Saturday, 17 March 2012

England, you are a strange place

I am experiencing disconnect with religion as well.

Not my inner salvatory sort. On that, I'm already lost to any cause. I don't believe anything will help get me out of the problems I get into, except my own wit and wisdom.

(Okay, I allow fortune cookies. Let not great ambition overshadow small success. From little acorns grow big trees. When you're in a hole, stop digging.)

What I'm finding strange is the expression of religion on the streets. That's what I see is different, between here and Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong I've grown used to the shrines at each shop, the smell of incense, the noise of banging drums. I've seen people make way for devotions, processions and shoe beatings. I've come to expect that the spiritual calender creates routine in the social. I can tell it's grave cleaning time - the weekend to sweep out grandma before she's covered up with dried leaves again - because we must avoid walking all mountain trails. They're far too crowded. Whole extended families trek up there, seeking pure air cleansing as they go. On deity days, moons and ghostly festivals, people flood into the restaurants, and the South China Morning Post floods with outrage about the mess of wax burning.

Religion is in Hong Kong a structural force; it shows in social ways. It's also political; expressing devotion marks a separateness from the rules of China, where there is no state religion outside the Communist Party.

But I can't tell from looking at a person in Hong Kong about their religious beliefs. There's nothing to signify how devotional they are. Not what they do, or wear. You can't tell whether they believe in anything at all. Look at them, and they could be just like me, and rely on a bag of fortune cookies.

So when I walk into the UK, one of the first things I notice is how you express your devotions. Through the buildings and the headscarf.

The buildings, they're magnificent. Not small shrines discreetly positioned at the foot of a plinth, not the small concrete temple at the side of the town, here you have these wham-bang places, grand statements of towers and arch, brick and stone. Today I walked past one local church that stands wallop in the High Street. I remembered I love to see it, because it's such a huge and uncompromising building. It's decommissioned and used by the council as a warehouse, so anyone can guess as to the long-term fate. But I find the Victorian architecture beautiful. If they try to knock it down, I shall tie myself to the railings.

The headscarf, it's inescapable, because to me it's unusual. Did I see more than one or two in the last few months? Probably not. I come into England, see a woman wearing a headscarf and wonder why anyone feels the need to show their personal belief to anyone else. Is that a naive thought? Maybe I'm used to seeing people around me who don't declare their views through dress.

While I have these stirs of thoughts, a young woman pulls up in her car, lowers the window, and asks brightly in a local, amiable voice, Which way to the Co-op Funeral Parlour? Then she smiles, a big, broad smile.

I smile back, and think, with that brilliant smile, there can't have been a death in the family, can there? Grief and happiness, they should look different. Put them together, and the contrast is disturbing. I can't ever forget the Evangelical Christian who laughed her way through her mother's funeral. That photograph stays with me in my mind. I see them side-by-side; she beaming her huge smile, her brother knocked sideways with loss.

But I stand there, confused by smiles and directions, making up routes to the dead, and I look at her porcelain complexion and her soft pink cheeks, and then I realise that her hair is pulled back under a black headscarf. That's confusing, too. Her smile, voice, face and manner, all combining to default state - local girl, probably (when pushed) would offer C-of-E or non-believer - but here tells me unequivocally, unambiguously, a personal declaration, she's firmly with Islam.

I feel wrong-footed, a little. I'm still feeling new here. In expat land we live with images of rural England and your staged national presentations overseas. Country churches, hedgerows, wobbling bicycles, Beefeaters, red telephone boxes. They exist and they don't. But they're a major part of your tourism marketing, and I think probably the right one. But once here, on the streets, it's a very different feel.

A part of me is glad for the mix. I like the ladies at the Co-op who wear the headscarf. Well, the new person at the till, anyhow. She's so very different from the last! The other one was sulky, and would scowl when I handed her my shopping! I always felt especially nervous, passing over my bottle of Fursty Ferret for the blip, anticipating sour disapproval. But this new lady, she's all smiles and How are you today? Last night when a customer asked for 20 Marlboro and she said What? she then tugged at her headscarf and said It's this, I can't hear anything when I've got this on. Everyone in the queue smiled.

I send the local motorist off to her business with the funeral parlour, probably in the wrong direction, but not intentionally. I feel I'm being made aware of religion in England, but not yet sure why. Am I being asked to take up a position or a view? But I don't know what. The usual English one is indifference, isn't it? That's the one I prefer.

But I feel there's a subtle change here. All your religions are mixed up together, yet people feel the need to mark their difference. Maybe you all got religion while we were out? Perhaps you've quietly become all determined and spiritual, veering to one way or another? Have I got to take sides, instead of do my usual, which is ignore it all? So what will happen? Do I have to decide which religion to declare myself to? That would be a shame indeed.

1 comment:

Irene said...

Maybe people feel very insecure about their religions and therefor feel a need to physically give expression to them.