Anastasia Nicholas is bored of people asking her where she’s really from, and you should be too.
There are phrases we all hate hearing. You’ve spent longer than everyone else inspecting the menu and you hear, “sorry, we’re not serving that today” or you find a beautiful dress and you ask if they have it in your size online only to be told, “I’m afraid it’s out of stock”. If you’re a person of colour, there’s one question you’ve probably heard more than once. You’ve met someone new and you’re having a chat, then all of a sudden you hear them utter, “but where are you really from?”
I am definitely my parents’ daughter. I’ve inherited my mother’s stubbornness and my father’s occasionally frivolous spending habits. Oh, and his eyebrows – I am ethereally grateful I inherited those. But I’m not just an amalgamation of my parents, I am everyone who has come before me. I adore music as much as my grandfather and I become emotionally involved in absolutely everything I watch just like my nan did. I see so much of my family in myself on such a regular basis but each and every time someone has reduced my to where I’m really from, it infuriates me.
“I’m British. I was born in North London but that’s apparently not enough. My parents were born in South India. That’s the answer everyone’s usually after.”
I’m British. I was born in North London but that’s apparently not enough. My parents were born in South India. That’s the answer everyone’s usually after. I once had someone ask me how both my name and I sound so British despite the fact I’m well… so brown. I brushed past it. I avoided it and to this day, I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because I’d had a few drinks and I didn’t think Wetherspoons was the right place to go into it. It’s been three years since this particular incident and I still can’t quite seem to get over it. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t the first time someone said something to me like that and it wasn’t the last either but this particular conversation has stayed with me. I wish I could tell you why. I always feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. When I’ve tried to explain myself, I’m often met with furrowed brows on confused faces. Explaining your existence is tiring – exhausting even. I suppose after a while, it’s just easier to change the subject but when I have a bit more energy, I’ll throw a curveball – I tell people that I’m Anglo-Indian and their faces drop. They don’t know what I’m on about anymore, this isn’t the answer they wanted to hear, their eyes widen and they need clarification.
According to Wikipedia (I know, I know) there are about 86,000 Anglo-Indians in Britain. That’s around the same number of people who live in Chester but no one I’ve spoken to has known about us. In a nutshell, an Anglo-Indian is someone whose ancestry is of both British and Indian descent. A lot of us moved to Britain, America, and Canada after India gained her independence in 1947. Both sides of my family did just that. My maternal great-grandmother asked my nan if she wanted to move to England but she was skeptical. She’d just met a lovely man called Tony and she wanted to get to know him a bit better (spoiler – it was definitely worth it). My great-aunt moved to Canada and the rest of her siblings moved to England where my father has lived since the late sixties. He says he was born in India but became a man in Britain.
“My great-aunt moved to Canada and the rest of her siblings moved to England where my father has lived since the late sixties. He says he was born in India but became a man in Britain.”
I can’t count the number of times someone’s asked me how I could possibly speak English so well or how many times they’ve looked shocked when I tell them I can’t speak any other language. As far as I’m aware, my family’s first language has been English. My parents learnt other languages in school out of necessity but so did I and I’ve only broken out my B in GCSE German once. In fact, my mother was teased in school for being Anglo-Indian. She was told to go back to England. Back? Back to a country she’d never once visited? Since then, my mother has been lucky. To my knowledge, no one has told her to go back to where she came from but I know there are people who think she should. I see these people all the time. Admittedly, I usually just see them on social media but that’s more than enough. I know there are people who reduce me to the colour of my skin and instantly assume I can’t be anything like them, who probably think I should go back to where I came from too. I’ve been back to North London. I’ve been to India. It’s been over a decade but I’ve been there. I’ve had the privilege of being a tourist without becoming a spectacle but when I opened my mouth, strangers were always taken aback… I just can’t win. When I visited India, my family would laugh and tell me that I’m not Anglo-Indian enough – my parents still tell me that on a regular basis. I never really knew what to say when I was younger but I do now. What do they expect when they raised their child in England? My parents’ duality springs from their upbringing and their respective time in India but mine has been forged from what I’ve learnt over the years.
In my twenty-two years, I’ve only spent a very small portion of my time feeling unwelcome but even writing that breaks my heart a little bit. No one should be made to feel unwelcome in his or her own country but this idyllic world where racism doesn’t exist sadly isn’t the one we live in. I mentioned social media not long ago and just the other day, I saw a young brown woman who was my age on the receiving end of a string of racist tweets simply for voicing her opinion. Of course, my biggest fear isn’t receiving a tweet from a racist but when an alarmingly large number of people issue racist remarks and threats on a daily basis – why shouldn’t I be a bit worried? I have a folder of responses tucked away in my head just incase anyone decides to challenge me, even though I’m sure I’d forget them all in the heat of the moment. I wish I knew why people feel the need to make racist remarks. I refuse to believe that it is human nature to fear those who are different from us. Yes, unconscious bias may exist but there is nothing unconscious about some of the things I’ve heard.
For years, Anglo-Indians have assimilated. That’s what we do. We’ve tried to fit in and convince people that we’re as westernised as they are, especially first generation immigrants. But that’s the thing, that’s what everyone does. Everyone becomes a product of the country they live in somehow, it’s bound to happen. I’ll never know why there are so many people who still struggle to understand the fact you can be both brown and British. I’ll tell you this much though, Anglo-Indians can jive. They still meet up all over the country and have a boogie and every Anglo-Indian matriarch has a biryani recipe they claim is the best (even though we all know my mother’s clearly is). There’s not as many of us as there used to be and as far as I’m aware, we don’t tend to talk about it very much. But if there are any brown girls out there who are struggling with their cultural identity, I urge you not to brush it under the carpet. You don’t have to pick and choose what facets of your life you identify with and tell people about. Your first answer is enough. You don’t need to justify your reason for being (unless of course you want to). Don’t be frightened to confront those who insist on determining our ancestry to a point they feel comfortable with but remember, if someone doesn’t have it in them to understand how you could possibly exist in that very moment, it may be beyond your power to try to teach them otherwise. I wish I hadn’t spent the best part of my life explaining myself and I could go about my life assuming I haven’t changed anything but I hope I’ve made someone think twice about adding a really into my favourite question. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that but I urge you not to. I’ve never met a person of colour who appreciates it and small gestures go a long way.
I still long for the day my first answer will satisfy someone but I’m hoping it’ll be sooner rather than later. I know I haven’t taught you very much but I’ve let you know that we exist and that’s definitely something – you’re already one step ahead.
Words by Anastasia Nicholas
Illustration: Nina Goodyer