• Silvia Garrido Kemp | Community organiser based in Chingford

What box should I tick?

I’m Silvia, I am from Mexico and moved to England when I was 24 years old. My move to this country was because I spent six months at the university of Essex, in Colchester, when I was 21 and I met my now husband. We’ve been married for 18 years.

When I first moved here, some might say I had it all; yet it felt like I had absolutely nothing! I didn’t know anyone but my husband, didn’t have any friends or any family, didn’t have a job or a community I could feel part of.

No one warned me of the cultural shock that moving countries represented. A completely different culture, different way of life, different expectations, and a different way of doing and seeing things.

A few years after I arrived here, I felt like I belonged neither here nor there. In other words, I wasn’t sure anymore where home was. I was so far away from Mexico, but also felt so far away from belonging in England.

One of the things that has stuck the most with me about living in a foreign country is: What box should I tick? What box do I belong in? You know, when you fill in any application forms in the UK, there are always boxes to tick giving you the option to choose from a series of different ethnic groups. Well, let me tell you, my ethnic group was never there, and it still isn’t.

At the beginning this would make me wonder if I didn’t belong at all or if I was kind of invisible. But through the years, I have learnt that belonging means wanting to belong and therefore adapting and embracing change, as opposed to expecting things to work exactly like they did in one’s country.

In this case, I changed the perception.

Instead of thinking about my ethnic group box not being available to tick, I saw it as an opportunity to tell everyone who I am, where I come from and why I am a relevant person.

Everywhere I go, I make sure people see my smile and see my ‘Mexicanity’. I am here to represent my country and to let everyone know who I am, instead of becoming something I am not, to fit in a box.

I also changed my mentality of ‘this is how we do it in Mexico’ and became open to how things work in the UK. I understood that there is no right or wrong, but just different. There are different ways to do things and to face situations.

I remember once, I was at work, and it was Valentine’s Day. In Mexico, Valentine’s Day is not only a day to celebrate love between a couple, but we also celebrate the love for our friends and family. This means that we give little presents to our friends, such as cakes or sweets, something to express how much they mean to us. And so there I was, new at this job and thinking I would embrace my country’s custom to bring cakes for everyone on Valentine’s Day. You will not believe people’s reactions to this! It was hilarious to see everyone’s responses to this ‘strange’ act of kindness and appreciation for your work colleagues.

This is when I realised that it is one thing to respect the customs and values of the country one has landed in, but it is another to not show who we are and what we have to offer because we fear being different.

Of course we are different! We are foreign, but we are still humans! I am not here to invade or destroy the British values. I am here to learn them, embrace them and make them part of my everyday life. Please help me to do so by accepting me and not alienating me!

I recently organised an International Food Festival for my local area, Chingford. It was so brilliant to see people enjoying food, culture and music from all over the world. I know that food can be a great way to bring people together.

Community to me is embracing who I am and helping others who are newly arrived as asylum seekers. I was welcomed into my community and now want to ensure others feel connected and are able to cope in a different environment.