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Go home Paki: The homecoming that was doomed to fail

3 Aug , 2017  

By  -  
Amit is the co-editor of Consented

Having grown up to brown parents in an undeniably white country, it was always difficult placing myself in society. Questions of what it meant to belong, where was home and whether you had to be white to be British confronted me from a very early age. As young as seven years old I had my differences pointed out to me, perhaps even forced onto me, by classmates who used to yell “go home” and “Paki” at me. Getting older this shifted (albeit the Paki narrative was never too far away) and instead I was met with probing questions from friends, or anyone who was vaguely interested, asking “where are you from? Where are you really from?” A question that was framed as innocent but was incredibly loaded. Those asking made it ever so evident that where I was from, was not here. It was somewhere far away. Because for them, a boy with brown skin could not answer this question with “Bethnal Green” or “Birmingham”, it had to be with “India”, because loosely speaking that was where my grandparents were from. Or so I was told.

Prior to constantly being Othered I had always considered London my home and hadn’t given much thought to this mythical placed they called India. I was a child, a blank canvas with no understanding of critical race theory, multiculturalism or diasporas. To me it was all the same. It was those declaring “go home”, calling me a Paki, or asking where I was really from who thrust a sense of Indian-ness upon me that I had never previously considered or been conscious of. In many ways, this Indian identity was given to me by British people, not by any natural, inbuilt allegiance to my so-called Motherland. I actually had no roots in India. Neither of my parents were born there: My mother was born in Birmingham and my Dad was Punjabi but moved here from Tanzania at a very young age. I (regrettably) spoke no South Asian languages and was very much socialized as someone who was British. As a result, India seemed like somewhere far away and somewhere greatly disconnected from my day-to-day existence. In my understanding, it was not my home. Yet to those asking where I was from, or telling me to “go home”, I was as Indian as a mild chicken Korma (which ironically isn’t very Indian at all).

It wasn’t an identity I ever assigned to myself. I suffered from a distinct lack of Desi swagger, I was terrible at cricket and I’ve never been blessed with a strong beard. Other than the beard situation this was, in part, a natural result of being brought up in London to a single parent (who had also been brought up in Britain herself) and being far removed from the British Asian community. Because of this I struggled to navigate British South Asian society successfully which made it very difficult for me to fit in with other Asian kids at school. To them I was, as I often was to white people, an outsider. Sometimes even worse, I was seen as someone who had sold out in an attempt to assimilate (which in a way was probably partially true). Asian kids called me “a coconut” (brown on the outside and white on the inside for those unfamiliar with the term) and white kids called me a “Paki” (no such explanation required!). It was clear at that stage I did not fit in or belong in either grouping despite being told it was one or the other.

Straddling this divide was something that had to be done with the upmost care. For Norman Tebbit, the rabid, racist Conservative MP, picking a side was as simple as choosing which cricket team to support – Tebbit famously remarked in 1990, “A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?” As if it was that simple. As if one could just support England and then forever be accepted. People of colour have been trying this for decades and constantly coming up short. It doesn’t matter how big the poppy we wear is, or how loudly we shout for England during the World Cup, our acceptance within British society is always precarious. It is always something that can be taken away at the drop of a hat, or against the backdrop of the next financial crisis. So even if we play the “good immigrant” it is never enough. But if someone does complain about racism or commit the cardinal sin of not supporting England in a national sporting event, they are met with a tirade of typical abuse:

“If you don’t like it then why don’t you fuck off home?” (Usually with a few racial slurs thrown in for good measure). This again, reinforces the idea that we are “guests” and not permanent residents in Britain. That we should also be grateful for being here. I myself have been on the receiving end of this one more times than I care to recall. So eventually, having so-often been told to go home, in the summer of 2010 I decided to heed this advice and journey to the motherland! To clarify, we all know that when they said go home, they didn’t mean go back to East London (where I was born and raised) but “fuck off back to India”. And you know, white people have been playing “Gora the explorer” in attempts to find themselves in “Magical India” for decades, so I decided it would surely work for me! With that I picked up a copy of “Teach yourself Punjabi” and made the spiritual pilgrimage to India, the place I was always told I was “really from”.

Because of this constant reminder from society that I wasn’t from Britain and the forced imposition of an Indian diasporic identity upon me I developed pretty unrealistic expectations about this proverbial homecoming. I was desperately seeking a sense of belonging that society puts so much emphasis on and as a result I genuinely thought my trip would be akin to Amritsar’s favourite son returning from British exile. I stepped off the plane expecting droves of my people’s to be there awaiting my arrival, ready to greet me with a Lāla kārapaṭa (red carpet in Punjabi, according to google translate) and Punjabi and Hindhi to flow effortlessly off my tongue (without using google translate, obviously). How wrong I was. How wrong all those white people were who told me to go! Despite a billion people who looked more or less like me (in the eyes of people in Britain we all look the same, don’t we?) I really did – unlike most white people in India – struggle to find myself. This probably wouldn’t surprise those less naïve or foolish than I. Of course, there were no crowds of cheering Punjabi’s ready to welcome me back with their arms open. And my four months of “Teach yourself Punjabi” didn’t exactly provide me with the native fluency and linguistic prowess I’d hoped for.

It wasn’t a homecoming, it was a holiday. I wasn’t slotting into Punjabi life, I was sticking out with my shorts and inability to handle the scorching 50-degree heat. Despite the shade of my skin and my facial features I was as much of a tourist as those white guys sitting cross-legged at a yoga retreat in Goa. I also had no family to visit there, I had nobody to show me where I was really from. There was no connection to the region outside of the fact that in Britain people would patronisingly ask “no, but where are you really from?” As if I’d regale them with stories of the “jewel in the crown” and feed their lust for empire. India certainly wasn’t my home; it never has been. Instead my longing for acceptance in India was more about the sense of rejection I felt in Britain, a place I wanted to call home but realised I never really could. Yet when I was in India I’d never felt more British, as that is how I was perceived. I was an outsider. This failed homecoming shows how the idea of people chanting “go home” is obviously flawed. Go where? There was nowhere for me to return to.

The concept of home is something that those who aren’t white living in Britain are forced to retreat into and to imagine, because of a lack of acceptance on subtle and overt levels. Often there is no place for us to return to and the concept is about exclusion, rather than inclusion in the post-colonial context.  And this post-colonial and colonial context is so often ignored. India is, it is often forgotten, a relatively new country, having only gained independence in 1947. The region that my great-grand parents lived in and that my both sets of grandparents left was not the India we know today, which is a colonial construct. The case in point being that my Dad’s village is now on the Pakistan side of the border (Pakistan also being in many ways a colonial geographical construct). It would be even more difficult for me to try to fit into the Pakistani diasporic community and to attempt a homecoming to Lahore.

Contrary to popular belief having brown skin does not grant me immediate access to the sub-continent. I, like those white Yogis in Goa, need to go through an arduous visa process to get to India in the first place. If I wanted to move to India it wouldn’t be as easy as it is for an Essex boy to move to the Costa del Sol (although post-Brexit, who knows!). Practically, there is no home to go to.  Because of this when you are from a former colony, you’re constantly forced to question your place in things. You’re constantly forced to wonder where you can belong and where you should call home.  Yet those from the colonial core, who are seen to be white, never have to ask these questions. For them, the world was colonized so they could call all of it home. Which is why many white middle-class gap-yah types have more ease finding themselves in India than I did.  These people travel freely without fear of persecution, ridicule or insult. They do not need to worry about mispronouncing a word in Marbella, as they won’t be met with the insults or belittlement directed at my Grandparents (who spoke about five languages each!) when they moved to Britain. When these bodies are asked “where are you from?” it isn’t with the same scrutiny. It isn’t to determine where they are not from. It is simply a genuine question. This is why they are expats, whilst we are immigrants, scroungers, cockroaches and burdens. We have to try to navigate British society and belong without giving up too much of our selves. We internalize racism and attempt to embody the ‘good immigrant’. But there is no such thing, we’ll always be bad and we’ll always be expendable. No matter how many generations pass, if our skin colour is not white, we’ll always be humiliatingly asked “Where are you really from?” We’re often reminded one way or another, that in the words of Paul Gilroy “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack.”

The point is that I did not chose to be born in England. Whilst having a British passport provides me with a lot of privilege within the global context it is not something I should be grateful for or proud of. But by being told to “go home” or asked where I’m “really from” the assumption is that I can never truly call Britain home, despite being born and raised here for all 27 years of my life. I do not belong and I also do not care to. Any conception of home that is based upon nation-states is always going to be exclusionary for so many people. To belong somewhere, there must be someone else who does not belong and who is excluded from belonging. Ideas of identity, community and belonging are incredibly loaded and do not operate within a vacuum but against the backdrop of the colonial, capitalist and patriarchal world in which we live. A world which excludes so many people and in which so many lives don’t matter and so many people are never able to belong in peace or prosperity.

All concepts of “British values” or “Indian culture” are to a large extent imagined and false. To move beyond these ideals, which are so damaging for so many, we must actively divest from concepts of nationalism and a fetishization of “pure culture”, even if it is in relation to the power of dominant British nationalisms, otherwise in the end, we only reinforce Britishness and socially constructed ideals of race. Because for me, I only became Indian when I was called a Paki and shown explicitly that I was not British. Prior to that I didn’t know anything about race or ethnicity. I was a blank canvas, as we all once were, who had concepts of nationality, race and belonging thrust onto me against my will. Where am I really from? India, via colonialism, Lahore, Dar Es Salaam, Birmingham and London. Actually, I’m not really sure and it probably doesn’t matter.

This article first appeared in the spring ’17 edition of Consented’s quarterly print magazine which you can buy online now.


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