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Verge 2017 – Chimera

24

Torn Identity

Ashvini Ahilan

It was the University of Surrey’s regular student party night known as ‘Citrus.’ Hockey players, netballers, footballers, and anyone keen for a boozy night and hook-up mingled together for the biggest ‘party night’ of the week. The music pulsed around me as I stood at the bar, waiting to be served. My eyes roved around the crowded club and spotted smug, drunk rugby players in their shirts and ties, hair combed back, flirting with girls. Some of the girls looked star-struck, some of them even fawned over these privileged, preppy athletes who were like celebrities on campus. I turned away in disgust. Don’t get me wrong, while I can certainly appreciate a well-built, athletic guy, I was annoyed at the sight of these entitled boys being worshipped.

Not too long after, I noticed that one of these boys had sidled up to me. He straightened his tie and attempted to strike up a conversation. I smiled politely and listened to him complain about the slow bar service. And then he asked the question.

‘So where are you from?’

Because I was less interested in him, and more interested in getting my drink and returning to the dance floor, I replied ‘I’m staying at Battersea Court.’

He laughed, ‘No, where are you from?’ he questioned again.

‘I’m from London,’ I smiled, ‘East London, really.’

He shook his head, smiling, ‘No, what I mean is, where are your parents from?’

‘Ooooh, they are from Sri Lanka.’ I said, finally addressing his real question. He was asking about my heritage and ethnicity. Having been born and raised in London, I had always identified myself as British. But in his eyes, I was an Other, I was from elsewhere.

For this boy, and many others, the colour of my skin dictates my identity. In his ground-breaking book, Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon observes that, ‘colour is the most obvious manifestation of race [and] has been the criterion by which men are judged.’1 My ‘true identity’ was usually based on the colour of my skin and where my ‘parents were from.’ Where I was born and lived all of my life seemed to carry little weight in brief social interactions like this one. At the time, it was only a minor annoyance. But it wasn’t until I began studying Post-Colonial theory in my second year of university that I began to understand how routine such encounters could be.

University studies opened my eyes to the legacy of Colonialism. I was introduced to writing by Salman Rushdie, Homi Bhabha and Edward Said, that shaped the way I see the world and myself in it as a second-generation immigrant. I was taken by Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Kureshi’s The Buddha of Suburbia; stories that focus on the lives and unique struggles of second-generation immigrants. These stories suggested new ways to negotiate one’s identity. Karim, the main character in Buddha of Suburbia, rejects the Colonial concept of identity as being a binary. This is particularly evident in the opening lines of the novel in which he repeatedly states how he is an Englishman. He instead sees himself as being a ‘new breed…emerging from two histories.’2 Karim rejects the Western ideology of identity as being fixed. Stories such as this resonated with me: all my life I had felt the tension between my identity as a British citizen and my status as a child of refugees who were forced to flee their country in a bid to save their lives.

The whole island of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, was under British administration in 1833. Despite many complications, it eventually gained independence in 1948. Colonial rule, however, had already created social unrest. Thus, soon after, a divide between Sri Lankan Tamils and Sinhalese people quickly developed, leading to the start of the Sri Lankan Civil War in 1983.3 According to a government statement, a UN panel ‘estimated that around 40,000 died [during the course of the war], while other independent reports estimated the number of civilians dead to exceed 100,000.’4 Some even argued that the events amounted to ethnic cleansing by the Sri Lankan government. Because of such political violence, my parents felt forced to leave their country: their homeland had become a war zone.

In 1983, riots had broken out in the city of Colombo. Tamil homes were looted and set on fire. Months after the sudden death of my grandfather and the subsequent looting of their family home by rioters, my mother and her family had taken shelter with a neighbour, hoping the unrest would eventually settle down. When tensions did not seem to be diminishing quickly enough, they decided to move to Canada. My aunt, who was the eldest daughter of the family, had already left for Canada months before. The rest of the family followed close behind.

My father had not faced personal attacks himself. But he once described bearing witness to the suffering of others—neighbours, family members, children. He described it as ‘indirect, unbearable mental agony.’ Ten members of my father’s huge family moved one-by-one to England in 1984 and three were separated to Canada. However, in doing so, their family was temporarily disrupted due to immigration issues—a situation all too common for many refugees and asylum seekers. Their family was torn apart in attempts to gain some stability and ultimately safety.

Moving to new countries proved to be a difficult adjustment for both of my parents. They were both made to find and work menial jobs in order to ensure that they played their part in helping their families stand on their own two feet. Amongst financial struggles, they had to learn to navigate the new cultural contexts they found themselves within. My dad had to adjust to a ‘Westernised’ life at university, whilst also working part-time to support his family. My mother, on the other hand, had to navigate through her teenage years at a high school in Montreal, a high school, which required that she become fluent not only in English but also French. Throughout their lives, they faced repeated acts of racism and were often ridiculed for their appearance and accent. Racism was an added weight to the financial and emotional burdens they faced. But, eventually, they learnt to accept it as a part of their daily lives: it became a new normal and it extended to their work lives.

When I was young, my mother worked as an assistant teacher and she faced regular torment from children, who would often make gibes at her on account of her accent. Her authority in class was sometimes completely undermined by a factor which was irrelevant to her performing her job well. My dad faced racial discrimination in the workplace from his boss which, coupled with a major car accident and threat of being made redundant, led to him resigning from his job. It was no wonder that he suffered from depression and lay on our sofa for days on end. Since I was only a child, I couldn’t completely understand the extent to which racism was collectively taking a toll on our family.

In spite of their many hardships, my parents continued to fight for a stable home. Dad eventually found a way out of the dark murkiness that threatened to engulf him, and he opened his own business. He was able to make a living to financially support our family. Meanwhile, my mum worked hard, studied part-time, took care of our family and got qualifications to work as a counsellor. They both continue to work hard to ensure that my sister and I have a comfortable life.

As a child of immigrants, I have faced racial discrimination on many occasions. Sometimes it was subtle, other times blatant. Although these experiences were not always comparable to those endured by my parents, the life of a second-generation immigrant comes with its own set of problems. My experiences of racial discrimination were sometimes subtle. As a child I was often mimicked by white British children for having a South Asian accent, although I was born in England and many of my friends here in Australia hear a strong British accent. At other times, my dark skin colour was the subject of racist commentary. My supposed accent and outward appearance seemed to be a source of humour to wider society. Not one to passively accept abuse, I would often resist and speak out against such slurs, although there were times when I felt like I couldn’t or didn’t want to.

As I grew older I became deeply aware of the stigma attached to my culture, its practices, and traditions. Those of us who enjoyed dressing up in Tamil clothes, listening to Tamil music, or eating Tamil food were often pejoratively labelled ‘freshies’ (as in ‘fresh off the boat’). To avoid this stigma and mockery, I began to draw away from my Tamil culture. Indeed, I started to view my culture with embarrassment. Instead, I attempted to fit in with children at my school and shied away from discussing my heritage and culture out of fear of being called a ‘freshie.’ This sometimes included small gestures that erased the difference signified by my skin: I introduced myself as ‘Ash’ rather than Ashvini so that people could properly pronounce my name and I avoided joining any cliques that wholly consisted of Tamil people.

My assimilating strategies worked so well that I was regarded (and sometimes self-identified) as a ‘coconut’—a derogatory term often used to describe a brown person who supposedly ‘acts white.’ I internalised the racism that I witnessed and began to ridicule others, calling them ‘freshie’ and making jokes at their expense. I was conditioned to shame my own culture. Kids who did or said things that strayed from a dominant Colonial ideology of what it meant to be British were picked out and punished. In the school playground, in the classroom, in extra-curricular activities, I was being assimilated into a dominant British culture, adopting the attitudes and habits of the dominant members in society. And so, I lost touch with my Tamil heritage. I was and still am faced with the problem of trying to find my identity, torn between a British identity and the Tamil identity of my ancestors.

At university, I was confronted by a group of South Asian guys who had somehow heard of me from an old school friend. As I introduced myself, they sniggered and replied ‘Ohhh you’re THE coconut.’ Stunned with such a bold accusation, I was rendered speechless and merely stared back. Having not joined the Tamil community at university, I was made to feel ashamed for not having integrated with them. Although, I had not made a conscious effort to assimilate with the Tamil community, I had also not gone out of my way to shun them. This event, among many others, proved my detachment from both the Tamil and Western community. I was stuck, torn, not belonging anywhere.

Although I can understand a good deal of Tamil, I fail to properly speak it. My attempts are often met with mockery from older family members who are amused by my inability to string together a single sentence; and any sentence that I am able to muster always seems to be inflected by my British. Though I’m told I shouldn’t let any of this deter me, it’s difficult to move past the embarrassment I feel when I try and fail to improve my Tamil speaking. The laughter at my expense doesn’t help. Sometimes, I am even scolded by family for having failed to retain my culture and speak my ‘mother tongue.’ It’s not that I am not interested in speaking my mother tongue. Rather, I am faced with the predicament of not properly being able to honour a language that is almost over two thousand years old. I fear not being able to preserve my tradition and culture and to have the ability to pass this on to my own children.

Going to university, I began to see a certain fascination that surrounded my ethnicity. My white friends would often ask me questions about my language, culture and wedding traditions. They often expressed their interest to wear traditional Tamil outfits, saying that they love how a bindi looks. I began to more actively embrace my culture; I felt privileged to have so many new friends show an interest in me, my family and our culture. However, such questions made some of my cultural practices seem exotic and almost foreign. To this day, I am torn between feeling happy that my friends take an interest in my life and being dismayed by their ignorance when they exotify my culture according to the stereotypes of dominant British society.

Not being able to identify exclusively with either Tamil or British culture, I am pulled between two identities: I often feel like I have to choose one over the other. I’m stuck in a state of uncertainty. Though I’m still unsure of my place in society I am more socially aware of the issues that second-generation immigrants have to navigate in order to gain acceptance. Hybridity of identity is brought about by migration and is a product of diaspora. Hybridity is important because it problematises dominant Western attitudes. It complicates the view that there is one way of being ‘British’ or Australian or American, or any nationality.

These days I embrace this uncertainty within myself, this hybridity. It is a confrontation of Colonial ideology and the racism that comes along with it. Identity cannot be dichotomised and I refuse to be categorised. I am proud of my parents’ journeys as immigrants and what they have accomplished despite the immense challenges they’ve faced. I am unapologetic about who I am. I am proud to be a ‘new breed’ emerging from two histories.

Bibliography

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press, 1986.

Kureishi, Hanif. Buddha of Suburbia. Penguin Books USA Inc., 1990.

Mahr, Krista. ‘Sri Lanka to start a Tally of Civil-War Dead.’ World Time, Time, Nov. 28 2013, http://world.time.com/2013/11/28/srilanka-to-start-tally-of-civil-war-dead

‘Sri Lanka Country Profile.’ BBC World News, BBC News, 18 Apr. 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11999611


1Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto Press, 1986, p. 118.

2Hanif Kureishi, Buddha of Suburbia. Penguin Books USA Inc., 1990, p. 3.

3‘Sri Lanka Country Profile.’ BBC World News, BBC News, 18 Apr. 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-11999611.

4Krista Mahr. ‘Sri Lanka to start a Tally of Civil-War Dead.’ World Time, Time, Nov. 28 2013, http://world.time.com/2013/11/28/srilanka-to-start-tally-of-civil-war-dead.

Verge 2017 – Chimera

   by Bonnie Reid, Aisling Smith and Gavin Yates