Belonging, Not Belonging

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” — Charles Darwin

I

There is no word that chokes me up quite like this one: home.

When people ask me where I’m from, I have to take a deep breath and say: born in Bangladesh, raised in Kuwait, educated in Italy and the US, live in London, work in India. 

I tried over the years to do a shorthand – “Bangladesh”, I’d say. Then I’d get asked about my accent. (If they’re American, they ask how come I sound British; if they’re from the UK, they ask why I sound American.) 

I tried saying just “London”. But then I’d inevitably get asked, “but where are you really from?” Because I’m brown, and apparently you can’t be brown and be really from London. 

Giving the whole spiel was simpler. And for the most part, I didn’t mind. I longed to belong everywhere. 

That’s the other word that often chokes me up: belong. 

Because while being a global citizen might seem glamorous, the reality is different. Especially when the coronavirus has made countries shutter their borders and everyone scramble to return to their homes. 

Except me. Because now I belong nowhere. 

II

When I lived in Kuwait, the local Arab boys would spit when we walked past, and shout, “Hind!” Their racism was blatant but not threatening; my friends and I could dismiss them for being idiots. 

In the US, the prejudice was more subtle yet felt far more violating. Sometimes it was in words designed to put me in my place. Sometimes it was a look, a demeanour, a mutter under the breath. But the meaning was crystal clear. I learnt to read a room, fast. I became attuned to hostile energy. I knew to never let my guard down. Only other people of colour knew exactly what I was talking about. White people thought I was being paranoid. 

My white college roommates loved calling me “exotic”. The way Enid Blyton always described her “dark” characters (who were from Spain) as “wild”. It’s an Othering that never, ever lets you forget that you are different, you are not one of them. 

I moved to London in the late 1990s and felt very content there. London is powered by foreigners. Though it was a long time coming (my parents lived in London in the 1960s and they had a very different experience), it wore its multi-culturalness as a badge of honour. Then came Brexit – largely because the UK wanted to close its borders to immigrants. We were not welcome after all. 

When renting a flat in Bombay, I once came close to signing a lease, only to be told that no Muslims were allowed in the building – a common practice, I was to learn. The nicest flats I saw were in the Catholic neighbourhood but they required tenants to show a baptism certificate and a letter from the parish to confirm weekly church attendance. In a society where everyone is brown, they still find ways to Other you out. 

If I belong anywhere, it is with my mother. But she lives in Bangladesh, and Bangladesh is not a country I can live in any more. In a few short years, it’s become so pious as to be bent out of all old familiarity. 

III

The thing about not belonging is that I felt the onus was on me. I felt I had to prove myself. I had to be twice as smart. Super hardworking. Never complaining. Never a foot wrong. Always on best behaviour. 

I can sometimes just about fly under the radar because the combination of my accent, wardrobe and a funny name doesn’t make me immediately identifiable.

In an effort to slot in, to not stick out, to rub the Otherness out as much as possible, I’ve moved so far away from my real self I sometimes wonder if that’s who I’m really looking for. 

It took me a long time to realise that belonging wasn’t about doing all the right things. It was about being what they are, and that is something I can never win. 

I’m too brown for the West. I’m too Muslim for India. I’m not Muslim enough for Bangladesh.

I’m unwanted everywhere. 

IV

What if you, and many generations before you too, lived your whole life in one place that is supposed to be home, and you still are Othered?

The government provides your neighbourhood with plenty of booze shops in the hopes you drink yourself to death, but doesn’t ensure safe housing. The schools in your neighbourhood lack adequate funding and basic facilities. When you apply for jobs, you’re competing against those who already belong to an old boy network. You want change but your vote is suppressed. When you just want to get home, you are stopped and searched – or worse.

What if the whole system is structurally designed to keep you oppressed?

V

I’m an optimist. 

Change can happen slowly or it can happen all at once.

The sustained protests around the world following the murder of George Floyd and for #BlackLivesMatter demonstrate that enough people believe it’s time for real change. 

It’s time for a systemic overhaul around the world. The way leaders govern. Changing laws and social structures that discriminate, segregate and penalise. The ways schools are funded and teachers supported. The way people run companies and hire people. The way loans are given to new businesses. The art and architecture that shape our landscape. The voices we hear through music, books, films and television. 

But the onus is not on us to prove we can belong. Or that we are good enough. Or that we can be like them. 

No, the onus is on them, the gatekeepers, to stop deciding who gets to belong. The onus is on them to make space. The onus is on the gatekeepers to grow up, to adjust, to change. 

It’s not a coincidence that we are in the time of corona. Like any major disruption, it is an opportunity for us to hit the refresh button. Let’s not waste it. Let us reset the world. 

“Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck. We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck. We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck. We had creative skills, we could do whatever anybody else could do, but we couldn’t get your knee off our neck. What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life, it’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks. … The reason why we are marching all over the world is we were like George, we couldn’t breathe, not because there was something wrong with our lungs, but that you wouldn’t take your knee off our neck.” — Reverend Al Sharpton, at the memorial service for George Floyd

Related Recommendations

Whereas I quickly stopped watching coronavirus news, I am energised reading about the protests and the possibilities of what may come out of them. Here are some worthwhile things to look at. 

Trevor Noah of The Daily Show spells it out in this video – George Floyd, Minneapolis Protests, Ahmaud Arbery & Amy Cooper – describing recent events as a series of dominoes. You can watch the one-minute Amy Cooper video here first for background. 

I heard science journalist Sonia Shah on this Fresh Air interview. In it, she talks of being asked where she’s from, and when she says New York, she’s always asked, “no, where are you really from?” Yah! I hear you, Sonia. She says our notions of migration are wrong; animals and even forests and coral reefs migrate as a matter of course. Human bodies are built to migrate, its benefits outweighing the risks. Migration, she says, is not a crisis, it’s the solution. (Hooray! I’m human.) Her new book, The Next Great Migration, comes out this week and I can’t wait to read it. 

“The probational nature of my Chinese-American existence… [My mother and I] both lived with this fiction that if we could be perfect versions of ourselves… to somehow bend ourselves to a shape that America could accept.” Journalist Jiayang Fan spoke to Michael Barbaro in this April episode of the New York Times’ The Daily podcast about how she became a person of suspicion – and a target of racism – in the time of coronavirus. 

British colonialists left a legacy in South Asia that to this day still venerates fair skin. Actor and filmmaker Nandita Das reinvigorated her campaign to celebrate all skin shades with this music video called India’s Got Colour. 

I want more stories like this: a 14-year-old boy in Belgium started a petition last week to remove the statues of King Leopold II, whose troops decimated Congo in the late 1800s. While I can accept some texture when judging the past by our current standards, I would say a mass murderer shouldn’t be commemorated at any time.  

 The New York Times takes a look at the recent complex history of taking a knee, in what has become the potent symbol of the current protests. 

I was fascinated to learn from this Politico article that country border checks were largely established because of earlier plagues.

A song by my favourite, Sam Cooke, to remind us that A Change is Gonna Come. 

 

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10 thoughts on “Belonging, Not Belonging

  1. Hi Nupu! I have been reading your blog for awhile now but this is my first time commenting. I love your writing, and eagerly await your posts. I really enjoy the recommendations and quotes you include in your posts. It’s amazing how even though we’re strangers, the content of your blog posts resonate with me on a personal level. Goes to show that the crux of the human experience is full of similarities. We are not that different from each other. After having lived in five countries on two continents, I have also been struggling with the concept of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’. Very thoughtful and relevant piece!! Best wishes to you.

    1. Thank you so much for writing in – you’ve made my day! Given we are of the same tribe of globe roamers, I wish you what I hope for myself and others like us: peace on this earth, and a sense of belonging to each other.

You’re awesome! Please share your thoughts!

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