The thick hair, the bushy monobrow and the lingering curry smells, are all characteristics that are associated with being Indian. It is no surprise that growing up, people tend to take the parts of them, which may be different, and try to conceal them in a locker labelled ‘dual identity'. In such a substantially multicultural society, why is it that magazines and adverts repeatedly feature the same ‘ideal image’ when in a world of diversity, the 'ideal' is simply a myth. Being British Asian is a cultural fusion, and in my eyes, it’s the best of both worlds, but like with anything, it comes with its drawbacks and the ignorance of people who do not fully understand the concept. Hearing that classic question of “where are you from” and having to assure someone that "yes, I am from England, and do have a British passport despite having brown skin, because migration is very much real". For them to proceed to say “yeah, but where are you really from?’
I have always attended predominately white schools, so it is always entertaining when the new substitute teacher takes the register and there’s that slight pause as they approach your name, whilst deciphering how to pronounce ‘Pavan’ as the rest of the class begins to laugh. You just raise your hand, half eye rolling and half laughing because its just so expected.
The amount of semi arrogant, yet entertaining questions that I have been asked over the years;
“Do you speak Hindu?"
“Are you getting an arranged marriage?"
“Do you only eat spicy food?"
If I asked a Caucasian person “do you speak Christianity", “Do you only eat bland food", “Are you allowed to not have a boyfriend". No doubt I'd be looked at as if I was the most uneducated person on earth, so why does that make it acceptable for some people to think its okay to ask me these questions? I can handle the curry jokes that are thrown at me from friends, and if anything I probably bring it on myself as I sit there at dinner with the curry my Nani pre made and froze for me. But I feel as though it is these stereotypes, which highlight British Asians as an ethnic minority, and causes individuals to feel like they need to bury their roots in order to become a more westernised and culturally neutral version of themselves.
Growing up I despised having a big, dark, curly mane that my Mum used to brush and stick down with baby oil to force it to lay flat, but now that same thick hair has become a blessing.
I may have to get my eyebrows done every 2 weeks, but damn do they look good.
Those times that achieving a B at school were seen as an illegal activity, and considering going to college over doing A levels was like dropping out and accepting your future at the job centre. Or going into the freezer and losing your shit over seeing a big tub of ice-cream, only to open it and find frozen ginger and chillies. Being told that you can’t do something because you’re a girl. Not being allowed to go to sleepovers, because why would you want to sleep at your friend’s house when you have a bed at home? Yet it is okay for the boys to go out because they are boys, and you have no right to autonomy. The plastic covers that coated the entirety of your living room, from the sofas down to the remote. Putting on new clothes then walking into the kitchen to be hit with the onion perfume and realising that the time you took to wash, dry, and tame your hair was a complete waste of time. Taking samosas to school and opening your lunch box to unleash the overpowering smell, and the residue of fried pastry. Or not being able to find those personalised name key rings in a souvenir shop.
But turn a 180, and this dual identity brings so many positives. Being able to speak English, Punjabi and Hindi. Watching the crazy TV dramas, which all might as well just be the same. The 3-day, long, loud and colourful weddings. The crazy music. The mendhi. The amazing outfits that make you feel like a queen. Calling every elder Uncle/Aunt or Granddad/Grandma, despite having never met them in your life. The endless amounts of paneer, and the cups of masala chai.
However, this dual identity isn’t just something that you try to keep up in front of people in the UK. Its having to deal with your family making comments that you think you’re a fancy English person as they look down at the rips in your jeans and watch you eat a beef burger. It’s trying to talk in Punjabi at home, but people saying that you need to go learn it better and lose your “angreji accent”. Pretending that alcohol is Satan’s blood and you would never even think about touching it. It’s the times you leave to go to your friend’s house in a jumper and jeans and then have to stay the night at theirs, because God forbid you came home in a dress at 3am. It’s feeling like a foreigner when you visit India even though people of your own skin colour surround you. This just shows that the colour of your skin does not solely act as a racial dividing factor; even amongst your ‘own’ you still face the dual identity crisis. I find it quite ironic how within the western world it is the ideal to be brown and bronzed; however within the Indian community, being pale is the ultimate sign of beauty.
During my recent visit to India, it was obvious from the endless stares that I was identified as a foreigner, and was stopped in the street many times by people trying to take a photo of me because I was born with lighter skin than average for a south Asian. Therefore, it is clear that it is not only British Asians that are facing the identity issue, whilst we may be battling to either blend in amongst the British crowd, or prove to Indians that we are just as culturally authentic as they are, there are Indian women who feel forced to hide their true image in order to become a whiter and therefore 'improved' version of themselves, because in their eyes, with white comes connotations of wealth.
Trying to deal with this identity issue will never fully be resolved, you need to accept that you are in fact a dual citizen.
No matter how embarrassed or ashamed you may feel, it is not going to change the fact that you were born with this special identity that no one can take away from you. Trying to impress others by attempting to create their desired identity, you will devalue and lose your most powerful identity, which is not based on skin colour or culture, but who you are as a person.
So why limit yourself to one way of living your life? Be open and immerse yourself in a concoction of British and Indian culture, neither one has a title of supremacy. Their languages, flavours, history, values and morals compliment one another. Instead of thinking of a strong passcode to lock that dual identity safe, leave it open to explore both identities. Because why not add a little Indian flavour to spice up your English life?
This article was originally posted on Pavan Kallar's blog here.