I have a love-hate relationship with London. I love London for being the most multicultural and cosmopolitan city in the world, and a city that arguably has most to offer. When I return to London I can’t help but feel I’m returning to the heart of a civilisation that has done more to shape the modern world than any other, and whilst it is not my home city, it feels comforting familiar.
Yet I also hate London. I hate how dirty it is, certainly when compared to much of the country. London may be dynamic, but it is also impatient and aggressive. I am more wary of people in London. And I do not enjoy driving in the city.
Last week I was heckled by an angry van driver whilst driving through Hampstead village in North London.（註 1）Not unusually for Hampstead, a narrow lane had been made barely traversable by cars parked on both kerbs. When a car appeared in front of me driving in the opposite direction there wasn’t the space for either vehicle to pass. Seeing this the other driver reversed a little into a gap between two parked cars, hoping to create space enough for me to pass. However, as I approached it was clear to me it wasn’t enough. Only after careful manoeuvring were we able to pass each other to continue on our way.
During this delay the van driver following behind the other car was getting increasingly aggressive, calling me several times to simply drive forward despite clearly, from my angle at least, there being not enough space for me to do so. When I did finally pass the other vehicle the van driver called out. I remember his words clearly:
“Do you have a drivers license?” he asked. His tone was mockingly aggressive.
“Yes, I do.” I replied.
What he said next shocked me.
“You can’t drive. You can’t fucking drive, mate. White men can’t drive.”（註 2）
The van driver was likely in a hurry. But his words, actions and attitudes said so much.
Why did he make this a racial issue? No other driver present seemed even frustrated, let alone angry in the way he was. And when he made this a racial issue — an issue what I consider to be a racist remark — no one so much as seemed to care.
Who was he to define me as “white”? After all, I am as much Chinese as I am Caucasian. My whiteness was not an identity I choose, but an identity he choose to see in me.
I began to imagine the situation in reverse.
What might have happened if a white man had said to a non-white driver “Black men can’t drive”? I highly suspect people observing this would, quite rightly, have at very least looked on disapprovingly and understood it as racism.
The incident was a reminder that racism is a form of tribalism. Tribalism is something inherent in all of us. Human beings naturally distinguish us from them — it is a result not only of our insecurities, but our social nature and our pattern seeing mind. Racism is not race specific, and to think so, as is sometime promoted, is itself a form of racism.
What unsettled me further was that the van driver spoke to me in an accent and in a manner heavily suggestive that he was a local and a Londoner.（註 3）This was someone who was likely raised in a multicultural environment, in a society that is highly sensitive to and guarded about racism.
It took me a good hour to settle from the shock of this man’s words. That a comment could feel so wrong was a reminder of why we should not underplay the issue of racism, and why we should encourage awareness of it. But it also raised questions as to how some in a society so open to discussing the issue continue to understand it, and how the discussion is framed.
I do hate driving in London.（註 4）
- Hampstead 是倫敦北面的一個文化精英區，有很多作家、藝術家、音樂家聚居。這個小區旁有一大片草地，叫做 Hampstead Heath，連接草地的是一條短窄的小路，有點像香港大潭水塘那條通往石澳的窄馬路。19 世紀馬車可行，到今日從來沒有擴闊。因此汽車相遇，必須禮讓。