This week’s topic is a bit of a strange one in the sense that it’s been in my head, and in my life, for as long as I can remember but I’ve never managed to articulate it into words.
Growing up, I was definitely part of the British Asian brigade, who grew up in the 1990s with strict immigrant parents (until they got divorced), who saw the world through a particular lens.
A large chunk of my upbringing saw an emphasis on being proud of my South Asian heritage and proclaiming it wherever necessary. This included things such as speaking my mother tongue, showing Panjabi pride at all times, knowing and being able to translate my prayers, understand my religion, cook my regional cuisine and upholding my culture.
So far so good. Until I went to school and heard these words from a fellow British Asian kid:
“You’ve never been to India!? Wow I’m more Indian than you!”
As a young child, I was at primary school, to hear this made me feel quite embarrassed in front of my school mates (who were largely white and turned to me for everything and anything to do with India and Indian cultures).
Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t qualify to be ‘Indian enough’ because I didn’t celebrate particular festivals or hadn’t visited India or expressed a wish to do so.
I grew up feeling like I was in a constant tug-of-war with how I regarded my identity and how others regarded me in what they believed were ‘true markers’ of what it meant to be Indian.
It wasn’t until I went to university, that I heard something that was not too different from this childhood episode, but from the most unlikeliest of people:
“Oh my G’d! You guys are so backward here!”
These words came from the lips of an Indian from India. For us growing up in the Diaspora (well me for certain!) the idea that those from the motherland were ‘closer’ or ‘truer’ to being Asian, was one which seemed to reign supreme.
As silly as it sounds, I genuinely grew up believing that because I was born and raised in a western country, that I wasn’t as attuned with my ethnicity as someone from the motherland.
So to hear this, felt like I had been lied to my whole life. I thought this level of cultural competitiveness only existed between Diasporic South Asians.
That off-hand remark is one which has stayed in my mind for a long time, and it’s something that I have started to notice more.
So what if I speak Hindi and Panjabi with a British accent?
There is a tendency for South Asians (from their respective motherlands) to almost look down upon or mock Diasporic South Asians, for upholding certain aspects of their cultures (such as language, believing in our religions) and condemning them for doing so.
So what if I speak Hindi and Panjabi with a British accent? From a Diasporic view, it’s a bit of an achievement to actually speak your mother tongue, in a country where you’re not part of the majority.
But this aspect of being connected to your identity, has been labelled as ‘backward’ and ‘not cool’ by the self-styled gate-keepers of South Asian heritage.
I don’t know about you, but ‘backward’ mentalities, in my book are things like honour-based violence, forced marriages, belief in the caste system and more.
Language is the last thing I’d have associated with being backward!
For the vast majority of us, whether we’re second or third generation, the constructs of our identity are largely tied up into three main categories, ethnicity, culture and religion.
Of course there are other factors which also have a significant impact on how Diasporic South Asians regard their heritages (which are contextual) but I believe that these three are the basic foundations upon which we build our identities.
It’s bad enough that we have this sort of one up-man-ship against each other in the Diaspora, alongside other forms of tension that currently exist between ethnic groups in this segment. The last thing we all need is a similar attitude between Diasporic South Asians and Asians from the sub-continent.
How can we ever fully claim our power, as a collective Diaspora, if we are still so hung up on outdoing each other to satisfy our egos? Can we not see how this will (and is already) only damage us in the long term?