Fitting In – Representation and Integration Through Time and TV

[All opinions expressed are my own and not those of any employer past or present]

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What’s my tribe?

What makes you feel like you fit in? What gives you a sense of belonging?

This is an interesting time in the search for identity. As a species we’re learning that binary notions of personal identity are insufficient to encompass the rich variety of humanity. On a national scale Brexit, immigration and independence all pose searching questions of our individual and collective identities as citizens of the United Kingdom. Interesting, but also confusing.

I’m the child of immigrants. Gen X. North Londoner (the prefix is important). Right-handed. Short-sighted. Muslim. Shia. The labels go on. The last two are core and a matter of opinion between me and my God, so let’s put those to one side.

I was born and raised here. I feel British. With a little less certainty post Brexit, not through any change in the environment that I have witnessed but because things I believed about the country have been proven untrue. And a little more British since watching Man Like Mobeen on BBC3.

Let’s focus on the more, because these are bleak times and something positive will lift the mood.

 

We’re all doomed

A friend recently commented that Temple of Doom is the worst Indiana Jones film. I was momentarily perturbed, largely because this was never a question I had thought about. Perturbed also because it is the one set in India, with all the brown people. “Kaali Maan” and all that.

There was a time when I loved that movie. There were people who looked a bit like me, who spoke the language (near as) that I spoke with my mother, and they were in a Hollywood blockbuster movie. The clothes in the palace were like going to a family wedding. For a while that was enough. It was sufficient to have my people acknowledged, their existence presented to a worldwide audience.

Watch it with a modern eye and it is a racist monstrosity almost on a par with the live action Aladdin.* Lazy tropes and incoherent assumptions abound. Chilled monkey brains, anyone?

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The rope bridge scene is still pretty good though.

 

A thousand apologies for what we used to watch

It got me thinking about the comedies we used to enjoy in the 70s and early 80s. Two deeply contrasting shows spring to mind. It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was set towards the end of the second world war and followed concert party attached to a military unit in India and Burma. We watched it because it was one of the few ways to see brown faces on TV back then, and there were only three channels anyway.

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It has not aged well. The late Michael Bates in brown face spouting “comical” Hindu proverbs in a terrible accent is a particular low point. But at the time it was an acknowledgement, the war in Burma was real, and our people were involved. That the acknowledgement came with a heavy dose of caricature and Johnsonian language was less important to us then than the fact that we were present on the screen beamed into British households.

The contrast with Mind Your Language is stark. This show was set in a night school teaching immigrants English. A veritable UN of races was represented. We loved it. Tropes still ran rife, with each race moulded in it is stereotypes. (e.g. The Frenchwoman was a magnet for the men.) And because people of colour are interchangeable you had a Sri Lankan actor playing a Sikh, and a Chinese actor playing a Japanese executive.

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It would not be made in the 21st century (live-action Aladdin notwithstanding**) but we did love it. It put a lens on a very authentic part of the immigrant experience: the trials and tribulations of learning English. I watched my mother go through the same process. Its authenticity put it in a different league to It Aint Half Hot Mum. Everyone I’ve asked misses that show, sometimes you can live with the caricatures and stereotypes.***

And therein lies the shortcoming Temple of Doom, it is a hodgepodge of half-understood cultural references selectively thrown together for a generic evil eastern religion. There aren’t enough snappy lines from Short Round to save it.

When we were naïve and insecure in our place, uncertain of ourselves, it was enough to be seen. We’ve grown, matured as citizens, and now we want more. We want to be represented as we are.

How Audacious

The first step on the road to inclusion came with Goodness Gracious Me, four British Asian actors poking fun at white British attitudes, and the plethora of Asian idiosyncrasies imported into British life. This was comedy in our voice and everyone was listening.

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It also shaped British Asian culture, and perhaps British culture as well. “Going for an English” is both funny as a sketch and a blistering critique of endemic racism. The recurring characters, Mr India, the Coopers, auntie with her aubergine were all people we knew, and now we had a frame of reference to talk about them with non-Asian friends. More than that it shaped language. An idiot is now “Muppet-ji” and if you disagree you can kiss my chuddies.

(Side note – in a conflation of the very white fictional sport Quidditch, and the very brown GGM, I call my kids the Chuddly Cannons.)

For the first time sub-continentals on British soil were portrayed with their authentic voice.

Everyone loves French hot bread****

It’s that authenticity in representation that makes me love Man Like Mobeen. Let me be clear, I’m not a convicted felon, nor from the midlands, nor raising my kid sister. The true gift in MLM is its post GGM use of language. Subtract the swear words and that easy flow between English and Urdu demonstrated by Guz Khan (and in the latest season Art Malik) is the hybrid language I and my family use. With certain friends the swear words come back into play.

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We relate to the challenges and contradictions he faces (without the gangland criminality stuff, just to be clear Ms Patel). He is us. And therein lies the sense of belonging. Our voice, our struggle, our absurdity is on the screen in the way that we experience it.

People like me, living their lives here, shown on TV. Shown as we are, not the way someone thinks we are or heard we might be.

On paper Citizen Khan should achieve the same thing. Also set in Birmingham and with that Muslim vibe, it could have been a vehicle to provide true representation. Unfortunately it just isn’t funny. We’re no longer so hungry to see ourselves on screen that we’ll tolerate rubbish. That’s also a sign of feeling we belong.

END

* The cultural references in Aladdin span from Turkey to India, from Central Asia to Egypt, because ten million square miles of diversity is still just a bunch of brown people.

** Disclosure: I have written two modern djinn stories and two Arabian nights homages. Judge for yourself if I fell into the same traps: An Absolute Amount of Sadness, Désolé Habibti, Ali Baba and the Little Thief and Adiha and the Three Djinn

*** Fun fact: Dino Shafeek was in both

**** Pain Chaud. It shouldn’t be funny, it is.

This time really the END

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Immigrant Car Wash

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They are Albanian and they never stop working. The queue usually stretches outside the gate, and covers the range of cars from executive cruisers to family run arounds. Their slick processes deal with each equally.

There are no six sigma consultants here, no industrial engineers, but to my eye the method is perfect. Young men swarm over the cars that are being washed, careless of the spray from pressure washers, and practised enough to know they won’t take a direct hit. The roles are well defined: hose, sponges, chamois, windows, vacuum and interiors, but like a Dutch football team from the 70s they can switch, seemingly on instinct, based on the level of demand. When a new car rolls through the gate someone will break off and begin by squirting industrial cleaning fluid onto the brake dust that coats the wheels. The supervisor is the libero, spotting gaps and filling in around his workmates, adding weight to any part of the machine that is slowing things down.

The pricing board has any number of options, but I think everyone buys the standard “inside and out”. The young men don’t skimp, they don’t cut corners and they take pride in their work. I’m not sure anyone would notice or care too much if the guy with the paintbrush didn’t flick over all the edges of the interior trim to get dust out, but he does anyway.

A couple of them speak enough English to understand any special instructions, the rest is done in the universal language of nods and gestures.

My late uncle had a theory that people drive better after they clean their cars. He said it instils a sense of pride that leads to greater care. I don’t see anyone boiling out of the gate and driving like a lunatic, so I have no evidence to suggest his theory is wrong. It has a charm to it, and I want it to be true.

Before the Albanians came the lot had been vacant for years. It was a goods yard once, a relic in this residential suburb, too close to the rail tracks for the property developers to take an interest, and bypassed by modern logistics. For fifteen years it has been a bustling corner of the cash in hand car wash trade. Cars come in one gate dirty, the owners leave the engines running, and the cars leave the other gate gleaming, with the sickly chemical smell of spray wax and cheap air fresheners.

The pricing is rudimentary, always just off a full note. It once was £8, and only a churlish hand took the offered change. It is now £12 and I would guess most, like me, offer £20, take the proffered £5 note, and leave the shrapnel. At the end of every day I bet someone sifts the chrome drum of the vacuum cleaner for coins.

It’s not a unique model of business, and you can find an “American Hand Car Wash” anywhere that a busy road passes a gap between businesses.

I don’t tell my mother I use the car wash. Her first reaction would be: “Save your money, I’ll do it.” That is despite the effects of age and arthritis and, that at barely five feet tall, she would need a ladder to reach the roof of my aging Renault. It is for the same reason we only warily take her to restaurants, and when we do we don’t show her the menu. After fifty years in this country she has not lost that working class, immigrant sensibility of saving every penny, of doing things yourself rather than paying others.

She was born in a mahal, which translates to palace, but is probably better understood as a chateau or stately home, and was the darling child of a proud and ancient lineage. She had a milk nurse. This was in part superstition – none of her preceding siblings had survived infancy – and in part because ladies of a certain stature, like my grandmother, did not nurse their own children.

All of that ended with partition. She left India with half her family to the newly created Pakistan and then she married my father and moved to London. She worked in a factory, a dry cleaner’s, and finally a greengrocer’s stall until my father died. Then she bought a sewing machine and ploughed through her grief, rocking me with one foot and working the machine with the other. Her desk job in a bank, which she retained until my brother and I bullied her into retirement, came when I was about three.

Thrift and hard work are the principles that have stayed with her in that arc from faded aristocracy, near destitution, emigration and now comfortable middle class. There is little in that arc that is unusual or noteworthy; in my corner of London I see it everywhere. The ethnic stores that pepper the high street open early and close late, if they close at all. It doesn’t matter if it is the Polish delicatessen or the Turkish convenience store. Old Gujarati ladies once lined the tills in the supermarket, blue branded jackets over their sarees; now paler faces are mixed in, with broad Slavic features and extra Js and Ks in their name badges. They pull the long shifts and late shifts and just keep going.

All of this cultural melting pot is inside the north London eruv, the hub of British Judaism. No one makes trouble because trouble won’t pay the rent and leave enough to send home at the end of every week. And that home is presently only an abstract concept. There is no going back; there is no option but to succeed. A return, in the rare instances that happens, leaves deep roots and ties here. Despite race, religion or any other distinguishing feature, here becomes home.

This is my home. My daughter was house captain in the local church primary school, my niece sang the hodie in the carol service in our local church (not as well as this though).

More broadly, making this country a home for immigrants matters. Immigrants work, immigration works. It provides weary economies with a supply of labour that is relentless and driven. It provides aging populations with youth and vigour.

Once the immigrants move beyond self-sufficiency, which they must to succeed, they become the source of wealth from which our top-heavy populations will pay for pensions and healthcare. Our task as mature post-industrial economies, hungry for sources of growth, is to harness that energy and determination, to take the skills and talents of new arrivals and use them. Weaving these disparate, different threads into the fabric of our society is a symbiotic act, necessary for our survival and theirs. It should not matter if it is a South Asian junior doctor or an Albanian youth with a burning desire to work all the hours he can, they are resources that want to be made productive.

In the same way disseminating the wealth of knowledge in our universities is to seed the world with its most dynamic workforce influenced by our culture and values. Closing bogus colleges is a valid, if costly policy choice. Restricting student numbers is blinkered short-termism.

That is not to ignore the structurally unemployed amongst our own populace. The decline of heavy industry and the growth in the service sector has left some regions in a spiral of decline. The solution there is different, and independent of creating a welcoming environment for migrants. Structural problems need structural solutions, and that means investment. The country needs an infrastructure that allows employers to disperse from dense metro areas, which they will if connectivity and access make the economics of moving viable. Education and retraining is needed for those whose jobs have disappeared, and those who have known nothing but a generation of unemployment. In the short term that investment will be re-distributive, but the point of an investment is that it pays back.

Today, our beloved NHS would fail without the contribution of migrant workers. But there is a genuine question to be asked: What restricts the educational attainment in certain parts of the country that means our own citizens cannot fill the gap in skills. The question is a supply side one, your Ghanaian nurse is a demand side response. The myth of migrants taking local jobs can only be true if the unemployed of Leicester or Middlesbrough are given the opportunity to gain competing skills.

In contrast, the investment for immigrants is not financial; it is in opening our hearts and minds to the contribution others can make, if we only stop thinking of them as “other” and instead as like ourselves: people trying to build a life for themselves and their families.

The young men at the carwash have changed in fifteen years, just as the faces lining the supermarket tills have changed. The car wash has changed around them. They all wear logoed sweatshirts now, and will change your tyres as well as wash your car. It would be naïve to think all the income goes through the books, but some of it does, where before the whole thing had no paper trail.

The lot, which served no purpose before they took it on, is always busy. They are always busy. I don’t envy them the cold water and back-breaking labour. I’m one generation on, living off the effort my parent’s generation put in. That means I know why they do it. One day their kids will bully them into retiring and grudgingly they will agree.

 

END

If you are interested in my writing check out my author site

Other essays you might be interested in:

Remember, The White Folks Won

The Gates to Common Ground

J’accuse… the Muslims