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Bilingualism is a privilege
‘You can’t understand Punjabi?!’ Rishma* said, mouth open in a grin stuck on pause that evolved into rolling laughter of disbelief. ‘No,’ I smiled, clenching my fists to prevent them from instinctively floating up and punching her in the jaw.
As I faced the adult world it had become a question I had had to confront more and more – how could I be a British Asian and not be bilingual? That was one of the pros of being an ethnic minority here, right? You can speak your mother tongue and laugh at private jokes in public places, answer Skype and offer more than an awkward wave… these are the expectations: but I never grew up with them, so it never mattered.
My mother came to Britain as a five year old in the 60s. In those times, it was conform or die – and that wasn’t an exaggeration. No Urdu was allowed to be spoken in the house. They had to master English. My grandmother’s hijab was removed under my grandfather’s instruction. Now, they’re a prime example of making a success out of nothing. But something was lost to generations that followed them – the identity they were born with.
My father was a hipster by today’s standards. He came here in the 70s. Always the loudest one at the party, he settled into western life well. Urdu was reserved for when he spoke to his family back home – something he never spoke about to me and something he did alone, with the door closed.
I went to a fairly mixed school, but I chose a college with a high population of South Asians. It was then that I found out what a coconut was, because I was called it a lot. Every time I was called out about the missing piece in jigsaw of my identity, I would laugh. At some point, I accepted my place as the butt of the joke.
It’s not the questioning as to why I can’t speak another language that bothers me at all. It’s the open judgement I receive afterwards; the disdain. The same people who may have been judged or bullied for being a brown kid would judge me in just the same way because I didn’t fit their stereotype. Talk about hypocrisy.
What irked me even more was the superiority complex I felt from people who could speak their mother tongue, as if it was something they taught themselves in night school as a toddler. ‘Crack open a Rosetta Stone,’ Twitter trolls may snigger, and yes, it’s never too late to learn – ever. But I always wonder how many of those people who jump on their high horse to judge people learned themselves, that way. I have a feeling it’s not many.
Being bilingual is generally a privilege that your parents bestowed on you. Be grateful for it, because it’s not every ethnic person’s birth-right. Not all of us grew up in a large family or a community where you all share the same culture. Every family story coming from the diaspora is different.
Any person from an ethnic minority without a sense of cultural community experiences alienation on a level that someone who had their culture engrained within them from a young age does not – so open your mind to it, be kinder to that reality. Before you speak about the privilege of others, make sure you recognize your own.
*name changed cos, well… I think you know why.
A freelance writer, media researcher and general mad woman. Catch me running around in London City. Read more at mazhalima.com.