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face value | culture

my mum, Surj, on her wedding day to my dad

Whilst at nineteen most mother-daughter conflicts align themselves with “No you can’t leave the house wearing that and if you do, you better wear a jacket!” the conflict between my mum and her own mother is somewhat heavier. I don’t like to romanticize the choices that my mum made when she was younger than I am now because no nineteen-year-old should feel like she has to choose between her family and her independence (but that is exactly what she did).

My mum left an arranged marriage at nineteen and in doing so she pissed off a lot of people in the process. What a woman! She then moved in with a white man. That was strike two. Now she has kids with him… one of them is me! People say I look like my mum and I see it more now. When I was younger I saw girls who looked like their mothers because their complexions matched and I didn’t fit that category. I’ve never been able to find pictures of my mum when she was my age to compare myself to because she doesn’t have any. She didn’t take any with her the day she left home, so the picture of her in a sari on her wedding day (the one to my dad that is) means a lot to me. Trying to outline my mum’s formative years is pretty complicated. I’ve tried. She’s apprehensive to share and I’m even more apprehensive to ask. But what I do know is enough to give anyone an identity crisis.

She grew up in a Sikh household in Britain, but spent many summers in India. Many months over many years. But I didn’t know much of this until I was in my early teens, the inquisitive years. People would ask me so I would go home and ask her. When I ask her why she went through with an arranged marriage in the first place she’s as blunt as ever. It was expected of her in the culture that she was raised. It’s abrasive when put down on paper but I don’t understand the inner workings of an Indian family raising their kids in England. There must be a fine line between allowing them their freedom but not wanting them to forget where they come from. My mum and her siblings grew up in a strong Indian community in Britain. Her stomping ground allowed her to surround herself with South Asians and feel the sense of community that they hold. Yet she found and made a life outside of this bubble when she met my dad.

my mum and me, 1999

Growing up I never made the distinction to people that I was mixed if asked where I was from. It was only my mum who stubbornly got this point across to me, which, as a stubborn kid myself, made no sense to me because she didn’t speak about the side she wanted me to claim. I understand why now, because I am now older than she was when she chose to leave that life which was so familiar. Even now when I say it I feel my own apprehension, because it’s not a distinctive feature even if it inadvertently defined certain aspects of how I was raised, as subtle as they were. After all, I don’t look like my mum in the most direct way. There’s a safety in my own skin tone regardless of what lies below that. Regardless of how I was raised I have watched family members experience the brunt of appearing racially ambiguous. I am just the bystander. The shade of my brother’s skin matches more to my mum’s than to my own, whereas I match my dad’s. It’s not fun to be told that you can’t possibly have the same parents as your brother because “he’s darker than you.” My own home training has meant I don’t validate it. I’m trying to do that less these days.

There is no thinly drawn line to separate these two halves so when people say “Oh your mum’s Indian?” and think I’m joking and then keep questioning me I don’t want to feel as though I have to justify why I don’t look biracial. It’s getting old.

The older I get the more I like people telling me I am my mother’s daughter. I don’t see our similarities. It’s nice to be told.

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