New England942.2

God Save the Teens

What does it mean to be a Brit these days? We asked first-generation immigrant teens across the United Kingdom how they felt about their country, and about their identity.

The idea of “national character” is tricky anywhere, but in a United Kingdom about to Brexit, it has become a particularly hot topic. The country’s 2016 referendum decision to leave the European Union came as a shock to much of the country, leaving people wondering what a future disconnected from the continent would hold.

Photographer Giya Makondo-Wills—whose mother is British and father is South African—took the opportunity to talk to young people whose parents had immigrated to the UK to get a sense of who and what counts as “British.” As her exploration shows, the British government may have caved to isolationist impulses, but teenagers take a more expansive view: identity is a many-headed beast, and no voter referendum can make it a binary choice.

 Clare in her family home in Reading.

CLARE, 17 Reading, England

How would you describe yourself? I’m quite an enthusiastic person. I’m quite friendly and at times I can be quite confident, but not all the time.

What year did your parents come to the UK, from where, and under what circumstances? My mum came to be in the UK in 2002, when I was two. She came here because of work; she wanted a change, I guess. Me, my sister, and my brother were still in Kenya. We stayed with my dad, then we moved here in 2010.

What were your ideas about the UK before or upon arrival, and how have they changed as you’ve gotten older? Well, before I came, everyone around me used to say, “Oh, wow, you’re going to the UK—it’s such a great place,” and all that kind of stuff. You see it on TV with the red telephone booths and stuff, so I had a good image of it. When I came here, I was so shocked, and it was so cold.

Do you speak any other languages? What are they? I speak Swahili and I’m learning Korean. I’m not fully fluent yet, but my goal is to be fluent by the end of this year.

Are you friends with other children of immigrants? What is your sense of their experiences? I think I like being with them. I like getting to know people from everywhere and what they think. I like listening to other people’s stories from other places.

What are your feelings about Brexit? Were you surprised when the referendum passed? I really was. I don’t like the idea, to be honest. The UK is quite a multicultural society.

Do you think of yourself as British—as British first, and Kenyan second? Or the other way around? I think of myself as Kenyan first, then British. I like my African heritage. When you come here, you go to school and some of the kids have that British culture, but I'm more on the Kenyan and African side of myself.

How would you describe the national British identity, if there is one? What aspects do you relate to, if any? What aspects of that national identity feel foreign or alienating? I think because loads of people from around the world have been moving to Britain, British culture has deteriorated a bit. You can see it, but you can’t see it that much. If you ask what is British culture, you won’t really know at the beginning. There are loads of different people here, and everyone is putting in something, at least, from different places. There are British values and things like that, but the culture, I don’t know.

How has your personal identity evolved over the years, and what have been the biggest influences on your identity? I think I’ve become a bigger person. I know I've grown up. I just want to finish up and get to what I want to do.


 

Nadav with friends at a pub in Brighton. 

NADAV, 18 Brighton, England

How would you describe yourself? I am a young Israeli boy living in England. I’m a musician, and I’m really into jazz. I play drums, keys—a lot of my life revolves around music. I like being close to my friends and traveling.

What year did your parents come to the UK, from where, and under what circumstances? They came in 1990, from Israel. My parents just wanted to get out of the country—go somewhere else, have a different environment around them, and just have a fresh start. There was an opportunity to move and they took it.

Do you speak any other languages? What are they? I was brought up learning Hebrew and English at the same time, so they are technically both my mother tongues. I speak Hebrew and English fluently.

Are you friends with other children of immigrants? What is your sense of their experiences? I know more Israeli [people] who were born in England. Our childhoods were very similar in the sense of having a family from another culture.

What are your feelings about Brexit? Were you surprised when the referendum passed? I was surprised, yeah, and I’m not happy about it. I would love England to still be a part of the EU, and it’s going to harm a lot of young people’s futures if they want to move out into Europe. I’ve still got an Israeli passport, so that’s always an option if I want to move away. But it definitely saddens me.

Do you think of yourself as British—as British first and Israeli second? Or the other way around? I think 50-50: Israeli-British or British-Israeli—I’m just as much both. I grew up in England, but I also grew up a lot in Israel, going every year or sometimes twice a year. I feel like each place has as much say in my life as the other.


 

Lumae at home in Wirral in her Army Cadet uniform, teaching her little sister drill commands.

LUMAE, 14 Liverpool, England

How would you describe yourself? Sporty, I don’t know!

What year did your parents come to the UK, from where, and under what circumstances? My father’s job transferred him here last year, in 2017, from South Africa.

What were your ideas of the UK before or upon arrival, and how have they changed? I never wanted to come here. I cried nonstop for three months. But now that I’m here, I don’t want to go back to South Africa.

Do you speak any other languages? I speak Afrikaans and English.

What are your feelings about Brexit? Were you surprised when the referendum passed? I don’t know what that is.

Do you think of yourself as British? South African first, and British second.

How would you describe the national British identity, if there is one? What aspects do you relate to, if any? What aspects of that national identity feel foreign or alienating? I think the children at school being rude to older people [feels foreign], and they are too grown-up.


 

Kupa with his friends in Surrey after a long day at college. 

KUPA, 16 Surrey, England

How would you describe yourself? I guess I’m fun—I’ve got a good sense of humor, I’m quite sporty, and quite a trustworthy friend.

What year did your parents come to the UK, from where, and under what circumstances? My mum came to the UK when she was 27 from Zimbabwe. She came here for work.

Do you speak any other languages? What are they? I speak Shona, which is a Zimbabwean language, and English, obviously.

Are you friends with other children of immigrants? What is your sense of their experiences? Because London is quite a diverse place, there were a lot of immigrants that came to my school. Most people are like me, really: their parents came here because there were more opportunities for work.

What are your feelings about Brexit? Were you surprised when the referendum passed? I was surprised. I did think it was really bad, and I didn’t think it would actually happen or that people would be that foolish.

Do you think of yourself as British—or as British first, and Zimbabwean second? Or the other way around? I would say British first and Zimbabwean second. I was born here and I’ve only been to Zimbabwe twice, while I’ve been here for 16 years—so I would call myself British. But I do love Zimbabwe—the culture and everything—and when I’m here, all I mostly eat is Zimbabwean food. My mum doesn’t really cook English food at home because she wants to stick to the culture.

How would you describe the national British identity, if there is one? What aspects do you relate to, if any? What aspects of that national identity feel foreign or alienating? I don’t really think there is a British national identity. It all depends on your perspective. What do you think makes someone British? I like British food and things you can do in British culture, but I don’t think there is a national identity, because what makes me British or someone else different—it’s just our ethnicity or culture.


 

Dagmara and Laura in Dagmara’s room at home in Cardiff, catching up and playing video games. 

DAGMARA, 17, and LAURA, 17 Cardiff, Wales

How would you describe yourself? Laura: Well, I go to college and I study maths, physics, and economics, which is horrible.

Dagmara: I work—I hate anything school-related.

What year did your parents come to the UK, from where, and under what circumstances? Dagmara: It was 2009 for me. My mum came here first; she was here for about three months getting a flat, then she got me and my brother over. Because we’re not from a massively rich family, when she got divorced from my dad a couple of years earlier, she was completely on her own. And she wasn’t really earning that much money as a single parent raising two children, with Poland being crazy expensive.

Laura: I’ve got a pretty similar story, really: my mum came here for work in 2008 by herself. She found a flat and found a job. Just like Dag’s mum, she got divorced from my dad, so, yeah, pretty much the same!

What were your ideas of the UK before or upon arrival, and how have they changed as you’ve gotten older? Dagmara: When [my mum] was still with my dad, we lived in Spain for six months. I was terrified to go to Spain because of the language. I was about seven, so when we came back and I had to go to school in Poland, I hated it. I thought the UK was a different planet. I wasn’t ready. I thought it was going to be horrible; I thought I was going to sit in lessons and no one was going to get me, and I was not going to have friends ... I love it now. I wouldn’t move back.

Laura: As a child, I thought it was this rich country where everyone had everything and it was all great. Then when I came here, I still had that idea in my mind—until I had to go to school—and I loved it. I persuaded my mum to let us stay here and go to school here. I definitely wanted to stay!

Do you speak any other languages? What are they? Dagmara: Polish! Both fluent!

Laura: Polish and a little bit of Spanish.

What are your feelings about Brexit? Were you surprised when the referendum passed? Laura: I wasn’t really surprised. I kind of saw it coming. But Poland is part of the EU, and I don’t want Britain to not be a part of the EU anymore, because there would be a possibility of the government kicking us out. I know they probably won’t target single families or anything, but it’s still a possibility, and it worries me. Definitely not a fan.

Dagmara: You know what? When Brexit came around, I thought people were just being stupid. People were being idiots. I just thought it would be like when someone gets a stupid idea and thinks it’s going to work, and it doesn’t—I thought it was like that. And then it actually happened, and I was surprised. I had to have a couple of days to adjust. I’m still not fully accepting it ... I can’t see me being, like, capable of living. My life is here in this country and in Cardiff.

Do you think of yourself as British—or as British first and Polish second? Or the other way around? Laura: I think I’m in the middle. I don’t think I can be fully Polish anymore, and I don’t think I can be fully British yet. So I’m just this awkward in-between. But I don’t mind.

Dagmara: I don’t see myself as Polish, either. When you go to Poland, they look at you differently, like, You’re from the UK—you’re not a part of us. But then, in the UK, [it’s] You’re Polish.

Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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