As I finish my first semester of my postgraduate degree in the United Kingdom, it baffles me—in a good way—as I take a look back at the past year. On September 13, I landed in the country that colonised my homeland for almost 200 years, with hopes, apprehensions, and aspirations. I lost sleep as the date of my departure approached, and did not sleep during my 12-hour journey. A little background must be presented.
I belong to the city of Kolkata, India, and that is a sentence I had developed a bittersweet stance on. The city had taken away more than it had offered to me. It had given me glimpses of the good of everything I made contact with and had turned half of everything into ashes, almost like a reverse Midas’ touch. In search of the impending question “What comes next?” and everything that my bachelor’s degree had taught me, I knew in my heart of hearts that I could never choose between Gender Studies and Media Studies. Looking for the amalgamation landed me with an offer letter for a Master’s program at the University of Sussex (Brighton, UK) in Gender and Media.
I had not even exited Heathrow Airport before I became aware of my race and ethnicity for the first time in my life. I was a brown girl with a tier 4 student visa that permitted me to study in the UK for the length of my course and a part time work permit with a minimum wage allowance of about £8 an hour, safely. I was suddenly in a space where my passport was more valuable to me than my own life and, later on, my Biometric Residential Permit became its twin in importance. Moving to a city with a pace that is much slower than the urban metropolitan I was been born and raised in changed a lot of things for me. Brighton is a beach town which is essentially an attraction for tourists and people making weekend getaways. It is also home to thousands of students from the University of Brighton and the University of Sussex.
I knew it would be a fresh start, but I did not know the extent of what that phrase would mean. Rupees turned into Pounds, and “bhaiyya/didi” turned into “sir/ma’am”. I was becoming more and more aware of the privileges I had as an upper-caste, urbanised, financially stable, and educated woman in India. But the most shocking awareness in 21st Century Britain is the constant racial micro-aggressions. It’s almost funny (read: dark humour kinda funny) to remember the first time when two young girls laughed at my struggle with torn paper bags inside a bus as another person of colour helped me out. I was made aware of my identity as a person of colour, much like the rest of the South Asian community residing in any white country across the world. However, one does not realise it till they experience it.
Racism creates such a personal and subjective feeling of otherness. Even though it is a global problem and even though much has been written about it, it is indeed downright humiliating when you go through it yourself.
Britain is where I first learned that introductions must include pronouns, no matter how much ones appearance conformed to socially stereotyped gender norms. I realised that even if I were a saree, my pronouns could have still been ‘they/them’ instead of ‘she/her’. My queerness, however, was surprising in some spaces. In the beginning of my term, I had taken up a module called ‘Critical Reading in Advanced Gender Theory’. In that particular module (which I dropped within a week as it did not suit my vision of what I aimed to gain from my Master’s degree) my identity as a Queer Brown Femme made some of my classmates look at me in awe. I felt like I was Ziggie Stardust sitting in all my glory, performing my gender at a Gentleman’s Club. In the course of a few hours, I was constantly referred to as the Queer Brown perspective. I did not mind being that, but what I did hate was the restrictions that the compartmentalising came with. I felt like that was all I had to offer in a class full of white cisgender females and non binary people. After being restricted twice, I found myself stopping the flow of my class proceedings to say “Of course I am Queer, and I am brown, but my identity does not limit itself to those two terms and my knowledge base extends beyond that“.
Back home, I did not have space to ask myself questions and explore my identity as a queer girl. I was constantly struggling between the labels of bisexual and lesbian. I felt like I was accountable to the people surrounding me. The space that I moved into gave me the freedom to explore myself and realise that sometimes, it is not about answering to the constant bickering ‘woke’ questions thrown at me by the cisgender heterosexual majority that’s clueless about the beauty of exploring sexuality. It is here that I learned the comfort I found in calling myself Queer, nothing else. The comfort in self-exploration has been the shinier part of the story. Self-exploration was not limited to sexuality, it ventured into my love for cooking, my love for research, and my love for my own space. As a popularly perceived extrovert, living alone taught me that I am actually an ambivert.
My life in this white island full of intellectual and far-thinking people of colour has been a constant struggle between the disgust at racial othering and the privilege of having a safe space as a queer person. I was now in a University which boasted of a major queer presence in the student population. I was sitting in a class full of people from all corners of the world, constantly attempting to decolonise a eurocentric course structure by bringing in new things to the table. Racism may have been a reality in the streets and buses of Brighton, but my main module provided me with a space where diversity has always been celebrated and British students have been okay with the idea of people hailing from nations where knowing Leonard Cohen is not a part of their young adult life.
What the first world needs to truly understand about intersectionality is that they have no idea how far we are from reaching a point where even a single demarcated nation can be referred to as a truly intersectional space. Racial inclusivity cannot stop at cisgender acceptance. The awareness and normalising of Queer people of South Asian, South East Asian and Middle Eastern descent is equally important. There cannot be token inclusive spaces used as examples to call the western world an inclusive space. Inclusivity is still a myth even for cisgender heterosexual people of colour and in that situation, inclusivity of queer people of colour needs to begin somewhere.
The South Asian struggle of trying to make the best out of the time that our visa allows us while also excelling in our field of study is very underrepresented. Of course, these are privileged ideas to many but there is a lack of privilege in these stories that are not discussed. Not everyone has flowery words to offer in published works like that of Jhumpa Lahiri. Every time that I have been introduced to an easier and more productive method of teaching and learning, I have found myself longing to share this ease of access with excellent students back in my home country. I have also learned that one cannot judge a foreigner for deciding to stay on abroad or deciding to return. It is a result of personal political thinking. While Britain has taught me to take life slowly, one day at a time, and focus on the now, my Bengali-household upbringing has constantly made me anxious about the impending question “What comes next?”
Somewhere in between, I have learned the cultural beauty of my home country, the place it truly has in an atlas read by a white person, and how, unless we vocally claim what is ours, we shall forever be denied of it. But the realisation that mattered the most is that Queer inclusivity is a vast grey area in most conversations. The world must realise the fluidity of the community, or it will never be able to provide a larger table to include more perspectives. We will always be the ones bringing in folding chairs and scrunching in at that table.