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“Exotic” But Not Quite: What Living As Half Indian In UK Means To Me

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By Morgaine Das Varma:

“Hey! Hey, excuse me!” I hear the shout, just as I begin to walk away from the ATM. Startled, I turn around, expecting someone to be running after me holding my debit card. The shout is urgent, not rude, but clearly important. Dashing towards me is a young man, brown-skinned, lanky and beaming.

“Sorry,” he says, “I just had to know – are you Iranian?”

I shake my head. “No, sorry.”

“Oh.” He looks sheepish, and shakes his head. “I’m very sorry, I just thought you were.” He gives me a polite smile, tinged with awkwardness, and walks off.

katrina kaif
For representation only. Source: YouTube.

For the rest of the day, I feel weirdly guilty like I’ve told a small lie to someone. I don’t know why – I told the truth to the friendly boy. I am not Iranian. Nor am I any kind of Arab, despite the number of times I have been mistaken for one. I am Indian. Well, half Indian. Mixed with a European side that is a medley of European nationalities. And this interaction with the friendly boy, who had innocently mistaken me for someone of his background, is only one of the many awkward moments a mixed race person of colour will experience.

First of all, let’s start with what I term “ethnicity bingo”. Picture the scene – me, in a bar, at a party, even at work. Picture the person – usually white, always rather polite, expression like someone inspecting a museum exhibit with a laminated tag reading “DATED: CIRCA. 1993. COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: UNKNOWN”. And listen to the question that comes out of their mouth.

“Where are you from, then?”

And then, inevitably, invariably, “Where are you actually from?”

I then receive a barrage of nationalities and ethnicities, said in the tone of someone who is hoping to hear a ‘DING-DING-DING!’ bell-like noise when they hit upon the right one.

“So, you an Arab? Syrian? No? Palestinian? Turkish? Ooh no, you’re South American! Right?”

I’ve had people ask me what my ethnic background is before they’ve asked my name. It’s exhausting, and whilst it’s not the rudest thing you can ask a stranger, it’s not the most respectful thing either. I’ve had a man on public transport make friendly small talk with my white friends but only speak to me to ask if I’m actually a Mexican or just look like one. He introduced the question with “I know it’s maybe a bit rude” – like acknowledging the awkwardness would somehow dispel it. It didn’t.

Now let’s go onto languages. Whilst many people of colour often end up pressured into speaking English at the expense of their mother tongue in forced attempts to assimilate into white culture, it’s a special kind of bind for the mixed race child. My father chose not to teach me Bengali or Hindi growing up, believing it would confuse me – English was the priority. Bengali would be spoken at home around me, occasionally Urdu, if he was on the phone, to a friend.

Whilst I inevitably picked up a fair bit of Bengali – after all, how else was I meant to eavesdrop on my parents when they assumed I couldn’t understand them discussing my teenage misdemeanours – the shame of not speaking it fluently still burns bright. So much of feeling like you belong to a culture is being able to speak the language, and when that is absent, one feels excluded.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 12: Community members watch the Shree Muktajeeven Swamibapa pipe band perform at Guru Purnima, an Indian festival dedicated to spiritual leaders, at Shree Swaminarayan Mandir, a major new Hindu temple being built in Kingsbury on July 12, 2014 in London, England. The pipe band was established in 1972 in honour of Shree Muktajeeven Swamibapa who, after enjoying a performance by a Scottish pipe band in Trafalgar Square during a visit to London in 1969, inspired his disciples in the United Kingdom to form a pipe band. The original nine members in the band - drum major, four pipers, and four snares - were trained by world-renowned pipe band competition judge Major James Caution. Today the band has around fifty playing members who all live in the North London area and have strong ties to India. The band's repertoire comprises both traditionally Scottish pipe music and Indian melodies, bhajans, and original compositions and transpositions of Hindi film songs by band members. The Swaminarayan faith, a branch of Hinduism, was established by Lord Shree Swaminarayan, at the end of the 18th century in Northern India. For much of the 20th Century the faith was led by Jeevanpran Shree Muktajeevan Swamibapa who toured all over India as well as establishing Swaminarayan Temples in East Africa the United Kingdom and the United State of America. The Shree Swaminarayan temple (Mandir) Kingsbury, in the London borough of Brent, is the principal place of worship in the south of England. The Mandir complex, set to fully open at a festival in August, has cost ?20 million to build, all of the money being raised by the community and through the sale of its previous site in Golders Green, which is being developed for housing. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
For representation only. Credit: Rob Stothard/Getty Images.

Thirdly, community. As people of colour living in white-majority countries, we often have the comfort of at least a small community of others of our culture behind us. Desi neighbours, local businesses, and work colleagues can often play a large role in helping those in the Desi diaspora feel less isolated. But for mixed race people, one is often left feeling like one should belong to both the Desi community and the white majority, whilst also feeling like one belongs to neither. Indian family friends will poke and pinch me, praising my white mother for giving me lighter skin and eyes – “so pretty, good to have a white parent” – whilst at the same time tutting at me for not having visited India for over a decade, or staring blankly back at me when I don’t know how to respond to their rapid-fire questions in Hindi.

And despite my existential angst about how I don’t feel a real Indian, I still am a visibly brown person living in a white majority country. Just because the Indian community may not see you as Indian does not stop the white community from seeing you as not-white. Despite the mixed race population in Britain being one of the fastest growing ethnic populations according to census data, and numbering almost one million in 2011, being seen as not-white is enough to receive a whole host of racist microaggressions and larger aggressions.

As a child, I remember seeing people spit on the ground as my father walked past, still holding his head high, and not understanding what my parents meant when they spoke about ‘racism’. As a much more informed and embittered adult, I see white folks look at me with open discomfort or dismissiveness; I have white employers who ask if I speak English properly and then explain how they doubt I will fit the ‘look’ of their establishment.

As a brown woman, white men look at me with gleaming eyes and wax lyrical about my skin colour and how ‘exotic’ I am, like I’m a tin of lychees and not a person. And every so often, the white-power Scottish Defence League march through my home city and I spend the entire day worrying for the safety of myself and my father.

I wonder if I should feel more patriotic towards India when I haven’t visited it for eighteen years. I am humiliated when a white friend – fresh off the plane from a soul-searching holiday in India – waves their Hindi vocab books in my face and crows “I speak more Hindi than you do!”, like they’ve beaten me at a game that I have been trying to understand since I was born. I pester my father for details about his life growing up in Bengal; I try to build myself a history. I try to be comfortable with living in the United Kingdom being seen only for the fact I am half-Indian, whilst at the same time fearing that I will visit India and instantly only be seen as a half-European.

I would not change being mixed race, for all the issues it has left me with. But I will, like many mixed race kids, be left with the feeling of not quite fitting in anywhere, of never speaking enough languages, of never quite being definable.

If you know a mixed race person, be kind. Don’t demand our ethnicity, like you’re ordering a dish in a restaurant and need to know the ingredients. Don’t laugh if we can’t speak our parent’s language – and please don’t demand why we can’t. Often, first generation immigrant parents believe they are doing the best thing for us when they don’t teach their mother tongue. If you’re interested in us romantically, don’t fetishise our race status – we’re not ‘exotic’, and we’re no more ‘exciting’ than the last person you dated just because we happen to be ‘mixed’.

Mixed race in a white majority country will never be an easy job, but luckily, we may find that we are actually more adaptable than others. Having grown up in such a shifting sand of identity politics and self-image, mixed race kids often find themselves more flexible. At least that’s what I have found. I may be neither one thing nor the other, but that means that I can create an entirely new space for myself.

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  1. Kim Simpson

    A fantastic post, thank you for sharing your experience. I am the mother of a mixed race daughter (white/black) who has a very skewed identity living in a largely white community in Scotland. No one tries to guess her ethnicity, she is seen solely as black which is puzzling for her living in an all white household. You mentioned the SDL – do you live in Scotland? If so I’d love to introduce you to my photography project which focuses on experiences much like you have described in your article, and keep in touch for potential inclusion in future projects?

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