Tuesday, 29 March 2011

What does it mean to be British?

Does this mean I can form an orderly queue or complain about the weather? Will we eat nothing but cucumber sandwiches and play croquet on the lawn? Do we get to have high tea with the Queen? (I have actually been asked that question.) On a more sinister side will we become football hooligans, join the BNP, binge drink and get an ASBO? Can you even get an ASBO these days?  You certainly can still join the BNP. I saw them canvassing voters in Market Square only a few weeks ago. What does it mean to be British?

In 1990, when we arrived in London as fresh faced exchange students, Britain seemed to be the magical world we were waiting our whole lives to discover. History went back thousands, not hundreds, of years. So many of the beautiful paintings that we adored and had only seen in books could be found in Britain’s numerous (and largely free) museums. There were hundreds of different plays on every night in London. There was always something to learn. It was amazing to see so many different races and religions living and working together without much fuss. Yes, there were problems, but they were being worked through. It was so different from Louisiana.

I never thought very much about being an American citizen. I suppose something you are born with just seems like a given right whereas something you have to earn means more. I know hundreds of people who would proudly declare, “I’m proud to be an American” which might, if I’m honest, actually be translated as, “I’m proud to be a white, Christian American.” I never felt much national pride growing up. There were so many things that I felt our state and country did wrong  that I often felt ashamed for how we treated people of other races and religions. Louisiana schools were ordered by law to integrate “with all deliberate haste” in 1954 and some parishes (counties) still have not managed to achieve this goal. Because we have had to earn the right to be British I feel that I value it more. I feel a swelling of pride for the country I love, the country that has always felt more like home than home. The country that is now my home.

We arrived at the Old Courthouse in Hatfield and were there with 34 other fellow citizens, including several families, about to embark on this journey. There were many different races and nationalities and styles of dress from saris and headscarves to a kimono to my Quaker hat and apron. But we all had something in common--we all desperately wanted to be a part of this nation. And we had all had to pass a very difficult exam and pay a huge processing fee.  We were given a choice of swearing an oath before God or saying an affirmation. Quakers tend to say an affirmation because otherwise it looks like you are only honest and truthful before God and the rest of the time you are free to lie your head off. We chose the affirmation which read:

I (your name) do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to law.

It is to be noted that the letter that was sent to us stated that if you were swearing an oath you could feel free to bring a “Holy Book” of your choosing to swear upon. That really made me smile because I know the Louisiana reaction would be, “A Holy Book? Don’t they mean the Holy Book? There is only one.”

After that it was a bit like a graduation, we had special places to sit and then went up to receive our certificate and shake the hand of the Councillor wearing his huge gold chain. If you were a child then you also got a small teddy bear wearing a woolly jumper bearing the Union Jack. I desperately wanted to be a small child at that moment. Then we had to sign our names in a beautiful calligraphy register of all new citizens.  Lastly we had to stand, in respect, as the national anthem God Save the Queen was played--which is coincidently the same tune as My Country T'is of Thee and let me just say ya’ll stole that from us because we were here first. The grandmotherly lady in her full sari and head scarf next to me, proudly clutching her certificate, could be heard humming along. That is what it means to be British.

I’d like to thank so many of our friends who remembered us on this special day with calls, emails and notes. We thank you for your support. The fact that you remembered that it was today and celebrated with us in spirit (even though you couldn’t be there in person) means the world to us.

And so I sign off for now. Tootle-pip!

1 comment:

  1. I am so happy and proud of you! You and Thomas went out into the unknown and made a home! Love you both very much!