From cuisine to complicated shopping aisles, Adi had to quickly learn how to decipher British culture. Struggling with his identity actually connected him more to his South Asian heritage. And a new British passport brought a new sense of belonging and the desire to conquer the UK as a queer brown boy from India.
Navigating the UK as a brown boy from India.
By Aditya Sinha
To counter the perception of being a ‘FOB’ (fresh off the boat), I’ve acquired an interesting set of learning tactics since moving to the UK. Hours have been spent memorising the song lyrics of UK Spotify playlists, with hours more spent deciphering accents from the North to the South and even to the West Country (my particular favourite!) I've learnt innumerable cultural food references, such as determining that a ‘pud’ is in fact a pudding (which actually means dessert), and that the Yorkshire and Black varieties are not really ‘puds’ after all.
I've had to adjust to the labyrinth of supermarket aisles (a very different environment to which I was used to shopping in), grasping signage and novel store layouts (bread and eggs go together kind of stuff). I’ve picked up the delightful habit of eating sandwiches with crisps for lunch, so much so that I’ll complain upon not being able to find such a delectable Pret selection anywhere else on the continent. I’ve mastered the components of a traditional Christmas dinner (a completely new concept to me), and become accustomed with gardening, having previously never touched a twig in my life!
Such UK centric skills and trivia are just some of the endless notes that fill the pages of my imaginary learning notebook, titled “How to live in the UK as a brown boy from India’’. Each has varied stories of embarrassment, amazement, or sometimes even shock associated with it. But whilst at it, I’ve also had to learn the names of all British Olympic winners, important painters and musicians from the last two hundred odd years, as well as many other riveting and niche facts about the UK.
"Adapting to life in the UK was, and still is, relentless. It can be draining at times."
This part of learning was essential in my preparation for the ‘Life in the UK’ test; required of anyone wishing to become a permanent resident. Many of my fellow immigrants will recognise this as the ‘ILR’ (Indefinite Leave to Remain). This is an interesting choice of residence title, bearing a carrot and stick sentiment when you think about it – you may remain here, but we’d rather you leave. Adapting to life in the UK was, and still is, relentless. It can be draining at times. And whilst I choose to be on this learning journey, as I know that it’s equally expected of me - continue to learn I must.
With this continual journey in mind, I still give myself a mini pat on the back when asked for directions on the street or on public transport for example. How great it feels to be considered a local. And, if that someone asking happens to be British, this mini pat transforms into a huge pat, even a self-hug! The underlying emotion to moments like this is closely tied to a desperate desire to belong. A hugely common desire amongst POC living as immigrants. It makes us question whether we belong to one place or two; perhaps even more. And do we belong to these places equally or to one more than the other? From personal experience, where I belong can feel very different at different times.
"The underlying emotion to moments like this is closely tied to a desperate desire to belong."
Acquiring my British passport (very cool!), has contributed hugely to my sense of belonging. In 2019, when sashaying through immigration in Japan without a visa, with just a flash of my burgundy passport, it felt incredibly surreal. The experience was such a huge transformation from what travel once meant for me. With the UK not part of the Schengen region, I had settled with having to plan meticulously months in advance. Even for a simple pre-Brexit trip to Europe, this involved submitting bank statements, proof of accommodation and employment. I had to sit back and enviously watch British friends and colleagues hop on the train to Paris at the drop of a hat.
Despite these expectations becoming routine for me, travel also came with the additional complexities (detailed interrogation) that most POC with a ‘weaker passport’ can expect. The company of my British partner proved the only antidote to a more intense line of questioning. It seemingly took a respectable looking white man to stand beside me in the queue for immigration to leave border police feeling more reassured about my intentions.
"Even now, with the security of my British passport, I still experience the fear of being stopped and called out while returning ‘home’."
Yet, the sharp feeling of dread attached to travel and questioning can never quite leave you. Even now, with the security of my British passport, I still experience the fear of being stopped and called out while returning ‘home’, for not saying something I should, or not carrying a document I should be.
I still distinctly recall the moment I first felt I could potentially live in the UK long term. Whilst standing on platform three at Slough station, with a First Great Western train whizzing past me, I was filled with a nascent sense of confidence and grounding. It was as though new and fresh roots had appeared directly under my feet, making their way along platform three and up through my body.
Eleven years and eight addresses later, here I am, feeling extremely glad of the experiences the UK has offered me; the good, the bad and the ugly. They’ve shaped me in so many ways and given me so much. I have toiled, I have fought tooth and nail to have a seat at the table; in a metaphorical sense, and quite a literal one when on the underground!
"My move to the UK has enabled me to connect with my roots on my terms."
But even when marked by issues or challenges, my experiences have gifted me with the grit and determination to make myself count. For it is here that I’ve developed an in-depth sense of my own being. It is here that I’ve gained a world view in its truest sense. It is here that I came out, and where I’ve learnt about financial, emotional and spiritual independence. My move to the UK has enabled me to connect with my roots on my terms. I would not trade my time, my memories or my journey here for anything.
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