Being the Outsider Within

Starting work on my dissertation this past week has led me not only to find out about the subject of my essay but to really do some soul-searching. Focused on the experience of first-generation South Asian women migrating to Britain, the content and research are both fascinating yet personal to me.

Much of the work will be based on interviewing women who fit the above description, and these women have a special place in my heart – one I have not properly examined before.

Not only are these women the ones who suffered in arduous poverty, pain and cultural confusion to arrive here; they worked strenuously for all of their lives to raise our parents here and in many ways I feel that every success of mine is also theirs: that whole generation of women. I usually feel a sense of love or tenderness when I see an older Asian woman hobbling down the street in her shalwar-kameez and dupatta; yet there is more to this tenderness than just thanks.

I am one of them, but I’m not one of them…

In reading about south Asian women’s experiences via previous academic accounts as well as talking to the women themselves, I became aware of two things. 1) I was learning more about my own culture from books than I ever had from life, and 2) whilst I could fully understand and communicate with these women who spoke Punjabi, my own tongue failed me. I suppose both of these realisations can be summed up by Patricia Hill Collins’ conceputalisation of the ‘outsider-within‘ phenomenon.

Collins argues that the young educated woman who goes back home to the migrant community feels a sense of displacement. Whilst we are inherently, biologically and emotionally entrenched in this community and culture, we also inevitably approach it as outsiders. Certainly, my educational status even down to the clothes I wear make me feel like an ‘outsider’, but what really makes me feel like a voyeur of my own culture is the language barrier.

Growing up I spoke and understood Punjabi fluently, however, English schools and the lack of need to speak it slowly saw me lose that skill. I still fluently understand my grandparents when they speak Punjabi, but I struggle to form the words in my own mouth. Oftentimes it feels like I am listening in at the door to which I have lost the key. Whilst I could always buy a shalwar kameez, cook a pot of handi or visit Pakistan, without this skill of language I feel locked out. Further than the outsider-within I feel like the insider-without.

Although evoking emotion in me, is that REALLY my “within”?

Mulling over this for some days I have tried to disentangle my thoughts. A part of me was certainly buying into the idea of ‘inauthenticity’: that my claim to ‘Asianness’ was somehow lessened by my failure to speak Punjabi, and whilst I know this not to be true it still feels like it is a loss of heritage. Moreover, when thinking about the ‘within’, I realised that what further separates me from these women is that my within is not their within. I am not just an outsider coming home, my home is elsewhere.

This is of course inevitable as a result of migration. Pakistan is not just a family-memory to them but a physical reality and concrete structure. Their friends and family, their whole community is one of similitude and brown. For me, third generation, I am not hybrid like my mother perhaps is, but I am the product of a new within. Distinctly British yet with an understanding of life/identity that no white friends have ever been able to comprehend. My within is a mixed circle, a bag of variety and flavour; but it is also one in which my heritage has been diluted to allow access to other things.

I feel anger sometimes and resent that I know my coloniser’s tongue better than my own. Why is it that I had to forget the language that birthed me and made me who I am, to access racist institutions? On the other hand, I know language is not the key to my heritage. I know that when I go to my grandparents home I am profoundly theirs. I suppose language just symbolises that link. It symbolises the key I would pass to my own children. The non-commodifiable aspect of my culture. Language holds the myths, the nuances and the memory of a home that is not ‘mine’ and yet that is a part of who I am.

At least it is not too late to learn Punjabi. But I suppose that would only help to an extent. I am an outsider in my own culture, but in many ways that is the price I have payed to access another culture too. Being an outsider in both worlds is probably where the pain comes in though. The outsider-within complex refers to the lack of ‘home’. My reality is always merged, yet my identity is solid. Though my feet are on the ground it is often hard to believe I belong anywhere.

Though I always thought a brown-space would feel like home to me, that ‘within’ is not mine, it belongs to the women who are a part of me. And that is actually okay. The ‘within’ that belongs to me is the same within that belongs to many third-generation migrant children: it is the within between the withouts. Our inside is the outside. We own the world of the margins – the part of the brain that understands multiple languages; the clothing that reflects our culture in new ways; and the ground that is profoundly ours despite barriers all around us.

Not within the migrant community, but not fully within the white super-structure: our within is without. We are uniquely free. But sometimes, sometimes it does hurt.

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