Malhar Bhattacharyya recounts her personal experience of moving to the UK as an international student.
I live in England, but I am from India. My personal experience of living in the western world as an international student is that I am constantly battling with the feeling that I will never fully belong in either culture.
Universities in England don’t close during Diwali, so I usually just light a candle.
Every once in a while, on major holidays, my dad will book me a flight to Assam to be with relatives, after careful consideration of my university schedules, so I don’t miss out on my studies. I’m sure he thinks I enjoy coming “home” to spend festivities with a horde of extended relations, including my overly zealous aunts and uncles who flock to me when I arrive, parched with thirst for news from the West. I awkwardly plaster a smile on my face to greet them. I always arrive with the intention of staying for two to three weeks yet more often than not, I get so infuriated with my family that I lie to my dad, saying the wifi connection isn’t good enough in Assam, and could I please return to Delhi so I could work uninterrupted. Mostly he agrees.
Last Christmas, I came home to Assam, there were lights up on Oxford Street and my friends were going drinking together at a fancy rooftop bar in Islington that served artisanal mulled wine. I, however, was going to spend Christmas watching Home Alone by myself in my relative’s house while they cooked rice, fish and other un-Christmassy foods and did laundry. How I was expected to get through Christmas here, I couldn’t fathom. Juggling time home with my family whilst all my friends were celebrating traditional westernised ideals of Christmas was impossible, I was dragging myself across the calendar till the day I got to fly back to Heathrow. In the kitchen, dinner is being cooked by a boy barely older than me, humming an old Kishore Kumar classic I don’t recognise.
I was honestly just desperately craving a mince pie.
My attempts at disappearing in a bubble of western Christmas classics were foiled, however, by a knock on my bedroom door. I emerged to find my relatives, all sitting in a circle on floor-mats, each with a thali in front of them laden with rice. One of them offers me puthi maas, and I try not to grimace as I accept it. It’s a small, bony fish and the meat is bitter yet still an Assamese favourite.
I direct my attention to the 5 year old now sitting next to me, in the time it has taken me to poke at and get stabbed by the bony fish, he has already deboned it and is clutching a sliver of perfectly fried fish between his fingers that he pops into his mouth with obvious glee. The bitterness of the fish and the effort it takes to debone has not deterred Assamese people over the many generations that they have eaten puthi in remembrance of their ancestors, the bitterness must have evolved into a delicacy by acquired tastes.
I must have gotten rid of any acquired tastes passed on by lineage to me. I learnt to love the bland avocado wraps of Pret A Manger and the brown mustiness of steak and kidney pies over the stabbing mustard fire of maasor tenga offset by the sweetness of misti doi. I realised I was fighting against the tugging of my bloodlines without realising, as I dyed my hair strange colours and used phrases like ‘peng’. My family let me, wanting me to go to a better life where people had the kind of accents you saw in movies and weren’t plagued by memories of riots and political warfare. My giggling friends always ask me to say words in my South London accent, which I find jarring and thick.
In England, I attempted getting rid of any traces of Indian-ness by listening to pop bands while voicing disdain at Bollywood dance numbers. My brief foray into pretending I was proud of my culture by wearing kurtas to class (that no one in Delhi would wear daily) was short lived . My English peers seemingly only marvelled at its cultural association, allowing my culture to be reduced to its pretty parts.
It is only recently that I have started challenging prejudices about my country. It is only recently that I have found that I don’t have to pretend to like Taylor Swift because my other friends do, and I have learnt to love the way red anarkalis make my skin and wide hips look. My friends have often made fun of me for always making it about my race, however, for me, my entire life has been about race without me getting to voice an opinion about it. Why should I have to feel that I can’t express my own culture in England? Why should I have to feel that I need to like certain things to assimilate to UK culture?
I suddenly don’t want mince pies any more.