Photo: Rosie Bell

How I Embraced My British-Nigerian Identity Through Tea

by Rosie Bell Jul 14, 2020

Established wisdom dictates that almost every owner of a British passport exhibits a near-frenzied appreciation for tea. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II starts each day with a pot of freshly brewed Earl Grey, after all. But as a third culture kid born to a Nigerian-British mother, I never truly felt British — until I realized how much I love tea.

The simplest definition of a third culture kid is someone who grows up in country A while their parents were born in country B and they now live in country C. For us, the world is a complex trifecta. We are at once from everywhere and nowhere, never enough for one place but handed a golden passport to survive anywhere: My childhood homes were in Namibia and Nigeria. My family left Nigeria when I was 12 and settled in the Netherlands. Although I had visited England as a child, I didn’t move there permanently until I was 18 when I left Holland to attend university in London.

While I am technically (and legally) British, I couldn’t partake in conversations about beloved TV shows like Only Fools and Horses, Blackadder or Monty Python’s Flying Circus to save my life. I am perfectly comfortable living without the traditional Sunday roast and deeply suspicious of Yorkshire pudding, which isn’t really a pudding at all, is it? I simply can’t relate to many of the typical facets of British daily life. Then, a few years ago, I moved to Panama and all that changed. One day, a friend identified one unmistakable Britishism of mine: I simply adore “a cuppa.”

In fact, such is the extent of my mania for this intoxicating drink that I always travel with 20 emergency teabags in my carry-on, and no heat wave is scorching enough to dissuade me from putting the kettle on. A warm brew is a perfect accompaniment to any meal as far as I’m concerned. I would not discriminate against tea with nachos or nasi goreng, a combination that some might view as blasphemous. The taste of tea itself is home, regardless of my geographic position.

Tea is undoubtedly Britain’s favorite drink. It is a cure-all for boredom or busyness, fever or fatigue. For an island nation of around 66 million people, we reportedly consume 165 million cups (or 20 Olympic swimming pools worth) of tea daily. An incriminating study by household appliances company Russell Hobbs even found that British office workers who refuse to make cups of tea for coworkers reduce their chances of getting a promotion.

That fateful day in Panama when my friend mentioned my obsessive tea-drinking, the penny dropped. I didn’t grow up in the UK, nor do I have the much-adored British accent. But at that moment, I realized I really am British.

For third culture kids, identity negotiation is often a disorienting dance. The longest I have lived anywhere is London, yet I have stronger emotional ties to the Netherlands because I moved right before adolescence. Heads are scratched when I use “we” when speaking of Nigerians, the Dutch, and the English. I show varying degrees of support for each team during the FIFA World Cup because membership to each group feeds me differently. Both my parents held Nigerian passports, yet I felt only partially accepted in Nigeria, where I was referred to as oyinbo, a delicately derogatory term for a Caucasian or non-culturally African person.

Researchers Oliver Picton and Sarah Urquhart explain the confusion that can crop up when one belongs to many different cultures perfectly in their recent study, Third Culture Kids and Experience of Places: “For third culture kids, mobility has the potential to both expand and simultaneously limit engagement and identification with place.” They also note that third culture kids articulate dislike of perceived nationalism and patriotism, which may partially explain the suppression of my English side. A singular nationality is impossible when your sense of place is constructed by multiple, often divergent, social contexts.

Home has always been a murky concept for me, and it’s even more muddled now that I travel and work remotely. Cultural intermingling naturally affects things like your sense of self, beliefs, and certainly your food preferences. I wouldn’t dream of having fries without mayonnaise as we do back home in the Netherlands. No one can tell me that raw herring doused with diced onions isn’t heaven, and I will forever love patatje oorlog, a common snack from my carefree days living in The Hague. This perplexing dish of potato chips, mayonnaise, satay sauce, and onions translates to “little war fries,” and it’s an unusual marriage of flavors — much like myself. Even this I would have alongside a cup of tea.

Drinking tea has been a springboard to explore (and embrace) my English side. I have since become aware of other very subtly British traits that I’ve been carrying around the world with me, such as excessive politeness, saying “cheeky” before mundane activities like eating out or napping, and demanding strong banter from all acquaintances. I may not outwardly look, sound, or act like a Brit, but you’ll always spot me with my milky mug.

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