Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Facing our colonial past

"Where are you from?"

It's normally a question I would answer with ease but considering the previous conversation, all I could do was nervously laugh and awkwardly wait until the man moved on.

Found in Kuala Lumpur

I will give you a bit of context: 5am in Butterworth, Malaysia and we were waiting for the ferry to Georgetown. Whilst we were waiting, Caitlin had struck up conversation with a man from Singapore who proceeded to tell us about how they had travelled there for a heavily discounted price due to the British Train Act that still remains in place today. What I first thought to be a innocent conversation turned out to be a contentious subject when another Singaporean man leapt in speak against the colonial legacy. Admittedly, as it was 5 in the morning and I had yet to sleep a wink, taking this all in was a lot but it was an eye-opener, makinge me realise how ignorant I was of the situation.

With the majority of my travels being in South America, I have been blissfully unaware of the British colonial legacy. Of course, like everywhere else, we have had our part to play (slave trade to name but one) but it was primarily the Spanish and Portuguese's doing. More recently, the US have been embroiled in just about every Latin American Civil War under the sun. In such light, the British are angels in comparison. Apart from Argentina, where my nationality causes a problem for some because of a tiny island in the Atlantic, saying that I'm British is usually welcomed without batting an eyelid.

And despite studying post-colonial theses over the last few years, one of the few subjects I feel has made a profound impact throughout my university career, I did not have a clue about the situation in Malaysia. Studying the colonial impact at university allows you to distance yourself from the situation. Being in a country where you can see it for yourself, there is no avoiding the harsh truth, no thesis is required to tell you that. Other than the above example, I never felt any tension when revealing my nationality but the brief exchange at Butterworth was enough. By the end of the trip, I had barely discovered the tip of the iceberg and it was not pretty.

It's at this point, I ask myself, what can we do about the situation? No doubt, we are probably too late, this is hundreds of years engraved in our collective history that would take the equivalent, if not more to undo, if leaving behind the colonial legacy is at all possible.

This is no doubt probably coming off pretentious and makes me sound like a save-the-world type. Pretentious, maybe, save-the-world type, I am not but the unease I felt when I came face-to-face to our 'great' British history is something I can't shake off. I have said before how on returning from my year abroad, there are certain positive aspects of being back home and being British. This post can be considered the follow-up, noting the negatives. Whilst there are certain aspects that I love about Britain, our oppressing history and the legacy it has left behind is not one of them.

Have you felt this being abroad? Have you ever felt reluctant to reveal your nationality?

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