Where are you from? This is a question that resonates with me and there is no straightforward answer. It’s a question I’ve heard throughout most of my life and which I am unsure how to answer even now as an adult. It involves the migration stories of multiple generations of South Asian cultures, including my own parents’ entry into the UK and a complex relationship with the European colonisation of countries, which was never taught in my school and which I am only just starting to find out about in my later life.
So, let’s start from the beginning - my parents’ heritage, which I am proud to proclaim. I am a mix of Indian from my father’s side and Mauritian (Indian origins) from my mother’s side. My parents entered the UK through the NHS and the promise of training, job opportunities and potential resettlement.
Funnily enough, neither of them planned to stay beyond their initial training period – five years of surgical training for my father and three years of nursing training for my mother. They both landed in the UK with very little money in their pockets, having come over through the NHS overseas recruitment programme in the 1960s and 70s. Their eyes met in a hospital ward in the south of England and the rest is history. Between them they have dedicated a total of 95 years of caring for NHS patients across their careers. I too have been drawn into the NHS and wanting to improve people’s health and wellbeing, with a focus on reducing health inequalities in local communities.
My brother and I are essentially products of the NHS; of Indo-Mauritian heritage and growing up in Wales, which I have been told makes us Welsh. Our unique heritage means that we don’t fit into the typical box of British-born Indian. Our friends whose parents were from India spoke their parents’ native language at home, whereas we spoke English in our house. Cue confusion at gatherings, when friends’ parents used to automatically speak Hindi to us, and we awkwardly whispered: ‘What did your mum say?’. Back then I didn’t feel like I fit into the Asian community either.
I had my own experience of migration – rather like the lure of employment for my parents, I was drawn to the culture of Spain and spent three years living there, integrating, learning the language and making Spanish friends. As with all migration stories, it was complicated.
Despite attempts at integrating, British and Spanish cultures are very different and the family support network wasn’t there when we had our first child, so we returned to the UK.
Our children are mixed race Asian and white British. I am bringing them up to be aware of where they are from, encouraging them to ask questions about their ethnic origin and to celebrate the Hindu festival of lights Diwali, as well as Christmas and any other religious festival they choose.
On holiday in North Wales a few years ago, my first-born was asked on stage where she was from. She replied proudly ‘I’m from Spain!’, because in her mind that’s where she was born so she considers herself Spanish. The DJ looked totally confused, thinking Spaniards must come on holiday to North Wales these days. So the question is even more confusing for her, with her own mixed ethnicity and migration story!
This year I am supporting South Asian Heritage Month from 18 July to 17 August, which commemorates 75 years since the partition of India and reflects on the theme of Journeys of Empire, with its mass migration of South Asian populations, and some of the heartbreaking stories about families and communities being torn apart. It has allowed me to connect further with my Indian origins and has helped to open up conversations with my parents about living in Indian partition times, their migration journeys, and where they now consider as ‘home’.
The campaign is inclusive, encouraging everyone to ‘celebrate, commemorate, educate’ South Asian heritage.
Don’t be afraid to ask your South Asian friends or colleagues about their ethnicity – there should be pride in explaining and sharing our story. Be curious and read up on the history of UK migration, other than what was taught one-sided in schools. Although I do think the question ‘what are your origins?’ would be an easier one for me to answer.
Anika Neill is a programme manager in the Innovation Agency System Partnerships Team.