Tag Archives: South Asian Heritage

A Younger Becky with Family

A Conversation with Becky Lamyman

This two-parter blog series follows conversations held with staff members at the University of Kent during South Asian Heritage Month 2023.

In this article, we hear Student EDI Officer Becky Lamyman’s thoughts on identity, heritage, and belonging. As part of the University’s South Asian Heritage Week in 2022, Becky wrote the article White British or Mixed Race?.

B – Becky Lamyman, Student EDI Officer and Interviewee
Z – Zoe Grasby, EDI Office Assistant and Interviewer

Z: How are you really doing this summer break?

B: There’s not enough hours in a day to get everything done, especially when you are juggling childcare, work, summer holidays. I think a lot of people who do not work in Higher Education (HE) get the impression that we have the whole summer off like schools do and that we close. And the reality is that is not the case. You are trying to get work done while people around the university are on annual leave, on summer holidays, et cetera. Everything just slows.

I’m slightly panicking about how little of the summer is left, but then I remember that the students are not back until late September. So, there is a bit more time than I sometimes think there is. But yes, there is too much to get done.

Z: Tell me about your current role at the University. What do you get up to and what do you enjoy the most?

B: I am the Student EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity) Officer at the university, and I have been here for 11 years now. I love the job and I love the unpredictability of it and the fact that it is so varied. There is a rough structure to my year, because you know that October is always Black History Month, February is always LGBT History Month, there’s always Worldfest in March and things like that. But what we do on a day-to-day basis can change up so much.

I have a lot of meetings with people around the university. I always describe my role as an octopus because it has these tentacles that reach out across the entire university and gets into everybody’s business – hopefully in a nice way!

I have always said that my goal for my role is that the university will turn around and say, “sorry, you do not have a job anymore. You have worked yourself out of one because everything is brilliant!”. It is never going to happen. I am very realistic about that fact. There is always something else to do.

Z: When did you realise you wanted to work in Equality, Diversity, and Inclusivity (EDI)?

B: Until I got the job, I did not know this role – this type of work – existed. I had always done a bit of EDI work. I was the Education Sabbatical Officer for Kent Union. I have worked with students my entire career, apart from a very brief stint in Social Services for 10 months. While I was General Manager of CCCU (Canterbury Christ Church University) Student Union, I did an awful lot of EDI work, it just was not under the EDI banner. I was introducing HR (Human Resources) policies including flexible working. I was doing awareness raising for History Months. I was working hard with the LGBTQ+ and other societies. But it was not framed as equality. It was not a buzzword then. It was not something people really knew about.

And then the Equality Act came out in 2010 and suddenly everyone was talking about equality and this role here at the university came. I was going through a redundancy process, and I got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time to apply for this role. At the time it was only 50% EDI. The other 50% was community relationships, which meant that when students had house parties, I got the phone call from the angry neighbours. Eventually that role got split into two full-time jobs and my line manager at the time asked me what I wanted to do. I chose the EDI path and I have been on it ever since. This was before Athena Swan. This was way before the Race Equality Charter. It was pre- a lot of legislation. I have seen all of this grow as I have been in the field.

Z: Do you think you have a preference towards working with staff, or working with students?

B: I have not really got a preference, no. What I love about students is that they are so eager for change. When you get something that catches their attention and they are passionate about, they just want to run with it. They have got so many ideas and fresh approaches and creativity and diverse ways of using technology, which is amazing. Staff tend to be a little bit more realistic when it comes to constrictions, budget, space planning, health, and safety legislation, all that kind of stuff. So, you have to bring that balance into it.

If I did not like working with staff and students, I would not still be in HE at the end of the day!

Z: How did it feel writing about your South Asian heritage last year?

 “I am staring at the question that I never know how to answer. It is a standard question, a simple tick box and one that the vast majority of people would answer without a second thought. It simply asks me to define my ethnic origin for data management purposes.

The problem is, I never know whether to tick White British or Mixed. I fluctuate between the two depending on my mood, how much of time I have spent with my family, recent interactions and sometimes it just depends on what day of the week it is. I know that for many mixed-race people, particularly second and third generation who have been born and raised in Britain, it is a question of identity that they can struggle with.”

– Becky Lamyman, White British or Mixed Race?

B: It felt nice. It is not something I really got to do much in the past and I found that as I was writing that blog post, more memories kept coming back to me. For example, the memory of the story about the boy with the orange in the myth – or the fairy tale. It was lovely.

I had not realised quite how important the elements that she (my grandma) had passed on to us really were. Because it was always just what we were. But it did leave a strong impression. I have been proud of my heritage and proud of the fact that I have Burmese blood in me. But growing up in England, you do not always make that connection so much.

Z: You wrote about your struggles with identity as someone with mixed heritage. Given that your mother is biracial, do you feel like she was able to pass on any guidance in this respect?

B: I mean, she struggled with racism, but she would never dub it as racism. It is only when she describes it to me that I tell her that it was not acceptable and she is like, “it is how it is.”  Her brothers look much more ‘Asian’ than she does (she is more often than not mistaken for Italian or Portuguese), and they’ve also experienced racism as well in their lifetimes. But they are a different generation that thinks, well, you just deal with it rather than challenge it.

She always wanted to go to Burma, and she managed to do that. But she has got a very strained relationship with her mother, and I think delving too deep into [her heritage] emphasises that strain on her relationship with her.

My mother loves the food, and she is incredibly good at cooking. She loves all the food like the gulab jamun, the balachaung, lahpet, the curries. She likes the artwork, the wood carvings, she likes the visual elements of the culture. But she does not connect with the people so much, it is difficult.

Z: Am I remembering correctly that your grandfather, your Burmese grandmother’s husband, has written a book delving into some of your family history?

B: Yes, he was. I have got it here. So, there is a bit where it says…

‘I was now going through my “to hell with all women” phase when into the office came Joan Barry, a very attractive young Burmese girl who applied for a secretarial post. I was told later by the manager that she was turned down only because he considered her too good looking and would probably cause a distraction within the bachelor cause. How right he was. I tracked her down and we started dating and within six months were married. Mark arrived the following year and after completion of my tour in Burma and our setting up a home in England, the family was increased by the addition of Kim – ‘

That (Kim) is my mother. He said it was throughout his professional practise examination for his architecture qualifications that Joan’s assistance proved invaluable.

‘She’d always been extremely good at maths, particularly application of formula algebra and this is what I needed the most. With much exasperation, she got me to understand sufficiently to enable me to calculate beam loads and bending -’

I mean, this is a young girl in rural 1950’s Burma who is doing quite complex algebra. The book also delved into her experiences travelling to Britain, where most of the time it was assumed that she was the nanny and not the wife.

Z: She sounds like an amazing woman. So, can I ask, what is more important to you: family or community?

B: You know, I do not think you can replace either in any way. And I really feel for people who do not necessarily have that connection with one or the other, because I do think you miss something there.

So yes, I was thinking about this, and I think your community can be your family, but it is not to say that you must get rid of your blood family. I am incredibly lucky in that I live in a part of the UK, in a tiny little village where I have an amazing community around me. I mean, it is like a family, the way they bicker, and they get on with each other. But it is so, so supportive and we have chosen to live in that environment because our family is physically located so far away from us. We do not have that that family network physically close to us, but we still talk to them, love them, have a strong family connection.

Z: What do you think the core message of South Asian Heritage Month is – or should be? How can others support those in the South Asian community?

B: People know about a lot of the other History Months now and they do an amazing job at raising awareness about the nuances between diverse cultures. From a South Asian perspective, we all tend to get lumped in as one big homogenous group and that is not the case. I mean, you can even take from my grandmother’s homeland – the differences between the hill tribes and the city, the differences between the Chin state or the Shan state, the various religions et cetera.

People talk about common ground without necessarily considering the intricacies behind it. For example, someone may talk about the food, “Ohh, I love Asian food.” So, OK, which regions of Asian food do you love? Thai food? OK, which region of Thai food do you love?

I cooked Burmese food and all of us who sampled it decided that the region I had cooked from was too heavy on the peanut oil and the shallots for our palettes. But then I took a different region of Burma and tried the food from there, which is much more fish based. That was wonderful.

So, my core message is awareness raising and celebration. We are not a homogeneous group. Educate yourself, read a book or listen to a podcast, watch a television show (when they are accurate). Start to discover the nuances between the diverse cultures in South Asia.

There is a fantastic line. It is in, um… Pitch Perfect! There is a line where one of the judges at the music competition just tells the other one, whatever his name is, “crack a book.”  That is what I would like people to do.

Z: Do you feel a sense of belonging at the University of Kent?

B: Yes, I do. I went to work at CCCU for some time, and I remember the very first time I drove back onto [University of Kent’s Canterbury] campus, before I started my new job here, I felt like I was coming home.

I could not imagine working anywhere else now. Do not get me wrong, it goes through its tumultuous periods. But overall, I feel a sense of pride working here.

Z: If you could, what would you say to your teenage self?

B: I think the same as it is for all teenagers and all teenage girls. Do not read the magazines. Do not look in the mirror. Keep your friends around you. Trust that it gets easier!

Z: Do you have any book, film, or podcast recommendations?

B: I do EDI so much at work, that when I get home, I am watching things like Sex in the City, back-to-back Midsummer Murders, Great Pottery Throwdown, The Witcher… I just love the ‘switch off’ stuff.

Book-wise, I am currently reading the Silence of the Girls– my Classics education and background comes into play here. It is written from the perspective of the captured women of Troy, you get their names in one line of the Iliad by Homer and then they are just wiped out of history. So, some female authors are now taking these women and reimagining their stories, placing them back at the centre. I have also just finished reading Cersei [by Madeline Miller].

There is also one by a Whitstable based author. I am loving it, but I am reading it quite slowly. It is amazing. Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert. It is all about Herne the Hunter and his different incarnations throughout history. So, it jumps through time zones. But again, it is completely away from what I do on the day-to-day basis. It taps into my personal interests in fairytale, mythology, and classics.

Z: Finally, are there any projects, events, or programmes you are working on and would like to share?

B: Black History Month! Always want to make sure people know about that coming up. Especially with the fact we are going to have an amazing looking exhibition.  We are just finalising all the details for it now. It is with a Nigerian artist called Abolore Sobayo.

Z: I took a little peak, his work looks amazing!

B: Yes, so that is the big one for me now. But it is just like always – trying to just get people to be aware of what work we are doing within the EDI field. So, making sure people are keeping abreast of the news blogs and channels and the project work that we are doing with regards to the Race Equality Charter and Athena SWAN and Disability Confident and all the rest of it.

And just making sure that people know EDI does impact everybody. And if you think it is not related to you or your work, it will affect the environment within which you are working.

Freddie Mercury, performing on stage during the Live Aid concert

10 Notable British South Asians from the Past

During South Asian Heritage Month, the University of Kent is glad to celebrate the immense contributions British South Asians have made to UK society, politics, culture, healthcare, and many other areas for decades. In this blog, we would like to highlight ten extraordinary British South Asian figures in UK-SA history. 

18th Century

Sake Dean Mahomed (1759–1851)

Mahomed was an Indian surgeon, entrepreneur, and one of the most notable early immigrants to Europe. He introduced Indian cuisine and shampoo baths to Europe, as well as offering therapeutic massage. He was also the first Indian person to publish a book in English. 

Learn more about Sake Dean Mahomed here

19th Century

Dadabhai Naoroji (1825 – 1917)

Also known as the ”Grand Old Man of India”, Naoroji was an Indian political leader, merchant, scholar, and writer. He was also a Liberal Party Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom House of Commons between 1892 and 1895 and the first Asian to be a British MP. Naoroji is renowned for his work in the Indian National Congress, of which he was one of the founding members and thrice president – 1886, 1893 and 1906.

Learn more about Dadabhai Naoroji here

Maharajah Duleep Singh (1838 – 1893)

The Maharajah was born in Lahore and came to the throne of the Punjab at only five years old. After the annexation of the Punjab to British territories, the Maharajah was exiled to England in 1854 and looked upon as an adopted son of Queen Victoria. His relationship with the British establishment was fraught due to their manipulations and the terror of the Anglo-Sikh war.

Learn more about Maharajah Duleep Singh here

Cornelia Sorabji (1866 – 1954)

Sorabji was the first woman to study law at Oxford University in 1889, having fought a long battle to sit the law exam alongside her male colleagues. This was the first victory for opening up the profession to women and equality in higher education. She retired in Britain in the 1930s, working as a writer and broadcaster.

Learn more about Cornelia Sorabji here

Frederick Akbar Mahomed (1872 – 1884)

The grandson of Sake Dean Mahomed, Mahomed was an Englishman of mixed Indian and Irish descent who made substantial contributions to the study of high blood pressure. He also initiated the Collective Investigation Record for the British Medical Association, the precursor of modern collaborative clinical trials.

Learn more about Frederick Akbar Mahomed here

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh (1876 – 1948)

Singh is best known as a suffragette and women’s rights campaigner. As the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh and goddaughter of the Queen, she used her fame and position in the fight for gender equality in the early 20th century, leading movements such as the Women’s Tax Resistance League. Singh also volunteered as a British Red Cross nurse.

Learn more about Princess Sophia Duleep Singh here

20th Century

Aftab Ali (1907 – 1972)

Ali was an early 20th-century Bengali social reformer, British Indian and East Pakistani politician, and entrepreneur. His work is recognised to have helped thousands of British South Asian lascars to migrate, settle and find employment in Britain.

Learn more about Aftab Ali here

Shah Abdul Majod Quershi (1915 – 2003)

Quershi was an early British-Bangladeshi restaurateur and social reformer. He is notable for being involved in the early politics of British Asians and pioneering social welfare work for the working-class diaspora in the United Kingdom. He was the first ever Sylheti to open up a restaurant in the United Kingdom, and his restaurants were one of the earliest Indian restaurants at the time.

Learn more about Shah Abdul Majod Quershi here

Freddie Mercury (1946 – 1991)

Born Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury was a British singer, songwriter, record producer and the lead vocalist of the rock band Queen. Regarded as one of the greatest singers in the history of rock music with his four-octave range and ‘flamboyant’ stage persona, Mercury’s later private battle with AIDS and death shocked the world.

Learn more about Freddie Mercury here

Shivananda Khan OBE (1948 – 2013)

Khan is renowned for his life-long activist work for queer and South Asian rights. Whilst attending university, Khan became the first gay South Asian sex worker in Manchester. Disenfranchised by the treatment of sexual minorities of South Asian descent in the West, Khan co-founded Shakti in 1998, a collective for South Asian gay and lesbian people, alongside Poulomi Desai. He further founded the Naz Foundation with Desai in 1991, and was made an OBE in 2005.

Learn more about Shivananda Khan OBE here

If you are interested in gaining a further understanding of the rich history of South Asians in Britain, the British Library has a wealth of resources here: https://www.bl.uk/asians-in-britain.

Banner for South Asian Heritage Month, Uni of Kent and Student Union logos, map of South Asia as background, text reads: "South Asian Heritage Month 2023, 18 July - 17 August'

South Asian Heritage Month 2023

The University of Kent is delighted to celebrate South Asian Heritage Month this year, between the dates of the 18th of July and the 17th of August.

British South Asians form a large percentage of the UK population, and naturally encompass a significant number of the staff and students represented within the vast community here at the University of Kent. The contributions of these Brits to entertainment, politics, science, sports, and many other areas central to British culture cannot be understated, rather, it is important that we take the time to recognise and celebrate such achievements.

Indeed, one of the core messages behind South Asian Heritage Month is seeking to understand, commemorate,, and celebrate the diverse cultures, communities and history that tie the UK and South Asia together.

According to the South Asian Heritage Trust (https://southasianheritage.org.uk/), South Asian Heritage Month encompasses several independence days connected to South Asian countries. The beginning and end dates of SAHM particularly call back to two significant events in 1947; the 18th of July marks the date that the Indian Independence Act gained royal assent from King George VI, whilst the 17th of August marks the date of publication of the Radcliffe Line, which established where the borders between India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) would be.

In 2023, the theme of South Asian Heritage Month is ‘Stories to Tell’. We have therefore chosen to focus our efforts on gathering articles which shed a light on the perspective of South Asian Brits in the 21st Century, as well as the past that has shaped us all. This will include written interviews with the authors of last year’s South Asian Heritage Week’s stories, that along with a plethora of resources, will be released over the coming weeks. We also invite you to check out the developments on our new South Asian Heritage page, available here: https://www.kent.ac.uk/equality-diversity-inclusivity/student-edi/history-months/south-asian-heritage.

We hope you all enjoy the rest of your summer – and, of course, South Asian Heritage Month!

A story of migration: From north India to the West Midlands

This blog post forms part of a series exploring identity, culture and heritage as part of the University of Kent’s South Asian Heritage Week.

By Vanisha Jassal, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research

My story starts – the point at which I am able to recount it anyway – during the 1947 partition which divided my country of origin, India, into two nations: India and Pakistan.  My father, Amar Chand Mahay, was 13 years old; the age my son is today.  Sadly my dad is no longer with us, but he had showered me and my siblings with stories during our childhood, about the struggle he, his 6 siblings and his mum and dad, experienced as they were forced to flee their home and move from what overnight, became Pakistan. The flippancy with which the British Raj demarcated the divisional line between the two countries was narrated to me frequently by uncles and aunties who had all faced similar trauma from this exodus, and images of my extended family’s experience have always stayed with me. I am reminded of them each time I hear of any refugee crisis, as being suffered now by the people of Ukraine.

My day, Amar Chand Mahay, as a young man who migrated to the UK in the 1960s with, I’m sure, new aspirations and dreams.

My dad’s pride in being Indian is engrained in me, and I soaked up the Punjabi and Hindi languages growing up through attending language classes on a Saturday, but mainly through watching hours of Indian cinema. These movies infiltrated our lives with colour, fun, music and dance – they still do. Although our Christmases have always been very British, with a large Turkey (meat and tofu versions!) adorning the dining table, there’s always room to break out into some Bollywood karaoke. The children in our families today, roll their eyes as if to say, ‘here they go again’, but what is beautiful is that they love it too. They may not recall the movies, or even watch any themselves, but they enjoy the rhythms and beats – just as much as we did all those years ago.

I thank my father for instilling in me the capacity to own both one’s culture and that of the country in which you live.  He was very proud to own a British passport, loved shopping in Marks and Spencers and was an active Labour party supporter. He mingled with local politicians and opened the first temple of our faith in the UK. He graduated in English and was one of the few Indian graduates across the West Midlands region to where he migrated in the 1960s.  However, he soon discovered that it was the manual jobs which were plentiful for immigrants and he worked for decades as a factory worker, continuing to engage in scholarly works in his personal time – including studying the ‘Short Oxford Dictionary’ – the title always making my siblings and I laugh as it was anything but short and pretty humongous.

Dad loved being surrounded by his family and is shown here with his twin grandsons, retiring from work to help raise them.  

Looking across the decades, from my father’s first entry to the UK and to my life today, I see experiences which are worlds apart.  However, I am pleased and proud that there is still so much in my life today which remains the same; mainly a strong sense of pride in my own heritage and identity, whilst embracing and being interested in the identities and cultures of all those who come into my life.

I wish I had asked my dad more questions about this major episode and how it shaped his world view and his character. I urge anyone who has, within their family network, members who have experienced significant life events, to be curious about these, enquire more, and document their stories. Luckily for me, my dad was a wonderful storyteller, and he and his younger brother, the last surviving member of that family of nine, would sit all of us children down and tell us about how their parents had to rebuild their life in a new village; how difficult it was to just cook the daily meals; how tirelessly the women and men worked to survive.

A most wonderful recent memory is my husband and I arriving home to find my 16 year old daughter and her two friends blasting Hindi music from her room. An utter delight. Her generation embraces Britishness more than mine did – simply because it is easier to do so growing up being a person of colour today.  However, what is lovely for me is that my children also continue to engage with their Indian heritage – the fashion, the food, the ceremonies – simply because it is so rich and offers them such a strong foundation upon which to build their own lives.

This blog post forms part of a series exploring identity, culture and heritage as part of the University of Kent’s South Asian Heritage Week. This week runs from the 28 March -1 April 2022 and invites exploration of the identities, history and heritage of British South Asians.

For more events and activities please see Kent Union’s South Asian Heritage Week website.

My Cultural Self: Reflections on my British and Sri Lankan upbringing

This blog post forms part of a series exploring identity, culture and heritage as part of the University of Kent’s South Asian Heritage Week.

By Anne Alwis, Senior Lecturer in Classical and Archaeological Studies

When I was six weeks old and my sister was 11, our family emigrated from Sri Lanka to England. Ethnic conflict between the minority Tamil and the majority Sinhalese populations had been flaring for decades. In 1974, my mother, a Tamil Christian, and my father, a Sinhalese Buddhist, sat under a banyan tree and made the momentous decision to leave their country. Casting horoscopes and palm readings were part of their inherited culture and they recalled that a palm reader had told my father that he would have another child and emigrate. They had politely thanked him and afterwards, laughed, reflecting on the waste of money. My sister was ten, they had no plans for another child, and they were happy.

But now, a year later, the situation had changed. I had indeed unexpectedly arrived. Moreover, conflict was escalating and they were afraid. Although their love marriage had always been controversial given their divisive backgrounds, real danger now lurked. My father, who was a Station Master in the age of the steam train, was being escorted home every night by an armed guard for protection. So, they decided on England, where two of my mother’s sisters had lived since the 1960s. Sri Lanka had been occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British but it was the latter who arguably made the most impact, probably because they were the most recent colonists and had settled the longest (from 1818-1948). My parents viewed England with complex feelings; respect and resentment intertwined in a comfortable alliance. My father could resent the ‘Britishers’, as he called them, yet I am partly named after Princess Anne.

I entered England as an infant smuggler. At Colombo airport, the guards ordered my mother to remove her gold bangles and give them to her brother who was saying goodbye. My resourceful uncle asked to give me one more hug. As he embraced me, he slipped the bangles into my blanket. With one last kiss, he passed me back to my mother and we all entered England safely. My father was 50 and my mother was 38.

Our first home was with aunt Grace, my mother’s youngest sister, who then lived in Frimley. Our two Surrey years were particularly fraught for my sister because she experienced her first, but unfortunately not her last, encounters with racism. Apart from my aunt, we were the only Asians in the neighbourhood. My sister then spoke English with an accent (she is trilingual in Sinhalese, Tamil, and English), and her name is Nalini, which was unpronounceable in those days. Strangers rubbing her skin to see if the brown would come off was the least of her traumas. Another issue were my father’s names: Kadigamuwa Giragamage. He became George. My mother had no problem because her Hindu ancestors were converted by missionaries a generation earlier. Consequently, she and her siblings have the most Methodist names possible: Florence, Wesley, Kingsley, Violet and Grace.

Nursing was the only career available to my parents at that time. After they had left school at 18, they had no relevant UK qualifications. My mother had been a housewife. Because the jobs were in London, and aunt Violet lived in Tooting Broadway, that was our next destination and the place I think of as home. If I had to describe myself, ‘South Londoner’ would be my instinctive first choice. From when I was two until I was four, we lived in a cramped room in aunt Violet’s house. The room was so small that my sister had to sleep on a camp bed in my aunt and uncle’s room whilst I nestled between my parents in their bed.

Living in one room was obviously not ideal and my parents saved hard. Eventually, they were able to rent nursing quarters for a reduced rate at St Benedicts, in Tooting, our first real home. Thanks to my parents’ frugal lifestyle, we bought our first house when I was about 6 and we moved to our final home when I was 8. Our last move was dictated by more racial bullying – stones were being thrown at my sister’s bedroom window.

It transpired that my mother was a born nurse but my father absolutely hated the job. He had loved being a Station Master. However, to support our family, he had no choice. He detested it all his life but, as a very decent and hardworking man, he never took his frustrations out on us, and looking back, I am amazed. All their lives they worked opposite shifts so that someone could be at home with me and my sister, which meant that since we ate as a family, most nights, we had supper around 9 pm. My father, who loved food, learned to cook and it became his main hobby: food shopping in Tooting at the local market and halal shops, cooking – always cooking – borrowing recipe books from Tooting Library, and spending endless hours copying and annotating recipes. Today, I have 16 A4 folders of his opus in my office.

My sister went to the local comprehensive and was effectively miserable for years until she could leave school. Racist bulling was part of her everyday experience but she never told our parents. She felt they would be unable to help and they were always working or looking after me. I, on the other hand, was part of the next generation, which was increasingly diverse. Whilst I had my share of racism – typically being called the ‘P’ word, for example – it happened far less often to me, probably because I grew up in a more mixed environment, with friends from India, Jamaica, Pakistan, the Caribbean, China and Cyprus – Christian, Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim alike – so diversity was my norm.

My parents were very anxious people, endlessly worrying that something ‘bad’ could, or would, happen to us: ‘be careful’ was the mantra of my childhood. But I don’t know if this was naturally part of their characters (both their mothers had died when they were young), a result of their moving, or both. In addition, politeness and obedience were qualities that were ingrained in them, and us, culturally. But most importantly for them, as immigrants, and indeed, as Sri Lankans, my parents’ focus lay on education, working hard, and achievement, which meant high marks. For them, as for many immigrants, these were the only ways by which security and success could be measured. Distraction from schoolwork was strictly frowned upon so my sister and I were not allowed to socialise with friends unless it was our birthday. It was also practically difficult to do so since we did not have a car. My parents wouldn’t let us travel by ourselves in case something bad happened, nor did they themselves have much free time to take us anywhere since they worked so hard to obtain financial security.

Our main social circle was our UK family. Particularly memorable were our boisterous get-togethers for birthdays and Christmases, with a very small group of family friends, all of whom were Sri Lankan Tamils. Every Sunday, my mother would also take us to the local church. Unknown to her, most nights my father would get me to pray to his statue of Lord Buddha.

So how does our story end? My parents emigrated, as millions do, to give their family a better chance in life, and they succeeded. They were genuinely very happily married for 49 years. My sister became a high-flying tax accountant in the City and married a Malaysian Hindu. They have two children. I got a PhD in Classics and am now a lecturer. I eventually married a lapsed Catholic from Argentina and we have one daughter. What my parents wanted for us – their versions of security and happiness – did happen; “touchwood”, as they would say.


This blog post forms part of a series exploring identity, culture and heritage as part of the University of Kent’s South Asian Heritage Week. This week runs from the 28 March -1 April 2022 and invites exploration of the identities, history and heritage of British South Asians.

For more events and activities please see Kent Union’s South Asian Heritage Week website.

A Cultural Journey

This blog post forms part of a series exploring identity, culture and heritage as part of the University of Kent’s South Asian Heritage Week.

By Vanisha Jassal, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research

The early days

My Indian grandma, Chinti Suman, had seven children, one daughter and six boys.  My dad, Amar Chand Mahay was second from youngest.  She was forced to flee her home during the 1947 partition of India as it was now deemed to be located in the new nation of Pakistan.  My dad was 13 at the time – the age of my son now which feels terribly poignant.  I can only imagine the trauma she and my grandad had experienced as they walked days on end with their young family of seven, having to start a new life in a new village miles away.  My dad would recount many years later to me and my siblings, how they never ate for days on end.

My paternal grandma.

An image from the 1950s of my father’s ‘new’ village in India, Ghurka.

In the 1950s, my grandma’s eldest son (far right) moved to the UK.  I do not know what she felt about this; whether she wanted this move for him or whether she wanted him to stay but this was the first major wave of migration from India to the UK – many seeking greater economic stability and prosperity. My uncle settled in the city of Wolverhampton and then invited my dad and the youngest of the sibling group, my youngest uncle (centre), to join him which they did. They lived together for a few years, supporting each other against the challenges of migration – adapting to a completely new life without the strong  family support structures they had had back in India. However, they did amazingly well and remained close to each other throughout their lives.  My youngest uncle is the only remaining survivor of the sibling group today. He turned 80 this year.

My father (far left) and his two brothers who migrated to the UK and settled in the city of Wolverhampton in the 1960s.

When my dad had migrated to the UK in the 1960s, he left behind my mother and four of his young children (my brother and three sisters).  This must have been difficult, especially for my mother as the children were all aged below 11; although she had a large extended family who supported her.  My elder siblings often spoke about how they were so close to their cousins growing up, all living in one huge house and all the men and women doing their share of household chores.  This is so far removed from my own nuclear family and although I still retain close links with my extended family, I feel that it would never quite replicate what they had experienced in India.

In 1970 my mum and siblings migrated to the UK to join my dad.  As young teenagers, they had to learn to adapt to a completely new culture.  Like thousands of other migrating parents, my mother and father sought to ensure that their children retained their culture whilst  embracing the opportunities their new life was providing.

My parents and my siblings – apart from my eldest brother who took the photo, and me as I was not yet born.

Maintaining cultural values and traditions

In the 1970s, my mum and dad decided to extend their family by having three more children. My two brothers and me, the youngest.  Large families were quite the norm amongst migrating families from India and I sometimes think whether adults were trying to re-create the strong sense of family and community that they had back in India.  I enjoy coming from a large family myself and experienced a busy and fun packed childhood, and today have a huge network of cousins.  My husband and myself, however, due to a very different existence from my parents and I suppose, conforming to a more Western sense of family, decided that two children were more than enough!  My daughter often feels quite disgruntled by this, thinking that she may not have quite a wide social network as mine when she grows up; at which point I tell her that she had better get on with her brother then!

Me with my dad and one of my brothers celebrating a birthday (glad my taste in sunglasses improved!)

What I think is wonderful and quite amazing is that subsequent generations following those who had migrated in the 1950s and 1960s, are still continuing the traditions which their grandparents and great grandparents had followed.  At weddings for instance, there are a plethora of rites and rituals which we all follow – even my children – because it is a part of our roots and our culture.  What can be frustrating for my children, Henna and Raam, third generation Indians, is that we cannot always explain what they mean!  There is a serious business opportunity around this – creating a manual of all the traditions, and explanations around the origins of their meaning.

My niece in 2021 at her ‘maiyan’ ceremony, the day before her wedding day.

Me applying Mehndhi (Henna) at my cousin’s wedding in 2019.

Contemporary traditional experiences

Although my children and nieces and nephews are fully immersed in British culture, much more than I and my siblings were, they are still very engaged in and feel the need to preserve their Indian heritage.  For one, they love dressing up for any close family wedding which involves an opportunity to splash out on extravagant Indian clothing and jewellery as shown here.  They are fortunate to be able to pick and choose from two cultures, each which they claim as their own and which indeed are theirs to own, completely.

My daughter Henna (right) and niece Sarin my eldest niece Reema’s wedding in 2021

Me (far right) and from left to right, my niece, sister and and sister-in-law at a family wedding. Indian weddings are known for their grandeur, colour, food and music.  They are often described as a week of partying.  As well as the younger generation, the adults equally like the opportunity to dress up!

The young Indian generation enjoying their heritage.

This blog post forms part of a series exploring identity, culture and heritage as part of the University of Kent’s South Asian Heritage Week. This week runs from the 28 March -1 April 2022 and invites exploration of the identities, history and heritage of British South Asians.

For more events and activities please see Kent Union’s South Asian Heritage Week website.

White British or Mixed Race?

This blog post forms part of a series exploring identity, culture and heritage as part of the University of Kent’s South Asian Heritage Week.

By Becky Lamyman, Student EDI Officer, Student Services

White British or Mixed Race?

I’m staring at the question that I never know how to answer. It is a standard question, a simple tick box and one that the vast majority of people would answer without a second thought. It simply asks me to define my ethnic origin for data management purposes.

The problem is, I never know whether to tick White British or Mixed. I fluctuate between the two depending on my mood, how much of time I have spent with my family, recent interactions and sometimes it just depends on what day of the week it is. I know that for many mixed race people, particularly second and third generation who have been born and raised in Britain, it is a question of identity that they can struggle with.

L- R My Uncle Neil, my Uncle Mark and my mother, Kim in their backgarden in England, circa 1970.

For all intents and purposes I am white. I look white. I have tan skin, light eyes and brown hair. Culturally, I would say I am about 90% white. I was born and raised in Britain and would classify myself as British first and foremost. My sister looks much more mixed race than I do. My younger cousins are quite clearly mixed race with tan skin, dark eyes and Asian features. Their older sister is as blonde haired and blue eyed as you can get. Put us all together in a room and you would be forgiven for being confused as to which ones of us were siblings.

L-R, Me, my cousin Emma, my sister Lottie, my cousin Jamie and my cousin Joanna in their backgarden, circa 1998.

My grandmother is Burmese*. She came to England in 1956 with her husband (an architect born and raised in North London who worked in Burma for a number of years) and her oldest son. She had two more children after they settled in South East London; my mother and my youngest uncle.

L-R My mother, my grandfather, my Uncle Neil, my grandmother and my Uncle Mark on holiday, circa 1963

My grandmother assimilated quickly. She already spoke fluent, clipped English, was a trained, very bolshy, accountant, had long before stopped wearing her longhi in favour of short skirts and cigarette pants and was (and still is) a devout Catholic. She would however be frustrated for a long time by the lack of mangoes available in supermarkets and her joy when she could finally get her hands on some gulab jaman and balachang was palpable. Believe me, the smell of balachang on toast first thing in the morning is more effective at waking you up than an ice cold shower and my mother loves the vile stuff.

L-R my mother, my Uncle Mark, My Uncle Neil, my grandmother, Camber Sands, circa 1967.

My upbringing was very western. I was raised Catholic, went to a Catholic school, ate a roast dinner every Sunday and have very western ideals and beliefs. I have always been proud of the fact that I am a quarter Burmese though. Grandma insisted we call her ahpwa for a long time and would tell us stories of her childhood in Burma whilst bringing us bags full of mangoes ‘in case they ran out’. She lived an exceptionally privileged lifestyle. Her family were well off and she and her siblings all were given western first names (Joan, Patrick and Joyce).

My Great-Uncle Patrick, circa 1998 (my grandmother’s brother)

Having traditionally ‘British identifiers was seen as a mark of wealth and privilege, so she would tell me stories about the red double decker bus she had in the back garden as a ‘playhouse’ and the red phone booth as a ‘garden ornament’. They had cooks, cleaners and gardeners and lived in luxury until the arrival of the Second World War. After that, everything changed and she would tell me stories of foraging for mushrooms for dinner, sometimes helped by the Japanese soldiers whom she said were always very kind to the children they met. She also told me folk stories and I wish I could remember the details of them now as I can’t find them in any folktale book. The one that stands out to me was about the little boy who rescued a dying dragon by feeding him oranges. She would tell me to look at statues of dragons; they still have a small ball resting in their claw in remembrance of his kindness. I have a feeling she made most of this up as I can find no other reference to the myth, but I have always loved the idea.

L-R My mother, my Aunt Helena, my Uncle Mark, (unknown friend of my Grandmothers’), my Grandmother, my Uncle Neil. Sunday lunch at my house, circa 1987.

I remember listening to her and my ‘auntie’ Ruth (her best friend) reminisce over the fashion shows in Rangoon they went to as young women and the beauty competitions they entered. Ruth was always very dry and deprecating about them. My grandmother was still sore about the fact that Ruth won Miss Rangoon** instead of her.

My grandmother, aged about 19 in Rangoon, in traditional Burmese wedding attire. This was for a fashion show.

In the years following the war the family scattered. Half went to Australia and the others, along with some of their friends, came to Britain. I don’t know much about those early years. My mother doesn’t talk about it much, but I do know that they experienced undercurrents of racism throughout the late 50s, 60s and 70s. I still remember being about 8 years old, with my mother and younger sister in the supermarket and witnessing an exceptionally nasty altercation. My grandmother is not unbiased herself and had her own very strong, quite unpleasant racist prejudices that still manifest themselves to this day.

My parent’s wedding party in 1980. L-R my Uncle Fred and Aunt Yvonne (dad’s sister), Grandad Ray (dad’s dad), my grandmother Joan, my dad Rob, my mum Kim, my cousin Joanne, my Nan Nora (dad’s mum), my Grandad Roy (mum’s dad), my Uncle Mark, my Uncle Neil and my Uncle Terry (dad’s brother).

I feel connected, but at the same time strangely disconnected from my heritage. Our house growing up had a mixture of east and west influences. There was a lot of art and furniture bought over by my grandmother from Burma and Thailand. I have been ‘in training’ to develop my tolerance of spice since I was six. My favourite meal is a lamb biriyani (cooked by my mother, but it has to be made with left over roast lamb from the Sunday lunch). My mother used to send me to school with two flasks of it for lunch. One for me, and one for all my friends so that I could actually get a chance to eat mine. I had a scattering of Burmese words, all sadly now lost to time and memory.

L-R my mother, my grandmother and my Uncle Mark, circa 1958.

My mother went to Burma for the first time for her 60th birthday to fulfil a long held dream. She sent me pictures of the boat ride down the Irrawaddy, the puppet show in the restaurant and my grandmother’s birth house in Rangoon. There is a shop on the lower floor now. I know she feels the same sense of being torn between her identities but to a much stronger degree than I do.

My grandmother with my daughters at her house, Christmas 2021.

I have my own children now, and to see my grandmother with my daughters is both wonderful, but also strangely discombobulating. You would find it hard to tell they were related if I didn’t tell you. Nevertheless, I want to ensure they know where they come from and appreciate the richness of their inheritance. It is this blend of identities, the pulls to my grandmother’s heritage coupled with my own western upbringing and identity that makes the issue of finding the right tick box far more onerous than it has any right to be.

*Burma is now known as Myanmar but my grandmother only ever refers to it as Burma and herself as Burmese so that is what I use.

**Otherwise known as Yangon

This blog post forms part of a series exploring identity, culture and heritage as part of the University of Kent’s South Asian Heritage Week. This week runs from the 28 March -1 April 2022 and invites exploration of the identities, history and heritage of British South Asians.

For more events and activities please see Kent Union’s South Asian Heritage Week website.

South Asian Heritage Week 2022, 28 March - 1 April

South Asian Heritage Week, 28 March-1 April

The University of Kent is delighted to announce that it is celebrating South Asian Heritage Week for the first time this year.

British South Asians represent a huge percentage of the British population and also form a large proportion of our staff and student bodies. The contributions of British South Asians to British culture, politics, science and academics cannot be understated and it is important that we take the time to recognise and celebrate these contributions.

Nationally, South Asian Heritage Month runs from the 18 July – 17 August in recognition of the date that the Indian Independence Act 1947 gained royal assent from King George VI and the date that the Radcliffe Line was published in 1947, which finally set out where the border between Indian, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) would be. It seeks to raise the profile of British South Asian heritage and history in the UK through education, arts, culture and commemoration, with the goal of helping people to better understand the diversity of present-day Britain and improve social cohesion across the country. As these dates fall within the summer holidays for the majority of our undergraduate students, the University has taken the decision to move our own local celebrations to the late spring term to allow more students and staff the opportunity to get involved and celebrate.

We have cooking workshops, film screening, a writers workshop and other free events and activities taking place across the week, as well as a huge amount of online resources that you can tap into. For the full programme, see Kent Union’s South Asian Heritage Week website.

We hope you enjoy it!