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A Class of its Own - Lessons From British Society

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Given my background, you'd think I'd be familiar with the concept of class. I was born in China, after all, where the governing political party is at least nominally defined by class warfare. When I first moved to the UK for university, I felt smug about the little bit of Hegel and Marx I'd read at school. I felt incredibly prepared for the deep and stimulating discussions about class I was bound to have with my fellow politics students at Cambridge.

But class in the UK turned out to be something I had to learn from scratch. I should have realised how ignorant I was when I came over for my interview back in 2009. I was chatting about something vague with a fellow interviewee, and offhandedly mentioned something about Posh and Becks. "Oh but Victoria isn't posh at all!" laughed my new friend. I was confused. If she wasn't posh, why was that her name? What does posh even mean?

Where I come from, class was expressed more explicitly. It was fairly straightforward: the more you had, the higher up in rank you were. I grew up in a Scandinavian welfare state, where the system had been fairly successful in equalising society. Designations like "bourgeois" and "working class" were sometimes used when I was growing up - I went to the Finnish equivalent of a "posh" high school. But this was hardly definitive in any way, since all the schools were free. You could spitefully hurl the word "snob" at a classmate, but the progressive tax system was fairly blind to this, and made differences rather redundant compared to over here. The differences between someone rural and someone urban were a lot more meaningful, for example, and inheritance tax rather diminished the meaning of family money. These categories, however, don't suffice for the UK.

I imagine quite a few non-natives shared my misconceptions about class upon arrival in this country. I've had a few comical moments, because I couldn't distinguish between posh and not. Accents, for example. I just thought everyone sounded cute. I remember watching Love Actually with someone who had grown up in Surrey. We were gushing about how great the Hugh Grant's storyline was. I could tell Natalie spoke in a different way to the prime minister, but no more than that. Genuinely curious, I asked: "What part of England is Natalie's accent from?" I remember my friend tittering at me incredulously. Did I not know what Cockney was, and all that it stood for?

To be honest, I don't think most of the world knows what Cockney is. Obviously we didn't expect an egalitarian society, but how was the rest of the world to know that within one city - the one where the Queen lives, mind - three words of someone's language can designate them into a different social subgroup for life? At an "Introduction to British education" event back in Finland, I remember sniggering at someone's incredibly keen question of whether or not class society was perceptible in Britain. Two years on, I finally understand how pertinent this question is. Before the UK, I had no idea that supermarkets could be ranked posh. I thought organic olives and manchgo cheese were for hungry people worried about chemicals, not a consumer choice that could be linked to a double-barrelled surname. I genuinely didn't think that in the year 2012, you would be able to tell what class someone was, based on their choice of attire. This is literally almost Dickensian for a foreigner like me.

I suppose, given where I've ended up at university, I've been exposed to more of the "posh" than I would otherwise have been. A few months back I caught myself uttering the sentence: "I'm really not sure about the taste that silver cutlery adds to lamb." I think that I've been unintentionally groomed with more rah than I would have been, if left to my own devices or based on my fairly modest family background. Here's a trivial example. Early on in my UK education I took a liking to elderflower. Not because it's posh - but because it tastes really good. When visiting a friend during summer, I suggested gin and elderflower as a refreshing drink. The expression on my friend's flatmate's face as she confirmed I went to Cambridge, and the way she drawled out the words "Well how fancy" to me - I'll never forget. I'd been put, in the most trivial way, in the firing line of a class warfare I hardly understood, simply by liking a drink.

Class in the UK seems to have two interesting characteristics. Firstly, nobody shies away from the topic. It comes up in conversation very frequently, though in a less romantic way than I'd pictured as that previously mentioned ignorant schoolgirl. Dinner tables, novels, newspapers, worst of all - Internet discussion boards. This leads me to the second point - people are so proud of their class backgrounds. I'm not saying you shouldn't be. But I always kind of thought the purpose of class distinction was to improve social mobility.

What is the point of differentiating between incomes, jobs, standards of living, if you will, if we can't or possibly don't want to change them? More to the point, class in the UK seems to have relatively little to do with income and standards of living. From what I've observed, two people with the exact same income and, well, IQ, could come from two very different classes. A class is something you're born into, and rather than shaking it off as we become educated adults, equalised perhaps by higher education, or a coming of age in the modern world - people seem quite keen to perpetuate class distinctions. One's class seems to be a foundation upon which we can attack other classes. Words like "toff" and "common" were new to me, and I'm not altogether sure I like them.

A great example is the media coverage about Oxbridge and elitism. The most recent wave has been a furious amount of Facebook agreeing and disagreeing over an article on the Independent about how damaging this media coverage is for potential state school applicants, coupled with the mean prank a couple of Cambridge undergraduates at Jesus college played on an interviewee. I was largely sheltered from all this when I applied - thankfully.

As an outsider, I applied to Cambridge for one reason only - all the other over-achieving Asians did too. But jokes aside, I now know that it would be naïve to think we could simply separate the entire discussion around class from education. But this transformation that I underwent from the girl who thought Natalie from Wandsworth sounded only a little bit different from the Prime Minister - is this actually a good thing? Surely the main reason Oxbridge is famous still lies with the minds that contributed to science, to society? My mother likes to show off to her friends that her daughter goes to the same university as Newton did. I couldn't tell you if Isaac was posh or not if my life depended on it. And I think that's the way it should be.

I'm not arrogant enough to argue for any sort of radical egalitarianism. As you may have gathered from two paragraphs ago, I'm terrified of online comments that be posted about anything I say. (This must be why I blog.) But my point is that the concept of class can be unhelpful if we harangue on about it ever unchangeably being the root cause of your friends, your hobbies, your favourite beverage.

This a bleak lens to look through. But it happens - even at my own university. I doubt it's on purpose, and it's certainly not as over-arching as some newspapers would have us believe. We all have a laugh about it, and at the end of the day your background doesn't guarantee a 2:1.

But the damage has already been done - I now know exactly which supermarket corresponds to which class. It's not so bad when we're all students. Rah or not, most of us still count pennies until student loans come in, and the battle goes on over who gets the Nectar points from the communal shopping. But soon enough we'll be real adults in the real world. Society will have much more damaging measures for us than a numerical grade, especially if we feed it through inherited prejudices. This applies for the entire spectrum of classes.

My vision might currently be very blurred by the influence of J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, which I've only just had time to read. (It's so very wonderful.) But I think we'd be fools to believe that perpetuating class by a sense of othering isn't damaging to the whole of society. So if you'll please listen to a bloody foreigner who doesn't really belong to a class - let's drop the pretences, we're all better than that.