The children had a taste of their cultural heritage yesterday, spending the afternoon at the Chinese New Year celebrations in Newcastle’s Chinatown. It’s not that I think that my blue-eyed, blonde-haired children have more than the most infinitesimal portion of Chinese ancestry (if they’re lucky), but I’m a Geordie, so seeing St James’s and driving across the Town Moor always feel like they must count for something in the identity-forming stakes.
After we’d done with the dragons and the dumplings and the whole smiling-people-having-no-idea-what-they’re-watchingness of Stowell Street, we popped into the Discovery Museum for some warmth, as well as for its child-friendly displays. We spent a half-hour wandering happily through a history of Newcastle, from understandably miserable re-imagined Romans right through to today.
A sense of belated homesickness for Newcastle has been growing on me for the last few months, after I’d thought it gone forever. Whether it’s the pull of family after personal tragedy, or whether it’s that my own particular brand of post-baby otherness is finally wearing off, I can see what is exciting and interesting there, rather than just what is expensive and inconvenient and scary. It’s a strange feeling, after twenty years away from somewhere, to feel a sharp tug back. Then, as we were leaving, I came across this:
As an initiative, especially alongside the beautifully curated memories of Newcastle in living memory, it was incredibly poignant. As a proposition, against the backdrop of my questions about home and belonging, it struck me.
If we moved back, a scant 30 miles up the road, I would – on paper – undoubtedly “belong”. My parents were both brought up in or near Newcastle; I was born there, and spent most of my childhood living nearby. My accent has blurred into generic semi-posh Northern, but I still feel most at home when surrounded by the sing-song chatter of Geordie accents. My family’s heritage on Tyneside is there, too: I can show my children where their great-grandfather drove fire engines out of a city centre station, where their great-grandmother’s family were bombed in the Second World War, where their uncle goes to watch the Magpies play whenever he can.
I could read the memories on that wall, and I could add to them.
But would my children belong?
They have a father whose name, appearance and family tree suggest that all genetic ambition was spent reaching Yorkshire from Scandinavia ahead of the Normans, and moving as little as possible since. They have a mother who, for all her creeping will to relocate to Tyneside, spent most of her formative years thrilling to any hint of Celt, and counting family fractions on her fingers to calculate quite how Irish she actually was (somewhere between a quarter and a half, if blood could be measured like alcohol). They have been born and grown, to date, in a small-ish community, nondescript to the passer-by, but which is nonetheless their element.
So, do they belong where they live? They undoubtedly feel they do, but I am not sure that a village in the throes of massive expansion has a clear enough ‘something’ there for it to be reciprocal or permanent.
In the delicious Italy Unpacked series on BBC2, Giorgio Locatelli spoke repeatedly of satisfying his “culinary DNA” in cooking and eating his way around his native Italy. It’s a deeply sympathetic image: I love to think of people with an unshakeable sense of self and heritage connecting with some profound, indefinable heritage. But it’s surely, to some extent, self selective and illusory.
Would Yeats and wild fiddle music have pulled at my heart were it not for the lethal combination of red hair, finding teenagerhood unbearable, and the undeniable cachet of being Irish in the 90s? They certainly had less formative impact on my brown-haired, brown-eyed, more socially adept siblings. Is there even such a thing as cultural DNA anyway? Surely it’s just process of refined memory; nurture, not nature.
That’s the thing about belonging: it’s both a need and a choice. You can choose to belong somewhere, Facebook shows me daily updates of the progress of emigrated friends throwing themselves into their adopted new surroundings, apparently successfully. And yet, of course, it’s a two way thing. My children are no less ‘immigrants’ than plenty of others on the streets in Chinatown yesterday afternoon, but they’ll never get asked to qualify and quantify their allegiance at a national level, purely because the origin of their ancestors allows them to blend in more easily.
Belonging is infinitely appealing, but it requires unbelonging too. However it’s determined – appearance, history, DNA – as long as we assert that someone belongs here, it must mean that someone else doesn’t. Furthermore, if you truly belong in one place, the obvious conclusion is that you can’t belong anywhere else. As we become ever more mobile, raising blended families who move frequently, what does belonging even mean anymore?