The Double Life of British Asians at Home, in Love and at Work

Most British Asians live a double life when it comes to the outside world and their culture. We take a look at how it differs at home, in love and at work.

The Double Life of British Asians at Home, in Love and at Work f

"I've been dating boys with no one knowing apart from my very close friends."

As British Asian generations evolve the way of life is gradually changing. However, living a double life is an aspect of British South Asian society that still rings true for many people.

Where most have or still do, live life in the UK to fit into two cultures – the British and the South Asian.

So what does this ‘double life’ entail? Well, basically it’s the challenge for any person whose roots are not from a country they were born in and then living with cultural differences in the country they reside in.

These differences become the foundations of this double life which they have to live in order to survive in both worlds. For the case of British Asians – roots from South Asia and living in the UK.

For the migrants that came in the 1950s and 1960s notably from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, their life was in many ways much easier. Because they only knew mostly the way of life from their homelands.

Skills and responsibilities were divided in a traditional manner – the men worked in hard labour jobs and their basic English language skills got them by at work, while the women were the homemakers and brought up their children with very few working.

Life at home was totally Desi and the languages spoken at home were mainly native.

But this all changed after they had children born in the UK. Their children, the British Asians, needed to learn to live a life which increased integration and a closer coupling with British ways of life.

This way of life led to them adopting a double life – one at home and the other outside of the home, which included study, work, love and relationships.

Life in the British Asian Home

Life in the British Asian Home - family

For the majority of British Asians living with parents and extended family, it means having a strong connection and awareness of the culture and ways of their family.

The traditions, beliefs, religion, food, language, discipline, respect and even dress sense, all play an important role, in the way they live their life at home. This tends to be different from the life they live outside of the home.

Life at home is mostly lived by the children in the way parents demand and expect it to be.

This includes differences in the sexes. Boys getting more preferential treatment is still common. Girls still expected to help with cooking and domestic work is a requirement seen in many households. This is changing but very slowly.

Sharmeen Khan, aged 19, says:

“At home, my brothers have it so easy and don’t do anything.

“When I am at college with them I can be and do what I like there with my friends, as soon as I’m home, I have to help in the kitchen, the washing and the cleaning. It’s just not fair!”

When the children are not within the jurisdiction of their parents and family, this ‘other’ life they live, aims to fit into British culture and society.

Jasbir Sahota, aged 22, says:

“At home, I go by their rules and cannot do without the Desi food and family laughs.”

“But when out with my mates, I’m a very different person and I leave my home life at home.”

To most traditional parents and family, this life outside of the home lived by their children is pretty much alien. Especially, to those who have not departed from their Desi ways.

Meena Patel, aged 21, says:

“Having grandparents live with us, our life at home is very much traditional.

“My parents only know this way of life. But they know that I have to adopt British culture more in order to achieve my ambitions.”

Food is an important aspect of British Asian home life and it often means Desi food is eaten more at home.

This results in many British Asian women and men too, learning how to properly cook Desi food.

However, for many young independent British Asian women, it is not a priority as it used to be for women who got married young and lived in extended families.

Bina Khanna, aged 23, says:

“We eat mostly Indian food at home but learning how to cook was not something I worried about but my mother taught me the basics before I went to Uni.

“I have to say it did help me with not relying on junk food and the student budget!”

Kiran Biswal, aged 18, says:

“I love Desi food but have no idea on how to cook it.”

“At home, my mum cooks and does not stress us about it. I think I can boil an egg!”

For British Asian children, life can be different too. Especially, if they live with or are being looked after by grandparents.

At school, they will be mixing in with their friends and integrating. At home, they will be exposed to Desi ways of life including mother-tongue languages.

Therefore, the double life of British Asians at home has a bias towards South Asian roots.

Life of British Asians in Love

Life in the British Asian Home - love

Relationships and love outside marriage for British Asians often result in complications.

While being brought up in a country which openly believes in freedom and the right to choose who you love and marry, being British Asian means it is easier said than done.

Most British Asians will have relationships prior to marriage which is a secret love. Where, their love life is not family knowledge, hence, resulting in living a double life for love.

Difficulties arise frequently when it comes to being in love with a partner from a different caste and nationality. In the case of same-sex relationships, it is even more complex.

Kamal Sandhu, aged 25, says:

“While I was at Uni I had a girlfriend who was from a different caste.

“Both of us fell in love but when it came to going back home after our degrees, we both knew there was no way we could get our parents to agree with us marrying.

“So, we ended it. I still look back and think about her.”

Most parents of British Asians will not accept their children to defying their wishes when it comes to marriage.

Despite nowadays being given a ‘freedom of choice’, ironically, it is subjective – where parents require the partner sought to be of the same religion, caste and background. 

This makes it extremely difficult to settle with someone you fall in love with who is not of these attributes.

Ayesha Shafiq, aged 21, says:

“I’ve been going out with a guy who is the same religion me but he is of a different nationality.

“I love him and we get on really well but there is no way I can tell my parents about him.

“So, my life outside the home is with him and at home with family.”

Many British Asians will have relationships fully knowing that eventually when it comes to marriage, they will have to accept and agree to a marriage arranged by their parents or family with someone else.

Some do it for experience, others do it hoping their family may just agree with their choice. 

Interracial relationships are definitely kept an extreme secret unless the family are liberal enough to accept this kind of dating. 

Tony Kapur, aged 23, says:

“I’ve always dated white girls since school. My brother knows but no way would I tell mum and dad.

“I just know they will find it hard to accept and they will not want me marrying out of my culture. Although, a distant uncle did marry a British girl.”

These kind of relationships for British Asian men are a distinct part of their life, and for them to survive, they are withheld from family.

In some cases, they even live with their partner in another city or town. For example, if they work living away from home.

For British Asian girls and women, it is even harder.

Secret romances and relationships are kept very confidential because if found out, it can often lead to catastrophic ends including forced marriages and even honour killings.

Sharmeen Begum, aged 20, says:

“I’ve been dating boys with no one knowing apart from my very close friends.

“If my parents found out, they will marry me off to someone from back home right away. In fact, they would send me to Bangladesh.”

Veena Patel, aged 27, says:

“I met a few guys for an arranged marriage set-up but it just didn’t click.

“I then met a charming British white guy at a party. I fell for him.

“We’ve been dating for two years. One day I will have to tell my parents.”

So, the love life of most young British Asians is definitely lived outside of the home and is a common aspect of the double life they lead.

Life of British Asians at Work

Life in the British Asian Home - work

Most British Asians living in very traditional families will definitely experience life at work to be different from the home.

At work, they adapt to life which conforms to the British influenced work culture, especially in professional jobs, and with a workforce which is mainly British and white.

Most will adopt what is expected of them in these roles and seldom be the ‘Desi’ person they are outside of work.

Therefore, this leads them to live a life at home which is much more ‘Desi’ compared to the workplace. This includes food, language and dress-sense.

Although most workplaces nowadays are not bothered about what you eat for lunch, most British Asians will rarely consume Desi food at work, they will eat whatever their colleagues are eating mostly.

A stigma not to eat our ‘own’ food has developed. Whereas in the past, labourers and the working class Asians did take a packed lunch to work with Desi food, despite getting flak for it.

The language spoken at work will be English. Definitely within a majority English work environment.

The moderate exchange of Desi words may happen between British Asians but that is usually when they do not want non-Asians to know what is being said.

Tanveer Mahli, aged 22, says:

“Working in the medical profession means you do meet staff from different backgrounds, including South Asian.

“But there is no way I would speak to them in my own language, although I am fluent.

“It has to be English because to me it is more professional to do so.”

For dress sense, in a professional environment, it is easier for men to conform.

For British Asian women, choices for wearing western clothes usually end up having to wear skirts, trouser suits or uniforms.

Also, for women who want to wear modest clothing, finding the right attire can be a challenge. 

Whereas, at home, women may well wear Desi clothes. In some British Asian households, it is still required for young girls to wear ethnic wear for modesty, especially, if living in a large or extended family.

Nazia Iqbal, aged 21, says:

“I prefer not to wear revealing clothes but in my office, most of the women including Asians do wear short skirts and western tops.

“So, I have to find clothes that do make me fit in but still stay modest.”

For many British Asian women, who they are in the workplace can differ a lot from who they are at home.

Duties in a Desi household still can mean the women doing all the domestic work, cooking and looking after the family.

For those living with in-laws, despite their day job, it can mean donning on the Desi clothes and getting straight into the kitchen to help prepare dinner in the evenings.

Amanjeet Bhambra, aged 25, says:

“The girls at work tell me about their nights out and what they got up to which I do find a laugh but my life is so different to theirs.

“Living with my in-laws means I have to play a dutiful daughter-in-law and put them first along with my husband and kids.

“Me time is, therefore, non-existent.”

This life is most likely very different from their British counterparts who have their husbands helping out in the home.

Although British Asian men are now helping more than the past, there are situations where the dependency on Asian women is still high.

Attending work events such as Christmas parties, training away from home and going out for drinks or meals can often require British Asians to make an extra effort.

Especially for those, who do not really go out socially.

Some avoid attending altogether due to their cultural beliefs or lack of social confidence.

Anooj Patel, aged 26, says:

“I have to go on training courses as part of my job.

“I have to say I do not enjoy it. I hate fake socialising but I have to do it to play my part in the team.

“I do not drink, smoke or eat meat so they accuse me of being boring.

“To be honest, I prefer being at home with family and eating my daal and roti!”

On the other hand, enjoyment outside of the home, also, is kept a secret often.

Nadia Rehman, aged 22, says:

“When I am out, I enjoy drinking with my friends and I do smoke.”

“However, there is no way my parents will ever know about this. They will go ballistic.”

Therefore, the double life for British Asians at work is adaptive to the needs of their jobs and aiming to integrate with work culture, whilst at home, they meet the needs of a Desi life mixed with some elements of British lifestyle.

Living and integrating for British Asians is a challenge despite it not being so obvious to many people.

Juggling between two cultures and trying to survive in both can often mean one side has to give.

There are those British Asians who have very little to do with their roots and are comfortable living the life they do.

But for most, it is still about living this double life and making the most of what they have from both the British and Desi cultures.

Prem has a rich interest in social sciences and culture. He enjoys reading and writing about issues affecting his and future generations. His motto is 'Television is chewing gum for the eyes' by Frank Lloyd Wright.

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