Brown Skin, White Heart

The following is an honest, raw, account of a young man’s identity crisis. It exposes the inner conflicts being a Third Culture Kid can have on one’s perception of self. Born in Singapore, raised in Britain with Pakistani parents, he describes his confusion and discomfort with his heritage and culture using personal experiences.

“My skin is brown but my heart is not.”

I was born in South-East Asia and lived there till I was four. Do I identify with South-East Asians? No. People always tell me that I was ‘born’ there, so I must be Singaporean. Why? I can’t even remember it. I moved to London at age four and have been living there ever since. I consider it home because I know the streets, my immediate family lives there and my accent is British. I am eighteen years old, I go to private school and most of my friends are white Brits. I act, feel and live more or less exactly as they do. We have the same interests and we have grown up together. Does that make me British? I should think so. I sure as hell am not truly Pakistani. I don’t speak the language and have been to Pakistan a grand total of four times.

My biggest problem is that I didn’t really have a problem with this lack of belonging as a child. It is others that made it a problem for me as I was growing up.  My first girlfriend for example: I met her when we were both sixteen and were crazy about each other. We were together for seven months and it was that rebellious love that makes you do stupid, extreme things. We have all been there. One night she snuck into my parent’s house so we could spend the night together and she told me that her parents had been talking to her about me. They were the typecast English family – big house in the country, two dogs and hunting on the weekends.  Apparently her father started talking to her about our potential kids! She told me that she was worried that she wouldn’t know how to raise them if they were mixed race. Would they be Muslim? Would we ever move to Pakistan? Will they experience racism because their father would be a ‘Paki’? We broke up that night. I had never felt so uncomfortable in my own skin.

I suffered so much inner conflict because of that one night. And strangely, I am only really interested in dating English girls. That may sound racist but it isn’t meant to be. But it brings up an interesting question: does my skin colour and heritage mean that I’m less desirable to my preferred women of choice? I kept concluding that it shouldn’t matter because my culture is British. Still, I have not dated anyone in the last two years, not because I wasn’t interested, rather because I am now protecting myself. It’s messed up that just one experience can so severely alter one’s self-perception.

Just as I started moving this experience to the back of my mind, we began studying ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in our English class at school. I loved it! Set in the early 1800s, I thought the ways men and women behaved towards one another were so interesting and formal. I just whispered to the guy next to me “Man, it would be so cool to go back in time and be there for a day.” He then asked me why I would ever want to experience life in the 1800s, as I would have probably been a slave. There it was again. Oh yeah, I am brown. Momentary memory-lapse. But then I wondered, was he being an ass-hole or did he have a point? Is it weird that I actually do forget that I am physically ‘Pakistani’?  I began to wish that I knew what it really meant to be Pakistani, to speak the language and to be able to move there. Maybe then I would feel like I belonged somewhere.

The truth is that I don’t actually feel comfortable around Pakistani people. I really felt the discomfort when I was at the airport, about to fly to Pakistan for the second time in my life to visit my Grandparents. I was surrounded by People speaking Urdu, nursing their many unruly children, wearing traditional dress, checking-in their millions of suitcases packed full of God-knows-what, heavy accents in my ears and the distinct smell of Pakistani households. What was I doing there? The only thing we had in common was skin colour. I don’t understand them and they sure as hell wouldn’t understand me. I don’t fit there. I didn’t even have to leave the UK to realise that, I just had to stand in a line of Pakistanis at Heathrow to know in my heart that I was British. Why then do I feel pressured to feel Pakistani when around ‘real’ British people?

I guess it can all be illustrated through one other experience I had at the age of thirteen. It was the summer of ’07 and my family and I were off to the US. My older sister wanted to look at potential east-coast universities so we went on a family vacation/road trip. It was going to be epic! I had only ever heard great things about America. But as soon as we landed my father was taken away for questioning and thirty minutes later, so was I. What? Really? Interrogating a thirteen-year-old boy! They questioned me, asking how often I had been to Pakistan, whether my dad travelled there regularly, do I consider my family to be ‘very Muslim’. I had no idea what to say. I didn’t know what to tell the fat, sweaty, American customs officer. All I remember thinking was, “I wish I was white.”

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