An eye-witness post from intercultural enthusiast Tariq Mirza
Growing up in London can be tough for a child. The City is somewhere between a melting pot and a tinder box of cultures.
Diverse nationalities and ethnic groups, are want to collide with a lack of understanding that can lead to fear or confrontation.
Here we experience a reserved or pessimistic observation of the changing London landscape by many. On a deeper level we can add the differences felt between tribes and classes, differences originating in their own lands and carried with people as they cross borders to start a new life in London.
The school I attended was mainly white with probably an equal split of black West Indian and brown Indian Sub-continental minorities making up about 10%.
With three definite geographical teams, I am blessed with an Austrian mother and a Pakistani father and a question. Where, in this landscape, do I fit in.
In practice the white kids saw me as Pakistani (and not usually in a nice way), and the Asian kids saw me as white (equally unkindly). That left the black kids; well, they seemed to accept me as I was and consequently the people I felt most comfortable with, and still do today, are West Indian.
On a social level I have always been very outgoing and communicative; even today I struck up a conversation with a stranger on the tube – something of a rarity in London.
I feel that the mixed bag of cultures are open to me because growing up as I did, I can honestly say that I don’t really have a culture of my own. If I say I’m Pakistani (the dominant culture of my upbringing) where does that leave my affinity with Austria? My love of Kase Schpetzler and Himbeer Saft, clean air and spectacular country scenery? Likewise I can’t claim to be Austrian and pretend that I’m not fluent in Urdu or that I don’t have a deep understanding of Lahori cuisine and dress. The fact is, I love to visit the bustling Anarkali Market to shop and barter for goods, to visit Fortress Stadium for a stroll or pop in to a very un-Pakistani McDonalds.
Having two cultures can mean I have none; I think the term ‘mutually exclusive’ may be applicable here; in my heart I cannot be both Pakistani and Austrian at the same time, there are elements of both, but the complete me is neither. So where does that leave me in a supposedly multi-cultural society?
Ever since I started working at the age of sixteen I have used my origins as a way of making a good first impression. If the customer was Asian I would greet them accordingly and converse with them in there own language, if possible. Whenever I heard a vaguely German accent I would jump in and make them feel a little bit special, acting as a German speaking sales assistant.
When working in an office I felt the need to adapt again and learn a very different style of communication. I suddenly found myself with the same group of people everyday and with no customer interaction.
Relationships where built on substance and mutual appreciation in the office environs and there was often the added element of need; you might be appreciated more for what you can do for others than as a person in your own right.
The office contained cliques of ‘friends’ that tended not to socialise outside their own cultural circle. As an intelligent person who likes to help when others are stuck, I learnt to conform, was usually liked well enough, but felt that I had to continually deploy humility to qualify as belonging.
I have seen racism close up; not usually against me but definitely against people who I have worked or socialised with; it is not pretty.
I have seen very capable or outstanding members of staff passed over for promotion in favour of a less capable person, the latter qualifying by virtual of sharing the same ethnic origins as the boss.
I had to do a huge amount of self-analysis before I became comfortable in my own skin. I know consider myself to be a very resilient person. The emotional journey I underwent as I grew up was a difficult one, being shunned by the people I thought were ‘just like me’ is a tough experience, especially for a child.
Fortunately, it wasn’t just the black kids that accepted me, their families did too; I was always welcome, always in their home. I was part of their family.
Even today, as a forty-one year old man, I feel the effects of prejudice from both sides of my heritage. I choose, however, to disregard the daily trials of my cultures and hope to share a little enlightenment. I know that my story can help others.
I aim to be open to all cultures in a way that only a person without ONE culture can be: with open arms and a smile.
Tariq Mirza is a writer and coach, living in Tooting, London.