A Question of Marginalisation: Where are you from?

As a British Asian woman one of the most recurring questions I’m asked when I meet someone new is: ‘Where are you from?’ At this point in my life this question infuriates me. It is mostly asked by men, and usually white men. In the UK this question is filled with racial tensions bubbling beneath the surface of our society. However, when I go abroad I get asked the same question even more. Sometimes it can be harmless, as a tourist people wonder where you’ve travelled from, and all tourists get asked that question. But the responses are another problem. It can be difficult trying to explain to foreigners how I am British and Asian at the same time. Awkward conversations about race, nationality and ‘where my parents are from’ become even more tiring when language barriers and ignorance come into play.

When brown men ask me where I’m from its one thing. I don’t like it, but I know it’s more about curiosity than difference. My London accent and brown skin are something they might not be familiar with. But when white men ask ‘where are you from?’ they don’t consider how it can marginalise others. More often than not, the one question quickly turns into an interrogation session, with people trying to trace my ancestral roots to parts of India they’ve never even heard of.

I recently started working as a corporate journalist, and was lucky enough to attend a work conference abroad last week. Before the trip I worried that the people I’d meet would ask where I was from, and had some great advice which separated the two categories in that question: nationality and ethnicity. I went to Berlin, a pretty diverse city, and was asked where I was from 3 times in the space of 3 days. Each time was different; the intent, the way it was asked, and how it made me feel. I know this is a shared experience between POCs, and thought I would share my most embarrassing experience of marginalisation with you.

Let me set the scene, I’m out at a fancy Italian restaurant in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. There’s about 12 of us at the table, a large group of men and women, from various places. I wasn’t the only ethnic minority at the table, but I was the only one without white skin.

As such a large group, and unable to speak German we drew attention in the restaurant. While waiting for the main course one perky waiter came over and asked us:

“Where are you from? You all look different?”

No-one replied, so I said, “We’re from Britain.”

No response.

“We’re from London.”

“Ohh London,” he said. “But you look like you’re from India!”

There was silence at the table, I could feel the heat rise to my face. Unable to think of a response I said,

“No, I’m from London.”

I felt embarrassed, and honestly didn’t know what to do or say.

Luckily my friend/colleague sitting next to me stepped in and diverted the conversation to the waiter, asking him about his name and where he was from.

“I’m from Albania”, he said.

Once the waiter walked away the silence stagnated, leaving all 12 of us to sit in my embarrassment.

A few moments later the white male sitting opposite me goes, “Well, that was awkward…”

We all felt awkward. But it was worse for me.

I hadn’t realised I stood out in this group of people so much. My colleagues, who I see on a daily basis and senior members of management sat around the table and bared witness to the waiter, who was a migrant himself, single me out. Clearly I didn’t look like I belonged in this group. Which is something I hadn’t thought of until he pointed it out.

Funnily enough, just last month I had tried to explain to my colleague why he shouldn’t ask strangers where they are from. He didn’t understand, and I didn’t have the energy to argue with him. He wasn’t the one singled out in front of his colleagues, but he was the one to say it was “awkward”. I replied, “this is what I’ve been saying”.

So, white men of the world… please think before you ask someone where they are from. Think about why you want to know, and how you’re going to pose that question. Personally, I don’t think there’s any need to ask a stranger this question. You have no right to ask me where I’m from, like I don’t belong. You have no right to comment on the colour of my skin, or ask me why I don’t have an Indian accent. Have some common sense, but more than anything have some respect. Just because you’re not put under a magnifying glass every day of your life, it doesn’t make you any better than POC. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes for once and stop being so ignorant.

Advertisements

Slut-shaming in South Asian communities: Reputation and Dishonour

Puberty is a confusing time, and as young adults become sexually active it gets even harder to navigate male-female relationships. In the present day the pressures on young people to be sexually active is merely growing. In an era where smartphones are a first world staple, snapchat, instagram, and video chats make sharing sexually explicit material even easier, and are an active part of young adult’s social life. In sharing sexually explicit material there is always the fear of being exposed. But for young women there is an additional concern, a fear that we didn’t know was there until society told us so, and won’t go away no matter what we do or how we behave.

Getting a bad reputation.

I can recall various scenarios at school, where girls were slut-shamed behind closed doors and to their faces. But the truth is, no matter what a woman does or does not do, the threat of developing a bad reputation is always there. A woman only has to breathe to get a name for herself. The extent to which societal judgement branches out for women means that we are labelled for the smallest things, whether it be the way we dress, or do our make up, to the company we keep and the amount of time we spend socialising at night. The word slut has always been a social construct, along with every other name used to degrade women. Derogatory language used against women is as old as time itself. The way these terms are freely used, and hurled as insults at women are attempts to subjugate and restrict female freedom, as well at curb their ability to love themselves and their bodies.

This is one of many double standards that women suffer. But the added pressure on women from South Asian communities complicates this dynamic further. Growing up, young South Asian men are mostly free to do what they please, whilst South Asian women’s bodies are policed with the utmost vigilance. It is this cultural, sexual double standard that liberates men and confines women. In the most extreme cases, the penalty for female sexual freedom is death (honour killings are less common in the UK, but they still occur).

The perceived crimes aren’t crimes at all, but the policing of female bodies is perpetuated through everyday occurrences. In South Asian culture women are raised to be fearful of being caught outside with men. They don’t have to be doing anything to be shamed, they don’t need to be touching, just being seen on the street with a male is enough to be seen as ‘up to no good’ and have an aunty inform your parents of what you’ve been up to. If a young South Asian woman is seen kissing her boyfriend on the street – that’s a problem. If she’s seen with a man from a different race that’s an even bigger problem. We don’t need to be caught in bed with men to face the same reaction that we would get if we had been. Holding hands with a black man? Shame on you and your whole family – what will people say?!

Almost any interaction between a young South Asian woman and a man is perceived as an instant threat in the female’s family. The blame is almost instantly placed on the woman, and she is labelled a slut or whore, often by her father, though mothers are also complicit in slut-shaming their daughters.

I don’t give a damn about my reputation.

You’re living in the past it’s a new generation.

Although there has been progress within South Asian cultures in Britain, the role of women remains intrinsically tied to honour and shame. We are raised as the honour bearers of our families and once that becomes threatened we are shamed, branded with a bad name forever more.

This is one of the reasons why young South Asian women have to live double lives, where they can engage in romantic relationships behind closed doors, without their families knowing. We learn to cut off a part of ourselves, of our female sexuality, happiness and right to enjoy our bodies. This in turn teaches us unhealthy methods for navigating patriarchal society, and often leaves us in positions of suffering. For example, if we endure abuse in our relationships, we are left to bare it alone or else let others know our shame, and our secret lives. This is a problem. The structures that teach us to be fearful of being seen as sexually active women are the same that stop us from reporting abuse.

We are taught to fear female sexuality. That it’s dirty, unspeakable, and abnormal. In this way South Asian parents unconsciously teach their daughters to loathe themselves. When you are an expert at self-loathing you are more likely to believe that you deserve to be abused, should it happen to you. You are more likely to believe it’s your fault and stay quiet about it. Or else face the shame of being seen as sexually active, and ‘damaged’.

The sexist practices within our families are complicated, and I’m afraid I don’t have much advice on how to deal with it. All I can say is try not to let it fester in your mind. The name-calling and insults are rooted in something very dark within our culture, and are tied to the male need for authority and control. It isn’t a reflection on who we are, it says much more about those using this language than about the ones on the receiving end.

So what’s in a name? Slut. Whore. Bitch. These names were chosen for us before we were born. They have nothing to do with our actions. Whether you are a virgin or have slept with every man you have ever met, you will still be called a slut at some point in your life. Regardless of your actions, sexist ignorant men will still look at you with this lense. So there is no need to fear being called it. Being disowned is still a real threat in modern South Asian families, including my own. But there comes a time in our adult lives where we have to choose whether to continue hiding and being ashamed of our bodies, or be honest and proud of our sexuality.

As women we face hard choices in life. It isn’t what is done to us that defines us, but how we deal with it. It’s not how others feel about us, but how we feel about ourselves. This is why self-love is so important. If you are true to yourself, and firm in how you feel about yourself, it doesn’t matter what society names you. What’s in a name anyway?

Adult Life Part 2: Being Broke & Tired

When we were younger we were sold dreams of what adult life would be like. Working hard, seeing friends and family whenever we wanted, being able to do whatever we wanted, because hey, we’d be finally old enough! Society sold us dreams of what university would be like. They also screwed us over when we graduated and were unable to find jobs we were qualified for.

We made it through all of that bullshit to get here. So you finally have a solid job, and some money in the bank, life should be perfect right? Wrong. The truth is we’re now on the hamster wheel of life and there’s no getting off. (Unless we become self-employed, or find ourselves a sugar daddy/mama).

Being young, and naive I underestimated how tiring work life would be. Commuting adds another 3 hours on to my 9-5, I know I’m not the first person to travel for work but damn… I thought I’d get used to it after a while but 4 months later I’m just becoming more tired. Socialising is a myth, and getting dinner after work is a chore. Goodbye friends, farewell social life…

You’d think that all this grinding would mean some extra coins in the bank right? Wrong again. After travel (TFL is a bump), bills, food, and the cost of anything in London your bank account is back at 0 by the end of the month. (Or in my case, deep into my overdraft).

I’m still trying to navigate this broke and tired adult life so my advice is limited, but here are a few things I’ve found helpful so far:

  1. Going to bed earlier. Getting an extra hour’s sleep can make a huge difference the next day. I’ve found that I’m the happiest at work when I’m in bed by 9pm or 10pm the night before. Yes, that means my evenings end before they’ve begun, but I’d rather get an hour’s extra sleep than waste time watching netflix (…I’ve fully converted to the dark side).
  2. Wash the night before. You can definitely get away with washing the night before in order to save time in the morning. Wash before bed, moisturise and make sure you put on deodorant. Every minute of sleep counts, and showering in the morning takes more time than you realise.
  3. Make-up free weekdays. I never thought I would enjoy going to work without wearing make-up but I really do. Not only was make-up taking up valuable time in my morning routine, it also made my hands dirty during the day when I’d casually touch my face whilst thinking things over. *Insert thinking emoji* I’ve started to enjoy leaving the house without make-up and I love getting 15 minutes more sleep because of it – Sleep is bae.
  4. Decide what to wear the night before. And iron if you need to. Choosing clothes for work can take a while, especially when you can’t remember whether you wore a certain shirt last week… Is it too soon to recycle this outfit?? Having your clothes ready for you in the morning means you can get up, get dressed and get going.
  5. Packed lunches. If you want to save some money, making healthy and tasty packed lunches is the way to do it. But again, make sure you prepare these the night before because you don’t want to rush around in the morning trying to dry off lettuce leaves or cut cucumbers when you’re still half asleep.
  6. Eating clean-ish. Fruit and veg will help keep your energy levels up, so make sure you’re getting enough vitamins in your diet. On the other hand, at work having some chocolate or a biscuit when you’re struggling or feeling tired can give you a real pick-me-up. Keep a good balance between these two and you’ll have your healthy nutrients and some cheeky treats in check.
  7. Plan regular meet ups, ahead of time. You won’t always have time to socialise, but missing your friends isn’t good either. Schedule in regular dinner dates, whether it’s once a month or once every two months, just plan something and stick to it. Friendships can stagnate when we’re all busy trying to get our lives together, but it’s important to keep making an effort. And if you can’t meet, schedule in phone calls on the weekend.
  8. Create a monthly budget. This is probably my hardest task at the moment. I’m still getting used to the cost of living, and trying to save at the same time. Calculate how much you spend on travel roughly, how much you spend on food and going out, bills etc every month. Then take what’s left and put it in your savings account. Every month when I get paid I move my money straight away so I only have a certain amount left to spend for the rest of the month. If I go over it’s not the end of the world, but it gives me a clear idea of where my money’s going and allows me to prepare for the next month.

Being broke and tired feels like crap, but it’s not for forever. Try to make the best of your work life, get enough sleep, eat right and watch your spending. Our 20’s are for learning, and although adult life seems to have come at us fast, we still have plenty of time to learn how to handle it. x

Silences in the Gujarati Community: Alcoholism & Abuse

Domestic violence is an issue across all cultures, but over the years I have noticed a trend in South Asian families where it appears to be more prevalent. From what I’ve seen there is a deep psychological issue within some South Asian men that pushes them towards anger and violence. More specifically, within my own Gujarati community I have seen this sickness dominate and destroy families time and time again.

From what I have witnessed over the years, in my own life and in those of other Guju’s my own age, there seems to be an unspeakable problem that festers within families, where fathers express their feelings through toxic masculinity. There’s an urge to not show weakness, and in trying to overcome this weakness as the head of the household they turn to rage. Anger is the only safe outlet for an unstable, and emotionally undeveloped man. Afraid that the fragility of his own masculinity will be seen and ridiculed he turns to blind fury. Too self obsessed to care how this will affect his family, too far gone in the gender roles passed down from his own parents, the man uses his wife as a scapegoat, to verbally and physically abuse when his emotions become too much to bare. The children, his property, should shut up and stay out of the way, unless they too wish to face his fury. If the children get hurt, who cares? They should just be thankful for the food they eat and the roof over their heads. As the main bread winner the angry South Asian male is allowed to do as he pleases, and no-one can say a damn thing about it, otherwise they are disrespecting him and his status as the patriarch.

What do you do with a man like this? A man who had a strict upbringing seeped in gender constraints, a man who has not settled into his identity as a migrant in Britain, still torn between his two identities, a man with undiagnosed mental health issues that were brushed under the rug repeatedly because such topics were taboo in his culture. Without a healthy outlet for his repressed anger he tries socially acceptable forms of escape, and attempts to drink his worries away. He soaks his problems in alcohol, hoping it will numb the pain of his existence. But all it does is allow him to spiral out of control, and give him an excuse to cling to in the morning.

I’m sorry.

I was drunk.

I don’t remember what I said.

I don’t remember what I did.

I was drunk.

Please forgive me. 

Repeat.

A few years ago I confided in a friend about what I was going through. Sharing my experience with him allowed him to share with me and we learned that we both had very similar family dynamics. An abusive and tyrannical father, a mother who normalised his behaviour in order to keep the family together, and lastly children who were left confused, angry and neglected, without any control over their family life.

I’m not saying this issue is solely related to Gujarati men. Not at all. Abuse transcends race and gender. I am merely speaking from my personal experience and those I have heard of over the years. When I was younger I heard people gossiping in school about Guju boys whose fathers would get drunk and beat them. As I grew older I heard more accounts of this behaviour from fellow Guju women. There is a common distinction between the abuse daughters and sons face in these situations, whether it be psychological or physical abuse. But that is another discussion all together.

I can’t say why this trend has occurred. The issue of alcoholism complicates matters, it becomes a scapegoat, an excuse for abusive behaviour. I have my own theories on the pressures that endorse this behaviour. But I will say that although alcoholism and abuse occurs across the world, there is a deafening silence surrounding this topic within the Gujarati community. Our culture teaches us to fear sharam. Our parents raise us to be wary of shame at every turn. It is this fear, this shame that allows the silence to permeate and the abuse to continue.

It is only when this silence is broken that change can take place and the healing process can begin. This is where I start mine.

Adult life Part 1: Finding Time For Love

This year I learnt how difficult adult life can be, and how hard it can be to sustain a romantic relationship whilst juggling the demands of our personal lives. The majority of my friends are still single, and although this may be upsetting for some, I really think our generation underestimates how big a commitment romantic relationships can be at our age. We’re so consumed by what we think a relationship will be like to really think about how much time and hard work it takes to sustain a successful relationship. These romantic fantasies we’re bombarded with in the media (and in our own imaginations) drive us to seek a partner, any partner, and start empty relationships with the wrong person.  We’re quick to jump into relationships without understanding what this means, what’s expected of us and what we expect from our partner in order for it to work.

For the first time in my life I am in a healthy relationship, with an incredible man, who makes me happy in a way I never thought was possible. It’s surreal to me, how easy we fit together, how we can get along without much effort and how little we fight. It’s very different to my past relationships and I feel lucky to have him as my partner. We have our ups and downs, as do all relationships. When we fight, it’s over the silliest things – which I realised the other day is actually a blessing. We have no major problems, and so irritations occur but they’re not big enough to effect the foundations of our relationship.

Although things are as near to perfect as I can imagine, we still have our problems. When we met I was working part-time, I shortly became unemployed, and after months of job searching I finally secured a full-time job. I now work 9-5 whilst my partner works late nights, so finding time to meet can be a struggle and it is probably the biggest issue we have. Nevertheless we find ways to manage, and although it can be tough at times, we try to meet up at least once a week.

Although we see each other regularly, it’s not enough. The strains of work life keep us busy and tired, and trying to coordinate our work schedules is a mission. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so glad to have found a full-time job, but that doesn’t stop me from missing the late night chats, and day-long dates that were possible when I wasn’t working. We both work hard and have our own family and friend commitments to balance on top of everything else. As incredible as our relationship is, it has taught me just how difficult adult relationships can be, time-wise. I’m still adjusting to the demands of adult life, I took for granted the free time of my university days and honestly, I don’t know if I would be able to sustain an adult relationship if it wasn’t for him. He makes the struggle worthwhile.

But for anyone in their 20s complaining about being single, please stop. You don’t know how much of a commitment it is to love someone while you’re trying to build a career, pay bills, look after yourself, your family, have a social life and save money for the future. These demands stretch us enough as it is, if you haven’t met someone you really care about, then being single shouldn’t be such an issue.

Adult relationships are hard. That’s the simplest way I can put it. Sustaining a committed relationship is hard work and not everyone you meet will be willing to put in the effort that you deserve. Also not everyone you meet will be worth your time. Choose wisely how you spend it, put yourself first and stop stressing about being single. When you meet someone worth prioritising, you’ll know.

The failure of NHS mental health services: access denied

Let’s begin with the obvious (but not always said) fact that it is perfectly OK to take antidepressants. The results behind their effectiveness isn’t conclusive, but for many people antidepressants can cause some relief from their depression. According to research, antidepressants are most useful for severe cases of depression, lifting one’s mood, helping them feel more able to carry out their day-to-day tasks. It’s been concluded that they are most effective when accompanied by regular counselling.

Unfortunately, the waiting list for counselling on the NHS is absurdly long. Yet, our access to antidepressants is almost instant. In my own experience, and in what I’ve heard recently from others also suffering from depression, GPs are quick to push antidepressants as the main remedy above other methods. Why?

I’ll start with my own experience discussing my mental health with my GP in January:

So I had a very disappointing GP appointment, with a harsh and unhelpful doctor who wasn’t very empathetic to my situation. As someone who was suffering from depression related to a very specific family situation, I went to the GP for help with the situation, and for a counselling referral. She basically told me I had to make the referral myself, and there was nothing she could do to help with the situation at all. Which is fine. What I didn’t like about this doctor’s approach was the fact that whilst being very dismissive of my situation she immediately tried to prescribe me antidepressants. When I explained I would rather try counselling she went on to say I could change my mind at a later date. I knew the causes of my mood, I am comfortable with discussing my problems with counsellors – something I was told I’d have to wait around 6 weeks to do. So why is it that the NHS are happy to give us pills (without any real assessment) but if I want counselling I have to first speak to my GP, refer myself, then wait for an assessment (a week), only to wait again for over a month for my first counselling session?

I’m not ashamed to take antidepressants, I just don’t want to. I know myself, my mind, and what’s worked in the past, to know that I would benefit from counselling.

To top it all off, a few weeks later I received a lovely invite in the post to join an experiment on antidepressants at UCL. The letter stated that I had been noted down by my GP as someone who “experiences low moods but has chosen not to take antidepressants”, it seems highly unethical to me that they would look for such people to test on. The study was a comparison between the effectiveness of antidepressants and placebos. Why put depressed people up to this? For the advancement of science? Maybe – but why not contact people who do want to take antidepressants, instead of coaxing those who don’t into it? I was shocked to get this letter, to say the least.

I can’t say this enough – there’s no shame in taking antidepressants. I’m just not down for the possible side effects, which are extensive. I just think the mental health services in the UK are letting us down entirely. Yes it might be quicker and easier for us to be prescribed pills, but what about what’s best for the patient? Have doctors forgotten that our (mental) health should be their main priority? Or are they too busy trying to keep to the clock to treat us like human beings instead of numbers on a computer screen?

…………

I first wrote this post in February. After being told I’d have to wait up to 6 weeks for my first counselling session I was let down again; I waited two months without being contacted, emailed the NHS and was told the waiting list was very long. Four months later when I had lost hope on ever being seen by a professional I finally got a phone call offering me sessions during the week. In this space of time I have secured a job (by some miracle) so can’t make these daytime sessions. When asking for an evening appointment I was told I would have to wait even longer. It’s now July and I am still waiting.  The vast difference between the availability of these two coping methods still shocks me.

 

Vote like an Immigrant

South Asians parents love to preach about how the younger generations are too westernised and not in touch with their roots. Yet they’re the ones who’ve forgotten themselves, their diasporic identity and its implications in Britain 2017.

Last Summer I was shocked to hear my elderly relatives say they were voting Leave. I was even more shocked that I had to persuade my parents to vote Remain. I would never call my parents woke – they’re often coming out with offensive comments and still hold traditional values – but I try my best to broaden their minds and correct them when they act ignorant. It’s been a long and frustrating process, but I’m proud to say my efforts haven’t been in vain. I see positive changes in them both – they’re still not woke, but at the very least they know their beliefs are outdated and problematic. I was able to persuade their votes last year and find myself doing the same now. If you’re experiencing the same struggle with your elders I urge you to do the same.

I live in Harrow, an extremely diverse part of London known for having a large South Asian community. It’s an area where different waves of immigration come and settle, changing the landscape and adding to this multicultural community. According to the UK Polling Report, the population of Harrow West (my constituency) is 42.9% Asian.We’ve had a Labour seat for the last two decades, however the margins between Labour and Conservative are extremely small. The 2015 general election result showed that of those who voted, 47% voted Red, and 42.2% went Blue. Seeing as white Brits only account for 29% of Harrow West’s population there seems to be more Conservatives of Colour here than people realise.

Most South Asians in Harrow are Gujarati, like me. It is this community I often find myself at odds with, especially when it comes to politics. I honestly don’t know what went wrong. We were all working class, and although parts of the SA community have worked hard to achieve a middle-class lifestyle in our area, it seems that along the way they’ve forgotten their roots. But I haven’t. It really doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in this country, in the current socio-political climate POC will always be labelled ‘immigrants’ – the kind that take white British jobs and pollute their neighbourhoods.

I had to remind my parents this the other day. They’ve been brainwashed by the xenophobic rhetoric of UKIP and the Tories of “there are too many immigrants coming here”. To which I replied you are an immigrant. That made them stop and think. I urge everyone who believes in a fair and equal society with rights for all, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or disabilities to vote with this sentiment. Vote like an immigrant.

We may be minorities but together we can accomplish something major.

The Conservatives will always see minorities as being second-class citizens, no matter how wealthy or educated you become. So don’t waste your vote, vote with the working-class, vote for change, and vote Labour.

As much as we need the youth to vote, we saw in the referendum that it isn’t just up to us. We need to hold those around us, and older than us to account. Speak to your parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. Do all that you can and together we can achieve something radical.