British or Asian? The Identity Crisis

The identity of those of a South Asian origin in the UK is constantly in the limelight. With terms like British Asian not always representing which ethnicity group a person is from, we discuss what does it mean to be Asian or British.

'Is integration really necessary?'

Almost all British Asians have heard that question – “Where are you from?” Most of us reply, “I’m from here – the UK” Some of us add, if from India, “But my parents/grandparents are from India.” Not a lot of us will add, “My ethnicity is Indian.”

How many of us feel compelled to add a second comment? Do we add the second comment because of a puzzled response to our first answer or because we feel the first statement did not fully describe who we are. Or do we leave out the second comment? This is a question of acceptance and belonging.

To what extent is our identity defined by the country we grew up in. How much importance should we give our ethnic origins? What is our cultural identity and heritage? Is it British or is it Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi?

Many of us feel that we grew up in a country that isn’t really our own. We (or our parents) weren’t made to feel welcome. The term ‘Asian’ was given to us as immigrants arriving in Britain from South Asia.

Asians had to fight for their rights to be treated with respect and fairness here. This was our right as human beings and citizens irrespective of what culture we came from. We had to remind the indigenous British majority that we were invited here to work for the NHS or in foundries and factories. However, a lot of us grew up here integrated into the education system and had to develop a sense of belonging despite not being ‘part’ of the majority.

Maybe the real question we should ask is how accepted do we feel by the country we were born in? Are we a separate immigrant population that live apart from mainstream society? Do we feel able to participate in that mainstream society freely, without prejudice against the British culture? This is a question of integration and adaptation.

For many, integration is a question of practicality. We live, work and play within a British system. This is the environment and culture we interact with daily, and it should define how we are and to a large degree who we are. Is it a simple case of ‘If in Rome, do what the Romans do?’ Because India, Pakistan and Bangladesh belong to a different continent and these countries in reality cannot be labelled as the ‘homeland’ for British Asians. We don’t know how to live there. We don’t know how their system works or what makes their people tick.

The Asian kid in the of the classroom has become an important part of British culture. The Asian man in the corner shop, the banking clerk, the IT professional, the Doctor, the Pharmacist, the Council worker, the Asian Beautician; all contribute to the British economy.

We play a full part in the culture of the country from Jay Sean and Meera Syal, to Jimmy Mistry, Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Shruti Vadera. Indian music rhythms are used in television theme tunes and radio jingles. Bindis and henna tattoos are suddenly cool. It’s great to ‘love’ Bollywood since hits like Slumdog Millionaire. Asian fashion is also on the catwalk. Thinking about it, multicultural Britain has allowed us to express our culture and live our lives here.

Most Asians formed a new identity for themselves. We felt that those who chose to live in a ghetto where they maintained outdated South Asian ideas were disadvantaging themselves. Integration was essential. We were ingrained with the idea that we had to fit in to survive and work in this country. That was the experience of those who came before us. We all remember the 80’s and 90’s when it became cool to think being Indian was sad. We were rejecting our own cultural heritage. Did that make us less of a person? Did that make us cheapen our values?

For our parents or grandparents it was first loneliness and living in an unfamiliar land, and then nostalgia, that encouraged them to maintain their own culture vigorously. But for those that grew up here, this country is all we know, so we don’t have the same motivations of nostalgia. We feel that our cultural heritage is important and that someone somewhere should maintain it.

For a lot of us maintaining contact with our cultural heritage is a question of duty. We feel obliged to attend the traditional ceremonies and festivals celebrated by our parents’ generation as they strive to maintain their culture. And the other important issue is: Do we need to go to India/Pakistan anymore? Is it necessary to maintain that cultural link? Do we need to go there in order to maintain our cultural identity?

The word Asian in itself causes problems in definition. It is a description imposed on us by the British majority – lumping Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshi’s and others all together. Without the realisation that each of these groups vastly differ in socio-politics and religions. Here we are being defined by our skin, ethnic and cultural heritage which becomes more important than being assimilated into a new British Asian identity.

A significant part of our Asian population asks, ‘Is integration really necessary?’ Do we lose a part of our cultural identity when we assimilate into the mainstream?

In a BBC survey 58% of British people thought that ‘people who come to live in Britain should adopt the values of and traditions of British culture.’

Is the mainstream the only culture we should be happy with? Most of us describe integration as wanting to belong. We grew up surrounded by British things and British idea. It was British-ness that we aspired to. We wanted to be and do all the things we saw growing up and because we lived in Britain those things were British.

Other parts of our society would argue that this was because our parents did not teach us our Indian or Pakistani culture. A lot of us did learn Indian and Pakistani values but how relevant were they when we were growing up? What we were dealing with on a daily basis was British life – India was a nine hour plane journey away. Some of us hadn’t even been there.

We live in a country which is accommodating and understanding of cultural differences. From the BBC Asian Network, the British Asian Trust to Lloyds Jewel Awards, various South Asian Arts funds and UK India Business council. It is part of our duty to appreciate that and integrate into the host country’s culture. We need to take an active part in British life and culture. It is part of the mutual respect deal.

Which term describes your identity?

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S Basu wants to explore the place of Indian diaspora in a globalised world in her journalism. She likes being a part of contemporary British Asian culture and celebrates the recent flourishing of interest in it. She has a passion for Bollywood, Art and all things Indian.

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