One year on

Yesterday, marked the one year anniversary of my move to Belgium, to take on a five month internship with the European Parliament as part of a career break, that I never returned from.

Although, it was never my intention to stay, as my life unfurled over the past 12 months, in turns of the utmost unexpected, Belgium became more of a home to me than England.

My internship officially ended on the 31st of May 2019, leaving me to face unemployment for the first time in four years. Growing up in the UK, I was often advised to avoid gaps in my CV as this reflected poorly, a notion that meant that I had been in continuous employment from January 2015 until May 2019, switching between five different roles for three different public sector institutions, despite the sometimes gut-wrenching periods of my life, that almost drained me absolutely.

Unemployment scared me, more so than the physical and mental burnout that I tried to rectify through short breaks to somewhere – minimal rest for maximum exhaustion in some cases. Employment for me was a mandatory dependency, lacking a parental unit to catch me when my world went to shit, self-sufficiency was my safety blanket in life and I was unsure how to survive without it.

In the end I was unemployed for 16 weeks, or a little over 3 months, and in this time I learned more about myself than I ever could have imagined, and my mindset and outlook on life drastically changed.

I spent the first month in my flat alone, waiting for a job interview for a position that fell at the last hurdle after I had depleted my savings, and also made me realise that I needed to work somewhere that was aligned to my values and beliefs or I would continue to live my life in deep blue hues.

During this time, before the last hurdle fell, I reached out to my mother for support to catch me as her child, but unfortunately this was once more met with the rejection, that I had become accustomed to expect from her, as I was told she was ‘unable to support me emotionally or financially, but she was always there for me.’

This was painful, but not unexpected, and was followed by a series of events that meant I finally stood up to her for the first time in my life. My courage was met with blatant faced denial, but although the voice of my truth was not fully heard by her it lifted the greatest weight off my soul.

It was a painful severing.

Part of me sees the possibility for reconciliation if my truth is heard and listened to, but part of me sees it like an infected limb – excruciating to live with and to remove, but better to live without even with the phantom feelings from time to time.

In this moment, that would have previously been awash with inky blue hues deeper than any ocean, another revelation was bought into my view; a new familial support network, unknown to me before I came to Belgium in 2018, in my aunt. A kindness unlike any that I have experienced prior, she has cared for me and shown me what unconditional love is; and for this I am eternally grateful. This act of kindness has allowed me the courage to stand up for myself and has given me hope in the future, my future.

Often when you read about battling the black dog of depression or the pressure of anxiety, finding someone that scares your internal demons and makes them run scared is recommended. It is often implied that this is a romantic partner, but it doesn’t have to be. I have been fortunate to find this in my family – my aunt(s), my cousins and older brothers; in my friends – in the UK, Belgium and elsewhere; and finally in myself.

So, as I sit and type, watching the sun-soaked trees go by in a green blur from the train window fading slowly in the vibrant but calm orange hues of sunset, which occupies most of my new work commute, I smile a little to myself in knowing that I am loved, I am supported, I am courageous, and for the first time in a long time I am happy– all I needed to do was follow the butterflies and take a leap of faith into the unknown, it wasn’t so scary after all.

Travel, stereotypes, and being a coconut.

If you follow me on social media you may have seen that I spent the first 2 weeks of July country hopping in Eastern Europe and Germany.

Following the breakdown of a long term relationship in 2016, I subsequently was bitten by the travel bug, and have since visited 18 different cities (19 if I count the hour spent in the Eurostar terminal in Brussels).

In other words I embarked on a budget friendly, I’m a 20 something renting in London, and trying to maintain a full-time job, version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’

Travelling for me, like many things I do, is not only a way for me to broaden my view of the world – learning about new cultures, people, and experiences – it’s ultimately a way for me to understand myself and who I am, and how I fit within the society that surrounds me.

Figuring out who I am and what my place is in society is not a new concept to me, it is one I’ve struggled with my entire life.

I’ve previously written about growing up in British Indian household, and have touched upon aspects of my less than ideal childhood, from the stigma surrounding mental health in the South Asian community and also my relationship, or lack thereof, with my estranged father.

However, I’ve never really spoken openly and honestly about my experience growing up between two cultures, and how this has shaped the person I am today.

In an ideal world both my cultures would coexist peacefully, my Britishness and Indianness would no conflict in the slightest, and they most certainly wouldn’t lead to a conflict of existence in my inner being, more articulately describes as an identity crisis, which fuelled most of my childhood, adolescent, and early adulthood angst.

For me growing up with two cultures often meant choosing sides or being stuck in the middle, there was rarely a neutral point, I was either one of the other but never both.

Memories of my childhood visits to my father’s family in Yorkshire mainly consist of judgement and disappointment from my extended family over my apparent failure of not being Indian enough, and or appearing/behaving too ‘Western’. Visits often included questioning by various aunts and uncles over my ability to speak and understand Gujarati (my mother tongue) – with my elementary grasp of it often being considered a betrayal against my heritage, which was often accompanied by negative comments on my appearance and attire due to my choice of jeans and t-shirt over a ‘traditional’ salwar kameez.

On the other side of this, I spent a majority of my school years as a spectacle for my peers to examine, the curious minds of children never ceasing to amaze as well as the ignorance of some teachers – which I would grow to become amazed at and wished would cease. Each wrongly directed “namaste”, “I wish I had a tan like yours,” “when did you come over to England?” and “but where are you really from?” starkly reminding me that I was different and didn’t quite fit into their predetermined idea of what was British.

It didn’t take me long to realise that in the eyes of my family I was too ‘Western’ to be a proper Indian, and in the eyes of my British peers I was too brown to be a proper Brit. I was a ‘coconut’, stuck in the middle of constant reminders that I wasn’t enough of either of the two cultures I’d grown up in to be considered a legitimate part of them.

The separation I felt between the two cultures worsened following the breakdown of my parent’s marriage when I was 9. As I has opted to stay with my British-born mother as a opposed to my Indian-born father, I found myself assimilating with my British surroundings more and more, as our tie with the Indian community I had grown up knowing was severed – due to my mother’s apparent ‘unthinkable’ and subsequently ‘unforgivable’ act in their eyes (this act being my mother’s bravery to stand up to a man who was meant to love her but instead forced her to live in constant fear of him, through a myriad of psychological and physical abuse).

We were ostracised and isolated. I still had my melanin and my name, but my connection to that part of me was lost. As I had been shunned by my family and community I began acting in ways directly opposed to their values, I shortened my name to make it less Arabic sounding, I denounced my childhood faith becoming a kaffir, I started drinking alcohol with my British friends, and at 19 I got my first tattoo.

However, despite all these acts I was still a ‘coconut’. Instead of appearing British, I was just a non-traditional Indian girl who drunk and had tattoos, I still didn’t quite fit in.

The constant reminders of my otherness was apparent in multiple aspects of my life, from going to the shop to buy a pint of milk and explaining my entire family background to the shopkeeper out of politeness, to the backhanded compliments and fetishism that would paint my love life (my earliest encounter of this being at the age of 12, where I was informed by a boy in my year that none of the other boys would be as “open minded” as him as to like a brown girl).

To this day, dating and romance often comes with a caveat, usually accompanied by overthinking on my part. I spend a lot of the time wondering if someone genuinely likes me for who I am, or whether they hoping I fit a preconceived set of of stereotypical traits they think I have (which I will inevitably disappoint).

The constant exposure to phrases and sentences like “sari seduction”, “Asian persuasion”, “I’ve always had a thing for brown girls”, “I bet you make a great curry”, and a multitude of Kama Sutra references that I’m not even going to start on, have left me weary and skeptical about love (although I still remain a hopeless romantic despite this).

However, the more I travel, the more places I visit, the more people I meet, and the more cultures I am exposed to, the broader my view of the world has become.

I’ve come to realise that for every person who says I don’t belong, there is always another who says I do, and this has given me hope.

I wish I could say I’m no longer affected by the commentary which comes with being British Indian, but I would be lying.

Although, I am confident in referring to myself as both British and Indian despite growing up with the two cultures conflicting and I’ve learned that I don’t need acceptance from others to be myself, and I certainly do not need their permission.