Migration: Belonging and displacement

In an early sequence of a 1991 Channel Four television feature, Northern Crescent (a film about the white-Asian conflicts in Britain following the Rushdie affair), shows a new primary school headmaster, Mr. West, who introduces himself at assembly to his students, most of whom are of Pakistani ancestry.

Mr. West asks the students to name the greatest storybook in the world. After replies such as The Guinness Book of Records and Ghostbusters, he tells them that it is The Bible – his own ethnicity is thus quite apparent. He proceeds to read them the story of Ruth as an example of people making their home in a new place and being welcomed there – he applies this to his own arrival at the school that morning, seemingly oblivious to its application to the Pakistani immigration in this Yorkshire town (the film will go to question whether any sense of ‘welcomness’ is given to these people). The headmaster says he’s not surprised to have received such a welcome, as it is part of the great tradition of this country and particularly of Yorkshire. He notes that of the 180 pupils in the school, 176 were born in Yorkshire. He then asks them whether they would say that are Yorkshire boys and girls. Only four students (one of Pakistani ethnicity) put up their hands, leaving the headmaster looking surprised and perplexed.[1]

Mr. West’s ethnocentrism (i.e. references to The Bible as the best book ever when talking with presumably a mostly Muslim audience) and naïve notions of belonging is commonplace here in Britain. Despite the fact that the students above feel ambivalent about their ‘Britishness’ or even perhaps ‘Englishness’ (which by the way is claimed almost exclusively by white folks), most people in Britain would still identify themselves in terms of nationality and would assert that this is an essential part of their being.

Where do I fit in this impenetrable fortress Britain? Here, my efforts to create a sense of belonging is a constant challenge. When it comes to immigration policies, my futile efforts are met with hostility. Judging from the reaction of the kids in the above film scene, being born on British soil is not enough to be British, English or Geordie – so why should I fare better? Negotiating my Asian femaleness in a predominantly white environment is difficult: my perceived inability to speak any English always takes precedence, followed by suspicions over the motivations behind my relationship with a white man. And no, it’s not enough if I loudly declare my love for fish and chips and tacky seaside towns – it’s not stamped on both my passport and facial features.

How do I forge an identity that’s defined beyond the physical crossing of political borders that I do once or twice a year; more than just “immigrant”?

For the reasons and questions I’ve raised above, I feel a special sense of connectedness with some of the contributors of the recently-launched Asian Women Carnival. In particular is rcloenen_ruiz who writes about life and race relations in ‘liberal’ Holland. Interestingly, for a nation that prides itself for bearing the universal notion of acceptance and permissiveness, racism is deeply entrenched in its societal attitudes towards ethnic minorities and immigration laws. She writes:

Once, The Netherlands was called the land of the tolerant.  When I came to live here, I imagined I’d found utopia.  Skin colour didn’t matter, race didn’t matter, and how much money you had in the bank was not of consequence, because everyone was equal.

It felt like a welcome change, to enter a land where my marriage to a foreigner was not looked upon with suspicion.  No matter what people say about intercultural marriages being an accepted thing — where I come from, too many of us have married foreigners out of economics so that every mixed marriage is viewed with a mixture of scepticism and belief.

The question always chases us behind our backs.

“Did she really marry him out of love?”

… These days, you can almost taste the tension simmering under the skin of Dutch society.  Animosity as tangible as flesh – it’s there in living colour.  When you turn on the tv, when you read the papers and when you walk down the streets, you can feel eyes watching you.

“Foreigner,” their eyes say.  “Go back to where you came from.”

These are the words they don’t dare to mouth out loud.  If you listen very closely though, you might hear them whispering these words behind the curtains of their houses.  Perhaps I’ve lived here so long that some of them forget I am one of those foreigners, and so I get to hear the cutting remarks first hand.

Like speculations about the Moroccan down the street and how come he can afford to have two cars while a Dutchman can only afford one.

“Surely, he must be doing something illegal.  You know how these allochtonen [2] are.”

And then, there are their speculations about people coming from third world countries.

“That girl marrying a man old enough to be her father.  Obscene. These Asians will do anything to climb up out of their squalor.”

[Read the rest here]

People who say that ‘those who constantly look through the prism of race are the ones who tend to be racists’ are really the ones with the privilege to ignore racism in their cultural surroundings. They, like Mr. West above, are most likely to be white as well. Racism is a barrier to any sense of belonging or ‘Britishness’ that’s feebly being promoted in this country. I’d like to be here too, but it’s not enough imagining that I belong.


[1] Van der Heide, William. Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film (2002), Amsterdam University Press

[2] Allochtonen = Dutch for foreigners.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


  1. And sadly enough, despite the idea that Canada is a salad bowl, I feel the same. It’s really difficult to navigate that, especially since Malaysia isn’t completely “home” either. =/

  2. The first half of this century has features that look pathetically like the first half of the last century. Depression, rising xenophobia, closing of borders to refugees. As it was wrong last time it’s wrong this time. You need a positive idea to counter these negative ideas. All human beings are equal. We are all one family. We should behave in a spirit of brotherhood towards each other. i.e. the ideas of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In my city — at least at the moment — people seem to be forgetting that they are different colours, different ethnic backgrounds. It doesn’t have to be “us” and “them” because of course there is only “us” on this planet. If we say it often enough people will “see” it – because it’s true. Other forms of inequality were made history … this one can be too.

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