This week the headlines in London were about a royal aide who continuously asked a British woman of colour where she was from. When the woman replied she was British, the royal aide, who lost her job due to this incident, kept asking her, ‘no but where are you REALLY from?’.
As a person of Indian origin born in the UK, this is a question that I’m often asked when travelling and I’m rarely offended by the question but, however I choose to answer, and I’m lucky I have choices, I usually get perplexed looks.
I usually prefer to give the answer that’s the easiest in some places to understand, and say India; this usually invites a rote-learned response in Hindi which I don’t understand (I speak Assamese), or a namaste (we say namaskar in Assam).
There may follow a short monologue from the person about their friends who live in India (I’ve never lived in India), or about how much they like Bollywood dances ( I’m indifferent), or the Taj Mahal, elephants, how good the call centres are or random stuff (“Do Indians wear hats?” Or “So what’s the difference between a Hindi, (sic), a Buddhist and a Muslim?’.) There was once an assumption that I eat curry every day (I eat curry once a month, less frequently than the average English person).
It seems saying you’re Indian pulls in a lot of assumptions in a way that being American or Anglo Saxon British doesn’t. No one assumes an American likes line dancing or an English person likes Morris Dancing. They get to be more of a blank sheet of paper. Indians don’t always do Indian things.
Even when I’m asked the question in India and I say I’m a Desi (Desi is the Hindi word for being of the country) I sometimes get curious glance that says, what’s the catch?
This segues us nicely in to the second response, “I’m British”, which I am legally and by birth. Several times on my travels I’ve been countered directly with ‘but you don’t look British,’ (usually from people from homogenous culture nations) which ends up usually with a conversation about post colonial legacies.
The other major response, usually from market traders in places like Marrakesh and Agra where they pick up on a lot of foreign slang, is “lovely jubbly'” a phrase no one has used in England since the last episode of Only Fools and Horses over 25 years ago, “fish and chips” or some other stereotype of British culture.
Because I find these conversations banal and tiresome, and depending on my energy levels and inclination to divulge personal information, I started to give answers which don’t invite any comeback. For example, when a market trader asks me “what country?” I sometimes reply, “Madagascar”. This is always followed by silence as the interrogator trawls through his memory banks for any snippet of information about Madagascar; a football club, food, a TV quote: the capital city: a cricket team? Nope. Nothing. Zilch. Square root of diddly squat.
BLISS. Speech is silver. Silence is golden.
It seems therefore there’s no easy answer for me. No single word that gives a complete picture. A response that doesn’t invite repartee.
But to dot the i’s of identity,.it’s tempting to overthink as it’s rarely that straight. Identity goes beyond nationality, it’s both nature and nurture. To suggest otherwise is just lazy at best. Even though I see myself as being an Indian, my mouth, my accent is English, and in my heart are the Three Lions.
But my mind, the way I think, my character, that is neither. That’s something that belongs to me, something entirely my own. It is just me.