Not Your Apu: Being Caught Between Cultures
The Balancing Act of Being Indian in England
Growing up between cultures is hard. Finding the balance between staying true to your roots and engraining yourself into your surroundings is a constant battle, like holding on to two dogs both trying to bolt in opposite directions. As an Indian who has grown up in the UK I have faced this dilemma for the best part of 20 years, or at least since I’ve been old enough to understand that the culture of my parents is not the same as that of my classmates, my friends, our neighbours, or the majority of people walking down the street.
I’d go out with my mother, who was wearing a sari, and see people staring and whispering quietly to each other. I would play football with friends at school, only to have someone shout “Don’t pass the ball to that black b*****d,” a comment that was simultaneously racist and nonsensical. I’d walk down the road to my village after a day of work experience, quietly minding my own business, to have a pot of mint sauce thrown at my feet by two teenagers walking down the opposite side of the road.
What is it that still creates this tension? Despite being a naturalised British citizen, holding a British passport, speaking perfect English, having lived there for 20 years and studied up to a degree level, why am I still not seen by many as British? The simple answer would be the colour of my skin, perhaps even my name. My passport may say “United Kingdom” but my name screams “Unpronounceable Indian twaddle.” However, even this feels like an oversimplification. The more opportunity I’ve had to travel and meet new people the more I’ve come to see that people aren’t inherently racist or tribalistic, they merely fear what they do not understand.
Looking back, it doesn’t actually seem that strange that a South-Indian family moving to a small village in the Yorkshire countryside would arouse some curiosity - seeing a woman in a sari waiting at the bus stop would be as strange a sight as seeing a Maasai warrior on the tram in Amsterdam. Not everyone has the opportunity and luxury of travel, and consequently the way they react is shaped not through contact and conversation, but through representation and misrepresentation.
The Trouble of Tropes
In the UK the perception of immigrants is shaped by tabloid journalism and far-right fear mongering, and the target is always shifting. In Europe, for example, the ‘bogeyman’ has morphed from Black communities to Asian communities, from Eastern Europeans to Pakistanis, and of course over the past decade the conversation has been dominated by Islam. If you haven’t met anyone from different communities to show you otherwise, your perception will be based purely on the stories you have been told; about jobs being ‘stolen’ and communities being ruined.
The other, arguably more insidious, aspect of misrepresentation occurs through creative media. Film and Television hold a sway over us, but aren’t advertised as such. Reading a story about immigrants in a tabloid comes with a certain context that, for example, Raj in The Big Bang Theory does not. He is presented at face value, part of a sitcom landscape that for decades has traded on crude racial stereotypes without ever seeking to explore them further. He’s Indian, which means he has a funny accent, is a nerd, his father is a doctor, and he’s hopeless at speaking to women. None of this is presented as an overt stereotype, nor does the character attempt to distance himself from these tropes. Rather the writing makes Raj play into these stereotypes as if they are fact.
Raj is of course the extreme example, and thankfully the landscape is changing. The other most noted Indian on television, Mr.Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, has morphed over the years from a basic sitcom stereotype into an immigrant who genuinely struggles with questions of identity, fighting to maintain his culture whilst trying to fit into his American surroundings.
Actors and comedians and other multi-hyphenates are addressing this issue too; Aziz Ansari with the fantastic Master of None, Kumail Nanjiani looked earnestly into interracial relationships based on his own story in The Big Sick, and Romesh Ranganathan pokes fun at his own inability to understand his culture in the series Asian Provocateur.
Of course there are still comedians like Paul Chowdhry, Russell Peters, and YouTube star Jus Reign, who use their culture as a springboard for accent-based humour, but they are speaking with their own voices instead of being moulded by a team of writers seeking to mine a cheap laugh. Representation in media matters, not in the sense of proportion and numbers as some would argue, but rather in the honesty of what is being shown. The reality of immigrant life has to be shown by those who have lived it, and the more honest and open we can be about our own stories, the more chance we have to build a better sense of understanding in our world.
Who's My Battle Buddy?
Written by The Angry Indian
Cultural commentator, sarcastic Brit, general nerd, and (a bit of a) know-it-all.