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4 March 2024

Exclusive Extract: Life in the UK by SJ Kim

This reflection on 'Life in the UK' by SJ Kim explores the profound through seemingly mundane moments, such as a family meal or meeting with an editor. Read this life writing piece from Wasafiri 117: The State of the Industry in full on the Taylor & Francis website or order Wasafiri 117 to read it in print.

A strong proponent of the global majority may assert that white people have no culture, but while studying for my Life in the UK Test, I learn about Roast Beef, The Cenotaph, and Starlight Express. Possessing an understanding of these three institutions of British culture may help one to remain here, like me, indefinitely1.


The first meal my white husband cooks for my visiting parents is oven meat.

어머! my mother says of the Yorkshire Pudding. Looks like very big mushroom! She tears off a piece to try. She chews and she swallows. 어머! my mother says, Is bread.

어머! my mother says as a broccoli floret disintegrates under the pressure of a fork tine pressing into it. My father is silent as an armoured potato propels off his plate in resistance. (어머!) When he leans down to retrieve it, my mother hisses, Don’t pick it up.

Eventually, my white husband clears the table (and floor) and retreats to the kitchen. My father closes his eyes and runs a hand down his face.

My mother leans towards me. She looks up into my eyes. She lays her hand over mine and gives it a squeeze. She speaks my name with a tenderness that I am unprepared for. It lays me open, pink in the centre and seeping blood. My mother says: Tomorrow, we can thinly slice the meat and make noodles.


Sometimes, I get lost in the city, and my phone has died, and I feel anxious that I won’t get to my next meeting on time. I stop in a garden I have never noticed before to try to gather what is called bearings and, too, breath – something I better understand – and as I wonder whether five minutes or an hour has passed, I hear church bells.

It is three. I can understand why people seek the house of God.

Such gardens always feel impossible somehow. How can it be, this secret in plain sight, all this green and flowers and trees, a place to sit, a place to sit that feels bright, clear, and a kind of quiet that is perhaps better named as peace. How can it be, this garden here?

The last time I was in a house of God, my white husband and I wandered into the tail end of a service turning towards coffee hour. We were on a long drive back after visiting a loved one who was dying, a loved one who died in the days following. I said the building was beautiful, and my white husband wordlessly parked the car and led me by the hand. While the locals began to cut neatly into cakes, we settled into an empty pew and I turned my face upwards to hold back tears. The organist continued to play for us. The rest of the congregation waited in the wings, decidedly not watching us, patient for a turn to offer us something to drink, a bit of cake. I looked to the vaulted ceiling. The air felt golden and imbued with kindness. I believed I could be like a chalice, holding, not overflowing.

My understanding is that The Cenotaph is no house of God. I believe it may not be a house at all. The Cenotaph is perhaps that patience to wait in the wings to make a good gesture. The Cenotaph is in Whitehall. Whitehall must be a place, then. When I try to place Whitehall, when I try to hold the centre of the city, the city in my head, I get distracted by thinking of Hilary Mantel and I think of White Lightning. I get distracted often by white this and white that, and death.

My understanding of White Lightning is twofold. In the UK, White Lightning is a cider that was discontinued by its maker on account of it becoming an optics problem. Considered the drink of choice for the poor and disenfranchised, White Lightning seems to remain in public consciousness as a subject of derision.

My American understanding of White Lightning is a movie I haven’t seen in which a white man named Burt plays a white man named Gator. I remember a group of confident white boys going through a phase of quoting from it a lot during our high school days.

When talking about visiting America, I have been weaning myself from saying I am going back home. And it is a kind of weaning, a denial of a need that is felt but no longer a necessity, no more comfort in being able to claim that I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I don’t need to know, really, what The Cenotaph is, where Whitehall is. I don’t need to know the precise landscape and make-up of the city. I don’t need to know why, exactly, there are days on which the city is especially decked out, not with poppies, but with Union Jacks everywhere.

On one such day I find my way from a garden to a familiar central café, waiting to meet with an editor. I am trying not to be overcome by anxiety. But it is hard today. There are so, so many flags. If this were America, I would not just be sitting here. I would get gone. It is my understanding that this is not America. I have been to this café many times, but today, across from it, a makeshift stage has been set up, and upon it, there’s a band of white people in medieval costumes and there is much sound.

The editor is running late. I am grateful for the distraction of a text from my white husband:

70 planes flying over London shortly

We’re all out on roof terrace to watch

I am thrown, then, by all of the bad things I have experienced and all of the bad things I fear I am likely to experience at once, which really means I am thrown by all of the good things, too. Yesterday, I received a new job offer. Another university still wants to title me and pay me money. Actually, they want to give me a promotion. It turns out there are many white people who still want to work with me (and, as mentioned, one married me). Today, I’m meeting with an important editor. It makes all the sense in the world, then, that this is the day on which another global catastrophe strikes. I text back:

What is happening?

I try to type more, but there is a blur.

It if

I’d if

Is it was

Is it war

My white husband responds before I finish typing.

For the jubilee

You haven’t been paying attention have you

I tilt my head up to the sky. It is blue today. Mild. I take a deep breath and I hold. I don’t belong here. I don’t need to understand why, to celebrate the birth of a queen, there are fighter jets in formation over the city. I hold. War is a culture2


1. Life in the United Kingdom: A Guide for New Residents. 3rd ed., TSO on behalf of the Home Office, 2021.

2. Sontag, Susan. ‘Why Are We in Kosovo?’ New York Times Magazine, 2 May 1999,

SJ Kim is the author of This Part Is Silent (W.W. Norton, 2024). Born in Korea and raised in the American South, she resides in the UK and teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick.
Spring 2024
Wasafiri 117: The State of the Industry

We start our 40th anniversary year with Wasafiri 117, which has a special focus on ‘The State of the Industry’. Our spring 2024 issue reflects on the contemporary international literary industry through a variety of perspectives, from publishing to academia, via the work of writing, translating, editing, publishing, and teaching.

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