Reflections on my Identity

This is an edited/updated version of a blog post I initially shared in 2016. We the Humanities is sadly no longer around.

In the week I initially wrote this post, I had been following Sunny Singh curating  @WeTheHumanities on Twitter – and she didn’t waste time in bringing up the issue of diversity in Higher Education.  I had been interacting with @WeTheHumanities for a while now, and I was really excited that an Indian woman would be curating, especially to talk about issues of diversity in life, in academia, in HEIs.  One of the first articles I saw on my Twitter feed on Monday morning was about a young South African woman’s experience as a “coconut”.  For those unfamiliar with the term, it describes adoption of Western behaviours by PoC, explained well here by Media Diversified.  Sometimes it is used to cause offence – an accusation of leaving your roots behind – but at that point for me it represented the inevitable reality I faced as a 2nd generation immigrant growing up in an area that was not (at least on the surface) ethnically diverse.

Being the only brown kid in my primary school class was quite a roller-coaster.  I experienced racism at age 6, but insisted on wearing Indian clothes to a school party aged 8 and always called my big sister “penji” in the playground (meaning “sister” in Punjabi, she told me off for that…).  I was aware that as an Indian I was very different from my peers, and I did get frustrated at the implicit, and I’m sure unintended, exclusion from things, but it hadn’t occurred to me that being an anomaly in a relatively homogenous group might change me.

I remember, quite early in high school, being called a ‘coconut’ by a fellow Asian (there were more of us by now), and asking what it meant, as I’d never heard it before.  I don’t remember having an issue with it at the time, and I certainly didn’t try to prove myself as an Indian.  I do remember, as a teen, becoming quite embarrassed about being Indian, as a second generation kid who had more visible facial hair than the boys in my class (this was pointed out to me, such kind classmates).  At that point, I was happy to be dissociated from my Indian roots, and I worked hard at “fitting in” with everyone else.

A lot has changed since then. I went through a phase of referring to myself as a “not-very-Indian Indian” – perhaps a reflection of how much of my Indian-ness I was carrying into adulthood.  I thought maybe this is just what happens when you integrate into Western society – I had let go of the embarrassment of being Indian, but I preferred mac cheese to roti, I didn’t watch Bollywood movies, I did better in French exams than Punjabi.  I was Indian in many ways, but I don’t necessarily engage with a lot of Indian culture.

Back to @WeTheHumanities, Sunny asked: What are your lived experiences of #diversity in your institution?

My answer to this was something of a realisation.  I realised that being Indian was less of an issue in university, because being Indian had become less a part of my identity.  I may have been Indian and a musician, but I was not an Indian musician.  I hadn’t entirely lost my roots, but what I did see was that my musical identity was very much detached from my Indian identity.  Until I was in my twenties, I’d never tried to merge the two.  While the undergraduate programme I did would have welcomed my musical diversity, I never thought of this as a possibility.  In my mind, I had to adopt the Western tradition, because that’s what my impression of studying music was.

When we look at what seems to be a good example of diversity, is it embracing that diversity? Or are people conforming to dominant cultural norms in order to get “in”?

Outside of the music department, fitting in as a ‘typical’ student would have involved a lot of Westernising.  As an Indian girl, there’s a cultural barrier to moving away to study, expectations to be at home in the evenings to help with dinner, issues with so many social norms of university life.  I lived at home, commuting between two cities for most of my PhD (the best part of 5 years) but with a busy work life I wasn’t at home very much, which didn’t reconcile with the expectations placed on me by Indian culture.

Another well-timed piece I read at the beginning of that week was this article, on the white-ness of the classical music industry – originally posted a couple of years ago, but conveniently on reposted by Media Diversified.  As an Indian woman, pursuing work in this industry means breaking Indian norms – in British-Asian society, it is still often expected for women to cook for the family, be at home in the evenings, prioritise domesticity.  Rehearsals, concerts and touring don’t really fit.  From an education and opportunity point of view, there are lots of barriers to classical music. I’ve since moved on to try and unlearn much of my classical training – my practice now centres on experimenting and improvising, playing with electronic sounds as well as flutes and words.

Thinking back on my career choices, music was never valued.  “What are you going to do with that?” “Oh, I guess a degree is a degree these days…” “I suppose you can go into teaching after that…”

Academic pursuits have incurred a similarly tangential reaction: “So, how old will you be when you’re finished studying? When are you going to get married?” “Why do you want to study so much?” and the cherry on top, “You don’t want to be over-educated do you? How will you find a husband?”

There are some things about being Indian that I love, but there is also a lot of cultural baggage that I am more than happy to leave behind.  If my lifestyle and choices don’t fit the expected British-Indian mould then so be it.  There are multiple ways to be Indian, Sikh, Panjabi, Scottish, British, and not conforming to dominant traits does not diminish my claim to cultural heritage. So here I am now, in a new decade of my life, trying to reconcile these relationships, in my work, my music, my activism.

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