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Curiously British art of inquisition

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
22 May 2021   |   2:58 am
Last week, I wrote about Nigerian wedding favours that fascinate me. I spent most of this week pondering on typically British reactions to us foreigners

Last week, I wrote about Nigerian wedding favours that fascinate me. I spent most of this week pondering on typically British reactions to us foreigners. Seeing 21 May was World Day for Cultural Diversity, it’s only fair I share with you the sort of conversations you are likely to have with a Brit if you ever find yourself in the curious situation of being ‘culturally diverse’ (read ‘immigrant’ or ‘foreigner’) in Britain.

Where are you really from?
This is the top question in a Brit’s arsenal of small talk with us foreign folk. Last summer while out cycling I bumped into a lady in dire need of some tools to readjust her saddle. As soon as she heard me speak, like a dog with a bone, she was geared to find out where I was from. Just to frustrate her, I gave her three guesses, all of which failed, from South America to Spain. When the other half appeared out of the corner a little later, seeing his complexion, the lady started guessing in the direction of the Caribbean and random African countries, because surely a woman of ambiguous ethnicity alongside a black man must be from somewhere in Africa or the Caribbean. I was delighted to leave her in the dark as we cycled off until the other half turned around and cheerfully added, “She’s from Turkey.”

I can’t quite place your accent…
This is another variation of the above and generally either precedes or succeeds the first question. If you have an ‘international’ accent like mine that is difficult to place the conversation gets even more interesting because then the typical Brit would like to find out about the context of how you picked up your accent.

You’re not from here, though, are you?
If, like me, you are keen to frustrate an already confused Brit and keep telling them you are from “up the road” or even if you are genuinely born and raised in a sleepy village in England, ultimately the said Brit will get to this question, keen to establish your heritage. I know a friend who will entertain this idiocy with, “Oh you mean where my grandparents are from? Oh no, no, they’re not from here. They’re actually from Manchester, which is probably why you can pick up a slight Mancunian accent there. Yup, yup, of course, born and bred… and their parents too…”

You must hate the weather…
Your average Brit has this idea that anywhere that’s not this gloomy isle is in the tropics, hence when the conversation finally moves on to your origins, it naturally moves on to Brits’ second favourite topic: the weather. I have lost of the number of times I’ve had to educate some unfortunate soul who dared direct this statement at me with the four seasons in Turkey and how bitter the winters are in my hometown Istanbul and how we also get snow most years, unlike the UK.

I know someone from… (insert name of town)
If the conversation goes on long enough, ultimately it gets to the point when the Brit feels the need to lay some common ground. As well as thinking anywhere not in Britain is the tropics, they also have this foggy idea that wherever you come from must be the size of a village… Why else would they bring up the name of a person they once met on holiday or they knew back in the day who is from a town 200 miles from your hometown and expect to see a hint of recognition? My comeback is often, “Oh, that’s good for you.”

Oh, I love, what’s that food you eat…
Of course, food is one of the easiest ways to lay a common ground so once they’ve found out where you are really from a Brit will eventually move on to a dish they may know is vaguely from your part of the world, even if they’ve only had a watered-down Westernised version on a boozy night out. “Oh yes, we love kebab!” or… if you are Asian, it’s the samosas, if you’re North African cous cous or lamb tagine will likely get a mention! They are only occasionally stumped if they have no clue what food your country is famous for.

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