• Expert By Experience

Holding The Settled South Asian Diaspora Accountable For Their Treatment of Recent Immigrants

As someone who became an immigrant at the age of 9, I talk about my experiences quite often. Looking back there’s a lot of material I can write about. From the positive memories such as my first taste of chicken wings from the local chicken shop in Ilford (who can forget that?!), to the not so fun memories of constantly having to press the ‘refresh’ button in my life as we were moved from one temporary accommodation to another in London and Glasgow.

The emotional weight of these action-packed years is quite heavy. As a result, most of these memories are remembered in a comedic light for the simple fact that comedy serves as a good coping mechanism in our family. Regardless of how morbid the experience may sound, most of it ends up in our ‘remember when’ funny pile. A notable memory from this pile is when my aunt had stones thrown at her by the local racist kids in Glasgow as she was proudly bringing home McDonald’s for us after college. Worrying, I know, but don’t worry — the Big Macs made it home, which is all that mattered to us.

“Some of these hurtful memories center around our experiences with the South Asian diaspora and their treatment of immigrant families like ours.”

Although a comedic spin sticks to most memories, there are some memories where it doesn’t and those are the ones that really hurt. Some of these hurtful memories center around our experiences with the South Asian diaspora and their treatment of immigrant families like ours. It is these memories of degradation that have finally led me to write about my immigrant narrative.

So, let’s start from the beginning. Immigrating to another country can be quite a lonely experience, as I’m sure you’ve heard or seen before. This was the case for us as we didn’t have any ultra-close family in the UK.

As a result, we mainly resorted to using the mosque as an introductory point to meeting other British-Pakistani families in the hopes that they would introduce us to our new environment. From the mundane stuff like where you can get biryani masala to the more important things like which lettings agent accepted DSS (tenants on benefits), we pretty much wanted to know everything so that we were prepared for the journey ahead.

Through this constant search for guides within our journey, we came across people from all walks of life. Some of whom had done a similar journey to ours, but a long time ago and were now British citizens. The intentions of helping out recent immigrants like us varied from one person to another. For some, it was out of simple kindness whereas for others it was a duty from one Muslim to another.

However, there was a group of people with British citizenship whose intentions were hard to pin down and almost all interactions with them felt off. As time progressed it became clear that these interactions felt more like an exercise to show authority and superiority. This feeling was familiar to us as a family who had immigrated from Pakistan, where we had grown accustomed to seeing people being constantly one-upped along the lines of class or caste. This time what was difficult to pin down was a new element at play, something we hadn’t experienced before.

“These interactions were tainted in power and politics based on immigrant status.”

Looking back critically, these interactions were tainted in power and politics based on immigrant status. As a result those with British citizenship often held a level of contempt for recent immigrants who didn’t have citizenship let alone a right to stay while their cases were being processed. The reasons for this contempt sometimes mirrored those held by people from outside the community such as the belief that immigrants cost too much money to taxpayers or that we simply came to live off benefits.

However, in certain cases, the contempt came from the idea that new arrivals risked making things worse for those already settled in the UK by their simple presence, as the argument ‘there’s just too many coming in’ was used. This was something which we found really frustrating as almost everyone we came across had at one point or another been on the same immigrant journey.

Power and politics based on immigrant status can play out in a variety of ways. However, most are designed to be overt, so that they are noticed. For example, the mocking of our accents, or publicly shaming immigrants for speaking their native language, especially amongst themselves.

For me as a kid, the most hurtful and humiliating way this was played out was through the derogatory term ‘freshie’ — quite frequently used by those with British citizenship, whether it be long term or recently gained. A word we’d never heard before we immigrated to the UK, it soon became our most hated word. It wasn’t simply that it shamed. For me, it was the fact that it outed you as the most ‘other’ person in the school playground: Someone who no one could relate to.

“It outed you as the most ‘other’ person in the school playground: Someone who no one could relate to.”

Although being outed that way was frustrating overall, it was the sense of rejection from my ‘own’ community that was really difficult. While we weren’t naive enough to imagine the diaspora would embrace us with open arms, it was a shock to the system to be bullied by those who we relied on as guides in our new journey. We saw them as being the only people we had any commonalities with in this new world.

More importantly, having come from a very communal social environment (for the most part) where everyone is an aunt or uncle, having to distance ourselves from the parts of the Pakistani diaspora who rejected us was extremely isolating.

The long-term effects of starting our relationship with the diaspora on such a bad note were quite severe. For example, in my case, I felt on edge when engaging with someone of the South Asian diaspora for a long time, especially as a teen. Even if I did engage on a basic level I found myself in a state of insecurity where I focused on distancing myself from any trait or behaviour associated with being a ‘freshie’.

Exercising this insecurity led to contradictory behaviours such as my willingness to mock other people I saw as ‘freshies’ as a way of showing how integrated I had become. However, even with such shameful behaviour there’s only so much I could do to fit in. And it’s not as though my ‘freshie’ accent could change overnight. My accent is something that people picked up on in a second.

“It was the sense of rejection from my ‘own’ community that was really difficult.”

It took years of understanding and critical thinking to make sense of my journey and the impact these interactions had on me. In recent years there’s been a growing celebration of South Asian culture by the diaspora as its members continue to find their voices and unlearn negative stereotypes about themselves. As this movement towards embracing a more authentic South Asian diaspora narrative grows, it is only right that the immigrant experience in relation to the diaspora is explored too. We are a part of these communities and we rightly deserve to have our voices heard and experiences shared.

Taking our immigrant experiences into account — if we want true change then we have to challenge not only the power and political structures outside of our communities but also those within. It is the only way that our communities can move forward.