So, here you are
Too foreign for home
Too foreign for here
Never enough for both
- Ijeoma Umebinyuo
When I was sixteen, I left my family and home in Sri Lanka and moved to England. It was mainly a logical decision based on slipping back into the English school system and not having to pay extortionate international fees for university. It was also partly, a decision made because being a half Black child in Sri Lanka was difficult. The racism was real. Sri Lanka was not the place for me.
I lived with my grandparents for the first three years back in England. It was a relatively seamless experience. I am an old soul and watching countless episodes of Emmerdale and Coronation Street was something I was happy to be a part of.
I went to college in Staffordshire, where, non white citizens make up 2% of the population. The first thing that had to go was my accent, it was a thick Sri Lankan one. It had to go because I knew that it was one that would be looked down upon and made fun of. It had to go because I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. I wanted to be like everyone else in my new life. Accents are a big deal to people who come from elsewhere. I feel that it’s assumed to be a natural change, adapting to your new environment. It is, but in my experience, it’s a conscious decision to fit in.
My accent is still something, eleven+ years later that causes me some level of anxiety. It’s relatively British sounding. People say I’m well spoken. It’s something that I trained myself to do. I definitely still have a Sri Lankan “twang”, that I would be deeply embarrassed by if it was ever pointed out. I am grateful to have grown enough to now have it be something I am proud of. My “twang” takes over when I am speaking to family from Sri Lanka, it’s almost as though that part of me has permission to fully be herself.
When I go back to Sri Lanka to visit I find myself altering my accent to sound more Sri Lankan. I don’t want to stand out there either. I don’t want people to think I am trying to be something I am not. Sounding more Sri Lankan also gets you cheaper tuk tuk fares. They can smell a “foreigner” from a mile off. My accent has become something that changes seamlessly depending on where I am or who I am speaking to. It’s a natural change that has come from years of conscious and at times, subconscious self preservation.
My first few years of living in England were spent being a sponge. I observed and recreated everything I saw my peers doing. My choices were based less on what I liked and disliked and more on what made me feel like I belonged. I made the conscious decision to emulate other peoples attitudes and behaviour. I didn’t trust that being myself was enough.
I came from running around barefoot in the streets with my friends and not really caring what I looked like to not being able to leave the house without my hair being poker straight and feeling inadequate for not being dressed in the latest trend from Topshop. It was a completely different world. I felt that I had to be a completely new person.
Going back to Sri Lanka after a year of being away was bizarre. I was back in my family home and surrounded by people who were the most familiar to me, but I was so different. I had pushed who I was so far away in England that when I came back to where I “belonged”, I couldn’t connect with myself. The girl who climbed trees to get away from her maths tutor became the girl who couldn’t go to the shop without eyeliner on.
It has taken me years to finally be in a place where both worlds sit comfortably within me. I am grateful for the logical decision made for me to come to England. I’ve seen more of the world and have done things with my life that I wouldn’t have been able to do in Sri Lanka. But it is important to note that logic does not take away the pain of a lived experience. I paid a price.
That experience has fundamentally changed who I am. It made me grow up before I was ready. I remember feeling as though I was thrown into the deep end and made to swim. I swam, for dear life. I’m still doing the butterfly now.
I feel it is important to note that I am aware that having a Plan B in life is a privilege that many do not have. I had the option of a return ticket. This isn’t always the case.