to operate peacefully. But my American instincts are still tell me to run before I start saying sorry every 5 seconds and can’t talk about money.

Tags: 2010 Jesse · Uncategorized

Identity Check: We Need It

September 9th, 2009 · No Comments

It is strange to think that we have only been in London for three weeks. We have packed enough into our days to make it feel as though we’ve been living here all summer. I realize that three weeks is hardly sufficient time in which to study the culture of a city, especially when said city has been around for 2000 years. All the same, our quest towards understanding the cultural significance of the modern city has brought us fairly far along. We are now being asked to define the identity of the people of the city of London.

I have a few problems with this question. How can we define something that is infinitely changeable? Modern society is an amalgam of different parts; British culture is, to use a term hitherto heard only in the realm of AP U.S. History, a “melting pot” of peoples. The identity of the British people has never been a fixed thing. Whether due to the Britons, the Romans, the Saxons, the Normans, or now the influx of various Indian and Afro-Caribbean peoples, the influences that effect British culture are constantly shifting. So too are the identifying characteristics of the citizens of this country.

I believe that the people themselves cannot be identified. With influences coming in from so many different cultures how can we pigeon-hole them all into one all-encompassing character? I would rather consider the identity of Britain as a country, not as a people. The people influence the identity of the country, not the other way around. If I was asked to provide images of what I believe defines Britain’s identity many pictures would surface. Sure, Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral would all make the list. However, after many of our field trips I would add the Sikh Gudwara, the Hindu Temple, the smells of roasting food wafting out of Chinatown, and the costumes, and colors, and the sound of steel drums and rock music blasting out of the Notting Hill carnival. These brief snatches of cultural differences morph together to form the character of modern Britain while the people themselves retain their individual identities.

What interests me more than my opinion, is the opinion of the individuality of the British people. Reading Salaam, Brick Lane opened my eyes to just how differently these cultural discrepancies can be perceived. Tarquin Hall is, for better or worse, obviously fascinated by the residents of Brick Lane and the additions they bring to the identity of Britain. However, the other characters (Mr. Ali, Sadie, and some unnamed Cockney cab drivers to name a few) had wildly different opinions. The Cockney cabbies viewed all immigrants, whether they’d been in Britain for years or days, as invaders that had no right to call themselves Englishmen. Sadie considered any and all immigrants from India and Asia as not fit to live in Britain, and even Mr. Ali, himself Bangladeshi, saw all the new immigrants from his own country as ignorant, uneducated hicks. He had lived in London for thirty years and was for all intents and purposes British. His children were born in London. They are British citizens. Yet to those who had been here longer he was just as ignorant and uneducated as the newly arrived immigrants from Bangladesh. What none of these characters stopped to consider is that their ideas, their cultures, their different religions are all effecting the current identity of the country as a whole.

Whether immigrating from India or Israel, Romania or even the United States, every new person changes the identity of Britain a little. While I don’t believe the identity of the British people as a whole can be defined, we can discern the character of the country in this moment. Soon, however, it will change again, as influences pour in from other parts of the globe and other ways of thinking.

Tags: Campbell

I’m…British?: Thoughts on Religious Sites and British Identity

September 8th, 2009 · No Comments

Over the past few days we have visited both a Sikh Gudwara and a Hindu Mandir, each of which presented very different public images and provided very different experiences. At the Sikh Gudwara we were met awkwardly by a man who led the female members of the group out of the entrance and back inside through a side door where we were instructed to remove our shoes and wash our hands. I found this entrance uncomfortable. On the other hand, when we visited the Hindu Mandir, we were able to enter together as a group of men and women. However, we all entered together through a  metal detector with security guards surrounding us and x-ray machines for our pocket items. At the Gudwara were waited about 30 minutes before a man welcomed us and gave us a rather informal tour and presentation on Sikhism. At the Mandir we began our planned, scheduled, and timed tour as soon as we stepped into the temple. Both these religions use different methods of dealing with their place in British society. But both find that the best way is openness to outsiders.

While our Sikh guide seemed optimistic about future harmony between the “British” and the Sikh community, the BBC religion page on Sikhism tells a less hopeful one. In an interview posted on the site with Sody Singh Kahlon, a second generation Sikh, Kahlon says, “Seventeenth century India, Mogul emperors butcher and mutilate to curb Sikh popularity. Twenty-first century Britain, western influences butcher and mutilate Sikh identity.” According to Kaholn, he spent most of his childhood defending himself and his Sikh identity against bullies of all ages, sometimes even his teachers. In Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane, we see the way looking different can lead to becoming an easy target for violence. From his window, Hall describes the violence he sees and the lack of assistance even from law enforcement.

So it’s not surprising to hear Kahlon note the pressure Sihks feel to conform to the western identity. He says, “it is a well known fact that scores of western Sikhs are visiting the barbers and abandoning their identity to look like the majority. But those who denounce the Sikh identity are conveniently overlooking the first step in being a Sikh – i.e. to accept the Guru’s instructions and wear the ordained Sikh uniform.” Kaholn continues throughout the interview to highlight the tension between “British” culture and identity and his own religious identity. But ultimately he ends the interview by explaining, “I wear my turban out of love for my faith and I am proud to stand out from the crowd as a Sikh.”

On the other hand, Hinduism allows for a little more blending in. But yet, when I entered thought the metal detectors I couldn’t help thinking why? Perhaps they were one of the greatest symbols of Hinduism’s ability to mix, coexist, and eventually find a place in British culture. If Hinduism is accepted, and welcomed, why does it need so much protection? Yes of course, the Mandir we visited is a he tourist attraction. But so is St. Paul’s, and there were no metal detectors there. According to the BBC Religion page on Hinduism, this religion follows the idea of karma, birth death and rebirth based on good or bad deeds done in life and it is polytheistic with a center on one supreme being. So when we visited the Mandir I expected to see the images or icons of many various gods—which I did—but what I was not expecting was the degree to which they worshiped their spiritual leader, the inspirer, Pramukh Swami Maharaj. There were cardboard cutouts, photographs, and other images of this man all over the Mandir, even on the alters alongside their gods. This was the most surprising thing to me. The man is still just a man, despite his training, yet the guide spoke about him in such a godly way, and his images is worshiped, it seem to me that the was elevated to god-status, which was not evident from the BBC page.

In terms of coping with British culture, the BBC page did provide one interesting thing. It was a small section on the caste system, which is central still to Indian culture, despite the struggle against it. The section explained that in large cities the caste system had almost disappeared. But, the system did still offer a sense of community to the Indian people. In most western societies, a caste system is looked down on and seen as unequal. But, in many ways the caste system fits the classist prejudice that we have studied in Britain. British classism is essentially America’s racism.

Will or how these religions fit into British culture is hard to say. In many ways Kahlon exemplifies the British man of a foreign religion. He refuses to give his religious identity up, but constantly questions his decision when faced with persecution. And there will always be persecution. Hopefully religious difference will become so common that one different religion can no longer be singled out. But until then, people will always fear what is unfamiliar to them. In that way, the open attitude of both places of worship is the only way that religious tolerance can ever be achieved.

Tags: Megan

Change is Hard

September 8th, 2009 · No Comments

Identity…. What is that? I honestly don’t know. Just thinking about this topic makes my head spin. How do our surroundings influence our identity? Do we identify with something because WE choose or because of outside factors such as religion and education?  From what I absorbed from both the Sikh Gurdwara and the Hindu Mandir both faiths are more of a way of life rather than a religion. Both require life-long practice to even begin to understand. In Sikhism, the devotee is a constant student, trying to liberate the mind from the body to ascend into a state of ultimate knowledge and union with God. In Hinduism the ultimate goal is to break the cycle of life and death to remain eternally in the presence of God. So how do you take responsibility for your Karma in 21st century Britain? Can you take the religion/lifestyle out of its homeland? Certain customs and rituals have to be tweaked to ‘fit’ in the mainstream British culture. Sikhs are not allowed to carry their defensive swords because of certain laws, and some men have to cut their hair for certain jobs. The restrains of modern society make it more difficult for Sikhs and Hindus to observe certain traditional rites, but does this make them less “religious.” Personally, I don’t think so. When you are forced to adapt or willingly relocate somewhere else, everything changes, choices are made.

Some people have formed tight communities that don’t even attempt to make ties to their new environment, like the character Mrs. Suri in Salaam Brick Lane. Mrs. Suri and her network of Aunties have created their own version of India within each other’s living rooms. These people seek a comfort zone full of everything they know.  Other people rebel completely and break away form everything they know. The character of Clara in White Teeth completely turns her back on her Jehovah’s Witness background (and her mother) and severs all ties with her former life. Either way, a choice was made. I don’t light Shabbat candles every Friday night… does that make me a bad Jew? I still believe in what in God and I pray in my own way. I have adapted to my situation and made choices. You do what you think is right and then run with it. This is religion for the 21st century.  So what about tradition and education for the younger generations? I’m all for it… I think that both the Gurdwara and the Mandir have excellent education and community centers. The Mandir especially has gone above and beyond to provide the children in the area with a top-notch secular education as well as a religious education on the Hindu faith. Learning the traditions of your ancestors is wonderful, and it is important to remember the past. But ultimately, I think it is up to each individual person to decide his or her identity (whatever that may mean). Are you Hindu and British? Sikh and Welsh? Can you be both? Change is hard, but you can either resist or adapt.

I hope I will live to see the day when the world accepts everyone’s religion but right now that does not seem likely. People will keep being prejudiced and ignorant until they are otherwise educated on the subject. However, as Sikhism teaches us, this is a momentous obstacle. The Gurwara and the Mandir are helping the process by opening their sacred places to visitors off all backgrounds. Both faiths seem willing to teach outsiders and I felt that I received a warm welcome from both establishments. When you live in the modern UK adjustments have to be made due to secular laws. However, you are still free to practice whatever it is you believe. I still am not sure as to what identity means. All I know is that I have to be true to myself.

Tags: Grace · readings

Long-standing Practice

September 5th, 2009 · No Comments

We were asked in class yesterday to think about the relationships between the literature we read and the Sikh gurdwara we visited.  Although this was discussed heavily in class yesterday, I think that the sense of being ‘with your own’ is greatly prevalent.

Arranged marriage is common in many religions throughout the world, whether or not you believe in the long-standing practice.  Personally, I think that it depends on the individual and the upbringing of that individual to determine if arrange marriage is a good idea.  To me, arranged marriage is very class-based, much like what we have seen around London in architecture and behaviors.  However, it is important to consider that up until the last few hundred years, Western society was as good as arranging marriages for its members.  For those who have read 19th Century literature, there was a large emphasis on class and upward mobility through marriage.  You did not marry someone who was deemed to be socially unacceptable by your class, and most certainly did not marry down (unless in the unlikely circumstance of love).  I guess that I see this class-based relationship as a type of arranged marriage, or certainly as a limiter for people who are acceptable.  However, I think that it is important to draw attention to the fact that this still happens today.  I know that many parents would like nothing more than to see their son or daughter marry someone of their faith, race, social class, and cultural background.  This same idea, that people shouldstick with their own kind, resonates in Mr Ali in Salaam Brick Lane and the marriage of Archie and Clara in White Teeth

It was the Sikh gurdwara that really brought the message home for me.  Yes, they were very accepting of us.  Yes, they fed us.  Yes, they treated us very well.  Yes, I felt slightly uncomfortable at times in the gurdwara whilst being engulfed in chants in unknown languages, unfamiliar architecture, and, to me, unusual customs.  The Sikhs believe in equality, so it seems slightly strange to my Western-raised mind that they would wish to participate in an arranged marriage.  I know that I’ve only had a very brief education into the ways that Sikhism works, but despite being so welcoming to peoples of all faiths, races, and cultures, it strikes me as odd that the Sikhs would be so intent on only marrying one of their own kind.  I guess it just goes back to the idea of keeping ‘with your own’.

Tags: Kelley