By Louise Yu.
I came across the intercultural charity Encompass and the project, ‘Belonging in Britain’, on a volunteering website. The project aimed to find out what belonging meant to all kinds of people living in the UK. With Brexit high on the agenda, and the rise of anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment, belonging is now at the forefront of many people’s minds.
A month ago, I received a call from Ayesha, the organiser of the project. She explained to me that I would take part in a workshop that would feed into a photo exhibition and panel discussion in early 2018, showing how different communities contribute to the UK’s rich culture in food, music and traditions.
I was even more intrigued by the project and started to think about my sense of identity. At the workshop, the first question we were asked was how we would define the word ‘belonging’. Without hesitation, I raised my hand and said:
“To me, belonging means feeling comfortable, being at ease, as if you’re at home.”
Other participants suggested similar answers. Helen, one of the facilitators, then challenged us to think from a different angle. Instead of thinking along the lines of people belonging to a place or a thing, she asked us to consider situations where a person belongs to a place; when the person becomes the property of the place.
It was at that point that I started to question the assumptions that I had taken for granted. I started to think outside the box and realised that that second definition of belonging, applied to me too.
I had lived in Hong Kong for all my life and had always considered it as my home. Cantonese is the official language in Hong Kong and that is the language I use when I speak to my family and friends.
I ate Chinese food most of the time with chopsticks, watched TV programmes in Cantonese and learnt how to read and write in Chinese at school. I even went shopping excessively with family and friends, as that is the national sport in Hong Kong. I had never thought of calling anywhere else ‘home’, other than Hong Kong.
Sweet and Sour Pork: Hong Kong's famous specialty dish.
Five months ago, I moved to the UK to do my masters in Conflict, Security and Development at the University of Sussex. During this short period of time, I have experienced a lot of cultural shocks, both negative and positive ones. These experiences have changed how I view the world and shaped me into a different kind of person. I was not aware of these changes until I returned to Hong Kong in December to visit my family and friends.
During my visit to Hong Kong, there were moments when I felt like an outsider in the place that I once called ‘home’.
I had a hard time getting used to the warm and humid weather in Hong Kong. I found myself wearing less than others, but I would still sweat profusely after walking on the street for five minutes. Talking to my family and friends, I was aware of a gap gradually growing between myself and the people with whom I used to be familiar. Suddenly, I did not feel like I belonged to that place anymore.
Half way through my stay in Hong Kong, I remembered that five-hour belonging workshop that Encompass held on a Sunday afternoon, where I had learnt a lot from the group of well-educated and thoughtful participants.
At end of the workshop, all participants were asked to write a sentence about their thoughts on the project. One person’s idea stood out to me, and that helped me resolve the unsettling feeling I experienced during my trip.
He believed that he does not belong to any country or national, but to the people who understand and accept him. I realise that the idea of home, a place where I belong to, is merely a construct. It does not matter where I live or which country I am from. What makes a place home is that I can find myself surrounded by a community who understands and respects me. And to me, that is where I belong.
Louise Yu is a student at the university of Sussex and a participant in Encompass' latest project, 'Belonging in Britain'.