I’ve had them all: Latina, Egyptian, Iranian, Italian, Greek, Indian. And I’m not talking about a world map covering a plethora of lovers. Rather, these are the nationalities people come up with when they take it upon themselves to guess where I’m really from.
This guessing game is usually preceded by the ambiguous, “So, where are you from?” which is special code for, You don’t quite fit any sort of nationality in terms of physical looks, nor how you dress (I have a strong Roman nose and am usually found in Pavement t-shirts), and I'm confused. In other words, what they actually want to know is: where are your parents from?
Asking this outright seems to be a big taboo in British society, so it’s cloaked in what appears to be a genial and civil conversation starter. Also, identifying yourself as British per se is apparently not enough, and somewhat a taboo in itself. However, I refuse to play their wicked game, so I’ll generally reply with, “Manchester, arrrr kid”, and perhaps give them a short rendition of my well-practiced Manc swagger - and, if I’m feeling particularly jovial, point out that of course I’m related to Morrissey and have appeared in numerous episodes of Shameless and/or Cold Feet. This usually results in a completely perplexed look and either a sharp change of topic. But those who are a bit more ballsy will continue to dig into the 'parental origins' front.
In all honesty, I’d rather them ask, “What are you?”, as crude and crassly simplistic as this may be. But the truth is, whatever I look like shouldn’t be important. It’s what I identify with the most that defines me, or at least it should. International, national, and/or regional identity is something we seem to be struggling with as a society at large; the uncomfortable connotations that come with positively identifying as English or British are hard to balance with a well-placed sense of patriotism. As much as I’d like to purport the equal opportunities line and get ‘British Asian – Pakistani’/ ‘Asian – British Pakistani’, ‘Pakistani Asian – British’ or just plain ‘BROWN’ tattooed on my forehead, I honestly don’t see the relevance. Aren’t we meant to have transcended race, like we apparently have gender? Surely, while we have male models walking for female targeted fashion collections, the colour of someone’s skin should be the last thing on our minds? Alas, the existence (and huge success) of skin whitening creams such as ‘Fair and Lovely’ in the Indian and Pakistani markets whisper that this isn't going to happen any day soon.
So, what am I? Evidently I am not a number. Thanks to my obstinate and headstrong mother (in a good way), my primary identity is that of a feminist within a larger cultural context. Yep, first and foremost, I'm an international feminist.
However, by and large within the British-Asian-Pakistani community this is still a dirty word. In fact, as an Asian girl who seems to span the cultural genres and graduated in War Studies, I’m approached with severe caution by certain elements within the said community. When introduced to people alongside my culturally acceptable doctor sister, people usually refrain from stating what exactly I graduated in - and if they are told I usually get a round of, “WALL STUDIES?? What’s that then?!” And that's not even bringing to the table the notion of a 'self-proclaimed feminist'.
Strangely, a lot of the time the resistance to feminism in my community is not even directly to do with ‘cultural stereotypes of the place of a woman’. Instead, the general unfounded connotations that are attached to the word ‘feminist’ (read: lesbian/asexual/long drawn out teen angst/promiscuity, etc. etc. ad infinitum) within certain cultures - in my case the Pakistani contingency in the UK - are amplified. Assumptions are made about the person behind the feminist label, and they're not usually kind.
But that's not to say that things aren't moving forward. As an Asian woman who has always been encouraged to embrace my feminist side, I’m glad to report that more women of South East Asian backgrounds are shedding cultural ideas of feminism by the bucketload. I'm experiencing more self-proclaimed Asian feminists than I ever have done before, and that's hella encouraging.
So the next time somebody asks me what I am, I'm happily responding with the F word.