Across the world, there are parts of many major cities, which are affectionately known by particular nicknames and become a part of every day urban life.
There’s Little Venice in London, Little Italy in New York City or various Chinatowns in large cities in many countries who have a large number of Chinese people residing in a particular urban area.
It’s a similar story here too: Leicester/Wembley (Little Gujarat), Southall/Birmingham/Derby (Mini Panjab), Tower Hamlets (Bangla Town) and Bradford, which became known as ‘Bradfordistan’ thanks to a scrawl of graffiti on a motorway road sign.
These are terms, often used by British Asians, and most British people of other ethnic groups, to describe areas with significantly higher percentages of South Asian residents.
The context behind why such large numbers of South Asians live in these areas, is because it was often the first place where their parents/grandparents settled when they arrived in the UK. Like any other ethnic group, you either end up staying in the same place or you move away.
It’s human nature to want to fit in and belong to a social group, be liked, accepted and regarded; we are social creatures.
Many British Asians often make these tongue-in-cheek comments to each other, because many have grown up visiting relatives in these areas (and others), were born and raised there, or because it’s where we buy all our food, sweets, spices and traditional clothing from.
Growing up, I was never really sure if people used these nicknames with affection, disdain or embarrassment. I remember having cousins who were extremely reluctant – and even disgusted – to visit areas like Ilford, Southall or Wembley because “it was like being in an Indian village.” The irony of this was that they had never even been to a village in the UK, let alone India!
Similarly, for British Asians who are born and raised in such areas, visit parts of London (and the UK) where there are much lower numbers of South Asians and experience culture shock.
My part of London is an example; I was one of a handful of British Asian girls throughout primary and secondary school in the late 90s/early 2000s in an area that was (and still is) very English/Irish and Italian. I wasn’t socially exposed to the British Asian experience in a place like Hounslow or Wembley; I grew up with a stronger emphasis on North Indian culture and where I stand with that.
“A cuckoo in the nest is an unwelcome intruder in a place or situation.”
It wasn’t until I went to university and met British Asians who had never gone beyond their hometowns, didn’t even have friends of other ethnic groups or religions, that I suddenly felt like a cuckoo in the nest – socially speaking.
At first, people viewed me as though I were some sort of strange social experiment (like The Truman Show) and whenever they spoke to me, they were visibly uncomfortable and tense. Then they ended up flat out ignoring me or making snide comments which made me feel very out of place.
They felt like – and had already decided that – I wasn’t a true ‘Indian’ because I didn’t grow up the way that they did, I spoke other languages, had a different spiritual outlook and because my parents weren’t from India.
I remember someone once made a joke in Panjabi, and I bantered back at them in the same language and receiving looks of shock. Then came the comments: “Oh! I thought you were a coconut!” “How did you learn Panjabi while growing up in south London?”
It was bizarre beyond belief and as though they believed that South Asian cultures couldn’t thrive in areas where they’re a minority. This itself is a hypocritical way of thinking: we all know that culture, as a concept, is capable of surviving and thriving in areas where it is not immediately visible.
The core components of what makes a culture thrive is unity, accepting that it will change and adapt with time, understanding that it is multi-faceted and relies on a number of factors which are not dependent on which part of London/the UK you have grown up in and deem to be an ‘authentic British Asian experience.’