Kavya Shah (SFS’24) is an undergraduate student in the Walsh School of Foreign Service studying science, technology, and international affairs with a concentration in biotechnology and global health and a minor in biology. She is especially interested in the intersection of technology, health, and security, and has been involved in research across a range of disciplines. On campus, she is involved with the Georgetown International Relations Club, especially with its travel Model United Nations team and the Model UN conferences it hosts. She is also an opinion editor for The Caravel, a senior editor for the Georgetown Science Research Journal, a writer for the Free Speech Project, and a dancer on GU Jawani, Georgetown’s premier bhangra team. Kavya was part of the 2021 Doyle Undergraduate Fellows, during which time she contributed to the Berkley Center's research on religion and migration. She is an avid reader, dancer, traveler, and coffee enthusiast, and she is looking forward to reflecting on her time abroad in London this semester! She is part of the spring 2023 cohort of the Doyle Global Dialogue.
Of all the places I could have studied abroad, London felt like the “safe” choice—no language barrier, a similar culture, shared history. Even then, I was prepared to feel like an outsider in the city, sticking out for my “American-ness” specifically, if not just for the fact that I was abroad.
To an extent, I was right. I’ve done my fair share of explaining the differences between London and Washington, DC, just as much because I’ve been asked and it serves as a natural conversation starter. I’ve also been asked to speak for American culture and summarize American politics on occasion. Yet, despite these instances of genuine curiosity (and a vague fascination with American culture among some Londoners), I’ve found that where you are from is only a small component of identity in London.
Being a city of outsiders—of people from every corner of the world trying to create a place for themselves here—nationality, ethnicity, or origin aren’t defining identifiers in London as they are in the United States. This observation surprised me, given the United Kingdom’s historic class system that is still evident in other ways throughout the city. Yet modern London also feels transitory. More so than in any other city I’ve visited, there is a palpable sense of change within permanence in London—of people passing through the city while its diversity and institutions of culture, power, and society remain constant. Thus, while American identity feels under constant debate, identity in London seems less constructed through public discourse. Instead, two simultaneous realities of the city’s traditions (on full display for the coronation of King Charles III) and its long-standing immigrant presence drive its tangible expressions of identity.
Within this context, I’ve seen religion play many roles. The historic links between religion and political power are evident in the city’s grand churches and rituals of power. Simultaneously, the smaller churches tucked into street corners (works of art in their own right) highlight the Anglican Christianity experienced by common Londoners. Add to this the numerous newer churches, mosques, temples, and traditions established by London’s immigrants through the decades, and you get a good sense of what it’s been like to explore London: layers upon layers of entangled history, telling the stories of those who have passed through the city.
The coronation itself provided an interesting glimpse into religion, power, change, and identity in London. Since the last coronation in 1953, the United Kingdom’s demographics have shifted considerably—reflected in this iteration of the ceremony. The king’s inclusion of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh faith leaders—and a Hindu prime minister reading from the Bible during the church ceremony—brought into focus the growing importance of immigrants and religious diversity in the United Kingdom (despite non-Anglican communities having formed the majority of the British Empire even at its peak). Simultaneously, it also sparked questions about how immigrants relate to an institution deriving power from the Anglican Church—an institution around which British identity has been shaped for centuries. Watching the coronation with my grandmother who was raised in post-colonial India, I could not help but ponder the monarchy’s continued relevance, and its commercialization through popular culture, in light of the history it represents.
Against the backdrop of the city’s enduring architecture and deep-rooted history, being in London has inspired me to think more deeply about the formation of identity. Given the multitude of religions, cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities represented in modern London, reflecting on difference has not always been easy, especially because of the contradictions it presents. As an outsider, is identity defined by how I see myself, or how I am viewed by society? How does that change in a society where most people are immigrants? What identities can we legitimately claim as our own?
Though I wish I could say I have found answers, I have found mere observation to be most helpful in beginning to understand these nuances. In listening to and observing the people and processes around me, I have been able to engage with the nuances, contradictions and all, within London. Doing so has also been a journey in understanding how I see the world, and then being able to look beyond this lens when it comes to interacting in new environments. Returning to Georgetown, it is this outlook that I want to hold onto: engaging difference, confident in the perspective I contribute without dismissing the complexities that emerge from diversity.