Ayesha Kazmi

Becoming a Paki

In The Personal on 27/03/2011 at 12:05

I was excited at the prospect of moving to a city where there would be a lot of people who looked like me. Before moving to London, I didn’t know any different – perhaps, rather, I didn’t know what this would mean.

My 28 year old self knew well that Pakistanis, Indians, and Bangladeshis made up the largest minority population in the United Kingdom. I even knew that they were referred to as “Asians” – whereas in the US, the term “Asian” was used for minorities from East and Far East Asia.

I was rather excited at the prospect of moving to a part of town where there was a high Pakistani population. Maybe I’d make Pakistani friends – as I don’t have many in the US. I liked the idea of having an array of Pakistani shops to shop in: restaurants, food markets, clothing shops, bangle shops, sweet shops, and most exciting, the paan shops!

While I retrospectively admire my clear enthusiasm, I’d like to make acknowledgement of my utter naiveté. Allow me to explain. While I was aware of the fact that Britain had ruled over the Indian subcontinent for centuries, what I was wholly unaware of was how powerful this relationship between coloniser and colonised was.

It was stupid for me not to know. All things considered, I was an excellent college student. I was an American studies and English major and managed to graduate summa cum laude with honours as an undergrad. I was well familiar with terms such as colonialism and, for the leftie in me, neo-colonialism. But I suppose, living in the lap of privilege – born to middle class educated Pakistani parents in the city of Boston, and growing up in Brookline – one of the most expensive zip codes in the state of Massachusetts – I suppose I had to move to the empire of Britain to discover the ugly underbelly of what colonialism meant.

Within months of moving to South London, there was a murder – a double. Two young Pakistani boys. To me, as a newbie Londoner, with my American sensibilities still solidly place, this news was shocking. How could it be? That not one, but two Pakistanis were murdered in cold blood? It turned out that the boys were brothers. As the news started to churn out over time, I was stunned to learn that police came believe that the murder was gang related.

It just didn’t make sense to me. What would a couple of Pakistani boys be doing messing around with a gang? That’s when naïve old me was informed by my husband that it was almost certain that these two brothers were gang members themselves.

This was earthshattering and was next to impossible for me to wrap my head around. I literally could not picture it. It’s not that I couldn’t imagine Pakistanis committing crimes. Come on, I’ve been to Pakistan several times and know well of the kind of crap that goes on. It’s just that I assumed these things had gotten left behind in Pakistan. I also know full well that Pakistanis love to do drugs – I know Pakistanis in America that snort coke – the expensive stuff. But Western British Pakistani men – in a gang? What the hell did that look like? Did they walk around wearing tracksuits? Caps? Cheap gold chains around their necks? Pierced ears? Listening to rap music? Smoking dope? Really? I mean, really?!

I remember my former husband telling me on several occasions before we even got married that he felt “street.” To which I snorted out with a chuckle and a “Oh, honey, aren’t you cute?” I clearly didn’t listen to him, nor did I fully appreciate the story about himself he was attempting to tell me in those moments.

There was a discussion that I got into with colleagues at the magazine I worked at. I’ll never forget the time when one of my Bangladeshi colleagues, who grew up in Tower Hamlets, recalled with an immense amount of pain in his eyes when he described witnessing his parents being verbally and physically assaulted on the walk to school. “They’d call us ‘Pakis’ and yell at us to go home.” My other Bangladeshi colleague nodded her head in agreement. “My mother never allowed me to walk to school on my own either. It was too dangerous.” She then went on to tell me how the tires of her parents car would often get slashed and how she and members of her family were often called ‘Paki.” “There’s nothing like seeing your parents be racially attacked,” said my male colleague. Suddenly the resounding taste of the chip on his shoulder became potently acrid.

I thought back to my own childhood. Safe. Privileged. I used to walk to and from school on my own. So did my older sister. So too did my younger brother. My mother often had a snack waiting ready for us when we’d return home. My brother and I would sit and watch Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” munching on popcorn before we’d have to go and do our homework. I suppose when you’re not perpetually worried about your safety and that of your children, then one has the time and the mental space to think about other things such as healthy snacks and “the happy little tree.” On the weekends, my mother would have us do painting projects, and my brother and I would do our best to emulate the picturesque landscape genius – and always failed.

When I started to look harder and closer, I noticed that these shoulder chips were quite common on people who looked like me here in Britain. Interestingly enough, more so the men than the women. I’m not really sure why Asian men in Britain seem to have internalised the societal racism thrown at them more than their female counterparts. Is it because many of these men got into more fistfights when they were kids at school? I know that my former husband did. And so did many of my other male Asian friends. I can’t say the same about my female friends however.

I was lost in this. Not only could I not understand all of this stuff, but I could not relate. All the meanwhile, my own awareness started to heighten. Was I also being treated differently in Britain because I am ethnically Pakistani? Being Pakistani hadn’t appeared to make too much of a bearing on my life growing up in America, suddenly it became an obsession. I’m brown and the people on the streets don’t hear my American accent. It was in these moments that I made the purposeful decision to preserve my American accent; in order to differentiate myself from my British counterparts. How else could I differentiate myself? I wasn’t born and raised in Britain so I wasn’t that type of Asian.

In Britain, I came to discover, Asian was anything but a flattering category. In the United States, those called Asians – from East and Far East Asia – were considered “model minorities.” Even though I wasn’t classified as an Asian in the US, nevertheless, I was still a member of a “model minority.” South Asians were smart, successful. I remember the debates about the programme ER and the critique it received for not portraying a South Asian doctor with the problem corrected the next season. Overall, Muslim Americans are wealthier than the national average. In 2007, the average American household income was $50K. Whereas, the average Muslim American household income was $60K. Contrast that with the UK, and the discrepancies are stark with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis at the bottom of the rung. Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are the least educated and the poorest.

I turned out of the Finchley Road tube station on my way to work one morning to visit the fruit stand. It was coming up to late spring, so peaches and nectarines were on sale. “I’ll take a pound of each” I told the vendor. “Alrighty my dear!” he said to me in his thick cockney accent quite cheerfully and with a massive toothy smile crossing his face. Something felt weird. He measured the fruit out for me and handed me my goods in a plastic bag. “Anything else for you today hon?” I shook my head. “Well, you enjoy the day now! The weather’s getting gorgeous. Would be a shame to miss it sitting indoors all day working!”

It suddenly struck me why this exchange felt different to me. The vendor had just lightly flirted with me. Since moving here a few months before, not a single gora had flirted with me. Come to think of it, not a single one had ever even taken a glance at me – not on the streets, not on the tube. Certainly not my experience in the US. This vendor seemingly saw me as an equal – to strike up a friendly conversation; to treat me like a lady. I had unwittingly morphed into a Paki.

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  1. […] the diversity of London. As much as I fell in love with my new friends, they all looked like me. Becoming a Paki was no easy process. Intellectually, I deliberately attributed my experience as uniquely British […]

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