Updated: Aug 11
I'm a second-generation British Asian woman. That's one identity.
I am a South Asian woman who identifies as Bisexual. That’s another.
I consider myself to be British but not English. Yet another layer.
I suffer from depression. So mental health struggles are a part of my identity.
I am an artist. So that informs a large part of my approach to the world.
Can you see my point here? Identity is layered, complex, and contentious.
For most people who are not South Asian, they fill in your identity as Asian female. You are brown, you are a woman, you probably eat Indian food and your parents want you to marry, soon. Am I being reductive? Perhaps so, but I am simply relaying my experience to you.
For people in the South Asian community I can be seen as not brown enough, a 'coconut' if you will. Perhaps because I'm not attending a wedding every weekend, or I do not consider myself religious, or because I studied philosophy and politics, or because I date outside my community….the list goes on.
So where does that leave me? Frankly annoyed.
I have more than once, had the discussion (I use that term loosely) at my place of work about my distinction between being a British Asian, not English. For me being British indicates my nationality. Being English denotes one’s heritage. My heritage is Indian. But no, I am assured that I am born here therefore I am English. This debate incenses me. Firstly, you do not get to decide how I identify. Second, to be lumped in the group of being English somehow makes me feel complicit in the legacy of colonial Britain in India. I am not a part of that narrative, I do not condone it…and well I could really go on here, but I'll spare you because that's my issue. English culture in that sense, is not something identify with.
It may seem trivial to some, but far from it, identity is an essential concept. And really I think it is only important for one reason; power. Your personal power to have control over you, your life, your meaning, your world.
I am, like many second-generation South Asians, straddled between two worlds, two nations, two cultures, two ideas of identity. One where your identity is dictated by your skin colour and another where the archetypal Asian woman can be an oppressive space to live in.
Being an Asian woman comes with its rigid assumptions; being married is a hallmark of some sort of success, having children is obligatory. Your sexuality is unquestionably heterosexual. 'BMW's' are forbidden to you because of religious identity. These are but to name a few.
Your identity and thereby your worth are predicated on what you can and can't do. As well as what is expected of you.
I basically am not down with that.
The world presses up on us so many pressures. Add to that the layer of cultural expectation. Add to that secrets you are keeping because they will not be accepted as fundamental parts of your identity. Such as being a trans Asian woman, gay or wanting to be an artist instead of a doctor. Who can live with that much pressure? Being pulled here and there by how other people identify you, be it your parents or your colleagues.
Your identity is within your power. It is not the business of other people to have their say in how you identify. Sure, some people won't like, or understand it. You may even be shunned because of it.
This life is short, and it is long. It is both too long and too short to live in the shadows, to live an unauthentic life. But moreover, you are infinitely worth it. You are unique, there is no reason to be anyone else, because who you are is enough. You have been blessed with this life. And who you are is who you are. You're complex, multifaceted and unashamedly, well, you.
In the era we are living in. We can work towards subverting stereotypes. We can forge our own identities. And share and educate other about them. I don't want the next generation to have the break the barriers we have not. And I don't want my generation to be rendered unable to embrace who they feel they really are or really want out of life.
Woman, man, child. We may be South Asian but that's not all we are. Our identities are created by us. Don't let anyone tell you any different. I want you to weave your tapestry of human complexity and wear it unabashedly for the world to see.
Aarti Chauhan is a social creative; poet, artist, writer and advocate for kindness and crisps.