Nabeel Arif
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Where Are You From?

These four words send my head spinning.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

I’ve wanted to write this piece for a while now. I’ve just struggled to find the words. As a matter of fact, I don’t really know what I’m going to write. Or for that matter, where this is going. I just know I need to get these thoughts out of my head and onto paper (sort of).

A couple of weeks ago, after we had finished binge-watching The Punisher on Netflix, my brother and I stumbled upon a new Russel Peters series called The Indian Detective. If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically a crime drama/comedy (dramedy?) about a Canadian cop visiting his father in India after being suspended. The plot centers around Peters’ character, investigating a criminal operation with links to his home in Canada.

“His home in Canada.”

That's an important part of that sentence. In the series, our protagonist doesn’t want to go back to India at first, his “spiritual home.” It’s only after a certain event he even thinks about flying back. His reluctance and view of Canada as his home, although a small story arc, got me thinking about my own heritage and history.

My father came to the UK at some point in the 60s. When he was around 15 or 16 years of age, he joined my grandfather and my uncles, they set off from Pakistan in search of a better future for themselves and their family.

My mum came into the picture in the 70s when he had stayed behind to look after my brother who had just been born. They initially landed in Stoke and set out to work, finding jobs and eventually filtering down to settling in St. Albans.

But he hated it. Writing letters to my grandmother, he'd complain about how bad the weather was. How much he missed her and his friends. How he'd wake up and it would be dark, go to work in a warehouse with no natural light, and come home in the dark. Then go to sleep. He longed for the comforts of home.

He lasted six months before flying back to Pakistan. But he came back, and he came back to the UK because, as bad as it was for him the first time round, the alternative seemed much worse.

At least that’s how I think that story goes. As a family, we’ve never talked about the sacrifices he made or his life in general. We've never really sat down and had that chat.

Think Master of None season one, episode two: It’s just the way we were raised. My father has never been an open bloke. He’s traditional, a proper old school man, hard-working and tough. The classic stiff upper lip and all that, as the Brits call it.

As such, we’ve not really talked about our family history. It’s just not come up. But as I’ve grown up I’ve become increasingly self-aware of everything he’s done for us. As a kid I bemoaned the fact that I wasn’t like the other kids. I’d go to a friend's house and they’d have the most amazing home, interior designed exclusively by John Lewis. We’d play with the best toys, in beautiful gardens, with perfectly manicured lawns. We’d have the BEST food, and I would see how the parents interacted with their children, wishing I would get the same affection. I’d see kids wearing the best new clothes and playing with all the best new toys. I wished I was them.

Then I’d come back to my house. It’s interior designed entirely by the past. I'd have the same food as the night before, play with the same old toys, and then go to sleep in the same old bed. I spent parts of my childhood wishing I was someone else. Somewhere else.

But despite all this, I had a wonderful childhood. I’ve come to realize this now. I grew up with a loving and a supporting family (sometimes). I’ve got stories from my childhood that I now cherish. Stories that I will happily tell my own kids one day. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve gotten older, I have also understood the situation more. I’ve become more self-aware of the circumstances.

My dad worked damn hard to make sure we were all provided for and that we had everything. I’m grateful for what we had and how we were raised. It’s made me who I am today. Of course I’m not perfect, and of course it’s in every kid's nature to be jealous of their friends getting the latest toys, whilst you’re playing with hand-me-downs. But I have recently been thinking a lot about my identity. About where I’m from, and to a lesser extent, who I am.

I’ve spent parts of my life thinking that, because my family was different, because we didn’t dress a certain way, or our mannerisms didn’t conform to certain societal ways, that we should be ashamed. That because we weren’t the typical family, it was something to be embarrassed about.

Let me explain.

You see, in the UK, I’ve often felt classed as the "Foreigner." But this is my home, no? It’s all I’ve ever known. How could I be a foreigner in my place of birth?

If that’s the case, you’d think I’d be a bit more at home in Pakistan: The Motherland. My “spiritual home.” Well, think again. Countless times in Pakistan I’ve been treated as an outsider.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Treated as a foreigner in my own homeland, and as an outsider in my supposed homeland, left me feeling lost. Left me feeling like I had no home.

So, where do we go from here?

If I’ve felt like this for so long then why am I only saying something now? Why am I only just now writing this?

Well, as I approach my 25th year on this glorious planet, I realize this is my home. This crazy island floating away in the vast oceans of Planet Earth. It’s taken me a long time, but I feel as though I can finally call this place my home. A place where I belong.

I’m not too sure what the catalyst for this change has been.

Maybe it’s something to do with feeling settled.

Maybe it’s more to do with the shifting landscape of popular culture.

Growing up there were hardly any popular culture figures to look up to. Film, TV, and sport stars were almost always different. They didn’t look like me so I didn’t think those opportunities were open to people like me.

However, now there are so many positive role models for kids like me growing up. That stereotype that asian children are forced to become doctors or lawyers by their parents has been shattered. I still know relatives who have gone down those awesome career paths, but I’m also seeing more people like me on TV, more people like me are shattering that stereotype and providing an inspiration to the next generation.

You see, despite all this. Despite what the Daily Mail might think. I am British.

All those stereotypical British jokes that people make? That’s me! I love a good cup of tea and look on in horror when someone puts the milk in first. And you’re damm right that I am prepared to argue over the correct method.

So many times I’ve said I don’t mind when offered a choice, then found myself praying that I’m left with the option I wanted.

Oh, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve apologized to someone after THEY bump into ME. Or how many times I’ve apologized for not smoking when someone’s asked me for a lighter.

Here’s the thing.

I might not look like the typical english person. Might not sound like one sometimes. Might not have exactly the same mannerisms. But to me that’s what being British is. Being British, to me, is a concept that includes more than what you look and act like. Being British includes things like love and respect for the country. It’s not as black and white as a piece of paper or what ID one has. It’s more a state of mind.

It speaks volume about how open and diverse this country is. In the aftermath of the Brexit result, the media would have you thinking we’re all at war with each other, and that immigrants and foreigners aren’t welcome. And they’re all to blame for the nation's problems.

That couldn’t be further from the case. This is still a land that is open and welcoming to everyone. You’ve heard of the "American Dream?" Well, there’s such a thing as the British Dream, too: The opportunity to move here and pursue the opportunity for a better life. To contribute to a society that has given so much. To be a valuable member of society.

So, there you have it. As it happens I am British. I’m just a new version. British 2.0, if you will. I’ve finally realized that the thing I’ve been searching for my whole life has been right there beside my family and I all along—and I didn’t even know it! (Yes, I did steal that line from Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2!)

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