Imagine a Londoner.
A Londoner is a tall white man –he’s nicely dressed with a dark peacoat –the collar up –and shiny, well-kept oxford shoes. It’s probably raining, so he’s holding an umbrella –waiting for the fire engine red double decker bus. Big Ben is shining in the background. He’s reserved. He’s courteous. He has a dashing smile. And he has great hair, but as he turns around… wait…
Is that Prince Harry?
Unfortunately, it wasn’t him. Unlike the image in our heads of the man in the peacoat with the oxford shoes, not all Londoners are royalty, or even all that much different from us. Londoners are just ordinary people who happen to live in an extraordinary city. They hang out at the park. They go to school. They party at the clubs. They watch TV. They hate the weather. And like us, they all love London.
I spoke with three young Londoners who I had gotten to know well when I studied abroad last spring. Their stories speak to the changing image of the true Londoner and how the city of London has transformed in the last twenty years. The real story of London cannot be told on a TV screen or in a book, but instead through the life experiences of its people. While we may not be able to truly understand the city without experiencing it ourselves, perhaps we can catch a glimpse of London from the stories and perspectives of three Londoners who encounter her beauty every single day.
Over the last 20 years the image of the typical Londoner has changed. In the past, London was mostly a homogenous society filled with a white Briton population. Today, London is diverse –filled with people from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and other European nations. Sunala Fernando is one of the thousands of students traveling to complete their higher education degrees in London.
Born and raised in Sri Lanka, Fernando came to study Banking and International Finance in one of the great cities of finance: London. After completing his A-level exams (the UK equivalent to SAT’s) and taking the UK course track at his school in Sri Lanka, he was accepted at the Cass School of Business in City University London.
His most memorable experience in London was when he celebrated his 21st birthday. Like most 21-year olds, Fernando gathered a group of friends together to go partying in one of London’s trendiest clubs, the Ministry of Sound. After months of strict study schedules, it was nice to finally let loose, said Fernando. But clubbing in one of the most thriving cities in the world was not the most unforgettable memory of his evening.
“It was really special because my friends sang Happy Birthday to me in different languages,” Fernando grinned. His friends came from all over the world: France, Italy, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Syria, and China. It is not often you encounter this kind of diversity. “In my home country, I only get to experience one culture,” said Fernando. “But here I get to experience multiple cultures.” He recollected the International Business class where we first met.
The professor stood in front of the lecture hall on the first day of class and talked about the syllabus. He emphasized the importance of getting to know your classmates and their background especially in dealing with international business. “Raise your hand if you are an international student,” the professor asked. Of the 150 students, frozen everybody raised his or her hand –including Fernando and me.
Gun shots near the school.
Terror. Shock. Horror. A teacher pulled 13-year-old David Pham inside the classroom. Pulling in other students, the teacher locked the door. Some students cried. Others like David sat in silence. In East London, shootings are a common occurrence.
East London is known to be different than the rest of London. David described it as the “dangerous” part of London. When you watch TV, said David, you notice that all the robberies and murders take place in East London. But a lot has changed in seven years.
David recently celebrated his twentieth birthday and, over the years, he has seen his home in East London transform. Ten minutes away from his home in Newham, London, is the newly built Olympic Park. After London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics on July 6, 2005, it was hoped that the Olympics would rebuild the East End. It became an even more significant task after the terror attacks that occurred in London’s public transportation on July 7, 2005 –the day after winning the Olympic bid.
“My mum did not let me go in the tube for two months,” noted David. Lowering his head, David recounted the memory of his crying classmates because they thought their parents were in those attacks. The attacks left all of London shaken.
The Olympics now became part of a larger pursuit to revive British morale. According to the Rowan Moore’s article in the Guardian, 2,800 homes have already been built as part of a 20-year plan to build 8,000 new homes around Olympic park, tube stations have been repaired and renovated, and thousands of jobs have been created with businesses and tourism rising. “East London has changed,” David insisted. When he was younger nobody left their homes a night –it wasn’t safe. Now, that is no longer the case.
When the Olympic games opened on July 27, 2012, David was there to see it. The opening ceremony. The fireworks. The queen’s grand entrance. He was impressed by London’s performance for the world. David also had the chance to see the volleyball and swimming games. However, David’s real passion is football.
“You haven’t experienced England if you haven’t watched a football match,” David declared proudly. When he was a little boy, his uncle would take him to the football stadium to watch Manchester United. The fans were hooligans. Roaring, crying, cursing –they were mad, exclaimed David. Despite all that madness this is David’s favorite part of being British.
Appropriately, the Olympic Stadium is expected to be handed over to local football team West Ham United. David strongly believes that football brings British people together. “As long as you’re supporting the same team, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. You come together to support your team.”
The center of London is a vibrant community. People are always moving. Heading to work. Going to school. Attending the theater. Having a drink at the pub. Partying at the club. The public transportation is always functioning, getting people to where they need to go. That is the London we always imagine.
When they enter London Underground the excitement disappears behind them as the tube doors shut. Commuting in the London Underground is dull. Businessmen burrow their noses in newspapers. Fluorescent lights emphasize skin imperfections. Commuters are still –careful not to bump into bystanders. It’s perfectly quiet. Outside the windows is the view of dark tunnels and sleep-deprived Londoners.
For 20-year-old student Lina Delhi, this is the tradeoff of living in a metropolitan city. After a fifteen minute tube ride from her university in central London, she arrives at her home in northeast London. Unlike the posh districts of central London, Lina lives in a family oriented neighborhood in the London Borough of Redbridge. “It’s filled with restaurants, a mall, shops, schools, cinemas, and library,” said Lina. Schoolchildren can be found in the park hanging out with their friends. “It isn’t as busy […] as central London.”
Her fondest childhood memory is playing in Valentines Park near her home. On a warm summer Friday, after grabbing fast food and ice cream, her mum would take Lina and her brothers out to the Valentines Park where they would play cricket. For many families, Valentines Park is the place where many Londoners can take a break from the hectic city. It is where they simply walked, biked, and chatted with their loved ones.
Lina is proud of her home. “I was born and raised in London, one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse areas in the world.” Identifying herself as South Asian, Lina praised the vast diversity that characterizes her home. “This is what makes Britain unique,” Lina proclaimed. “[Britain] boasts its many different types of people –be it their race, religion or political outlook.” Lina also briefly added that the man she wishes to marry is also like her, a British citizen with foreign roots. Although he is an Arab and she is South Asian, they both have similar experiences growing up in Britain.
British people as a whole are very polite, Lina commented. The precise, proper, sophisticated cadence of the accent plays into their well-mannered behavior. This politeness is what Lina believes to be the reason why Americans love British culture. It is because of this British politeness that Americans feel welcomed by the British.
Despite the complaints of dull commute and gloomy weather, Lina loves London. After traveling to central London with access to a great education, incredible career opportunities, amazing music, great food, and landmarks, she jumps back on the tube and takes a break from the overwhelming city. She returns home where she can revisit Valentines Park and be nostalgic about cricket, ice cream, and fresh summer air.
*Name was changed at the request of the individual.