Bicultural Identity: Splitting The Self Through Language, Body Image and Social Protocol

Family life can be said to provide young children with the parameters of self-consciousness. A child exposed to one dominant culture comes to consciousness with an idea of who constitutes his or her family and uses this knowledge to situate themselves within their local world. For ‘British South Asians’ or ‘Indian diaspora’ youth with cross-cultural influences, those ‘parameters’ appear to be stretched uniquely when forming an initial sense of self. One finds themselves in a position where they must undergo an explorative process of diverse exchanges within family and community, before setting their mind to any concrete values and beliefs. 

I am what might be known as ‘British Indian’ but still at the age of 26 I sometimes feel more Indian… or better put, Punjabi. I speak both English and Punjabi, but it depends on the situation. If it’s better for me to speak Punjabi then I do, if it’s better to speak English I will, or sometimes when hanging with friends who grew up under similar circumstances, I even opt for a mixture of both (a phenomenon known as ‘code-switching’).

We can think of the ‘hybridised form’ as a ‘hyperconscious state’, one which can be traced back to those childhood negotiations of the self. For me, this involved conversing daily (albeit for a short length of time) with my grand-parents who were born in Punjab and therefore spoke the language – occasionally switching to a broken-English in an effort to appeal to my Britishness. In the majority of other exchanges with my parents or elder-brother, I communicated in English. While their effort was perhaps admirable, I can say looking back it never quite felt right. Certain principles, some of which were religious, seemed to require a commitment to learning the Eastern tongue beyond what was being encouraged. 

Things became yet more complicated as I reached 9 or 10. Attempting to fit into a growing, if still ill-defined, ‘Desi’ community, I would hear English sentences littered with one-off Punjabi words (think food types and items of clothing) and particular turns-of-phrase or witticisms (where the English perhaps didn’t quite suit the desired sentiment). A small handful of my friends were exposed to this same vernacular; but unfortunately we never fared too well bringing it over to our school lives, and it only served to exaggerate our foreignness.

Over the last few decades, this type of ‘hyperconscious exploration’ has encouraged development experts toward a different kind of perspective to that which they historically accepted. In it, children are no longer framed as passive or unconscious assimilators of parental teaching and cultural influences but rather measured against fuller, more dynamic processes. In these processes, children (as young as 5 or 6), construct their own identities through pragmatic choices, a phenomenon known as ‘creolization’. 

The term ‘creolization’ started out as a linguistic one. It referred predominantly to the mixing of two or more languages after drawing contact for a relatively brief period of time – like the ‘Westernised Punjabi’ described above. Due to globalisation, or rather the mass movement of peoples across borders, places like America appear to have brought structure and definition over these emerging cultural expressions. In American public discourse, we might now stumble upon ‘New Yorican’ or ‘Miami Spanish’. Meanwhile, in the UK, we seem to have been more reluctant. A part of remedying this may be better understanding and reacting to the unique roadmaps of bi-cultural youths. As discussed, some of that lies in how we navigate language and its various edges, but elsewhere (particularly with respect to British South Asians) it also manifests itself starkly through things like body image and social protocol. 

The child’s awareness of its body is critical to its identity and agency in the world. Right into adolescence, there is a desire for social recognition through the aesthetic medium. As well as the usual striving for ‘bigness’ (to avoid being stigmatized as ‘little’), bi-cultural youths have long-faced challenges when aspiring to ‘sameness’ from a personal awareness of difference and distinctiveness. This was the experience of Jaspreet Kaur (28) from Lichfield:

“My friends used to say I look strange and white. I didn’t like them saying it, but I tried not to take any notice. I asked Mum why they said it, and she said it was because her family were from North East India. She also said I was lucky because it would be easier for me to get married one day compared to my sister Kirat, who took after Dad.”

Skin colour is clearly a public sign of ethnic identity, and Jaspreet’s ‘exotic whiteness’ was not something she could easily negotiate her way through when bridging the gap between her and her school mates. It is at home, rather than at school, that the original issue is managed and its potential to alienate reduced. Despite that though, she finds awkwardness in both settings (school and home), unable to identify entirely with friends, or her family that place her on a pedestal.

The mother’s perception of childhood here relies heavily on a constructed future to legitimize and justify actions and behaviours towards her daughter in the present. Jaspreet is seen more in terms of what she can, or will, become rather than what she is. In the context of biculturalism, it seems to have both positives and negatives. Jaspreet should feel totally comfortable, even good in her skin, but shouldn’t perhaps require validation through her mother perpetuating beauty standards of ‘fairness’, less-so through comparing her romantic prospects to those of her sister’s.

For Aarti (29) from North London, the idea that bicultural youths are lost between languages or standards of beauty was as real as being caught between two parents’ disparate views on social protocol:

“I remember when Ma used to get me to say please and thank you more, because she’d picked it up from kids from my school. But Dada thought I was being too formal. I tried to tell him that in England you have to say please and thank you, otherwise you sounded rude. He said it was too formal and in Delhi people weren’t that way. He even thought it sounded sarcastic. It caused quite a bit of friction between everyone.”

Here we note how the developing nature of Aarti’s adherence, or lack thereof, to a particular set of cultural customs becomes a catalyst for adult sensitivities about their own identities. In their preoccupation with moulding a ‘socially competent’ child, they attempt to counteract each other’s image in that child. As a result, any decision that unfolds on Aarti’s part must remain a moving target, capable of working at home and out in the world. The benefit of all this, as she puts it is “I never took my pleases and thank you’s for granted. They meant something when I used them”. The drawback she says, “Dada was right about Delhi. When we visited my family there, I might’ve had a better reaction to me swearing”.

What does all this reveal? For starters, bi-cultural identity is a lot more complicated a process than is often spoken about. For many young British Asians, it seems to lead to feelings of alienation that we may otherwise band together with racial prejudice, yet a fuller view suggests we cannot always approach it with the same solutions. The acceptance of differences across things like language and body image while important is often as dependent upon one’s peers as it is the family unit. It’s here before one gains any real sense of selfhood, where many of the initial negotiations between competing cultures take place. From unique customs and foods to religion and community, much of this has the potential to enrich a child’s personal development. However as the gaps in experiences increase and widen, it charges them with responsibilities they may not be ready to take on. Negotiating identity both in the home and at school, patience becomes as much an imposition as it does a virtue.

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