by Harvin Bahl, FRANCE/ESTONIA/CHINA
Hi, my name is Harvin and I’m a British Asian currently living in Beijing. Being brown (as I casually like to call it) is something that I hardly notice whilst I’m at home in London or at University. Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to travel a lot in the past few years, and these kinds of travels have been instrumental for me; helping me really to gain a deeper understanding of my identity.
I grew up in a privileged environment, knowing that I was a British Asian, but being unaware of what this gift entailed and the story behind it. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to come to terms with my identity and realised all the work that has been put in by my parents and their parents before them to allow me to not even bat an eyelid at my brown skin for the majority of my childhood. As I began to travel, in an effort to enrich my experience of the world and experience a wide variety of cultures, I became more aware of my ethnicity and the fact that outside of India, I’m still a minority. My travel narrative has been as follows; Estonia, France and now China – the vast differences in attitudes and culture in these countries provoked a plethora of different emotional responses from me, but the one thing I drew from every experience was the ability to embrace my skin, embrace my ethnicity and to embrace myself.
Estonia was a massive culture shock for me; to go from such an ethnically diverse country like England to a place where immigration is a rare phenomenon was mind-blowing to say the least. The thing is with places like this is that you can never be completely sure if you’re purposely being made to feel like an outsider or if these issues are exacerbated in the mind; I find the latter can be a very real thing. The richness of the Estonian landscape was juxtaposed with the begrudging kindness from most of the public. Don’t get me wrong I made a few friends and had the time of my life, but for the first time in my life I found myself wishing I could blend in a little more.
France was a very interesting place to live and work. Being in the country at the time of the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris heightened the feeling of uneasiness for French POC, but also made me think of the struggle people sometimes face to even prove they belong in the country that they live in. The mainstream media painting entire religions with the same brush is more problematic than we can fully understand; the arguments I heard from some French people, “They have brought nothing to our country but problems” served as a harrowing echo of the same rhetoric we hear from some in the UK. For me this was the first time I actually realised that we are ultimately united in this struggle – the fact that to someone somewhere I look like just another immigrant. In France however, the integration levels outside are low. By this I don’t mean how many POC or other immigrants live in the major French cities, because this number is high. I mean how the different groups of people are socially mixing; from my experience, this is a completely different story. It seems that neither side are interested in adopting the other’s cultures, with some of my POC friends saying disgusting things about both France and the French people. I absolutely condemn this; distancing yourself from others because of colour is not the solution.
This leads me onto China, a country in which I have met some of the warmest and most genuinely friendly people. The controlled state of the media here means people are genuinely interested in foreign concepts. Of course I have had experiences where a person may stare, or ask how I can be English if I have brown skin, but this is purely due to ignorance. Be it blissful ignorance or intent to spite, its time to stop responding in anger and time to start sharing and educating. I have made this mistake in the past, responding to racism or ignorance with venom of my own; it is not productive. “Kill them with kindness” is an expression that comes to mind – when abroad, I always remember that I am representing not only the UK, but I’m representing India, representing Sikhs, representing the colour brown. If someone is staring at me on the Beijing subway for example, I meet the gaze with a smile and sometimes say hello. What is staring back going to achieve? I find that a small act of kindness can go a long way – the person you say hello to may feel more at ease to strike up a conversation with you or another POC.
It is in an effort to become a global citizen, a man of many identities if you will, that I have really come to know and appreciate my own. I’m proud of the story of my people, and I intend to build upon the reputation my ancestors have carved out for me. I no longer see my colour as another thing to worry about when I’m abroad, I see it as an opportunity to open up my background to anyone who is interested, in a hope that they can learn to appreciate it as much as I have. This is by no means an easy task, but I’m up for the challenge.
Sending all my love and support to all the POC living abroad, I’m proud of each and every one of you.