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14th February 2023

Diaspora Children and Disappointing Identities

Diaspora children navigate identity in a poor way that prevents them from effectively utilising their cross-cultural heritage
Diaspora Children and Disappointing Identities
Photo: FCDO @ Flickr

Look, no one said it was easy.

Identity is tricky. Sticky, even. Liquify it and make it fluid– the facts don’t change. As my final year of a degree with limited graduate prospects derails into an academic crisis, I see no reason not to devote my writing efforts to exploring the other crisis in my life: my identity crisis as a diaspora kid.

I am a member of the Indian diaspora. I would be proud, but pride over a quality I did not contribute towards strikes me as an irrational response to an objective matter of fact independent of my actions. Neither is shame for exactly the same reasons.

In my experience, my fellow diaspora kids in Britain (of any diaspora, not just Indian) tend to take two regrettable forms. The first is the embarrassed child, the confused kid beholden to the humiliating jeers in the primary school playground. These delicate creatures have learnt to be ashamed of their dual cultural identities and go to cringeworthy attempts to disguise the unique experiences they have had of juggling cultures.

The second is the obsessed child, the person who resisted the mockery and occupied themselves in burrowing into their non-British identity. These sensitive souls almost always subscribe to old ideas of what that identity means and rigidly insist that this identity must mean certain things.

Both paths are, in my honest opinion, more unreasonable than the other. Membership of a diaspora is nothing more than a fact. It is not something you can deny about yourself, nor is it something you should use to determine your entire self-worth or personality.

My main issue with both perspectives is the inflexible way in which they see their identities. The first child chooses to see their non-British identity as inherently inferior and worthy of the mockery they suffered. They therefore place ‘Britishness’ on a pedestal rather than being conscious of the subtleties of that identity. The second uses their non-British identity to overpower the other things that occupy their lives, going to extreme lengths to either abandon or disguise the British aspects of their lives. In choosing to see this identity as a dominant force, they limit themselves from exploring the rich diversity of carrying several identities.

I see this in practice in sinister forms. Should I pronounce an Indian word in a different accent, I am mocked by some of my fellow diaspora kids for being ‘too Indian’. Others are mocked for their sexuality, music preferences, and diet choices. In mistreating each other, diaspora children are not simply guilty of being ignorant, but of insisting that their ignorance deserves to be universal. I don’t so much find myself embarrassed by their actions as I find our shared insecurities irksome and worthy of evolution.

The international students who grew up in India are a different story. I hesitate to say this, but they’re almost… cooler than us? Their eagerness to try everything is not off-putting, but refreshing. I cannot name an international student ashamed of detracting too much from the culture in which they were raised, at least not to the same degree as a diaspora kid. Whilst we learn cricket and shame at the hands of a mildly different culture, international students are not just better cricketers, but their absence of shame or self-hatred makes me prefer them as companions.

There is a chance my complaints are unwarranted and cruel. Perhaps they are. Race plays a significant role in how young children see themselves, and the antics of diaspora kids need to be understood in that context, as has been argued ad nauseam by cultural commentators. What’s more, the international students I compare myself to have never faced the same sort of cultural battle as young as we were. However, another person’s privilege is hardly sufficient to condone bad behaviour, and self-hate manifested as the hatred of others should not simply be exposed, but actively combatted.

This ought to be done by making cross-culturalism a strength – a real strength, not just a banal line on a cover letter to fulfil a random graduate scheme’s diversity requirements. I mean using our ability to navigate different worlds to forcefully carve a sense of comfort with the world around us, regardless of where we are. Whilst feeling slightly awkward or isolated is a perfectly natural feeling, a more pertinent response would be to mobilise the discomfort to become a citizen of everywhere. Whilst the world will never extend itself to make us feel welcome, we should not give it the license to shove us into feelings of estrangement. The burden falls on us to adapt, and adapt we must.

My words may seem like a critique of a brand of identity politics, and on some level, they are. It is shameful that people see themselves as oppressed by their identities. Such is the eternal plight of the diaspora kid, I suppose. Anyways, back to my other identity crises – I daresay a new one turns up on a near-daily basis.

Ashwin Venkatakrishnan

Ashwin Venkatakrishnan

History student undergoing a quarter-life crisis

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