For as long as I can remember, I have always believed myself to be proud of being both British and Indian. Being raised by my extended Indian family meant I grew up immersed in my culture and religion. My grandma has always been very religious and, despite living in the UK, we never once failed to celebrate any religious Hindu festival. But alongside every festival I have celebrated, I have also grown up with the myth of the tooth fairy, eager to go trick or treating at Halloween, excited to do Easter egg hunts every year and awaited the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. I went to a Catholic primary school and between attending church and giving up something for lent each year, I grew up as an open-minded individual who loved learning about different cultures and religions, whilst embracing both sides of my own.
It’s easy to say that our skin colour doesn’t define us, yet I can recall the number of times as a child I was asked where I was from and answering “England”, or “Doncaster” was not considered a thorough enough response. I soon got used to following up my answer with which hospital I was born in just to prove that I was British born, like them.
I didn’t grow up in a very diverse area and so I went to primary school as the only Indian girl in my class. Yet to me this didn’t really matter; I have quite fond memories of my experience there. As a child, you’re naïve to the wider world so you don’t really think twice about the colour of your skin. I do recall sometimes asking my mum why I looked different compared to my friends, who were all white, and she would tell me that it didn’t matter what colour my skin was, it didn’t make me any different from them.
On Friday afternoons in primary school we’d have ‘golden time’ where we had the afternoon off as a reward to play with our friends. I remember taking henna into school one Friday to put on my friends and tell them all about it. It gave me a thrill being able to share parts of my upbringing with them, especially after seeing how excited they were to learn more about my culture. That evening I came home elated to tell my family about my day, and how much it meant to me to be able to share that part of my culture with my friends.
The move to Birmingham, from a town which was nowhere near as culturally diverse was initially exciting to me but soon became overwhelming. I probably noticed it a lot more than others would but the BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people I met from the midlands and the south were used to being surrounded by people who looked exactly like them so the ethnic societies at university were nothing new to them, as they were for me. The bhangra society, for example, was an entirely new concept for me, I’d done a lot of dancing growing up but had never specifically been taught how to do bhangra. I had only ever seen professional dancers do it at Indian weddings. It was odd knowing that most of the people in the room had been doing bhangra from a young age, perhaps even competed in bhangra competitions, whereas I’d only ever done street dancing, jazz and Bollywood.
Some of my friends have had crises regarding their sexuality whereas I had one about my cultural identity. It started when I moved to Birmingham and with meeting so many new people I started thinking about where I lay on the imaginary scale of being Indian to being white – something I’d never really thought of before. On one side of the scale, I came across people who didn’t really care or know anything about their culture. On the other extreme, I met people who were so proud and somewhat obsessive with their culture and ethnicity that it almost encompassed them and became their main personality trait. It made me question whether, as a brown person myself, I needed to be doing the same. Was I doing too much or was I not doing enough?
It took me some time, but I soon understood there was nothing I needed to do to prove myself to anyone. Your skin colour doesn’t mean you have to act any differently to how you want to or how you have always been. Just because I’m Punjabi doesn’t mean I have to listen to Punjabi music constantly and speak Punjabi all the time. Just because I’m Hindu doesn’t mean I have to pray all the time. Just because I’m British doesn’t mean I have to tell everyone which British hospital I was born in to prove it or talk about how much I enjoy a Sunday roast. I’ve never paid attention to the ethnicity of my friends, or the people I’ve been interested in, I’ve only ever considered how good of a person they are and how much I get on with them. It’s an odd one really because I doubt many white British people go through anything similar, which is why I thought it was quite important to share my experience as at one point I felt like I was doing things “wrong”. But in reality, there is no “right” or “wrong”; it is just what you choose to do, and how you choose to be. Your life is so much more than just your sexuality, gender, ethnicity or your upbringing. Understandably, all these factors influence you and the person you become, but, more than anything, those factors do not define you, you define yourself.
I would like to think of myself lucky as I don’t have to categorise myself as just one, but I can proudly say I am both.
At the end of the day, I’m beyond proud of who I am. If we want to put labels on it, I’m proud of being the British Indian I am. Living in the UK with my Indian family has given me the best of both worlds as I’ve been able to appreciate my cultural heritage but also British traditions. And in that, I would like to think of myself lucky as I don’t have to categorise myself as just one, but I can proudly say I am both.