Sometimes in life I am acutely aware that I am Indian. This isn’t a new realisation, but it is something I have only recently started to come to terms with.
Not many people know that I spent a large chunk of my childhood growing up in India. I have little recollection of spending time in England, apart from being at school. Summers out playing with kids in the neighbourhood, running out to the sound of the ice cream van, exploring London and its landmarks – it never really happened for me. After finishing the school year, summer was about flying out to India and spending time with my family for a few months, returning just in time for the start of the new school year, and disapproval from my head teacher about me always going on holiday: “where was Martha in the last week of term?”
The first time I became aware that I was confused about my identity, or how to navigate my way through life as a British Asian, was when someone at school asked me: “how can you be SO Indian, yet be SO White?”
Be White? I had no idea what this meant, or why someone would think I was more ‘White’ than other Indians. And anyway, what did ‘being White’ even mean?
Growing up, British Asian youths labelled one another ‘coconuts’ if someone was seen to align themselves more with the British culture rather than their Asian roots – coconut, meaning ‘brown on the outside, white on the inside.’ People were given this label for pathetic things really, for example, listening to rock music over Punjabi Bhangra music. Almost like it was a betrayal. Looking back, it was a pretty cruel insult, and a label thrown around carelessly. But me? With just one question, I didn’t even fall into the ‘coconut’ category. I’d been singled out as a different breed.
Thinking back to my time in school, I was never like my other British Asians classmates – I didn’t fit the ‘rude girl’ image, I never changed the way I spoke around White people, I didn’t swear in Punjabi to earn more friends and just didn’t mesh with other, more popular Asian girls or boys. I always felt like I never fitted in.
When P.E lessons became a split into ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ sets, I was torn away from my friends. I was one of 2 Asian girls placed in the top set, and remember looking around at a sea of White faces who left me feeling completely out of place – and most of whom were relentlessly bullying me throughout school. Fear instantly took over. “Miss, can I move to the bottom set? I don’t feel comfortable,” was the first thing that came out of my mouth. “You don’t always get what you want in life,” she replied. “If you don’t learn now that sometimes, you have to work with people you don’t like, you never will.” I got bullied ten times more for being the quiet, idiotic Indian girl during my time in the ‘top’ set, which ironically made me feel like the lowest rung of the ladder. I just didn’t fit in.
But being told I was somehow White was a whole different ball game. It threw me off guard and it began to dawn on me that I had always felt out of place, but that now, people were picking up on it. I was a mixture of the India so deeply embedded in my veins, but equally in tune with the Britain that had given me a home, friends, education and occasionally, half-decent weather. It occurred to me then how confusing my dual identity had become.
Fast-forward a couple of years and I was studying English Literature at university. I began reading books which opened up a new world to me – and I realised that before me, people had felt like I did. The feeling of not quite knowing, culturally, who I was. Works by Zadie Smith, Sam Selvon, Buchi Emecheta – they all made sense to me. Finally, it felt as though I was being understood. And the phrase that stuck out for me the most? Second class citizen.
I live in what I see as peak multicultural Britain, but do I feel as though I belong? No, not at all. Do I still feel conscious of my skin colour, the way my brain thinks in Punjabi but speaks in English, the roti I bring to work and secretly eat, the Facebook post about India I hesitate to share to predominantly non-Asian friends? Absolutely. Why is it that someone else’s trip to India ‘to find themselves’ is exotic and amazing, but my Indian culture is sidelined? Why is my culture only acceptable when mainstream culture says so? When the White girls wear bindis and the White boys don top-knot hairstyles, why must I sit in silence and applaud with everyone when this has been my life since birth?
Often at work, while listening to Hindi/Punjabi music on low volume in my headphones (normally out of embarrassment), I become aware that my story and journey is very different. I am born in Britain, I know and respect British culture (notice that I don’t say ‘love’), but I feel temporary in my existence here. Who I am now, and what I was before, often feels like a façade.
Like the time when I told someone White that I didn’t drink alcohol and laughed off their ignorant response. “Is that because of your religion then, or just because you’re boring?” Or the awkward conversation which ended with a man saying ‘all Indian people shake their head like this!’ *man mimics a head tilt from side to side while I helplessly laugh and walk away, confused* This is just a snapshot of what I’ve encountered.
My country and my Indian culture forms a huge part of me, but every day I am forced to hide it from people around me because they don’t understand it. Any new relationship I form must begin with a ‘being British Asian 101’, but nobody truly understands how much time it takes for someone like me to explain my story, when the truth is that nobody really wants to listen.
People frown at why BAME groups are offered platforms to breakthrough into sectors where diversity is lacking and the talent is all White. The clue is the word ‘minority,’ broken down further it’s ‘minor,’ and that tells you all you need to know: we feel invisible, insignificant, small, when doing our 9-5. It’s further complicated by people who take no interest in becoming more culturally aware or sensitive, yet say they embrace people of all shades and backgrounds.
I am now less confused about who I am, but more confused by what others want me to be. If my story feels invisible now, will it be erased in 10, 20, 30 years?