A few weeks back, I was idly listening to a conversation on my train home. The conversation was between two young British born Asian ladies discussing whether or not to date men from “back home.” Upon hearing this phrase, I bristled and had to mentally say every single prayer that my grandmother taught me, in order to bite my tongue.
So: why did I bristle? It really really annoys me when I hear British born Asians casually say things like: “Oh you know back home…” or anything to do with India being referred to as “home.” For me it doesn’t sit well – sure maybe your parents and grandparents refer to India as “home” – which in that case makes perfect sense. I don’t understand why you would refer to a nation that has not supported your education or your rights “home.” And as if the whole outsider thing wasn’t enough, for those of us born and brought up outside of the motherland, we are referred to as “Non-Resident Indians” aka NRIs. Talk about drawing the lines.
“Home is where the heart is. And where you live becomes home.”
The nature of being British born and being of ethnic descent is one hell of a fusion with regards to identity. It also is very confusing with many British born Asians finding themselves in a never ending tug of war with regards to where they fit in and belong. In addition, it’s also given rise to many second, third and fourth generation British born Asians opting for a “pic-n-mix” attitude to form a completely new hybrid identity. This approach affirms one thing: that the nature of ethnic identity is subjective. This is why it is notoriously difficult to have a one-size-fits-all approach to what being British and being Asian means.
The British Asian experience in the West and diaspora has been far from idyllic; we are still light years away from where we want/can be – collectively and individually. There are so many outdated attitudes that only we, as a community in Britain, can really address in order to see and feel changes. Yes: it is terrible what happens to women in India and there’s nothing wrong with being concerned about the general state of humanity. But I ask you this: what about the atrocities that happen to British born Asian men, women and children in this country? Forced marriages, honour-based violence, honour killings, acid attacks, FGM etc. Do we turn a blind eye to these problems in our back garden, because it’s “easier” to feel compassion and empathy for those suffering in distant lands?
It’s all very well and good to feel immense concern for the motherland (for those of us from East Africa; the auntyland) and the plight of its citizens. I think it’s great that many British born Asians still have that connection and memory of the sub-continent. But you have to remember that it is not your “home.” You are not living there, you do not have an active say in their political, educational and economic systems nor do your decisions influence whatever goes on there. Call me radical, harsh, a killjoy etc but it’s a fact. Do not ever forget where you come from: the second you deny your roots and heritage you are lost. But do not forget where you live and that the way you currently live your life is within that sphere.
My name is Momtaz Saeed. I remember clumsily writing that when I was in primary school and had just learned how to write. I remember the house and town where I had lived with my mum and older brothers, Aziz, Karim and my twin brother Mahmood. My dad died when Mahmood and I were very small; I don’t remember much about him. My only memory of dad was from my parents’ wedding photos. I marvelled at my mother’s young, smiling face and affectionately ran my childish fingers over my dad’s green eyes, his stern but smiling face as they were surrounded by flowers, balloons, smiling people and a red banner that screamed: “Congratulations Nargis and Farhad!!” in bold, gold letters.
I’m not sure what happened to my dad. All I really have is a blurred memory of me kissing him on the cheek and leaving the house to go to school. Then coming home and seeing my aunt sitting on her knees as she held my wailing mother. My mother looked like a princess. She had bright brown eyes, pink lips, full dark eyebrows and a slim nose. I remember sitting on her bed and watching her rub coconut oil onto her long shiny hair every Saturday morning. But when dad went, she stopped rubbing coconut oil into her hair and wore it in a tight bun instead. I’ve never really felt the same since. I blankly stood at the window pulling my green shawl around my shoulders. Pulling it tighter and tighter as I tried to cocoon myself. Tried to hide myself. Tried to comfort myself. Searing hot tears stabbed the backs of my eyes as I tried to swallow the golf-ball sized lump that had risen in my throat. I looked at the backs of my hands as I felt the curious warmth from my shawl disappear, as it slipped down past my arms and fell to the floor. A puddle of green cotton that gripped my feet and stubbornly refused to let me leave. I observed the backs of my hands; a haphazard looking network of bottle green serpents snaking their way under my skin. Angry ropes that bound my flesh to my bones. I caught sight of myself in the reflection of the window and noted my eyes. A startling shade of green. My father’s eyes. Beautiful, but too close together, so I’ve been told.
“Beautiful eyes,” my mother would say. “You know, she’s the first in our family to have a degree!”
“But Nargis,” my aunt would reply. “There’s no point in having a girl who is a genius but unpleasant to look at.”
I thoughtfully pressed my lips together as I recalled that conversation. An unsuspecting, insecure 23 year old fighting back tears who had been hiding behind the kitchen door listening to their conversation. I remember feeling a sharp jolt in my stomach as my aunt said: “There’s no point in having a girl who is a genius, but unpleasant to look at.”
I found myself replaying their conversation in my head for years and feeling conflicted. I remember how I had ran upstairs to my room, buried my face in my pillow and sobbed until no more tears came. Through red, sore eyes I looked at my graduation photo at my mother’s beaming face: “Momtaz I am so proud of you,” she had said, affectionately touching my face. “All you need to get through life is wit, intelligence and determination.” I covered my mouth with trembling fingers to stop a whimper from escaping and closed my eyes. How wrong my mother had been.
For much of my young life, as a British Asian woman, I have often wondered why Indians (and general South Asians) tend to stare at each other more than white people. I went through all the phases: “they probably want my passport” “I hope they aren’t undressing me with their eyes” to “oh god, please don’t judge me!” Since I reviewed The Immigrant Diaries, the relationship that I have with my identity and those from Mother India, has significantly changed. I don’t get irritated or annoyed by the smell of tarkha (“curry smell”) and I am now much more mindful of how I perceive others.
No matter how far the river flows, it never forgets its source
Whenever I walk into a classroom, run a writing workshop or am placed in an environment where there is a young Indian boy or girl, I immediately sense and see their faces brighten up. They sit up a little straighter and they stare. Before, as mentioned, that would have irritated me but now I understand why. I remember whenever a non white guest speaker would come into school or help out in class, that I would feel a sense of reassurance, confidence and happy. At the time, I was one of a handful of South Asian girls in a sea of white, middle class girls – in that environment you don’t feel “normal” or like you fit in.
Seeing older non-white men and women gave me hope and the confidence that I didn’t have to be a white middle class girl to feel “normal” and achieve successes. It taught me to embrace my difference and be proud of where I came from. There was someone who looked like me doing things to help me and that empowered me as a child. To this very day, it still does. Similarly, young Indian (and South Asian) teens/children perk up because they get a sense of validation and comfort that they are not alone. This feeling of validation is applicable to South Asians staring at each other on public transport. We all joke about ethnic minorities doing the infamous nod to each other even if they’re complete strangers. The nod is more than just a nod: it’s an acknowledgement of each other, a deep rooted sense of respect and understanding of each other. It binds us.
Being able to finally understand this makes me feel very emotional – I feel like I’ve gained a deeper understanding of how South Asian identity in the West develops and evolves. So much so that I wrote an e-book “Colour Me In” about it to share with my readership and those who wish to broaden their understanding of identity in the diaspora.