by Mahnoor Hussain, FRANCE
Growing up in the culturally diverse hub that is London, it’s fair to say that I never felt a lot of pressure to explain my identity or ethnic background in social settings. I was just another Pakistani in a curry-scented (and proud! Take note Azealia Banks) sea of Pakistanis. However, as a British Pakistani in Saint Etienne, a small French city just south west of Lyon, it was a completely different story, one that was often amusing albeit sometimes frustrating.
“Je sais, je sais, vous êtes indienne!” (“I know, I know, you’re Indian!”)
I can only really cite a lack of exposure to Asians as my little collège students mistakenly assumed they were right in guessing that I was of Indian origin (that conclusion too reached after me prompting that I was from a country in Asia). Yet this was something that came part and parcel with the awkward introductions one has to exchange as a British Council Language assistant and it was almost endearing to see the fascinated look on the pupils’ faces when I ‘revealed’ that I was British Pakistani. As the first Pakistani these pupils were encountering, the opportunity meant that I could offer my own cultural representation in an every day environment, free from presumed misconceptions.
I didn’t however feel the need to be as quick to offer such clemency to others when it came to ignorant comments regarding my background. A conversation with a friend of a friend met on a night out started with her noting my brown skin colour and informing me (almost in reassurance) that as an English teacher, she always made sure to include lessons on India as an English speaking country and loved using henna to dye her hair naturally ‘like [my] people’. At this point, I imagined her as a Ms Morello type from Everybody Hates Chris, with her patronizing demeanour and struggled to conceal my laughter. As if the scene couldn’t resemble a parody any further, after I lauded her heroically inclusive teaching methods and said that I was in fact of Pakistani origin, she asked me how long it had been since I was in Pakistan. I told her I was there the previous summer to which she responded, “So you only just moved to England from Pakistan this summer? Your English is so good!” This time I laughed in both disbelief and resignation and left the room.
Suffice to say, although never met with particular hostility, these experiences as a “brown girl” in such a region led me to greater appreciate the contrasting cultural awareness evident in London and more importantly, the amazing colleagues and friends whose comforting acceptance enveloped me from feeling alienated despite cultural differences, making for a year of unforgettable memories.