Am I South African?
‘Where are you from?’ I get asked with alarming regularity.
‘Brighton’ I say.
‘No I mean, what country are you from originally?’
‘The UK’ I respond, fully aware of what this person is really asking.
Sometimes I choose to go into detail about my heritage, sometimes I don’t, depending on my judgement of the person standing in front of me.
See we’re in a funny old place in this modern world, where people still define where you’re from based on the colour of your skin, despite a hundred years or more of globalised migration.
For me, when I tick the little boxes on census forms and the like, I always check ‘White- British’. Not out of some bizarre self-flagellating racism, but because, by definition, that is what I am.
But purely in terms of skin tone, I am a little bit brown.
I was born in Britain, both my parents are British, my Dad being as white as it gets.
It’s this ‘brown’ trickle from my Mum’s side that makes things complicated. Her parents are both South African, and migrated to the UK during the Sixties, based on the very real belief that they would be a target in a black uprising against aparteid.
‘But wait’ I hear you say ‘I thought you said the brown skin was from your Mum’s side?’
And see this is where it gets even more complicated. Yes, technically it does come from my Mum’s side. But my Grandparents are not black, nor really of African descent. Their ancestors are a mixed up bag of Indian, Sri Lankan and various other South East Asian nationalities, who spent the early part of the 20th century migrating to the resource rich nation that was South Africa.
In fact, my Grandfather was at the time, considered a different race to his brother. Based on the both rudimentary and frankly horrying ‘comb test’ which decided whether you were black, malado, white based on the curls in your hair, my Grandfather was considered whiter than his brother by the colour-obsessed society of 40s and 50s South Africa.
Just to throw another spanner into the works, my Gran’s Grandfather was white and Scottish, and supposedly rode to South Africa on a horse from Aberdeen in the 1800s (I very much doubt the veracity of this story, but love that this is a heritage myth passed on through my family).
So quite frankly, what the fuck am I?
This person who asks me where I’m from expects me to say Spain, or Italy or somewhere North African or Middle Eastern perhaps (depending on what time of year it is and whether I’ve recently been on holiday).
They want a straight answer to a straight question, and I can’t give it to them.
The reason I write this now is that when I just today read that South African comic Trevor Noah is to succeed Jon Stewart as the host of one of my favourite shows, The Daily Show, in the US, I felt a pang of pride.
It’s the same pride I felt when someone asked me if I’d ever tried biltong and I could say ‘tried? I’m practically made of the stuff’ or when I watched the 2010 World Cup and revelled in the colour and fanfare of the event with a nationalistic rose-tint.
And yet, South Africa is a ground upon which I have never even stood.
My ancestors weren’t South African. My Grandparents were born there, but my Mum wasn’t.
For all intents and purposes, I am not South African.
That perhaps misplaced pride has recently transformed into a growing pang to visit the country that somehow courses through my veins despite making up little to none of my DNA.
I’m not alone though, last year South Africa was the 2nd most visited destination for volunteers from the UK and interest in holidays there from the UK has boomed over the last 10 years.
So perhaps that’s all it is ? Perhaps that pride I feel is just the pride I feel as a global citizen who has a desire to visit somewhere millions also want to visit, for its beauty and culture alone.
After all, I am as much Indian, Scottish and Sri Lankan as I am South African really, and yet I have much less desire to visit these places (I have been to Scotland, and I did enjoy it, but it wasn’t a personal ‘quest’ in the way I feel South Africa is for me).
Maybe it’s the upbringing, the fact I was immersed in South African culture from a young age every time I visited my Grandparents, whose nostalgia knows no bounds.
But then I was immersed in Spanish culture too, thanks to parents who met there in the 80s and fell in love with each other and the place in a harmony of espadrilles and cheap riojas. Yet as much as I love the country, speak the language and do my best to visit annually, I would never consider myself Spanish in the slightest.
So what am I trying to say?
That our understanding of how people fit into the world has to, and will, change as we enter into the globalised reality of the 21st century.
I am British, sure, that’s what it says on my birth certificate, but I am more a person of the world (and not in a United Colors of Benneton, let’s all feed the world with quinoa and hemp-type way), in a way that previous generations probably didn’t have the luxury of being.
And perhaps that’s why sometimes I feel apart from the people around me, and sometimes I feel a part of the people around me, regardless of where I am.
So Mr. Person asking me where I’m from. I’m from Brighton. I’m from Britain. I’m from South Africa. I’m from India. I’m from Sri Lanka. And if you cut me open, you’d see me bleed the world, not one nation alone.
Still, I hear Durban is lovely this time of year.