(This post was originally published in the Huffington Post)
Every British Asian has played out a version of this conversation:
‘Where are you from?’
‘No, before that.’
‘Um… I mean, originally.’
‘Sorry. I mean your parents. Where are they from?’
Now here’s weird. You’re making small talk with a complete stranger; you expect to be asked what you do for a living, what team you support, what car you drive perhaps. But to lead with a question about where your mum and dad lived when they were little, and this before you even know each other’s name? What kind of freak does that?
Thing is, the askers never assume they’re being rude or mental. They just want to hear the answer ‘India’, so they can reel off the anecdote about how they once befriended a cow in Hyderabad. I can’t help you there. My parents are from Bangladesh. It’s not exotic. It makes people think of oily curries. And fat kids with skinny arms drowning in floods.
The asker focuses on the curry. Bangladeshis own eight out of 10 Indian restaurants in the UK, which brings us nicely back to India, did I mention the cow I once befriended in Hyderabad?
I get that people are fascinated by roots. When you hear someone speak in an Australian or Canadian accent, it’s perhaps natural that small talk will lead you to the topics of Neighbours or maple syrup. Except British Asians speak in British accents, from whatever region of Britain they grew up in. In all the years I’ve known my friend Akin Ojumu, who speaks English as fluently as I do, not once have I witnessed a stranger trying to wrestle out the information that his parents were from Nigeria. This ‘Where Are You From Inquisition’ seems oddly specific to British Asians.
For many years I had a chip on my shoulder about this, and went to some lengths to prove that chip was doused in salt and vinegar and not curry sauce, until I realised that it is a desperately weak person who seeks to establish where he stands based on geography or leaves his identity hinging on the perception of strangers. Thanks for that one, acid.
People are free to think as they please, and if the idea that I’m from India brings you some kind of alignment in your understanding of me, knock yourself out. Just because I don’t care whether your mum was born in Ashbey-de-la-Zouch or Leamington Spa doesn’t mean I should disregard any need you might have to place my origins on a map.
This shrugging acceptance is literally drummed home when British Asians go abroad. In Europe, the post 9/11 concern is less to do with India and more an enquiry into Muslamic credentials (a concern that’s easily allayed by ordering a pint, I find), but curiously enough, it’s in the Islamic countries where the real hardcore Indian Inquisition is still in full force.
Any British Asian who’s ever travelled to Egypt, Tunisia or Dubai will be familiar with the cries of “India!” Followed by “Amitabh Bachchan!” (Cue word perfect rendition of Yeh Dosti Nam Nahin), or among the younger generation, “Shah Rukh Khan!” (Cue word perfect rendition of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai).
I’m in Marrakech as I write this. Earlier today, while feeling miserably British thanks to my crap bartering skills, the owner of the carpet shop had beamed: ‘India!’
‘Brighton,’ I said.
He looked at me like I was retarded.
‘Pakistan?’ He asked, suspiciously.
I wasn’t going to say Bangladesh. Bangladesh makes even the poorest of the poor in African cities think of fat kids with skinny arms drowning in floods, and that’s never the image I want to project, especially when I have a female companion to impress.
‘England,’ I sound suitably pissed off.
‘2000 dirhams, good England price,’ he says, the smile gone from his face.
I think about this.
‘Actually, my parents are from India…’
‘India!’ He beams, all my weird little denials instantly forgiven.
‘Shah Rukh Khan!’
I pay the man 1200 dirhams and walk away with my rug humming Kuch Kuch Hota Hai all the way back to the hotel.