The struggles of being a British Asian in 2015

No, I don’t study Medicine or Engineering

I’m a 19-year-old second year from Leicester. I study European Management and Spanish at Lancaster University. And I’m a British Asian. Unfortunately, the stereotypes of the latter often overshadow every other part of my identity.

There are quite a few misconceptions about British Asian students. Ask any of us and we could list easily countless supposedly harmful assumptions off the top of our head: that we all do Engineering, Medicine or Business, that we have shit loads of cousins everywhere, that we only know how to cook curry, that we pray in weird ways, or pray all the time.

Even in terms of first impressions, looking at me everyone automatically thinks I’m a Muslim, just because I have a beard. Actually, I’m Hindu, if that matters. I’m only a little religious. I just celebrated Diwali. I could even be Sikh with my beard, but Islam is so prevalent in everyone’s consciousness that they automatically think “Muslim”.

Because of what’s been in the media recently it’s ingrained that people think you have a beard, so you must be a Muslim, so you must be a terrorist. It’s not even Paris, it’s everywhere, it happened last month with that kid in America, Ahmed, and the clock.

Because people see my skin and think I’m Muslim, it makes them cautious of asking things about me that they would take as a given if I was white, like drinking. Unless I have a drink in my hand, people are reluctant to ask me if I want a drink. When they’re talking about alcohol or even drunken stories they get so cautious it’s silly.

When people comment on my family, they do silly things like asking “Is that your cousin?” to any brown man on the street, or “Is he your uncle?” to anyone as they point to a man in a turban. I hate to disappoint them, but actually, my family is as normal as they come. My dad’s a businessman and marketing specialist, and my mum’s a civil servant. We have a pretty tight knit family — perhaps more than a white one — and my grandma’s always lived with us. Although my mum and grandma are religious, my dad isn’t, and they’re much more focused on hard work, uni, and making something of yourself rather than religion.

The strange thing is some of the misconceptions from not just from locals or white people, but from other Indians. They’re the ones asking me “Where are you from?” and looking shocked when I say “Leicester”. They’re the ones who persist with “No, but where are you really from? Where are your parents from?”

I actually had a fellow student message me the other day asking “How come you know all the proper words and sayings for Diwali, you’re British” as if because I’m born here I’m not actually meant to be in touch with my culture or heritage or mother tongue. In fact, the mistakes are worse coming from fellow Indian students. I think we have an inherent acceptance of white people getting things wrong, even though they shouldn’t, but you expect more from the Indians and it’s a bit of a kick in the balls.

And the stereotypes go deeper than throwaway social comments. I was once asked by a languages teacher if I needed a native language to English dictionary in a test. I was surprised she said it but she asked everyone who didn’t look white English in that class. At the time I just brushed it off. I feel like white people try to be extra polite and then it’s alright — plus, it’s never worth the hassle and effort of complaining unless it’s straight up racism or discrimination.

I’ve only experienced something close to that once in my life. When I was little I fell in a playground and fucked up my knee and face. I was bleeding badly, and the nurse just told me to wash myself up in the bathroom, and that was it. I was bleeding the whole day. At the same time there was a little white girl who grazed her knee on a bench, and she was with the nurse who looked after her all day. I remember my mum was fuming and complained, she reminds me of it all the time.

If I embraced my cynical self, I would look at experiences like that and say it’s not really that surprising that people still buy into British Asian stereotypes at top universities. But really, the hopeful young student in me is utterly appalled.

I understand that a lot of comments are made in jest — but it loses its hilarity after a while.