Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
The inevitable question for anyone who isn’t white. Sometimes it’ll be a catchy variant, asking where you’re from ‘originally’, or about your parents’ birth. For me, the question is often ‘where is your mother from?’, to which the answer is Pakistan. Not many people are interested in my white Dad other than those surprised that he’d marry my brown Mum.
The curiosity is lovely, but it can get quite annoying because I often don’t know what people mean. Birmingham is home for me, and that’s far enough away for anyone to care about down South. Then there’s the classic “you don’t sound Brummie” accusation, but that’s a different point. It’s a deep question though, where am I, or any of us, from?
It’s a question that is usually not given any thought unless you’re mixed race. Dual nationality complicates things. Explaining your parentage is irritating enough in some parts of the multicultural UK, let alone in many countries abroad where the locals are simply not used to someone of your background popping up. Family holidays to Egypt have been rife with the locals assuming that I’m either Egyptian or Arab, prompting them to try to converse with me in Arabic. They’ve been disappointed.
Whilst my Dad is given the privileged Westerner (sell him things nicely he must have money) treatment, my mum is constantly asked if she is an ‘Egyptian lady’. This sounds quite classy. She is not. Egyptian, that is. In India, when my mum called a taxi, my dad would hide out of sight. Assuming my mum was local, she would not be charged the jumped-up tourist prices. My dad would then appear after it was paid for to the driver’s frustration.
Friends have asked me which “side” I adhere to more, which to me always seems a ridiculous question. I was born and raised in England. I cannot speak Urdu. I last visited Pakistan many years ago. My mum, though deeply connected to her homeland, grew up in London and ultimately settled over here. And yet there is a question of belonging. It’s not brought about internally, but by the surrounding world. I’ve grown up on jacket potatoes and supporting West Bromwich Albion, and yet have always been an outsider in some form. Being biracial complicates things further. In groups of Asians I’ve been the outsider, my accent and mannerisms markedly English, or more specifically, white. In groups of white people I am the representative for Asians, their nominated spokesperson for all things brown and beautiful. Ethnically, I don’t fit in with either. It’s a funny one; if Barack Obama had been president of his father’s birthplace, Kenya, he would have been their first white president.
How people see you also depends on the things you’re interested in. My Muslim upbringing enables me to speak coherently about issues that affect the Muslim community. I shy away from being seen as some kind of authority on the subject, but at the same time I can see how I play up to this image. I’m deeply connected to the Muslim community, to the plight of the Palestinians and the hardship of the Rohingya. I’m aware that my entire worldview has been shaped by an entirely different upbringing than many of my friends’, and so I’m better informed on certain subjects. In the same way, there’s loads I haven’t grown up with. Bland food, church visits and drunk parents. Hearing about the latter from some friends really got me. The idea of your parents drinking seems completely mental to me. I’ve grown up on TV’s notion of weddings, though never been to one. I have been to an Asian wedding though – they’re places of bling, chatting and food. So much food.
People define themselves in different ways. Some actively stick to a nationality, reluctantly accepting that they’re ‘British-born’ rather than British. I can understand this. Belonging is a cornerstone of humanity. If you don’t feel that you belong, you’re not going to feel welcome, let alone classify yourself as such. It’s why in any conflict the language of division is used. By separating ‘us’ and ‘them’ you can draw lines of belonging. I have a connection to Pakistan sure, but I also have a connection to other places. The ‘where are you from’ question is confusing. What does it mean to be ‘from’ anywhere? I don’t know and I sometimes doubt if others do when I see their handling of the question.
One woman, when showing off her new bag with Arabic writing on it, once wanted to ask me about it. We were in conversation, when a thought occurred to her. She pointed to her bag, and looked back at me, confused. ‘You’ve got something, haven’t you?’ Aside from complete bewilderment, I didn’t know what I had ‘got’. Maybe it was attractiveness.
We live in a time now when the question of identity is everywhere. We are constantly trying to define ourselves because the world itself is so confusing. Even ten years ago the idea of millions of people accepting gender as a fluid concept would have seemed ridiculous. And those who attack others’ proclamation that they’re British, gay or transsexual, well, they’re searching for their identity too. Or rather, trying to cling onto it, threatened and made insecure by this wave of self-determination.
For now at least, identity is firmly in the realm of agency. For now, you can choose. And with this choice comes hope.