It had only just stopped raining when Wendy, the Anglesey-born proprietor of Cardiff Bay’s Welsh-speaking cafe, leaned over the counter and told me she had a keen sense for the paranormal. “We’re having a medium come in here next week,” she confided. “Sold out. Of course, I’ve always been slightly psychic.” Really? “Oh yes.” That’s funny, I said, I once stayed in a haunted-looking hotel in Anglesey and a mysterious fire had started in the middle of the night. “Which one was it?” Wendy asked, with a knowing look in her eyes that suggested she was on first-name terms with the spirit who struck the match.
Before the pandemic hit in March, I’d spent the few months prior travelling up and down the UK with producer Viv Jones for my BBC Sounds podcast, United Zingdom, trying to figure out what Britishness means. I squelched through post-Storm Ciara mud with Lytham farmer and YouTuber Tom Pemberton. I was taken out for the best Syrian food I’ve ever had by poet and artist Nabeelah Hafeez in Bradford. I even met Rupaul’s Drag Race UK star Sum Ting Wong (if you’ve never seen a drag queen apply a full face of slap off the BBC Birmingham ping pong table, you haven’t lived). And, of course, I met Wendy, who also sells a mean cacen gri – that’s Welsh cake to the English-speaking among you.
It’s not just a road trip for a jolly – there are serious intentions behind it. I was born in Singapore, the former British colony nestled at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula – a country that Brexiteers are particularly fond of, citing the need for London to become a “Singapore-on-Thames”. Last year, it topped Japan and Switzerland for life expectancy and its nature has been praised by none other than David Attenborough.
Still, at the grand old age of 31, I’m considering whether to trade my Singaporean passport for a British one. I became eligible for citizenship a few years ago – I’m lucky enough to have indefinite leave to remain – but the issue only became real when I made a documentary for VICE about a group of immigration activists who had broken into Stansted Airport to stop a deportation flight.
For months, I followed the Stansted 15, as they were dubbed by the press, as they traversed a complicated legal process that saw them put on trial under anti-terror related legislation. I also met someone I’ll call David – a soft-spoken husband to a British woman who had found himself on that unfortunate flight.
My film crew and I spent hours in his airy, light-filled flat on the outskirts of Edinburgh. He wept as he spoke about his struggle to stay in the UK, and I began to feel uneasy with the choices I had made in my relatively charmed life. Here was someone who would leap at the chance for a British passport. I’d blithely assumed that my visa meant that I could build my life as a permanent fixture here – something that the Windrush scandal also caused me to question. All of a sudden, a British passport became much more appealing.
Unfortunately, Singapore doesn’t let its citizens have dual nationality. I was faced with a dilemma: should I swap my bright red Singaporean passport for a brand new navy blue one? Did I even understand what taking a British passport entailed?
I came here when I was 16 for school and found the UK baffling. Any postcolonial subject will tell you that the stereotypical image of Britain can be summed up as politeness, afternoon tea, cricket and – depending on what generation you grew up in – Monty Python or Harry Potter. I arrived in 2004, just in time to see Fathers 4 Justice (remember them?) break into Buckingham Palace and hurl purple flour at Tony Blair. So much for British manners.
There were the other things that don’t quite translate: why did shops close early on Sundays? What was “Fish Friday”? Why pickle onions when there are literally dozens of more appealing vegetables? Why did the British idea of a “good night” consist of drinking enormous quantities of watery beer and then vomiting it up, preferably against the nearest pub wall? Why did British people refuse to say what they meant and instead rely on varying intonations of the words “oh” and “well” and “errr” to get their point across?
Over the last 15 years, I like to think I’ve grown adept at deciphering the British. I’ve become a master of the subtle variations of feeling contained by the word “sorry” (“sorry to disturb you” – I’m not sorry at all; “oh sorry, I didn’t see you” – I did see you but I don’t care, etc). I have strong feelings on making tea (one shade lighter than a bar of Dairy Milk). I’ve learnt that British culture is just as much about pirate radio, pints and Premier League as it is Austen, Shakespeare and Pinter.
But I don’t know if any of this qualifies me to call myself British, let alone take the passport. After all, I’ve spent most of my time in London – a great city, but not exactly representative of the rest of it. Unless you count a disastrous night out in Sheffield where a lad in a flat cap made me snort snuff off his fist, I’d not actually spent much time getting to know anybody who resides past the M25 or seen how they lived.
What did Britishness mean beyond the usual stereotypes? And what if I went around asking British people from all over about what they thought about identity, and whether I could become one of them? The answers haven’t always been straightforward. The host of a Welsh language sex podcast told me she didn’t feel an ounce British. In Liverpool, I met a writer who explained the roots of the “Scouse not English” phenomenon – a message commonly unfurled on football banners at Anfield. With Glasgow and Belfast in the diary, I’m sure these conversations about belonging will get even more complicated.
But there have been moments of delight and unexpected insight, too. Farmer Tom earnestly told me he was proud of how Britain grows grass (we do it much better here, apparently). Sum Ting Wong said that she knows she’s home when she walks down a street in Birmingham and hears dozens of languages. Chelsey Jay, a local politician from Witham, said she thought the British were sentimental folk – which might explain the endless TV appeals for donkey and hedgehog sanctuaries that so perplexed me when I got here.
Post-Brexit, these conversations have taken on a new relevance. Now that the UK has wrenched itself away from the EU, it’s having a moment of national reckoning – a little like a new divorcee sat in a quiet home, wondering who they actually are outside of their relationship.
I’ve not quite settled on my decision yet. In a way, it feels like I’ve been at a speed-dating party, except this time I’m trying to matchmake myself with an entire country. The only thing I know is that British identity is something that Brits are trying to figure it out for themselves, too.
United Zingdom is available now on BBC Sounds.