Born and raised in England, my name is Sam. For the first 4 years of my life, my memories are in Punjabi. Then quite suddenly, they become English. The reception class teacher had two phrases she employed to reach out to us “chup kaar” and “line bunaow”, “be quiet” and “make a line”. I don’t remember English being very difficult to grasp, in fact, I loved it; the new sounds and words that connected with other words to make a whole other new word. And I was very good at it too.
I loved my little English rose of a teacher. She had a cross on a delicate chain that she would play with when giving instruction and a glossy bob cut that I wanted to emulate. Her name was Miss Tilly and I wanted to be her. I wanted to be like Mrs Shaw too, when I joined her for middle infants. And Mrs Fiona Jones, the teacher that had been murdered in France whilst on honeymoon, she was beautiful from what I remember. She came into school on her wedding day in her dress looking like a princess. I vowed then my wedding dress would be white and not red.
I remember clearly the day I turned to my siblings and insisted they called me Sam. I was Samina, but had never felt like it. Aged 6, I had a fantasy that someday soon I would live on a farm with all the dogs I’d ever wanted and I’d never had to put on a shalwar kameez ever again. I was born into the wrong body, it should have been white not brown. I longed to have the life of my white peers, wear the clothes they wore, eat the food that they ate. I was sick of curry; I wanted fish fingers, chips and beans. I wanted to try bacon. Once, during a stay at hospital, I’d convinced the nurses I was allowed to have a ham sandwich for tea. It was horrible but I still felt privileged for having experienced it.
I wasn’t happy being Asian. It seemed too much like hard work. And people were cruel for no other reason than the colour of your skin. I was 7 the first time I defended my younger sister from a racist. When she called her a ‘paki’ I shouted ‘honky’ right back. I had no concept that what I was doing was also wrong, I was retaliating. Incidents like this were frequent. I’d always minimised the effect, as victims often do by reasoning I had never experienced direct racism myself. Being a lighter hue than my little sister, I had perceived it as an attack on her, not non-whites in general. “You’re not like the others”, is a sentence that rings in my ears still.
Not because its divisive nature irked me but because I TOTALLY BOUGHT IT.
For the best part of my schooling, many of my closest friends were white. There was a running joke that I was the white twin, my sister Asian. Aged 13, I rebelled by wearing a cross around my neck. I was dabbling with being a goth; got as far as the necklace and purple eye-shadow before I was made to feel like a freak. I was prepared to be anything, anything but Asian. “Wanna be white do ya?” Family and friends would jeer. “Cos to them, you’ll never be anything but a Paki.”
Even some of the white kids I thought were ok would switch when it suited them. One girl in my class began calling all Asian boys “Hussains”. But she’d sit right up next to me in class. And I liked it. Thank God people didn’t think of me like that, boxed off and pigeon holed into dirty, smelly, sly and stupid ethnics.
With age, I began to see the injustice I was avoiding by selfishly protecting myself and my interests. I took offence when random white people referred to “paki shops”, like it wasn’t a thing. That word Paki has been used for decades to belittle and besmirch a whole subcontinent of people, my parents and grandparents included. Never mind the Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Afghanis that vary significantly in their cultural/religious beliefs, one word was all it took to toxic shame individuals to their station, as inferior and value-less compared to the great whites. My mother was nervous crossing the road unless at a pedestrian crossing. Once, a white man had stopped so she could cross. As soon as she stepped foot into the street, young children in tow, he revved his car towards her. Whether or not he had any intention of actually harming her, we don’t know. But he did think it was funny to distress a young woman and infants. Was it because she was brown? My mother was convinced of this.
Am I English? I thought so until, aged 28; a boyfriend said I could never be. He would suggest he would soon save me from the savages and that I’d be right once I was “on the white side”. On a night out he flipped at me for not being able to translate what the Arab takeaway men were saying (about the rowdy drunk military gang stomping around like they own shit). I learnt Quranic Arabic over 20 years ago! And.. I’m not an Arab. The only thing we share is the colour of our skin.
Am I British? Yes, I think I am. So far as this was the place of my birth. I prefer British Asian because this implies that I am British because of the Asian connection. Here, via the East India route. And we all know what happened there. I want it acknowledged that my nationality has come about as a result of the Empire and I am only here because they came to my ancestor’s country first and reassured them it would be an honour to be considered a Brit. So there, I am British Asian.
I don’t think I can ever be English. I don’t think I want to.