Saturday, 16 May 2015

"Don't Ask Me Where I'm From!" Or, Identity in Post-Colonial Britain

You see a stranger. It's someone new. You know nothing about them and perhaps aren't interested in them at all, but they're staring at you, scrutinising. It's only a matter of time till they voice what's on their mind, and you know what's coming.

"Where are you from?"

At this point, I always know which way the conversation will turn, but this is how it goes with me:

"Yes, but where are you REALLY from?"
"I'm from London."
"No no, where were you BORN?"
"Oh no no, where were your PARENTS from???"
"My mother was born in east London."
"What about your FATHER, where is he from?"
"But what about THEIR PARENTS??????"

After this, depending on whether they seem obnoxious and demanding, or just curious but misguided on  basic social etiquette, I might end up giving them a hint.

I get interrogated on a regular basis by complete strangers who believe that their curiosity, perhaps even confusion, about my appearance gives them the right to ask demanding and very personal questions. These people are relentless and don't take 'no' for an answer.

This happens to me nearly every time that I leave the house. I could be: buying groceries at the supermarket, waiting for public transport, at a bar, being introduced to new people at a meeting, or just walking down a street, at any time of day (busy morning, quiet day time, or the lairy night filled with drunk-and-disorderlies). I could be alone, with my boy-friend, or in a group.

I get asked all of these questions because I look like this:

Recent selfies, looking (left) great and (right) pretty tired...

Now these nosy people do vary. When I lived in provincial, conservative, and dominantly white Bournemouth for three years at art college, locals looked at me like I was a strange alien creature. Random old white people spoke to me with curiosity ("Where are you from, dear?") and I answered "London!" in my best cockney accent.  And I will never forget the weekend I visited a friend in Exeter, where just walking down the road with her elicited stares and suspicious confusion. And the bar staff at the pubs didn't think I could speak English. And when I made my order, they talked to me like I was either stupid, deaf, or did not have English as my first language.

I now live in London again, and yet I still get asked this question. A lot of the questioners are caucasian, and grew up in a place which was distinctly not a multi-cultural city like London. I think that they should really get used to seeing people of different colours pretty quickly for they ain't in the village no more. I don't always fancy being someone's point of education: it's tiresome and repetitive. 

Sometimes it is by East or South-East Asians who think they can see a bit of themselves in my features. I don't mind this as it's a way of reaching out and finding community. But most of the time, it's by people who don't understand diaspora or the effect of migration and the Empire. 

Often these people are white. Recently it was a middle-aged (and middle-class) woman who had lived abroad and only returned to England relatively recently; therefore perhaps did not realise that our society's attitudes to all this has changed since the 1980s/1950s/whenever. I also spent a whole year working with a truly lovely person from a very small village in South Wales, who just could not get his head around the fact that my mum was born in London, not China; that all of my family were fluent in English; and that we celebrated Christmas. 

But it ain't always the ang mohs. I have had a LOT of South Asian (Indian/Pakistani/Sri Lankan/Bangladeshi) men be very inquisitive towards me, in varying degrees of friendliness and aggression. And also the black community in London, who are culturally outspoken and - from my direct experience - are always unabashed by asking questions. This includes women: I once spent a whole 15 minutes at a bus stop trying to deflect the ceaseless questions of a septuagenerian Jamaican woman  insistent on discovering my family tree and utterly dissatisfied with the factual answers that me and my mum are from London and that my father's family live in Scotland. "I think you should look into your family background you know," she told me. "You might find that someone in your family is Chinese! You should look it up! You should discover it! I think that not everyone in your family is from here!" 

Well thanks, you're really telling me something new…

Now, these nosy people are united in being very insensitive, even being hurtful. They act this way on several levels. First, often the curiosity comes as a strong impulse and people ask you where you're from before they ask anything else about you. Your name, occupation, how you're feeling, what you're doing - all these things become irrelevant! This is pretty rude.

Then there's the deeper stuff. To take myself as an example, I grew up in a single parent family as my father had (still has) no wish to have a relationship with me. He is of a different ethnicity to my mother. Single parent, mixed-race families are very common, and it's a difficult and often hurtful situation to grow up in. So if you know nothing about one of your parents - let alone their heritage and details of their ethnic origin - the last thing you want is for a complete stranger to start asking you all sorts of questions about your origins! 

Nosy and/or Ignorant People (henceforth referred to as NIPs) also tend to make gross assumptions about appearance, ethnicity and heritage. What these bloody NIPs tend to overlook is that migration of people happens in waves, and is an ongoing process that has been taking place for centuries. I am now going to refer primarily to the overseas Chinese communities as that's my direct experience.

My mother (left) and her sister were born in London. They look like this:

My siblings and cousin here look similar to me; we are half Chinese and half Caucasian and we were all born in the UK. We also resemble our grandfather.

However, nobody in my family has anything at all to do with this:

My family are ethnically Chinese, yes. But we are not really from China. My great-great-great grandparents left China between 1890 and 1915, and settled in what was then Malaya, a British colony. Specifically the British-run town of Malacca. They left China long before anything to do with the cultural revolution. Overseas Chinese communities (big ones in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong; but also more places around the world including Jamaica, Guyana, Mauritius…) are very different from mainland Chinese (or PRCs as they are often referred to). I believe that this is primarily because they didn't live through communism. An obvious facet is the presence of spirituality in their lives, which the communists tried to rule out. Another is the use of Chinese dialects, which were overruled when Mandarin was made the official dialect in China, in 1913. The overseas Chinese I know speak Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese; not Mandarin. My grandparents, growing up in 1950s Malaysia, were educated in English. Malay was not used in education until 1968, long after they had both left, so they technically don't speak the languages of their homelands. 

My grandparents entered the UK as (ex) Commonwealth citizens, and met in London. They were part of a Chinese minority community in Malaysia but this community was non-existent in the UK when they arrived; it is still negligible. By the time that people from these communities reach the so-called West, they form a multi-layered migratory pattern, which further contributes to their identity. However, both in Malaysia and London, my family has proven that success in immigration relies on integration. We speak primarily English but also a pidgin mix of Mandarin and Hokkien. My grandfather makes an amazing curry rendang; but also a mean Sunday roast. When any of us go back to Malaysia, we are different. That country has changed massively; and we are part of Britain.

So why don't people, and those frustrating NIPs (Nosy & Ignorant People) accept that? 

Keeping your post-colonial identity and referencing your heritage is fantastic. It is a really great thing to learn about your family history, and even keep cultural traditions alive. This is not even mentioning religion. Yet, in a multi-cultural but dominantly Caucasian setting, heritage informs identity rather than entirely forming it. You could be said to be holding two or more cultural identities at any one time; yet being born in the West, often but not always in the relevant diasporic community, your identity will always be influenced, at least equally, by being a Westerner; in this case, by being British.

It's rather like being an Italian or Irish or Polish Jewish immigrant and then moving to the USA: you are your diasporic community, but you are also American, the end of your journey; or your family's journey. It's something that Americans both WASP and not are very good at doing: holding a dual identity of country and history.

This is surely a natural and healthy part of integration (note that I'm speaking of the Western-born, second-generation children of immigrants); and it will be stronger as the generations continue and the link with the so-called 'motherland' of people's parents, grandparents, great-grandparents is weakened. Until someone reclaims their cultural identity, that is. Please note that (for example) keeping a family altar in the house and making offerings to it in the UK is a conceptually different practice than the same actions in South East Asia. Ethnic minority communities in the UK are renown for being either far more lax, or conversely much more extremist, in upholding cultural/religious traditions than in their homelands.*

Where are you from? Surely the answer to this question must always be local, not global. If you go back far enough then the answers are rarely clear - as I have demonstrated with half of my family history here. In the UK I am apparently not British enough (i.e. do not look caucasian) to make London a satisfactory answer. But I would definitely not pass for a local in either China or Malaysia. And why should I? My family last lived in Malaysia nearly 60 years ago, and those countries have far less influence on me as a person than the UK. What forms Britishness in a post-colonial society is far wider than it was a century ago. To hold people utterly accountable to their ancestors' places of residence is to suggest that there is no real change made by migration.

But also, it's nosy and irrelevant. And not really to the point. They don't want to know where you're from. They just want to know the precise details of your ethnicity.

And to that I'll say for now,

It's none of your bloody business.


I've got so much more to say on this subject, but for now I'll just end with a photo from the Asian American Student Collective's 'Where are you REALLY from?' campaign.

Oh alright, just one more.


*This is a blog post, not a formal piece of journalism or academic analysis; but please be assured that my statements are based on many conversations over the years with people, though predominantly women, from minority ethnic groups of varying religious beliefs and practices. If anyone's really interested I will actually go out and formally interview people; just let me know...

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Marlene Dumas: readings and viewings

I feel really very ill regarding the results of the general election today. Mental despondency, a feeling of depression and helplessness, and actual physical cramps in my stomach all day at the thought of what will happen to this country; at the prospect of what will be a whole decade of conservative rule.

Anxiety, frustration and helplessness; these are themes which link quite nicely with the exhibition I saw at the beginning of the week: the Marlene Dumas retrospective at the Tate Modern.

I hadn't heard of Dumas before seeing the exhibition advertised, but was intrigued by imagery of her haunting and evocative portraits in black ink - a favourite medium of mine. It took me several months before getting to the exhibition as I find ticket prices at the Tate prohibitive. But I finally bought a National Art Pass which got me in half price and was able to satiate my curiosity.

The first noticeable thing about Dumas' work is the lack of colour. The second is the scale. Portraits hang high on the walls, larger than life and hold striking simplicity with a bold outlook. But what must be noted about Dumas is that she never paints from life: all sources for her paintings are second hand, taken from newspaper and magazine clippings, films and photographs.

'Rejects' - Marlene Dumas - Photograph: Tate

As I discovered more about the artist from the work and the exhibition walls, I learnt that she is also a poet. Reams of text accompanies the work, not as a description or explanation per se; but as an extension of the question the artist is posing. Her poems as well as her paintings, then, are more political responses to source material; than portraits in the traditional sense. She makes images from other images and in this re-rendition of her sources, imparts more meanings on top.

'The Widow' - Marlene Dumas, 2013 - Image: Tate

The exhibition ends this weekend, and whilst I do apologise to you readers for leaving it so late to write about it, in actual fact I don't think that you need to see the exhibition in person to be able to appreciate Dumas' work  - or not, however your tastes lie. The juicy themes of sex and death, the paintings on huge scale and the exploration of inky washes are fun; but image-making in this way is just as well appreciated in reproduction. She's known for painting the rich and famous (Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana, Amy Winehouse); as well as faces that editorials pick up on less frequently, such as the series called Black Drawings 1991-2, exploring perceptions of black people during the apartheid in South Africa. But it's her witty and perceptive subtexts which caught my attention far more than the images on the walls.

She writes poetic criticisms of the nature of art and artistic circles; as well as exploring the themes which draw her, and which she also depicts in images. It's the writing that I find most enjoyable and memorable, and the writing that I urge you to explore. I'm going to end this exhibition review with some of Marlene Dumas' writing from 'Sweet Nothings', an anthology of her work published by Tate; as her writing is what I took away from the exhibition, and which made a far more lasting impression on me.



Excerpts from 'Sweet Nothings' by Marlene Dumas 
(edited by Mariska van den Berg; Tate Publishing)

from 'Why do I write (about Art)'
I write about art because I want to dissociate myself from the tone of most art-writings. I am not impressed by ART neither disappointed, because I never believed in ART as the Big White Hope anyway; or saw artists as larger than life.

a) I don't like pompous, purple prose; rather give me a cruel, cold text, with a touch of evil and a hand full of salt to rub in the wounds…

'Pornographic Tendency'
At the moment my art
is situated between
the pornographic tendency
to reveal everything
and the erotic inclination
to hide what it's all about

I am the third person
observing the bad marriage
between art and life
watching the pose and the slip
seeing the end in the beginning.

Die meisie met die spraakgebrek
says yes but means no.

from 'A Girl for all Seasons'
You - stranger - keep your distance.
I do not seek happiness in fulfilment,
but in the intensity of emotions.
And know that I can never love you
but will always avoid you
to spare you my eyes.

My works bear their names,
like one has to bear one's own history.
Drunk with associations and incest,
contaminated by all kind of illness and prejudices,
deliberatly wounded,
so that they wil not become arrogant
and forget their very innards.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Tomorrow is the Big Day!

Tomorrow is Election Day!
It's our chance to change things up.

At the last election, the amount of people who didn't vote topped the votes won by any of the political parties.

 The coalition government that emerged after the 2010 election was one that no one voted for, and no one wanted. Let's not let this happen again. 

Let's not forget that living in a democracy is a privilege and not a right. There are millions of people across the globe who will never get the chance to vote for who they think should be in government.

Polling stations are open from 7am to 10pm tomorrow, Thursday 7th May. Don't worry about digging out your polling card from under the pile of post - get yourself down to your local polling station and cast your ballot!

Monday, 4 May 2015

Taking back the beach - Hyde Park, 2 May 2015

On Saturday afternoon, my boyfriend and I got ready, jumped on our bikes, and pedalled furiously up to Marble Arch to join a protest at Speaker's Corner, Hyde Park. We arrived very promptly at 3pm; locked our rides; and looked around feeling a little confused. There were a couple of news crews hanging about, but no one was giving a speech; and things didn't feel hugely organised.

But then a group of people strolled along to the grass, sat down, and got out an inflatable beach ball. Then an inflatable banana. They were predominantly women, yes; but also men and children. More people joined, laying down blankets and towels to sit on. One man very purposefully stripped off, lay down, and got out a book. These weren't just tourists looking for a patch of sun - this was it!

Within minutes, a huge crowd had assembled, and began joining in. Off came the jumpers, and out came the bikinis! The atmosphere was like one of a family picnic, bustling and convivial; full of people you didn't know existed but were so glad to have around. Though a smaller number of people attended than any of us had expected, the atmosphere was truly lovely, full of positivity, warmth, and lots of humour.

Wandering around with camera in hand, I spoke to many different women about their reasons for being there. Their answers were varied, but all were sick and tired about the way that women's bodies are continuously used as commodities to further consumerism. And with the Protein World ad, how brazenly and shamelessly companies try to twist our psychologies, so that they can make the maximum profits. I have been really shocked at how unrepentant Protein World have been, and am repulsed by their attitude; so it's wonderful how positive the event was. Despite even events at provocation, people were calm, happy, and strident.

We were gathered together to celebrate keeping a positive body image, and not letting corporations tell you how you should look and think. There were women of all shapes and sizes there, the majority of whom young - in their 20s (like myself), and a few groups of teenage girls as well. I think that this is wonderful, as for too long I've found that my peers have been rather apathetic towards feminism. Many of the attendees followed the organisers' suggestions and came in bikinis; so rather predictably, when the press appeared on mass, they swarmed towards them like flies. I found this quite problematic. Many women were there to say, I will be the one tell you what a beach body looks like! The second resounding message was, Why assume that I am outside to be on display? On the one hand, it's great to have press, and it's great that these women felt comfortable in displaying their bodies in glorious reality and imperfection. On the other hand, I feel that this act sadly did pander a little to the male gaze, and my (depressing but predictable) observation was that the majority of the people who were interviewed (by press) were not wearing very much.

In addition, I felt the lack of ethnic minorities. There were a small handful of us there (around 10% of the attendees). Personally I think that as myself (a mixed race person wearing a vintage sun dress) and my boyfriend (a black man, and the only back man there) were atypical attendees, we would have given really good interviews; and it was a shame to have been overlooked. I hope that I don't come across as self-absorbed here; I really think that representation of ethnic minorities is something that needs to be worked on, in feminism as well as in our wider society.

But the backbone of the protest was made up of those who just sat on the grass and did their thing. And I had a really great time 'just' wandering around, talking to women, and listening to them speak. It was amazing to be in a public place where you could walk up to pretty much anybody there, ask questions, and talk about almost anything. The Protein World advert may have been heinous, but the wonderful thing about it is how it has opened up huge opportunities for discussion, which otherwise would have been closed. And - even more wonderful - is do to this for free, in public, with no personal agenda aside from keeping women feeling great about themselves. Protein World weren't the first to make adverts like that one; and of course they won't be the last. But people have stood up to say, No we don't like this! No we won't be treated this way! This has been done intelligently, and often with humour, and that has clearly struck a nerve. Saturday afternoon was a resounding success, and I hope that we young feminists in London continue to make waves in the future.

Thank you to everyone who let me photograph them!

More on the protest:

From co-organiser Fiona Longmuir
From co-organiser Tara Castello
From another participant, Will Hall
On The New Statesman


P.S. if you wondered about what we were wearing, especially after my historically-inspired post, here's us:

Ready for the beach, but just ended up going to the park.


Saturday, 2 May 2015

5 top tips for how to prepare for a feminist protest

If you're a Londoner, you cannot have failed to see last month's (a) horrendous yellow campaign plastered all over the London Underground, and (b) the extensive outrage that followed, online and in the medias, social and general.

Today, Saturday 2nd May, a demonstration has been arranged for 3pm at Speaker's Corner, Hyde Park. The papers rather predictably call it an angry feminist protest; the organisers call it a party celebrating all body types. I'm sure that as usual the truth lies somewhere in between, and I'm really curious about how events will transpire!

 If you are thinking of going along, here are my tips for preparing for a protest...

1. Remove all jewellery, spectacles, and loose items of clothing.

This isn't the place to show off your finest heirloom pieces, and you'd be more upset if they got damaged. Plus, you don't want to end up being the poor sod whose glasses get knocked off in a skirmish, trodden on and smashed (due to police brutality and kettling, obvs) and have to go around with cracked eyewear for the rest of the day! Yikes!

2. Waterproof eyeliner for the win

A protest is a public event, and on public events in Britain, it is pretty much guaranteed to rain. Enough said.

3. Keep solid foundations with footwear and a backpack

Marching with placards demands comfort, warmth, and free hands!

4. Dress for the occasion!

This campaign is a riotous debunking of the myth that you should have to look a certain way to appear confidently in public, specifically, the beach. The event organisers are encouraging all participants to turn up in swimwear and flaunt their bodies in glorious variety, imperfect or perfect.

If you've got a sense of humour, individual style, a love of vintage, or poor circulation (let me repeat: swimwear. Beginning of May. Outdoors. England) then I suggest you look to the formative years of the 20th century for inspiration. The beachwear may have questionable waterproofing qualities, but the combination of knitting and tunic length separates seem like the ideal qualities in costume for this occasion.

Those of you who are likely to feel a little warm in a crowd, but enjoy preserving some modesty, might like to turn to the 1940s for ideas...

Then we have the 1950s and 1960s, with bikinis to shake your money maker in, accessorised by really big hair.

Finally, my outfit suggestions for the most confident amongst you. The 1970s is known for second wave feminism and crochet dresses. But did you know how risqué swimwear was in that period? Transparent bikinis on the cover of a rather conventionally-titled Woman's Day publication - wowee! Talk about #freethenipple - if this isn't a sign that we've regressed, then I don't know what is.

Please note that for these outfits, an underlayer of flesh coloured thermals is strongly recommended.

5. Stay safe, keep a sense of humour, and have fun.

Now go and kick some chauvinist pig arse.

The demonstration is planned for 3pm at Speaker's Corner, Hyde Park, London. More info on the event here.