I am the product of two immigrant parents who left all that they knew in their homeland in order to seek out better lives for themselves in the UK. Like many migrants before and after them, the impetus for leaving was economic reasons. Today, we see across the world not a lot has changed. People are still uprooting themselves and foresaking everything they have known for the Unknown and (ostensibly) Utopia. Perhaps the biggest difference nowadays is that the journeys the migrants are taking are infinitely more dangerous.
As second-generation children, my siblings and I were exposed to much more in England than our parents could ever have been. We were born here and like it or not, we have been imbued with aspects of British culture. For some onlookers, we are a beautiful blend of two diametrically opposed cultures able to effortlessly slide from one to another. It reminds me of a visual image – that of oil and water. The oil is suspended in water and sits comfortably in it but is never totally assimilated with its host. For other people, we are a confused and chaotic culmination of mixed languages, food and clothes. We are too Asian to be British and too British to be Asian…
Fast forward many years and here we are today with our own children. Whilst ties to the motherland of our parents (their grandparents) is even more tenuous than our own, at the same time, our children seem to know who they are more than we ever did. I have always considered myself and other “second-generationers” to have been the transitional generation; the one that had to make the sacrifice for the generation before and the one after. We are the bridge between the past and the future.
So why am I talking about all this anyway? It’s because I sometimes feel my children’s generation is more fortunate than us in some ways. Because they had us as parents, who knew the workings of both the savoury and unsavoury elements in society, they know how to navigate their own way through it. Many people of my generation could not resort to parents who would have understood what racism in schools looked like, how difficult it was to explain your religious beliefs to your English friends or why your mother wore strange ‘ethnic’ clothes as opposed to ‘normal’ people. We could not even begin to explain to our parents the seemingly nicer things like the benefits of taking up a sport outside of school which many of our friends would have done. Of course, I don’t blame my parents. To be fair, they had their own struggles. However, the cumulative experience of my generation prepared us for parenthood.
Even before I had my own children, I knew that instilling a sense of identity and belonging in them was absolutely vital. I myself have lived a life going through different labels and trying to see which outfit suited me best. I realise I came full circle back in my twenties. Having tried different labels, ‘Muslim’ was the one I realised I had been searching for all along and yet it had been staring me in the face my whole life. It was – and is – the one label that supercedes all others. There is a permanency about it which pervades everything else. I knew this was the one identity that my own children would need to be equipped with if they were to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Alhamdulillah, it was a belief that has paid off. I say that because even though my children are of mixed ethnicities, the one thing they have been able to carry with them is their faith as a Muslim. No matter where we have lived (and there have been many cities and countries) they know identity is not a question of belonging to a physical place or ethnic group. It is knowing what they believe in terms of their religous disposition and letting that notion precede them wherever they are. It is reassuring to see that they don’t have what I call “colonial siege mentality”, the mindset of my parents’ generation where they felt inherently inferior because of their colour, ethnicity or religion. This next generation exudes a confidence and is proud but not arrogant, Alhamdulillah.
Having taken the insults and physical abuse at the hands of racist strangers on behalf of the generation that has come after us, we will not sit quietly and let them suffer the same fate. As a result, I see that my children claim Britishness with more ease than we did at their age. Looking back at my youth, I see I was someone who questioned her loyalty to her parents’ motherland which seemed a remote and arbitrary place. There was also a conflicting and almost guilty loyalty to the country where I existed in real time. It was a bizarre and confusing crossroads to be at.
If there is any harbour which we would want our children to anchor in, it would be a wise choice to make it the one of Islam. Of course, I would say that as a Muslim and I make no apologies. From its inception, my faith did away with racism and other cultural hierarchies which are so divisive and unethical. Alhamdulillah, I have experienced the beauty of Islam and still am. I can still say that I have seen the best version of Islam through my own marriage, even though it did not last as long as I had wished. I hope my boys will continue to hold the torch, inshaAllah and pass the light of their faith on to their progeny in years to come.