Learning To Love My Own Skin

A Coconut

I was born in India, but I was raised in a relatively large county in the South of England. Not quite the hustle and bustle of London, but also not comparable to the quiet of endless country fields. The town itself was a beautiful blend of peace, and excitement, and without a doubt the only place I would ever want to grow up. From cobbled highstreets, friendly locals, and beautiful English greenery, I have to admit my upbringing was gentle and reserved. 

So, when I began to feel lost, I didn’t understand why. Yet as I grew into my formative teenage years, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Despite walking, talking and dressing like my friends, I still felt like I was different. It wasn’t the standard ‘teenager trying to learn who they are’ phase, I knew there was something much deeper; but I couldn’t figure out what. 

At 11 years old I went to an independent girls’ school and with boarding facilities available, it meant the school was relatively diverse, with many girls coming from different continents. As the only Indian child in my class prior to this I was admittedly excited to see people of different ethnicities at my new school. But five years later I left the school in a worse condition than I had entered. 

The United Kingdom is growing rapidly in diversity, with a substantial amount of its residents identifying as part of a different ethnic group to ‘White British’. Yet regardless of this, according to information given by ‘Gov.Uk’, the 2011 Census found 86% of the population of the UK is white. With 16.2% of ‘White British’ people living in the South East of England, which coincidently, is where I lived. 

Therefore, regardless of attending the international boarding school, my Indian roots were quickly diminished. I blamed myself for a long time. I believed I didn’t put enough effort in trying to learn Hindi, watching Bollywood films, and remaining in touch with my family back in India. But the truth was I felt ashamed of being Indian. In class when the word ‘India’ would be said, everyone would look at me, whilst I sunk despairingly into my seat. Constant questioning followed me around like the plague such as, ‘why is your hair so long’. A question that would rarely be asked to a person with long hair, of a different ethnicity. Meanwhile, the stereotypes remained strong, and whilst I could civilly respond to my peers’ innocent curiosity, the archetypal statements fired my anger. Utterances like ‘you smell like curry’, or ‘why aren’t you smart if you’re Asian’, began to make me feel less like their classmate and more like a stranger. 

However, as I began to hit the age of 16, I realised what truly bothered me was not the questions, or jokes, it was the ignorance. My own friends didn’t realise I was Asian, simply because I wasn’t from countries such as China or Hong Kong, for example. They didn’t tell me when I accidently walked into school still wearing a night-dress under my school skirt, as they believed the British branded ‘Marks and Spencer’s’ nightwear was ‘religious’. Both adults and children alike, believed I spoke Hindu, or followed the religion of Hindi. And, no matter how many times I say my name to a person, they will always hesitate to say it, or pronounce it wrong. 

The truth was, the people who denied my own ethnicity due to a simple geographical error, shied away from talking about what they believed was my religious belief, and mis-pronounced my name every single day; were the same people who discarded my religious jewellery but allowed other girls to wear theirs. They were the same people who called themselves my friends but made racial comments without realising. They were the classmates I sat next to every week in chapel to learn about their religion, but failed to learn about mine. And they were the friends that would endlessly torment and correct my slight difference in pronunciation of words, when they said my name wrong every single time. 

By 18 I had stopped praying to God every day. I lost my religious jewellery, and had cut my hair (which was against my religion). I used headphones to drown out my parents Hindi songs, and they themselves had gotten into habit of switching to English radio stations in the presence of my friends. I was used to hearing my British friends call me ‘basically white’ and I wasn’t fazed by my few Asian friends calling me a ‘coconut’. 

I had left the girls’ school feeling bruised, but unsure why. But now I know. Because the truth is, I was one of the very few Indian girl’s going to a predominately White British school. Without realising it, I was adopting the traits of my ethnically different friends, believing they were my own. I would return from school with new morals and beliefs every day, which then conflicted to who I was at home. I let myself believe I was less than everyone else because I was different, and subsequently in doing so I opened the door into letting other people tell me and treat me like I actually was different. I put blame on my parents for not raising me the same as my friends due to their different Asian morals. And I allowed myself to be branded in cheap insults such as a ‘coconut’ simply to please others. It really is no wonder why I became so lost; I felt absolutely alienated. 

My experience was not violent, nor immensely brash, but it was constant and covert. It took me 18 years to realise that another person’s opinion on my culture should not be enough to make me change. I shouldn’t feel ashamed of who I am, guilty for what my morals are, or changed because what is right to me, is wrong to someone else. A lot of what I heard growing up, I would never think twice to say to someone else, and yet people say it to me simply because I am a different colour. But the problem isn’t a battle between those who are White British and those who are Asian, in fact a person’s ethnicity plays a very small part in the actual problem. Ultimately, it is the amount of education that goes in to respect, tolerance and acceptance of other religions, cultures, ethnicities and any other forms of identification, that is greatly lacking; thus, creating barriers between people. No one is teaching young people to talk or learn about people from other countries or backgrounds. They’re just being taught to ‘accept’ without knowing what they’re accepting, and to ‘respect’ without knowing what to respect. In a world striving for equality, the lack of it is appalling. If people simply took the time to learn, care, and talk to those who are different to themselves, no one would ever have to feel alienated, no matter where you’re from, or who you are.