What does Asian look like

Words and images by Aarthy Balaganesh

According to Collin’s dictionary, the definition of the term ‘Asian’ means belonging or relating to Asia. British people use this term to refer to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh; whereas American people refer to Chinese, Japanese or Korean. There has been a long debate on the term ‘Asian’ in the medical sector in the use of health sciences and also in general. Asian itself is a rather vague and uninformative category as the continental boundaries are themselves a matter largely of social convention.

I am Aarthy Balaganesh. I was born in Norway to Tamil Sri Lankan parents and was raised in the State of Tamil Nadu, India where Tamil is the main language. I speak Tamil (both Indian and Sri Lankan dialect), Engilish, Norwegian. I also can speak Malayalam in an Intermediate level and have a basic understanding in Telugu, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Swedish and Danish. I identify myself as Tamil Norwegian.

When I meet someone new, they always ask where I am from. So rather than telling them, I ask them to guess. The usual responses are Indian or Indian American. When I say I am from Norway but I am Tamil, they look surprised. This gave me an insight how little people know how diverse the world actually is. And then I have to explain my ethnicity.

People, who are not exposed to bi- or multicultural background, tend to confuse between nationality and ethnicity. Even though I am Norwegian, I am Tamil. Tamil is my ethnic identity.

The generalised use of the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Indian’, has been something that bothered me. So I asked few more people who are Asian descents how they feel about it. Here are six people who are from different parts of Asia, showing how diverse Asia is.

Meenu Srinivasan

Tell me about where you are from and how you ethnicially identfy yourself

“I lived in Chennai, India. My parents are from a town named Ernaku- lam, Kerala. I am fluent in English, Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi. I identi- fy myself as South Indian as I hail from the south of India. The marriages in my community take place over 2 days, with the bride having to change into a minimum of nine saris each with its own significance.”

How do you feel about the generalisation of the terms Asians/ Indians?

“As a cultural term for the people of that geographical radius, the term Asian flies fine with me. But using it as a sense of generalising the entire community under one term is just very lazy.

We’re Asians but there is much more to that term than just being Asian, each subculture has its own rich history of struggles and victories. It’s not about learning every single thing about everyone but it’s the effort to at least remember the difference.”

What do you like the most about being a Malayali?

“I love the fact there is coconut in almost every south Keralan dish and its something that feels really holistic. The food from my hometown is prepared with a very holistic approach and they encourage everyone to eat without wasting which is very important to consider these days.”

Hafsa Khan

Tell me about where you are from and how you ethnicially identfy yourself

“I was born in Pakistan where my parents are from, but my mum came back to the UK when I was 4 months old. I was raised my whole life in the UK, I’ve never been back to Pakistan. I speak English and Hindko. I identify as a British Pakistani. I think I relate a lot more with my British identity because other than my family, I’ve never really been around other Pakistanis because my friends have always been from many different races. That being said, I love my culture, my family are quite cultural and traditional so I’m glad I’m very much in touch with my Pakistani heritage.”

Hindko is a cover term for a diverse group of Lahnda dialects spoken by several million people of various ethnic backgrounds in several discontinuous areas in northwestern Pakistan. Hindko today is spoken by close to four million people in Pakistan in the former Hazara division, which consisted of Abbottabad, Haripur, Mansehra and Attock in Punjab. There are a substantial number of Hindko speakers in cities like Peshawar, Nowshera, Swabi and Kohat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well. Speakers of Hindkos are known as Hindkowans. There is also a strong sense of a Hindko identity, as the Pakistani state realized when the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010.

How do you feel about the generalisation of the terms Asians/ Muslims?

“When I was younger, I used to try to “hide” my ethnicity. I think the shame came from the stereotypes surrounding being ‘Asian’. This need to hide my ethnicity definitely continued throughout a lot of my teen years. This was just in a social aspect. Now that I’m older, I’ve definitely learnt to love who I am and where I’m from. However, what I will say is when filling out job applications, I tend not to disclose my ethnicity (or my religion) just because I wouldn’t want to think that I would be discriminated against and my skills for the job would be overlooked due to some stereotypes I’d be tied into.”

What do you like the most about being a Pakistani?

“I love the wedding traditions and how extra we are as a country with weddings, there are so many different wedding events. They’re filled with colour and dancing and food which is my personal favourite. The extensive list of events can mean the whole wedding can continue over a few days which is just insane to me in the best way possible, sometimes people throw the most extravagant parties before and after the wedding. And I love how so many people embrace the clothes and the traditions of weddings when they might not be in touch with our heritage.”

Manish Kamble

Tell me about where you are from and how you ethnicially identfy yourself

“I’m from Kolhapur, Maharashtra, (India) but I was born & brought up in Ankleshwar, Gujarat (India). My Parents are from Maharashtra. Marathi is my first language. I also speak Hindi, Gujarati and English. I identify myself as Indian.”

How do you feel about the generalisation of the terms Asians/ Indians?

“From my point view, the culture, food, dressing style are almost similar but we are diverse when it comes to languages and traditions. So for centuries, even though we are diverse, we are inclusive.

As a community as we believe in Unity in Diversity. Even though we, south asians, share history and culture, we are definitely not the same. I think it’s time for people to learn by asking questions rather assuming where we are from.”

What do you like the most about being an Indian?

“We have festivals throughout year. I like Diwali & Navratri since rela- tives get together every year and we celebrate as one family. Diwali is the Indian festival of lights, usually lasting five days and celebrated during the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika (It usually falls in November. This year, Diwali falls on the 14th of November). We meet up with family, relatives & friends, and also ignite and watch fireworks. Navratri Festival is a 9-day celebration for Goddess Ambe Mata. We play Garba and Dandiya (Raas) for 9 days that honors, worship and celebrates feminine form of divinity. Traditionally Garba is performed around statue of Goddess Amba”.

Garba is the folk dance from Gujarat and is performed during the Navratri celebration. The theme of the songs are around the nine forms of Goddess Durga. The garba songs are upbeat and have catchy tunes. Dandiya Raas is also a folk dance from Gujarat which is performed during the celebration. The performers strike the wooden sticks in rhythmic beats, and a drummer standing in the center of the circle commands the rhythm of the dance. People assemble in two circular formations, with the inner circle moving in a clockwise direction, and the other circle moving in the opposite direction.

Rahmi Hussain

Tell me about where you are from and how you ethnicially identfy yourself

“I was born and raised in Cardiff but my parents are from Bangladesh. I speak English and Bengali and I also can understand Welsh, Punjabi and Urdu. I identify myself as Welsh-Bangladeshi”

How do you feel about the generalisation of the terms Asians/ Indians?

People assume that I am Indian. It’s so ignorant and frustating, there’s so much to being South Asian. People just think all we know is curry and ethnic clothes when every country has their own staple of things.”

What do you like the most being a Bangladeshi?

“The clothes. I love dressing up. It doesn’t happen too often but when it does, I love putting on a Lehengha. Lehenga is a South Asian dress that has a long skirt and top with a duppatta (a South Asian scarf) and enjoying the atmosphere around family and friends. Wearing lehenga makes me feel closer to my ethnicity and makes me embrace it even more”

Both Bangladeshi and Indian cultures (and also Pakistan) was influenced by each other as before the division in 1971, it acted as one. Now Bangladesh is basically has the cultural basis related to Bangla whereas India is a large multicultural country, which also includes Bangla predominantly in the State of West Bengal that shares borders with Bangladesh.

Himanshi Nagi Bevan

Tell me about where you are from and how you ethnicially identfy yourself

“I was born in New Delhi, India but I grew up in Cardiff most of my life. I am fluent in English and Hindi. I also understand and speak Punjabi and Urdu in an intermediate level. I am an Indian”

How do you feel about the generalisation of the terms Asians/ Indians?

“I might look Asian but honestly I can be as British as it comes. There is this stereotype where Indians are meant to sound ‘Indian’ whereas most people normally say “oh you don’t sound Indian or Asian” or ‘ohh you don’t look Indian’ or “ you’re too light skinned to be Indian”. And also Indian women are meant to be religious, simple, respectful etc.

Whereas I’m the opposite, I’m not religious, I’m outgoing, I’m independent, I don’t believe that my elders are always right and I’m not afraid of speaking up for my thoughts. I am married to a white British man who is forever learning to balance both my Indian/ white inner personality when it comes to listening to Indian music, watching Bollywood movies or talking to my Indian family in Hindi but also trying to uphold my modern views and opinions along with my western British cultures. I have always looked for a balance but unfortunately I don’t think that it exists and I don’t think I am either of those. But to the general public they only look at my skin colour and create a predetermined generalisation of a type of Asian. The term Asian is too broad. People loose their identity.”

What do you like the most about being an Indian?

“The respect and humbleness we are taught and raised with, the elegance of Indian women are something I like in my culture. And Bollywood mov- ies are everything! We are also very dramatic. Everything is very dramatic in our culture. It comes mainly from the Bollywood movie we watch while growing up.”

Jodie Lin Clarke

Tell me about where your are from and how you ethnicially identfy yourself

“I was born and raised in Cardiff, but was fortunate enough to have spent a great deal of my childhood in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia. I speak English and I also have a basic knowledge in Welsh and Malay. I
identify myself as half Welsh and half Malaysian. From a very young age my identity was defined by the lessons I have learnt from my parents, not by the colour of my skin. I went through school and university being the only mixed race kid and found it difficult to really connect with anyone

People look at you and you know exactly what they are thinking. You’re either not ‘Asian’ enough or ‘white’ enough. But what happens if you are both? I struggled with understanding who I was and I wasn’t prepared for the negative stereotypes thrown at me. When it comes to identity, people always want to fit in. They want to feel like they belong somewhere, and when you don’t, that’s what makes you stand out from everyone else. Now that I’m older and understand my heritage, I see being mixed race as special and as a great advantage. I am able to draw on the cultural experiences I’ve had growing up and my Chinese morals and values have shaped me into who I am today. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been exposed to two very different ways of life.”

How do you feel about the generalisation of the terms Asians?

“I am petite, mixed race, and have recently entered my mid 20’s. Before coming out as gay, I have experienced several encounters with men who have found me attractive, but never understood their obsession with Asian women. To them, my appearance was only seen as a fetish and a curios- ity and none of my other traits seemed to matter. It left me questioning myself several times, “are you interested in my appearance, the shade of my skin, the shape of my eyes or me as a person?”. These experiences have been painful and exhausting. It’s frightening how certain men perceive the population of in particular, Asian women. In the media Asians in general have been depicted as soft spoken and non confrontational. Asian boys are either the ‘Maths whizz’ or the ‘computer geek’. We aren’t seen as creative or have an interest in anything but numbers and equations. This is both racist and offensive. We are our own people. We are our own unique selves and personalities.”

What do you like the most about your Malaysian heritage side?

“The food without question! I prefer Malaysian food to British food. I love Nasi Lemak, laksa, satay, the list goes on. Food is one of the best parts about being Malaysian. Whilst Malaysian food is based on spices and different meats/seafood, it does not mean a vegetarian or vegan will go hungry as that is what is special about Malaysian cuisine. Arguably it is the cuisine with the most options for vegetarians. Food is one of the most enjoyable and exciting parts about being Malaysian”

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