As the third South Asian Heritage Month comes to an end, I reflect on how my culture, upbringing and roots as a British born Indian are so centric to who I am and all that I stand for. I share how being of Indian descent has often been the best thing about me, but at times has felt like it’s put me a few steps behind. This is not my usual thought piece on sustainability, parenting or women in business, but hopefully you’ll find it just as insightful a read.
Growing up as a BrIndian
Being a British born Indian, or as I like to call it a ‘Brindian’, I’ve often described my life as having the best of both worlds, the opportunities and freedoms of the west, and the amazing traditions and cultures of the east. But growing up as a brown girl in the UK in the early 90’s was actually a little confusing and sometimes tough. (Albeit not as tough as my parents had it when they first migrated here from India in the 70’s).
It was often difficult to balance the two cultures, and I found myself switching between personalities depending on the situations I found myself in. At school, I wanted to show how well I had taken on British culture, and assimilated into the British way, (eg making sure my packed lunches were free of chapattis or pungent curries), but within my community setting I was doing everything to avoid being dubbed a coconut, a phrase often coined to describe those that were taking on too much of the British culture and not embracing their roots. (coconut = brown on the outside, white on the inside).
Although I was British, born and raised in the UK, I was very conscious I didn’t look like other British people in my school. I didn’t eat the same food, didn’t wear the same clothes and I didn’t share the same faith. There were many things that I would often have to explain to friends when I was growing up; my strict vegetarian diet, not drinking alcohol and the multiple religious festivals we would celebrate to name a few. Sometimes I felt that my British friends thought I was too Indian and my Indian family thought I was too British, I found myself stuck in the middle, not quite sure who to appease.
It’s harder to be, what you can’t see
Growing up, other than in my temple community (and in Bollywood films), I didn’t really see people like me; certainly not in the workplace or in positions of power. Oh wait, there were the characters Sanjay and Gita from Eastenders, who some of my ‘so called friends’ would tease me about. And later on there was Jas from Bend it Like Beckham who I did actually share a lot in common with! (I too would often sneak away and play football when I should have been studying).
But eventually when I did start to see other Indians on TV they would be sporting the thickest accents or be playing the stereotypical role of Doctor, shopkeeper or accountant.
The little I saw of Indian women being represented was very stereotypical and one dimensional. They were depicted as being quiet, subservient and dutiful.
I was quite the opposite in nature to this. Being really sporty meant most of my childhood days were spent on football pitches, tennis courts and netball courts, usually wearing the trendiest sneakers I could afford.
To fund my sneaker addiction, I worked on being financially independent and took on a paper round as soon as I was old enough to work and then went on to working part time throughout my Mechanical Engineering degree. Growing up I was pretty keen to show the world that I was far from the stereotypical Indian woman they were akin to.
Mandir – where the mind becomes still
The one thing I noticed that many of my other British friends lacked was something I had in abundance growing up; a sense of community. As a practicing Hindu, the one thing that has been constant throughout my life has been my spiritual and community home, my temple (also known as Mandir in Sanskrit). Mandir literally translates to a place where the mind becomes still and in the hustle and bustle of life in the UK, it’s been the place that’s kept me grounded. It’s where I’ve met lifelong friends and somewhere I’ve learned valuable life skills.
My weekly visits to the temple have allowed me to stay connected with my roots by giving me a reason to dress up in Indian attire, helping me to master my mother tongue and providing a welcoming place to convene to participate in a whole range of activities from sports to performing arts to events management. I feel so lucky to have had what felt like a real life Byker Grove! (For those that remember that 90’s show)
Go back home
I grew up in north west London and have lived in the area my whole life. When people ask me where I’m from, I usually default to London, but when I see their quizzical look to my response, I then follow up with ‘my parents are from Gujarat in India’.
Like most other second generation British Indians, I’ve often been told to ‘go back home’, never quite understanding the viciousness behind it, but always fearing that this level of ignorance could potentially mean being ousted from my home country at any time.
The thing is when I was younger and would visit India, it all felt so alien to me. The heat, the amenities, the way of life was far from what I was accustomed to. And despite being able to spend time with family who still lived there, it felt like anything but home.
The older I grew however, the more impactful my trips to India became. With each visit I would learn more, meet more people and hear incredible stories of perseverance. And in hearing these I would feel a little more found, a lot more humbled and an incredible amount of gratitude for my South Asian roots. Each time as my trip was coming to an end and I was returning back to London, I would feel like I was leaving a little piece of me behind.
Born to stand out
Over the years, I’ve learnt that my culture is part of what makes me so unique, it has helped me to stand out from the crowd and allowed me to appreciate that what makes me different is also what makes me interesting.
As I’ve climbed the corporate career ladder, I couldn’t help but notice that I was often the only South Asian in most rooms. So over the last 15 years of my career I’ve set about a personal mission to help change this, particularly within the STEM sector.
Now when I look around, I do indeed see more people like me, starring in my favourite shows, in positions of power and even around boardroom tables. There’s of course so much more of a way to go, but with more representation will come more inspiration for the next generation of British South Asians.
Over time my two identities have gone from being confused to being fused. From British Indian to BrIndian.
Thank you to South Asian Heritage Month for inspiring me to shine a light on such an important part of what makes me who I am