I am beyond saddened by Brexit, but that doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge and worry about the massive problems within the EU institutions. I have a Spanish friend doing an internship in Brussels right now. A paid one – he’s an exception. I won’t get started on the EU’s issues with representation, waste and exploitation, but suffice to say that, Europhile extraordinaire though I may be, some things still keep me up at night.
One of my favourite things about the continent is the huge variety of languages spoken across it. Indeed, European languages dominate even beyond the continent. English is the world language, and my second language (French) serves me not only in multiple European countries but also in parts of Africa and Canada. Spanish is spoken across large swathes of South America, Portuguese in Brazil, and Dutch can be heard in South Africa (sort of) and on some islands in the Caribbean.
But we don’t have to go back too far in history to realise the ugly truth. Large parts of Western Europe are wealthy because we collectively exploited every other continent.
“They came and raped everyone,” a Peruvian girl once bluntly told me when I was in Lima. They being the European colonisers. She was explaining why some Peruvians look somewhere between white European and native Inca. An oversimplification perhaps, but the sentiment behind the statement was all too apparent.
I grew up largely ignorant of the extent to which my country has profited from others. It’s not something we talk about much in history class at school. Because of my heritage I had a notion of Britain doing some dodgy stuff in East Asia, and remember watching the handover ceremony of Hong Kong back to China on TV. I recall seeing the expression on my mother’s face; it was complicated. Many Hong Kongers would have preferred British imperial rule to Communist China. It’s seriously messy.
As a minority, I am all too aware of how Euro-centric history and culture in is in general (Orientalism by Edward Said, anyone?) and am under no delusions about the crimes of the past. Yet at the same time I’m a diehard Europhile, a whitewashed banana, truly European in my heart and outlook. I know much of Europe’s past is dark, and I doubtless benefit from it in countless ways I don’t even realise, simply because I had the good fortune to be born here. How do I reconcile the two?
It’s a strange paradox being a young, British ethnic. A second-generation British Bengali friend of mine is a member of the exclusive East India Club (yes, those old gentleman’s clubs still exist – not strip joints, but clubs in the old-fashioned, upper-class men’s hangout sense) and once took me there for lunch (women can’t go unless as a man’s guest. Just… don’t get me started). While walking through an impressive, history-filled corridor, he pointed out a portrait hanging on the wall. It was of some British military leader who had served in India during the time of Empire – and had beheaded my friend’s ancestor.
These are uncomfortable topics; perhaps even reading this is making you shift uneasily in your chair. It is not easy to acknowledge that much of our easy European lot in life is thanks to centuries of crimes against humanity. We probably would prefer not to think about the fact that our wealth and advantages are not wholly thanks to the advancement of mankind, but the exploitation of it.
Once you see, you kinda can’t un-see. We must just do our best to keep in mind how our history has led us to where we are today – all of us. And retain some humility in the face of every nation’s past, the good the bad and the ugly – while still maintaining that European-lovin’.
There’s probably no such thing as a blameless country, and certainly no such thing as a lone, self-sufficient and glorious one. That is why we are stronger united. The more cross-cultural communication the better; that includes learning other languages, practising some empathy, cultivating some curiosity and yes, institutions like the European Union.
Europe, sometimes you’ve been a right bitch, but I love ya anyway <3