“Let’s have fish and chips……………cos that’s what we do isn’t it Dad? Cos we’re English aren’t we Dad?”. I countered vainly that we ate fish and chips because we loved the taste but I could see my 6-year-old son Tommy was far from convinced. It was the Summer of 2008 and we were visiting grandparents back in the UK.
I had left England with my young family in 2004 to pursue an opportunity in Shanghai and we were to live there happily, bar the odd hiccup, until our departure in 2012. Having spent my life in England, English customs and culture represented the ordinary and constant backdrop to my life. It was the natural setting, the default mode and as with most permanent features of any setup, you become oblivious to them.
It was therefore very interesting to see the thirst for a national affiliation in my young children. Growing up in an alien environment, they were less confident in their national identity than their parents. Tommy, though born in England, had left at 13 months and so had no recollection whatsoever of the home country. He knew fairly quickly however that he was not Chinese and was anxious to conduct himself in such a way that demonstrated beyond any doubt that he belonged to that same English club as his mother and father. Eating fish and chips was just one of the necessary, albeit enjoyable, English rituals.
His older sister Isabel, was no different. Just shy of her 4th birthday I found her arguing in mandarin with some young Chinese girls on the compound. I congratulated her on her excellent Mandarin but this only made her angrier, exclaiming “But I’m English Dad! You know I’m English. I don’t speak Chinese! “
The need for a national identity, an affiliation to a tribe, a need to belong, was clearly an innate human need. Furthermore, the less secure you felt in your environment, the stronger that need appeared to be.
But what of myself? How did the absence of the hitherto ever present English backdrop affect me? In short, a great deal.
When you have live in a country where your tv screen goes blank should CNN mention Tibet or Taiwan, how can you fail to appreciate the freedoms enjoyed by our own media? Even the BBC, busy peddling its own various PC dogmas, seems benign by comparison.
I had always thought England’s reputation for good manners to be much overrated. Wasn’t it just a by-product of the English class system? Surely, polite society was just one more way to mark out, to segregate, one class from another. Just another ruse to trip us up and identify us for who we were. And besides weren’t manners really just contrived, another form of insincerity?
After being repeatedly and unceremoniously bumped out of queues, witnessing a few too many who refuse to shut the cubicle door, waiting in vain for someone to admit wrongdoing and show contrition, I was quickly disabused of my cynical view on politeness. To my surprise, manners did indeed maketh man. If you step off the curb at a crossing in Shanghai a driver will reward your temerity by trying to kill you, while in England drivers will stop to let you cross. Wonderful.
Britain’s political set up had never really grabbed my respect. What modern country in its right mind would allow a monarch to play a constitutional role? Add in that indefensible anachronism that is the House of Lords and surely you’re left with some patchwork, make do and mend set up? Yet again, China put me right on this. How can you fail to appreciate England’s checks and balances, its rule of law, after witnessing the excesses of arbitrary power in the PRC close up?
That Chinese political set up is a legacy of constitution through revolution. Winner takes all. In China, where are the boundaries between the state, the party, judiciary, the media? What tempers power and who holds it to account? Nothing and no-one it seems.
By contrast, evolution via accommodation of the various interest groups and institutions leaves Britain with a system that, despite its archaic strands, is a system to be envied nevertheless. Furthermore, that tradition of compromise has naturally permeated the culture of the people themselves. Traditionally, we tolerate those that we do not agree with and consequently, minority views have felt the confidence to speak up.
From being largely indifferent to English culture, political and social, I now find I have a deep appreciation for England and what it has given to the world. I could go on but typical of the country I love, there are restraints (800 words) to protect you from such excesses!
Time for a fish and chip supper I think………and not just because I love the taste….
Richard Fowler is 53-years-old and lives with his wife and three children in Solihull.