British but not Britain

Laura Harvey - Brazil


August 12, 2018

“Don’t forget to take a casserole recipe!”

“Make sure you pack Pride and Prejudice!”

“Brush up on Brexit in case you get asked!”

 

Approaching the cultural exchange I will participate in over the next year, I am beginning to realise quite how British I am. My parents are tea addicts; my favourite author is Jane Austen; I still have a mountain of social awkwardness to overcome. Some stereotypes are amusing, and some damaging, but I have never been overly ashamed to be British, until the leave vote on the day of my high school prom. I woke up bleary eyed in a tent in my friend’s garden after a couple of hours sleep. Her mum unzipped the door with a plate of veggie bacon butties. “We’re out”; she raised her eyebrows and walked back to the house. I rubbed my eyes and looked over to my friends. Squinting, most were frowning and then one loudly sighed. We all laughed and sat up to eat breakfast. The Quorn tasted a little strange, and we ate in silence; it had been my sister’s first opportunity to vote, being 18 two days earlier. I wished I could have voted.

 

Brexit could possibly be the most common word in British media over the last three years. Frankly, we’re obsessed. But when Brexit is reported on, many discuss how the EU relies on our trade and international status, and that this reliance is sure to guarantee us a beneficial deal – and wonder why the EU negotiators are being so uncooperative. When I talk to German and Dutch friends they tell me that they do not rely on the UK in practical terms, but felt hurt that Britain would tear away from an organisation striving for so much good and peace. In every ‘Leave’ campaigners’ practical statistic on trade and immigration, the idealism of cooperation was forgotten.

 

The cooperation that is ebbing from British political faith is something I am striving to uphold over the next year. Lying in my suitcase are the little souvenirs that I have bought as gifts for my host family: a chunky, square photobook showing the value I take in cultural exchange, and a stiff tea towel for the practical things. Because somewhere in that intersection between idealism and practicality is where I want to spend my year in Brazil. These values are mine that I hold and hope to share, but they remind me that I am not what my country currently represents, and I may not be what people that I meet expect. But I sometimes feel as if, when travelling, I am carrying the burden of others’ votes: in developing as a global citizen I stand against isolationism. I carry idealism of cooperation, globalisation and open mindedness. How that will play out, I don’t know, as anything could be coming my way, but I chose optimism over rainy pessimism.

 

 

As I file my EU British passport and visa, ready to go in my hand luggage next week, I am acutely aware of my upcoming role as a British National abroad. I have a quick scroll through BBC news to ensure I am up to date on the progress of Brexit so that I am ready to discuss it with others. And when I think about what I will say, I realise that I know very little of what the rest of the world thinks. I am surrounded by media that takes a very insular approach. Obama warned against Brexit, and Trump celebrated it so I am unsure of how other fellows will see my country’s international position. Brazil was built by one of Britain’s rival colonial powers, so I do not know how history impacts their opinions.

 

Down the side of the 3 Portuguese phrase books I received for my birthday, I slide “A Death in Brazil” by Peter Robb into my suitcase. I am only a couple of chapters in, but have learnt much about Brazil’s political history, and am increasingly excited for my year there to coincide with an election. A turbulent history, with coup after revolution, swings from left to right, and corruption an almost permanent theme; I think about the difference in situation. Perhaps the people I meet will not judge me for Britain’s international actions, because they do not wish to be judged by Brazil’s. And perhaps they have had as little input in the preconceptions I have of Brazil as I did as a 16 year old during the Brexit campaign.

 

I leave this country with a British passport and the privilege and preconceptions that come with it. But I am much more than where I have been: I am British but I am not Britain.

 

Virus-free. www.avast.com

Laura Harvey