South Asian Heritage Month 2020 was launched on Saturday, July the 18th 2020. The purpose is to commemorate and celebrate South Asian cultures and the intertwined histories of the UK and South Asian communities and the contribution of South Asia to modern day Britain. As you are aware, last week in my blog I posted about the TEDx talk I delivered around a year ago, talking about living in a complex world, showcasing my personal journey of growing up in India and coming to the UK to study and fulfil a career ambition. This was a journey not just from one country to another, but one from confidence to confusion, back to confidence. But before that, a brief overview of India.
My tryst with complex things began with being born in one of the most complex cultural nations on the planet, India. Today it’s one of the biggest and fastest growing economies in the world. India is also a land where customs, cultures, cuisines and language (not just accent, language) change within a 100 mile radius. India is also the land where one of the world’s biggest slums is also a stable self-sustaining micro-economy. Where it takes a minimum of 3 days and a few thousand people to call an event a wedding. Here we call it Glastonbury! India is also the place where time takes its own time to the point that your hot coffee cools down, your cold coffee warms up.
To the outsiders’ eyes it’s an enigma, the country shouldn’t function, let alone be a top economy in the world. But when you’re a part of that culture, you know the intricate systems and procedures that make it work, and why things happen the way they do. However, I believed, wrongly, that if one could survive growing up in India, one could survive anywhere!
More on that later, but a little bit about the world’s most favourite subject, Maths. With all its equations, calculus, algebra, Greek letters, and all its wonderful weirdness it had me fall in love with it at a very young age. I admit that I was fortunate enough to have teachers who taught the subject like it should, thereby enabling my understanding of the subject.
What I realised was that Maths isn’t all that complicated. Yes, it has its complexities, but it’s just like learning a language. You have rules, you have things that are constant, and then you have things that can be changed. The more you practise the better you get at it. Growing up in India also meant, I grew up learning to speak one of the most complex languages known to humankind – English! A language where C U T is cut, but P U T is put, and P U T T is putt, where the plural of mouse is mice, but the plural of spouse isn’t spice! Try explaining that to a non-English speaker! If we can master English, Maths is not at all hard!
But the real challenge was yet to come as at this point I was supremely confident that if I could master living in a complex culture like India, be proficient in a complex language like English, and be reasonably good at Maths, I can survive anywhere in the world. Below are three little anecdotes that happened within a few hours of me landing in the UK, for the very first time, in September 2005.
Confidence to Confusion #1 – Queues
Once I landed in Manchester Airport, I had to find out how to get to Sheffield, where I was due to start my Masters in Engineering. So, having collected my luggage and cleared immigration, I tried to find someone to ask for help. I spotted this smartly dressed chap helping this lady out, and casually walked up to him and said to him “can you tell me how to get to Manchester?”. What he did next came as a shock to me. He told me to queue up behind the lady he was helping and he would help me once he was done helping her. This was a shock to me because, back then, queuing was a relatively unknown concept to me. Despite not being a Rugby nation, queuing in India resembled a Ruby scrum more than an orderly line. See image below. I went from confident to confusion because I assumed that if I have mastered the complexities of Indian culture, I can handle just about any culture in the world.
Confidence to Confusion #2 – Language
Earlier in this post, I mentioned that I grew up learning one of the most complex languages known to humankind, English. I could read, write and speak English very well, even in 2005, fresh of the boat (flight). So having learnt a lesson about queuing I made it to the ticket counter to buy a train ticket to Sheffield. The guy behind the counter said “Good Morning! Are you alright?”. Where I came from, the phrase are you alright is only ever used on someone when they clearly shouldn’t be out and about in public! Keeping this in mind, I asked the guy back “Why do you say that? Is something wrong with me? Do I not look alright to you?”. Then I was told are you alright is colloquial for how are you. In this instance I went from confidence to confusion because how could the same three words, from the same language, said in the same order mean different things in different countries!
Confidence to Confusion #3 – Taxis
Before I left India, I was explicitly told not to get into a black cab as they can be quite expensive. So, when my turn came (I queued up again, applied the lesson learnt earlier in the day), and then, I let six of these black cabs pass before boarding one of these orange cabs!
Then, upon my arrival at my destination, I proudly told the lads “I didn’t take a black cab, I took an orange one instead”! And they were like “you idiot, they’re all black cabs!” Little did I know then that Orange was the new black!
Confusion to Confidence
All three incidents mentioned above happened within a few hours of my landing in the UK. The first two at Manchester airport and the third one at Sheffield station. This would have been enough to erode my confidence in myself, but luckily for me, I committed to integrating myself into the British society and do everything I could, to not just excel academically, but also cope with the cultural and societal challenges. When the culture and society of Britain were welcoming and accepting of another foreigner (me), I had a responsibility on my shoulder to open my mind to the cultural experiences that this nation and people had to offer. It is called reciprocity. Thanks to the values and culture instilled in me by my parents I have been able to successfully navigate life in Britain, as a student, an immigrant (expat), an employee, and since 2015 as a founder of an Engineering and Innovations company, Equitus Engineering Limited.
I am pretty sure that there are several others like myself who have been through this journey from other parts of South Asia to the United Kingdom and are doing things that make both places proud. Every time I go to India, I go home, and every time I come to Britain, I come home. As a finishing note, I say to my fellow South Asians and my fellow Britons, let us celebrate and cherish one another and what we have!
Happy South Asian Heritage Month!