Punjabi | Nepali
I identify as half Punjabi & half Nepali. I am a British Asian. My Mother is from a small place in the Indian Himalayas called Sikkim, nestled between Darjeeling, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. You can see the third highest mountain in the world from her parents’ house. When she was born in 1953 Sikkim was an independent Kingdom. It was annexed by India in 1974. My Dad is Indian. Our ancestral home in Punjab is in Pakistan now, so most of my paternal family live in New Delhi. He was born in Portsmouth and attended a boarding school in Nainital for most of his life.
In the 1970s, he met my mother at a military medical school in Pune. He was the school jock, she was a shy girl from the hills. On their first date he was so nervous he spilt tomato juice all down the crisp white shirt he was wearing. He sent her a rose every day when they first started seeing each other. He was also 8 hours late for their wedding because of derailments and landslides. After they got married they lived between New Delhi and Gangtok, my mum’s home town, before Dad came to England. Mum came a few years after. They’ve been together ever since. Good to know you can mess up your first date and have nature turn against you and still be married for 45 years. I was born and brought up in Birmingham. It was a comfortable middle-class life. I got to run around outside a lot and I was around a lot of other Brown kids.
It was actually Indian and Pakistani kids at school who would point out I was mixed-race. They would ask why my mum looked so different, if she was Chinese, what language did I speak at home. When I went to Uni and started speaking to more and more people, it became more prominent. I went to SOAS when I was 19 and decided to learn more about my Mum and where she was from. Since then I’ve firmly identified as half-Nepali.
I’m not really sure how my parents combined their cultures, we just did various bits of each when it was relevant. At home they spoke a mix of Nepali and English (and some made up words my Mum uses). My Mum’s family are Tibetan Buddhists and my Dad’s families are Hindus and we had all of it in our house. They’re very respectful of each other. My sister and I were left to our own devices and Mum and Dad figured that we’d just find the bits that called to us. Funnily enough we did, I lean more towards my Mum’s culture and my sister leans more towards my Dad.
I have experienced challenges around my mixed identity. Men seem to enjoy guessing where I am from. I can’t tell you how many times people have said ‘that’s a sexy mix’ or ‘no wonder you’re so hot’ or (worst of all) ‘wow, so exotic’. It makes me feel like an object. Or an expensive dog.
I often feel like I don’t fit anywhere. I’m not Indian enough to be Indian. I’m not Nepali enough to be Nepali. It was very difficult when I was little because I never really fit in with anyone. No one could tell where my Mum was from. Asian kids would find me in the playground and ask about my parents. I remember some of them basically deciding I wasn’t Desi enough. That hurt. Now I feel lucky because I’ve grown up in a multicultural household with parents who set the blueprint for intercultural relationships (and, to be honest with you, relationships full stop).
The first British Nepali person I met who wasn’t a relative was a girl at university when I was 20. Isn’t that mad? I’ve been making an effort to meet more Asians as I’ve grown older and be prouder and louder about my mixed heritage. That’s helped me meet more people. In terms of love, I’ve dated mainly English guys because that’s just who I’ve met. I do worry a lot that the interesting mix attracts people.
Being mixed has definitely had an effect on my personal life. That sense of not really belonging anywhere has, probably, changed who I am. These days I’m quite proud of it. I’m the product of tolerance and understanding. I know how to cook a lot of really good food. I’ve been to see some incredible places. I also know that home is where you make it.
When I’m in Sikkim, people in shops ask my Mum if I’m really her daughter because I’m so dark. I’m much darker than her and my sister. My Dad is quite fair too. Partly this is because I have my Dad’s colouring, but I tan really quickly like my Mum’s family. I used to be afraid of this and stay in the shade but now I spend as much time as possible in the sun because life’s too short and I look great with a tan. In the UK I think people do think it’s different, ‘exotic’ and interesting. Also, admin can be a pain. I’m never sure which box to tick. Mixed Asian Other? Other Mixed Multiple Ethnicity? Asian British? Other Asian British?
I do understand Nepali and speak some, but most Nepalis I meet in the UK can’t understand me. My parents speak Nepali at home, so I thought I was semi-bilingual until I went to SOAS and took a Nepali class. I was rubbish. I knew my Mum spoke a Sikkimese dialect, but I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference. Then she revealed that half the words she used were made up. My Dad learnt Nepali really quickly when he moved to Sikkim with her after they were engaged. So, she just sort of made some stuff up to help him. Also, his grammar isn’t quite right. So basically, I wasn’t bilingual at all. By the way, my Mum and Dad both speak Hindi, but he chooses to speak Nepali at home with her and has done for their entire marriage. Couple goals.
To connect with my cultures I look to stories, religion and food. When I was a child, my Mum told me that she was actually 107 years old. She looked so good because she grew up in the Himalayas, near the sky where the gods lived. A drop of Amrit fell out of the heavens and into her mouth and that’s why she could live so long. I believed her until I was 7. She used to tell us a lot of mystical mountain stories like that. From my Dad’s side I have a well-worn copy of Seasons of Splendour by Madhur Jaffrey and loved hearing stories from the Hindu pantheon when I was younger. We do Diwali every year and would always do the story at home, lighting the candles for Lakshmi. We did more Hindu things when I was young, but when I went to university I found Buddhism. I was going through a period of serious depression and exploring my Mum’s culture felt comforting and useful. I connected deeply with the teachings and practice. I’ve been a Buddhist since then, even going to see the Dalai Lama teach in India. I’m not a perfect Buddhist, but I try. The two cultures I grew up with express themselves most clearly at dinner time. We would eat traditional food most evenings. My Mum learned how to make Punjabi food for my Dad and she is the most incredible cook. Paneer masala, aloo parathas, dal (so much dal, hidden in ice cream tubs in the freezer), chapattis, saag aloo, kedgeree, fried bindi. She rarely makes Nepali food but when she does she makes momos in soup. My favourite meal. When we ate traditional food, we would always eat with our hands or a spoon.
When people ask where I’m from I say I’m from Birmingham, but I’ve lived in London for almost 10 years. Usually I then try and help them out by saying ‘do you mean, where are my parents from?’. Saying that lets them know how I feel. I don’t mind talking about it when it’s relevant but when it isn’t I get a bit annoyed. When I was at school some girls couldn’t figure out if I was a real Desi or not. Basically, I wasn’t able to be a part of their friendship group. I don’t know if they did that intentionally or just genuinely thought I wouldn’t get their jokes. They were all really nice individually, but it was clear I didn’t fit. That hurt. I would hate it when they would ask ‘do you speak’ and I would say ‘yes some Nepali’ and they would say ‘oh, no Hindi?’
I think the most positive experience is getting to be a part of two cultures (three if you count being British) from the inside. It’s made me very open minded and accepting. I feel like growing up in a multicultural household has shown me that it is possible for people from different places to coexist and build kind spaces together. So now I want to do that wherever I go.
I think being mixed-race is better now, because it’s better for all people of colour (although there is still a way to go). Most people just read me as ‘generic Asian’. When my parents first moved to the UK in the 70s, I’m pretty sure they just saw them as ‘generic Asian’ too. They’ve never spoken to me about being mixed-race, only about being Asian and what White people will expect of me. When I talk to English people it sometimes feels like I need to explain why I look the way they do so that they feel safe. That doesn’t feel fantastic. But equally, my heritage is very important to me. When it’s relevant I don’t mind bringing it up.
I don’t really want to be read as anything except ‘Tara’ though. I think more and more people are mixed and eventually almost everyone will have a big story behind where they’re from and it’ll all matter less. Or, rather, it’ll matter as much as we want it to.
If I had the opportunity to be reborn can I be a puppy? Or a housecat? When I was a teenager I probably would have said I wanted to be tall and blonde and thin and White. Sometimes I still do want that. I don’t always understand why everyone looks great in a certain fashion, but it doesn’t quite suit me. If I really had to come back as a person though, I’d still like to come back in the skin I’m in. I’d like to spend some of my childhood in the home countries of my parents, that would be nice.