South Asian Heritage Month - Who am I?
My first blogpost! Gosh! I’ll try to keep it breezy.
South Asian Heritage Month. What does it mean? In a nutshell, it’s a way of celebrating and commemorating South Asian influences and contributions to society, along with remembering historic diaspora.
This month has given me the chance to reflect on how I see my own Identity and the multiple labels that are a part of who I am. East African Asian, Indian, Pakistani, British Asian, a Yorkshire lass, are just a handful that resonate with me.
I'm still frequently asked by many who meet me, what ethnic background I'm from. On most occasions, it tends to be people of South Asian heritage who struggle to pin point who I am, as the multilingual display tends to throw them. I remember it being a far easier task at my Catholic Junior school, explaining how my roots were primarily of Indian origin. High school, however, threw new curve balls my way when I tried to explain in further detail the connection of my Ugandan roots and how my family heritage was linked. I’d often be faced with a look of confusion from any fellow Indian or Pakistani peers. The unfamiliarity was due to lack of awareness of what happened in 1972 Uganda. I was often classed as an anomaly for not having similar stories of parental migration. Perhaps if more light had been previously shed on the history of Ugandan Asians, I could have used those grounded resources as a point of reference. Thankfully, more is being done nowadays to document and commemorate the Ugandan Asian expulsion of 1972—along with my debut novel. **Doing a happy dance**
It was my father’s maternal grandfather (Khamisa Dossa - pic below), who had travelled to Uganda from the small town of Jodiya, Gujarat, where the Gulf of Kutch flows in.
Hence why Kutchi was the first language I learnt at home. It’s not particularly common, and I can only think of two occasions in my life where I’ve bumped into strangers who spoke Kutchi. I’ll never forget my trip to a sari store down south in London, where I froze listening to two ladies conversing in Kutchi. They were secretly complaining about the quality of a sari, whilst the unsuspecting vendor kept reassuring them that it was high quality stock; he was conversing with them in Punjabi. I remember blurting out from behind them saying, “You can speak Kutchi? How do you know this language? That’s incredible.”
Their awkward silence and perplexed gaze made me wonder if I’d perhaps been too forthcoming. They responded with, “there’s a lot of people in London that speak Kutchi my dear. In fact, there’s a rather large community residing right here in Southall.”
I was stunned but was also smiling cheek to cheek. It was my first encounter experiencing a sense of belonging.
At school, those confused glances would occasionally fly my way if I spoke in Kutchi, as it’s very different to Urdu, Punjabi and Gujarati, which are more commonly spoken languages in many South Asian communities.
Another moment I’ll never forget is when my mother first revealed to me that I was 25% Pakistani. She explained that her father was born in Lahore and lived most of his young life there before he migrated to Uganda. I was surprised to learn this at the time, but equally annoyed that my mother hadn’t elaborated on her family history earlier. It finally made sense why her Punjabi was so eloquent. After learning to speak in Kutchi and English, I was eager to learn Urdu at the age of 13. I then went on to conquer Gujarati at the age of 18, and now I’m learning Turkish. I figured it was high-time I learnt to converse in Turkish, having spent the last two decades of my life holidaying there.
Wedding attire was a difficult choice for me. Having connections to a range traditions gave me so much variety, but equally there was pressure to take a lot into account. Marrying into a Pakistani family meant that the wedding would be humongous; a minimum 5 day celebration package. The religious ceremonies were more of a cultural affair, so I chose attire that would reflect my South Asian roots. I distinctly remember battling to keep my frame upright in my aqua blue dress that weighed a tonne, whilst I perspired endlessly under the heat of the camera man's floodlight.
Part of me longed to wear a white wedding dress too, and so having celebrated our religious ceremony with family 4 years prior, we decided to have a small, private registry in Lake Windermere, Cumbria in 2016. I was grateful for the glitz and glam of the first set of celebrations and they were thoroughly enjoyed, but this was an opportunity for us to have our own ceremony in the Lake District, with a more subtle tone. We had the opportunity to absorb our beautiful surroundings and pay attention to our vows we made to one another.
South Asian Heritage Month is a great opportunity to celebrate all those identities and attributes that make us who we are, no matter how large or small the connection.
Exposure to various communities and extended communication skills have allowed me to build lifelong friendships and networks. It’s those very networks that have educated me and given me insight into ethnic diversity. Having come from a diverse background myself, I feel it has equipped me in breaking down cultural barriers and assisted me in the fight against prejudice. Uganda witnessed integration of various cultures and backgrounds many years ago. Once again, we are finally able to celebrate cohesion, but with a wider range of cultures, traditions and journeys being celebrated and commemorated, with South Asian roots.
So back to that question I’m often asked… “What do you identify as Noreen?”
Well… I’m a British, East African, South Asian. However, my mother prefers to call me a fiery Yorkshire pudding. Ha ha! Cheers mum!