Ending the Shame-Blame Game

Pandemic-poverty and social change

Being as terribly, terribly British as I am, I hate talking about money. Other than the usual everyday fuck-it-I’m-broke statement that has blanket-covered my finances since the dawn of time, I tend to get squirmy and uncomfortable if anyone outside (or sometimes even inside) my immediate family wants to get down to financial brass tacks. Cos we just don’t talk about that sort of thing. Having spent long periods of my life either un or under-employed, as well as growing up horribly, embarrassingly poor, I’m also used to the weight of financial worry permeating my every heartbeat while trying to go about life as normal and coping with being the poor friend/relation with as much of a smile on my face as I can manage. The real kicker is that for once I had just about got my financial ducks in a row before this whole thing kicked off, but now, like 26million other folks in this country whose livelihoods depend on tourism, hospitality, entertainment, fashion, beauty, culture, fitness and god knows how many other industries, I am well and truly up the spout. I probably should be panicking more than I am, and I definitely should be buying less beer, but for some reason my usual panic buttons just aren’t kicking in. it may be because, for once, I’m not alone in this, and I don’t just mean having lovely JB in my life. This time, I don’t have to pretend not to be poor. I don’t have to pretend that my life and my income aren’t fucked. I don’t have to smile and lie while my stomach does backflips over how I’m going to make it through the next month, and I don’t have to look away awkwardly when someone asks me how things are.

I’m not saying I’m glad everyone else is in the same boat as me – I wish none of us were in it. I wish there wasn’t even a boat. I wish the world could go back to normal in a goddamn heartbeat. I think what I’m saying is that for the first time, I’m not ashamed to be poor, I don’t feel like it’s my fault, like I did something wrong, that I’m a deficient human being because of the way our society tells us that if we don’t have money it must be because of something we did, something we need to fix about ourselves and our lives. In this situation we can’t fix anything. We can’t make jobs that simply are not there because they are not safe, and we can’t suddenly become experts in things we don’t understand. Yes, some of us could and probably will retrain, but one fact that has come out of this situation with enormous clarity is that no sector (with the exception of healthcare, up to a point) is completely safe – who knows what the next disaster of biblical proportions will entail? Right now, a world without the internet or even electricity doesn’t seem impossible. Anything really can happen.

Being poor has always made me feel that I’m worthless. Not having a stable, respectable career has made me feel lesser and ashamed. Investing hard in my working life and seeing it fall apart around me way before any of this happened nearly broke me to pieces, so I know better than anyone how hard this is for every person who thought they knew what they were doing with their life and suddenly had it all taken away. The world isn’t fair, it just isn’t, and hard work does not necessarily pay off. With most of us (there are of course the obvious exceptions) in something vaguely resembling the same boat, for once no one is talking about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, getting on our bikes or showing bloody initiative. Finally, the economy is being seen for what it really is, a mostly arbitrary system with a fluctuating list of winners and losers whose status depends primarily on factors beyond their own control. The concept of a universal basic income is no longer being derided as commie propaganda, and medicare for all is winning new advocates daily. In the UK, the NHS has now acquired a semi-religious status when just months ago it was frittering out of our fingers into private hands without the majority of the population batting an eyelid. The difference between needs and wants is being thrown into sharp relief, and the responsibility of the state to its people is no longer a just concept to be debated, it is a reality which requires immediate action.

As our economies shrink and unemployment skyrockets, talking about money, about being afraid and uncomfortable, about feeling helpless and angry, is no longer shameful or embarrassing. The correlation of poverty and fault is being shown up as nothing but a construct of the successful and the privileged, a tool to abrogate state and corporate responsibility. A stick to beat the unlucky with. Being poor doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you are lazy or stupid or worthless. It doesn’t equal lacking life skills or making poor career choices. All it means is that you have been unlucky, that you have lost this roll of the dice, and maybe the one before, and the one before that. Yes, some people are better able to cope and pull themselves up from those losses than others, but even being blessed with that characteristic and/or having someone in your life to nurture it is down to little more than luck. As much as I would like to believe that something good will come out of all this suffering, that real change is afoot, history clearly dictates otherwise. Undoubtedly, once this is all over, the powers that be will do their best to sweep our memories of this moment under the carpet and reinstall the same old creaking economic structure of haves and have-nots, waving individual incentives under our noses, and each of us will run straight back in like children determined to snatch the biggest portion of candy, wilfully oblivious to the poison it contains. For now at least, we are all in this together, so lets not be ashamed of our poverty and our fear and let’s demand solutions from our leaders that reflect our value as human beings.

Why I’m going Back to the 90s

Embracing the Art of Survival by Nostalgia

One of the ways JB and I are dealing with All This is by taking several steps backwards and immersing ourselves in the halcyon days that were The 90s. I know, based on the stupid amount of time I’m spending on Twitter, that we are not the only ones to seek refuge in what was not just a simpler time, but for our generation (tag end of GenX), the only period of real hope that we lived through. I’ve written a fair bit about the difficulty of growing up in the grim grizzly grey of the 80s, and how the racism, capitalism, classism and poverty of those years shaped me, but have woefully neglected the huge impact of what came next. Sometime early in 1994, I had my Pleasantville moment (if you haven’t seen it, do) and my world slowly began to shift into colour. Less a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of the universe and more a slow, burgeoning build laced with a huge sense of anticipation, things around me that had felt distant and impossible and most often agonisingly unbearable began to offer up the smallest possibility of change. When Tony sings ‘Something’s Coming’ at the start of West Side Story, I can almost see my younger self sauntering down the road wearing a bright vintage minidress and clogs, hair swinging in the wind, on the cusp of escaping for good the vice-like grip of my brutally domineering mother and finally making my first group of actual friends.

I shall, and unapologetically so, return to further cultural references to describe the power of the cultural change that occurred in the early-mid 90s that enabled me to, in a very real sense, be alive for the first time. What made me suddenly become relatable to others wasn’t an overnight personality overhaul but the arrival of new sets of cultural markers around which our generation sparked and fused, and in which I was a genuine believer. Nirvana and the grunge scene offered me my first glimmer of a world that I could understand and belong to, and enabled me to take my first wobbly steps out of nerddom, like a real life female Marcus from About A Boy (if you haven’t read it, do). The heady days of the mid-90s Britpop revolution that followed transformed everything further – suddenly I was part of a movement, a real one that was on the news and everything. We thought we were living out the 60s all over again, we felt so important and potent and alive, like one sweating, screaming, pulsating force of nature, unified in our passion for the songs we knew better than our own thoughts. Naming every member of Menswear, Sleeper, Shed Seven and Elastica became a test of character, and high-tailing it to HMV to purchase the limited edition CD of each new release was 100% de rigeur. I have never paid so much undivided attention to music, immersing myself in every breath, every heartbeat. Lying on my bed with my eyes closed I would listen to each album over and over, then call my friends to spend hours debating favourite melodies and phrases. I can still tell if a Britpop record is even slightly out of time, and I totally kill this stuff at karaoke. My first gigs, Blur, Pulp, Oasis, felt semi-religious, all of us bound in communal hysteria, all feeling, knowing that this was something beyond ordinary. Yes, as Pulp themselves said, Something Changed.

As well as music, there were the films and TV. Tarantino was our god and we watched, re-watched, bunked off school to watch, dressed up as the characters, danced around to the soundtracks, covered our school-books with images cut from magazines and endlessly recited quotes in tandem. We were in love with Keanu Reeves and in perpetual mourning for River Phoenix. We became obsessed with Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, and thought we were dead sophisticated for immersing ourselves in the original Cool Britannia by watching old Michael Caine films. On TV it was The X Files, This Life and Friends, everyone bursting to discuss the latest developments the second the credits rolled, lazily imagining our own lives at the geriatric age of 20-something and selecting whose hair-do would suit us best.

Our outfits screamed knock-off 60s chic, a mish-mash of charity-shop finds (suddenly back in fashion) and whatever we could afford from Miss Selfridge from our crap-Saturday-job pay once we’d bought our Hooch and Chardonnay. All of us would pile into the same changing room, throw ourselves down on the ground and try things on for hours, so high on life it’s a wonder we even bothered drinking at all. Life suddenly felt like everything it was supposed to be, holding hands and singing aloud as we stumbled home barefoot in the early hours, sitting around the edge of the bathtub together rinsing our feet while trying not to fall in, and giggling stupidly long after we’d collapsed into our sleeping bags. I had finally found the hive mind I had craved as a child, and it was one of my choosing, one I believed in with all my heart.

Of course things moved on, as they do in life, and just a few years later I found myself looking back, and, to quote Hunter S Thompson, I could see the high watermark, the place where the wave finally broke (If you haven’t seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, do). Nonetheless, it makes complete sense that this is the moment I want to be in right now, the pure feelings of hope and joy whose essence I want to escape into by reimmersing myself in the cultural trappings of that time. I can forget about the in-fighting, the silly rows and endless bitching, and of course the unholy amount of puking, and just remember the beautiful shining glow of a world where (to quote HST again) everything was right, and we were winning. Nostalgia might be nothing more than an empty bubble of perfumed air, but right now I’m happy to keep breathing it in if it helps me deal with the sheer poison of living through the reality of the present.

Isolation, Instinct and Adapting to the Apocalypse

The World Turned Upside Down

Being in isolation has given me plenty of time to think about, well, isolation. What being isolated means in our society, and why we’re finding it so tough and so counterintuitive. When John Donne said ‘No man is an island’ he pretty much hit the nail on the head. Being human is being a pack animal, and we instinctively associate isolation with failure, rejection, and ultimately a lesser chance of survival – ie being the runt of the litter. Socially, there’s no getting away from the tight bond between isolation and punishment. Whether it’s a kid being sent to the naughty corner, or an inmate sentenced to solitary confinement, enforced isolation is synonymous with penance, with breaking the spirit. It means you’ve done something wrong. There are more subtle connections. Not even the most dedicated introvert wants to be Billy No-Mates. When we describe someone as unlikeable, antisocial, or an inadequate joiner, the words are loaded with judgement, with disapproval, with spite. To be different or poorly socialised and therefore isolated from others makes the act of bullying almost acceptable in our society. Whether it’s the playground or the workplace, we are coached to fit in, assimilate, or risk the pain and stigma of isolation. Similarly, the social disapproval (covert or overt depending on your background) that comes with being single tells us that to self-isolate is wrong. Cultural norms are backed up with governments’ fiscal measures favouring married couples and families, and should you dare to go on holiday by yourself, expect to pay a single traveller supplement – there is quite literally a tax on isolation. Punishment indeed.

In the situation we currently find ourselves in, however, isolation comes into its own. You might say that it’s having a moment. Any fan of dystopian fiction knows that in an apocalypse, isolation is your friend. Norms are flipped on their heads as the unthinkable becomes reality. Safe spaces can only be found far from the diseased/zombified/murdering hoards, far from the influx of aliens/vampires/demons that are terrorising the earth. Those left will be the ones who made it out, who got away. And who are these isolators? Conspiracy theorists holed up in makeshift nuclear bunkers filled with guns. Swiss bankers sitting on the remaining Nazi gold who have hollowed out the Alps. Politicians who wave the banner of isolationism, often at great human cost, arguing for self-protection. Religious zealots looking down on worldly living, pained in their moral superiority. All believers in a fearful society, expecting the worst and preparing for one kind of judgement day or another. Oh how we’ve laughed at their morbid paranoia, their survivalist zeal. But could this in fact be their moment, could they all be right? When bad becomes good and the act of isolation, society’s default punishment, becomes the right thing to do both for ourselves and for each other, does it really mean the End Of Days?

Of course, enforced isolation on this scale is not without its own share of unevenly distributed punishments. Introverts, some might say, are also having their moment, staying calm and being productive, while us extroverts gnash our teeth and waste hours on social media trying to recapture some semblance of satisfactory levels of human interaction. Mobility is restricted unevenly, based on geographical location and level of risk, leaving many older people completely alone and afraid. Women are more at risk, both from the threat of domestic violence in a locked-down home and of exposure, as they are less likely to be able to work remotely, holding the majority of high-risk service and care sector jobs. Class and income divisions, always bubbling close to the surface, are thrown damningly under the spotlight as the rich jet off to their second homes while the poor are crammed under one multi-generational roof, heightening the risk of exposure and sickness. Some forms of isolation are indeed less equal than others, but when was punishment ever doled out evenly?

Isolation and punishment, isolation and fear – all of this leaves many of us are wondering right now what exactly it is we have done wrong? How did we fail? Why are we being punished? Is this really Mother Earth sending us to the naughty corner for burning too many fossil fuels or eating too much meat? Or is it just one of those things that happens, and we’re simply indulging in an all-to-human need to find an explanation for? Let’s face it – another down-side of isolation is that it leaves us with way too much time to ponder the mysteries of a life we would otherwise be going about living, hence the impetus to churn this out at all – back in the real world, enforced isolation would be the last thing on my busy little mind. In the meantime, as we sit in isolation contemplating the end of the world, it continues to turn and we continue to adapt, make do and survive, whether we want to or not. That same instinct that would normally encourage us to shun isolation is kicking in and saving us from ourselves, making us live the unliveable, accept the unacceptable, and push on, even though the world has, indeed, turned upside down. Isolation may be a punishment but it is not a death sentence, and we are indeed survivors.

The Corona Rollercoaster

I hate theme parks. Rollercoasters and all that make me puke. The lurching, disjointed motion, having one’s body pitched and jerked and turned upside down is just so not for me. But even more than the physical sickness, what I really hate is the fear. The terror of the uncertainty of what will happen to me in the next unknown moment as well as the sheer panic as it actually happens. No, no thank you. I’ll get my adrenaline rushes over a pint or two and some good conversation. But back to the rollercoasters, that fear, that pure utter terrifying misery of being inescapably strapped into place and having no control over what will happen next, of everything being completely out of one’s control. That’s pretty much how I’m feeling right now.

As with rollercoasters, some people thrive in a crisis. We all know someone who’s rubbing their (sanitised) hands together, smugly aglow at the prospect of witnessing the biggest human disaster for the best part of a century. The people who don’t just pride themselves on being positive, who actively sought out crises back in the Real World just to have something that they ‘simply had to soldier on through’. Bet they all love rollercoasters, but maybe, just maybe, this one may be just too much. They may find themselves as helpless as the rest of us. Me, I thrive on certainty, stability and consistency. Managing a constantly evolving shapeshifting crisis like this without totally losing my shit is a battle to be fought from one minute to the next. The single most reassuring thing is knowing I’m not alone in my abject terror. And the fear, for me, isn’t fear of getting sick or dying – which I know makes me both lucky and possibly arrogant. It’s the fear that the whole world as we knew it, that Real World we lived in, could be gone forever, could be torn down so quickly that we’re feeling nostalgic for the life we were living just a week or two ago. What the hell is going on that we could lose so much so damn fast? That rollercoaster is throwing the human race, all of us, around so hard we may come off the rails and crash into an unknowable abyss from which we may never recover. Of course, it could all be over in a matter of months, and life could be, if not exactly the same, a decent replica of what’s gone before. The not knowing, the minute-to-minute not knowing, is making it hard to breathe, hard to think, hard to even move sometimes. None of us chose to live through this, and having the choices we’re so used to completely taken away is one of the most brutal side-effects of this whole situation. For me right now, any minute that isn’t completely shitty is worth hanging onto. Trying to make those minutes is hard, it’s not always possible, sometimes everything is just too much, it just is. As someone who has always lived a lot in the past, accepting the reality of the present, of living in it and being unable to do shit about it is a huge challenge. It’s being buckled in tight and thrown around against my will. It’s the stuff of dystopian nightmares. But we all know it. We are, at least, all there together.

Having anxiety and depression for once seems if not irrelevant then almost not worth mentioning – survivalists and disaster-mongers aside, I think pretty much everyone is feeling anxious and depressed right now. It’s literally the new normal. Being a massively social person, living between two countries and having my income tied into tourism means that distancing, isolation and travel bans are taking a huge toll on my mental health in a way they may not be for everyone, but others have greater health concerns or family difficulties or businesses at risk. It’s not a competition, it’s a state of zero-sum fucked-up-ness. Thinking back to just last week, the week before, I already miss the mess and muddle I thought was my life, the before to this after, the space where we really were all living our own lives and going about our own business before this universally equalising catastrophe hit with the force of a goddamn meteor and forced us out of our separate realities and into a huge shared rollercoaster that no one can control. We barely have time to mourn our old lives as we readjust daily to an ever-morphing new reality that’s forced itself upon us with breathtaking ferocity. Humanity feels like a giant organism with each of us a single cell, separate but together in this, trying to deal with it in our own way but also as a unit.

All of this may seem laughable with time, when things are much better and I seem histrionic, or so much worse that I reek of naive optimism. Where we are now, being plunged uncontrollably from left to right and just gripping onto each moment as tightly as we can, trying to regain some sense of balance, is a terrifying place to be. We need to (virtually) hold each other tightly as we brace ourselves for the next shock.

The Homegoing That Wasn’t

How living between two cultures left me searching for a place to belong

Home. Surely one of the most evocative, powerful words in any language. Everyone has an idea of what home means to them, be it the home they have, the home they want or the home they’ve been told they should have. The word can bring up sensory memories of days gone by, hopes and dreams of a future yet unwritten or, as in my case, a gaping aching empty hole that has always desperately needed filling. My parents, despite living in the UK for longer than they lived in Sri Lanka, still referred to the island of their youth as ‘home’. The jarring cold, the lack of family, the basic cultural disconnect and relentless racism that imbued our everyday life meaning that although they wished desperately to belong in the Mother Country, that one word could still transport them back to a place and time that were actually theirs, a place and a feeling I tried to imagine, an idea of a soothing warmth and acceptance I had never experienced. Somewhere to just be normal.

At the grand old age of 23, I had never been to Sri Lanka. In fact, I hadn’t been to Asia at all. Having suffered through four years of university with all the white folks around me bleating on about their gap yahs in exotic locations, I felt provincial and unworldly, my brownness somehow tallying up with my backwardness, a lack of location in a culture I supposedly belonged to. Meanwhile my white peers held forth as pseudo-experts on countries they’d visited for a few months, places where they had ‘found themselves’. As if having their own culture farmed out around the world wasn’t enough, they felt they had the right to adopt the culture of us brown people too. All the weed-smoking, bongo-playing, henna-sporting be-dreadlocked idiots preaching about the benefits of yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and Buddhism were so ridiculously entitled in their cultural appropriation, yet I had no resources or experiences with which to challenge them. The unsettling feeling that they knew more about my supposed home than I did only added to my sense of dislocation.

When an opportunity finally arose for me to travel east, I jumped at it. Never mind that I had to go by myself, unblessed with those university ‘friends for life’ with whom most folks my age shared their adventures, I was ready to embrace my South Asian heritage and off I went. Young and naive (obviously), I anticipated a joyous discovery of my spiritual home. After over two decades of exclusion, racism, and bigotry, with no cultural landscape to call my own, I couldn’t wait to arrive into a sea of people just like me. The reality was heartbreakingly different, and although the intervening years have modulated much of that jarring first encounter, it will always stay with me as the moment I realised I existed between two worlds but not in either – a ghostly sensation I still retain.

As my plane touched down in Colombo for the first time, it looked exactly as I’d imagined. Arriving from South-East Asia where I had travelled across Thailand, Laos and Cambodia and mostly been treated like any other Western backpacker, I felt acclimatised, overly confident, primed and ready to claim my own little corner of the continent.  The thick, hazy air, tall, dirty palms lilting in the breeze, every building dating back to at least the 1970s and more people and vehicles than could feasibly fit into any allotted space all felt expected and familiar. I’d been navigating similar landscapes for months, and the mix of feeling like a seasoned traveller combined with the sense of returning to my roots created a dangerous combination of assumption and expectation, the kind that comes directly before a fall. Needless to say, 23 year old me went about behaving exactly like myself. That is to say, exactly like someone who grew up in the UK with virtually zero knowledge of Sri Lankan culture, language, or social mores. And of course, everything was wrong. I was stared at and spat at for my clothes (skimpy, it was hot and I was young), called a prostitute for my pink hair (I thought it was cool), was unable to communicate with most people my own age (Singhalese, which my parents never taught me, having replaced English as the national language), and frowned at every time I drank (so, a lot). Ultimately, I found myself too culturally white to be truly brown in as much as I’m too physically brown to be accepted in a white culture.

My family, though more tolerant, found me puzzling at best but more often ridiculous. I had to be taught how to eat with my hands, liked to sunbathe in the garden (‘what do you want to make yourself all black for?’), slept til past noon and heaven forfend I leave the house without a chaperone. My people, it seemed, were not my people at all. You may query my lack of cultural insight, my crass insensitiveness, my blatant ignorance, but these were norms I had simply never encountered, a whole new set of rules to adapt to and behaviours to learn when I had expected to finally arrive somewhere where I could just be myself. The disappointment was crushing. To be rejected in my true form in both the country where I was born and the place of my heritage felt like being branded an international failure, a person with no home, no place to belong. So many second or third-generation immigrants seem to come away from their homegoing experiences filled with a sense of belonging, of their history, their roots. I just felt like a lost child, inadequate, abandoned and helpless.

It wasn’t a lost cause. My beloved late aunt was my beacon of hope, the one person who understood me and took me, quite literally, under her wing. Although she was a strict, fiery Sri Lankan matriarch who would never have let her own daughters dress or drink like me, she was an educated, well-travelled woman who grasped the nature of my situation and loved me fiercely exactly as I was. The world will always be a dimmer place without her. My father’s old friends are also an amazing bunch, full of tall tales of their misspent youth shared over plentiful whisky, without the dreary expectations and strictures that seemed to permeate Sri Lankan culture during its insular civil war years. As they pass away in increasing numbers, I’m filled with so much sadness at the loss of so many special individuals, but also of a generation who retained so much hope and joy and camaraderie.

Things are easier now. Since the war ended and tourism increased, I no longer stand out like the sore thumb I once did. And of course, I am older, a little wiser and better able to modulate my Western excesses, at least in front of those they may offend. The prevailing cultural snobbery against ex-pats still exists, but although I’ll still get ripped off every time I take a tuk-tuk, I no longer get harassed in the street on a regular basis. That said, Sri Lanka still doesn’t feel like home. We may have adapted around each other to reach a set of workable compromises, but we are not entwined as one in the way I imagine ‘home’ would feel like. And although my connection to the UK is stronger now than it ever was, it still isn’t my home either – I’ve suffered far too much prejudice and exclusion to ever feel like I truly belong there. Living in America, the traditional home of the homeless, seems like a good solution but of course it is much too early in my tenure here and probably too late in my life to assert that this, either, is home. If home is the place you belong, the place you are accepted, the place where you are safe and whole, that you crave when you’re gone and kiss the ground when you return to, it seems that I simply do not have one.

February 20th 2020

The Self-Hating South Asian

Everyone is, in my experience, racist. This does, of course, depend on your definition of racism-mine being that everyone harbours assumptions and stereotypes, both consciously and subconsciously, about people from different ethnic backgrounds. Many of these assumptions and prejudices are often true. If they are true, is having them no longer racist? No. Absolutely not. Presuming to know something about a person based purely in their ethnicity without actually knowing it as a fact is racist, whether the thing you purport to know is true or not. Sorry folks, that’s just the way it is.

I have no doubt this applies to most, if not all, POCs, but from my experience, being a South Asian in the UK is to be subjected to a thousand cuts of micro-racism every time you go anywhere or do anything. Some of those snicks come from other South Asians. Some come from your own family. Some you might not even notice. Some you may well commit yourself. The nasty stabs of envy I feel when I see a successful South Asian in the media, the idea that space for us is so limited that they are in a place that might have been mine, the will to know how they circumnavigated the white stranglehold on our cultural industries, those are all racist responses. Successful white writers are so ubiquitous I don’t even notice them.

Once you start to analyse your actions and reactions and those of people around you, having racist feelings, thinking racist thoughts, making racist assumptions can feel overwhelmingly ingrained into the fabric of our lives. That’s because it is. When you try to challenge and unpick every thought or comment that could be considered racist, you may well find you don’t have time for much else. Just think about it. For a minute. Bet your head hurts. Mine certainly does.

Right-wing commentators don’t like their heads hurting, so they coined the phrase ‘playing the race card’ to describe the attempts of POCs to call out instances where prejudice and racism have negatively affected our lives, claiming that we’re nothing but snivelling, whining and inept, held back by nothing more sinister than our own personal inadequacies. Sometimes, even among our own, the same thing is said – particularly among the older generation. Ah, if so-and-so can make it, then obviously you didn’t fail because society is prejudiced, obviously you failed because you weren’t good enough, because you did something wrong. When those closest to you are disbelieving you, questioning your competence and telling you that you have a chip on your shoulder, well, that’s going to give you a bloody chip on your shoulder if there wasn’t one there already, which, let’s face it, there probably was. And who do you believe – the voice in your head that tells you you’ve been wronged or the voices around you telling you you’re over-sensitive or unlucky? Always being told that you’re wrong when you know that you’re right, being told the facts staring you in the face are a figment of your imagination, that black is, quite literally, white – well, it can make you feel like you’re losing your fucking mind.

Society is racist. We are all racist. But we refuse to call a spade a spade because it’s too messy, too inconvenient, too much bloody work, and because those at the top, those who perpetuate the system because they win from it, do not want to give up their advantage, and we are too busy hating ourselves, turning in on ourselves to fight them. As a South Asian, I was always told to keep my head down, not rock the boat, tolerate the slights, the digs, the unfair disadvantages. To prove my worth by working twice as hard to achieve half as much, to lean into the system and break down prejudice by wowing white folks with my general brilliance, dazzling them with my talent, and, to re-use a phrase I have used before, to be the proverbial dog playing the piano. You don’t want to be the whinger, you don’t want to be the one who ‘cries racism’, because if you were really good enough you wouldn’t need to, would you?

But what if you’re not brilliant, as I certainly am not. Then what? What if you’re good enough but not exceptional, hard-working but not lucky. What if you have a name white people can’t pronounce and your CV gets chucked in the bin before it’s even been read. What if you did everything right, tried your best, worked your hardest but just had the wrong bloody face? What if, after all of that pain and disappointment, no one even believes that it wasn’t your fault. Carrying around the enormous burden of this constant external and internal denial of the fundamental biases in our culture feels like Promethean curse. At times, I don’t know how much more I can take. Plenty of white people succeed at life who are far from exceptional (just look at our current political elite), but there’s only room at the top for the best and the brightest brown folks. It’s a cruel, brutal catch-22 that inevitably ends in a swirling avalanche of self-hate.

Because of course, over time, those external voices become internalised. Because if everyone else is saying it, it must be true. And then, not only are you a failure, you’re a delusional failure with a chip on your shoulder. You hate yourself for failing. You hate yourself for being delusional. You hate yourself because part of you knows you’re not delusional. You hate yourself because no one will take you seriously. You hate yourself because you sound self-pitying and whiny. You hate yourself if you call prejudice out, you hate yourself if you don’t. You hate yourself because you cannot change the world, you cannot break the system and you cannot change your sad brown little self, so you hate yourself instead, because what else is there left to do?

February 2020

Brexit Day: Racism and Resistance

I’ve been up since 3am stressing about Brexit.

Of course I have. Having being a minority in the 80s, I am possessed with an absolute, utter terror of what awaits us socially, culturally, legally and economically. I don’t want to go back to being harassed, marginalised, unprotected and poor. And that is exactly what I see in the immediate future. The news over the last few days are making me feel as though everything bad about the world is bubbling out in a proper-Buffy-hellmouth fashion and I’m feeling helpless, exhausted and bloody furious. From Trump’s imminent acquittal to the ongoing lack of diversity in the publishing industry, the skewed stop-and-search racial demographic here in Travis County, ongoing attacks on abortion rights and a 50% increase in racist attacks on the football pitch, the world feels like it’s going to hell in a handcart. Brexit feels like the eye of the storm battering me down, and reading pieces encouraging us to accept what is happening and move on are really not helping. Yes, there is the practical reality of trade negotiations and visa stamps, but what Brexit stands for socially and morally is something much darker than that. Words (from white men) telling us it’s time to put leave/remain angst behind us are both patronising and wrong, and demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding as to what Brexit really means for minorities on the ground.

I’m not in the mood to take in considered, mollifying ponderings on the ebb and flow of history. I’m not up for hearing about how it’s time to put our differences behind us and move on. I’m really not interested in being told to make the best of a bad situation-been there, done that. Anyone who thinks this is the time to sit idly by and let things work themselves out is either delusional or deliberately hiding a regressive agenda. We’re about to step into a society that is so polarised that to play nice, keep the peace, sit on the fence is to be complicit with those who are right now celebrating the success of their nasty, hateful politics. The reactionaries think they have won and they are gloating, bold and piggish with their jingoistic tea towels and sneering St George flags – for many, today is about more than celebrating Brexit, they are celebrating a victory of racism and bigotry. Telling ourselves this is just a phase is not going to cut it. Seeking accommodation with those who are openly bigoted is not the answer.

This is the time to speak up, speak out, stop apologising for our opinions and stop pretending politics doesn’t matter. We need to argue, to fight, to vote, to march, to show them that they haven’t won. Just because enough of them crawled out of the woodwork to push through this nightmarish break with our most sensible, fairest political allies out of a sense of vainglorious insular nationalism, that does not mean it is time to throw in the (tea) towel. No, we should not be accommodating, listening, pandering to their sad little egos. Now more than ever we should be challenging them on the street, in the pub, at work, at home, and even (as unpleasant as it can be) online. Because if we don’t, if we take to simmering silently, waiting for the next roll of the dice, we risk being the people who fiddled while Rome burned.

And it may not even be another Thatcher in the wings, it could be so much worse. I may dose myself a little heavily with dystopian fiction but really all you need to do to see how bad the future can get is open a history book. Oh hooray, Mussolini made the trains run on time! Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, Franco-how bad does the UK want its very own horror story of repression, racism, torture and murder to be? Of course, it can’t happen here. Except it can. Any country that’s existed under a dictatorship thought it couldn’t happen to them, let themselves slide gently down the slope of denial until they were in so deep there was no clawing their way out. Say I’m paranoid, over-reacting, scaremongering, then do some reading on what human beings are capable of doing to each other.

Even if we manage to avoid all-out Gilead, the descent from okay to pretty bloody hellish has already commenced. We need to grab every boulder on the way down, fight for every right, demand legal and medical protections and call out every instance of prejudice. Retreating into our little bubble of happy lefty echo-chamber denial is so much easier than facing up to the enormity of the disjuncture in our society, but every time we turn a blind eye it’s a tacit endorsement of a set of attitudes whose ultimate conclusion is a rolling back of tolerance, social justice, equality and human rights.

I’m as guilty as anyone-some days I feel too shy, too tired, too bloody lazy to speak up, to stand up, to get up off my arse and make a noise. To exercise the patience to explain right from wrong. To tolerate the eye-rolls, the sniggering, the ‘whatever’s. It can feel like being back at school, railing against unfairness and injustice to an audience of arrogant, mocking bigots. The tear-inducing frustration of knowing that you’re right but that it doesn’t matter cos no one cares and you’ve already lost. Easier to keep your head down, avoid a confrontation, wait it out. Except don’t. That’s what they’re counting on now. They think we’ve had our day. They think this is theirs. We’ve got a hard, sorry, shitty fight in front of us but it’s already started. Don’t back down, don’t shy away. Don’t hold up your hands just because you’re not directly affected. Yet. And maybe you won’t be. Maybe you are part of the elected elite and it’s okay for you cos you’re the right gender/race/class. But if you’re a real ally stand up and pitch in, otherwise you’re just a fucking collaborator.

I want to be part of a society to be proud of, a fair, progressive, society which prioritises equality and human rights. Today I feel ashamed to be British, afraid for the future, and deeply disappointed in the knowledge that what I feared most was right – the bigotry and prejudice in the UK was never really defeated and has just been biding its time, waiting for a break in our concentration, a lapse in our unity, to ooze out and regain its poisonous hold over our politics. Growing up in the 80s, I believed that life was a hell-pit of racist, capitalist inequality, but I also saw the power of resistance. From the miners’ strikes to the anti-apartheid movement, people stood up in the face of a huge, aggressive socio-political machine to fight for what they knew was right. Today is a bloody awful day, but we don’t have to accept it as the end. We need to get in that wheel and turn it ourselves and work together to halt this gross regressive resurgence and reclaim our democracy, our society and our culture.

January 31st 2020

The British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ and the Colonisation of Emotion

I’m a very ‘emotional’ person. At least, that’s what I’ve always been told. And living in the UK, we’re conditioned to believe that being ‘emotional’ is a bad thing. When have you ever heard anyone being described as ‘emotional’ in a positive way? The word is chock-full of judgement, disdain and even disgust. Expressing, or even admitting to feeling emotions is a weakness, a fault, something to be ashamed of. Emotions are as much a part of the human experience as eating and breathing – every action we take or that is taken around us inspires a response in our brains, so why is shutting that response down prized as the sign of a good person, a strong character, someone better, more acceptable than those of us who engage with the reality of our experiences? This is, to me, a white-British cultural stranglehold on emotional expression, and extension of colonialism that goes right into our heads and tells us how to feel and how to express those feelings in order to gain approval in white British society. It’s the emotional equivalent of doctoring our names for the English tongue (which I’ve already covered extensively).

It’s been exhausting living in a society that expects you to adjust your expressions of sadness and anger to make them acceptable and palatable to others, especially when you’ve been raised in a family where crying when you’re sad and shouting when you’re angry are normal. Bursting into tears in public, even among friends, can result in awkwardness, disapproval and even mockery, but why shouldn’t you cry when you’re in pain? And heaven forfend that you shout and call someone out if they do something bad to you. No, you’re supposed to seethe calmly and do something nasty and backhanded later – this is the behaviour the Empire was built on! Rather than being able to actually prioritise your own feelings and look after yourself and be looked after on your own terms to meet your own needs you are forced to conform to the dominant stereotype of what is and is not a socially acceptable form of behaviour. If you don’t do this, you risk being criticised, ostracised, belittled, demeaned and even accused of madness. Being told that ‘there’s no need for that’ or ‘you should just get over it’ is cultural bullying-no more, no less. It is nobody’s business to dictate the validity of anyone else’s emotional expression. Unfortunately, the outdated concept of the ‘emotional foreigner’, that staple of TV sitcom humour, is alive and well. Just because most folks are PC enough not to voice it in these terms these days, doesn’t mean it’s gone away. The idea of the English ‘stiff upper lip’ as being superior to ‘childish, foreign’ displays of emotion is aggressive, condescending bigotry. It is also extremely unhealthy as the pressure of enforced emotional silence can lead to self-harm and suicide. We’re all on board with the fact that calling women ‘emotional’ is straight-up sexist, so why is it still okay to push outdated colonial motifs of emotional gagging as the desired way to respond to difficult situations? Could it be because, frankly, our white middle-class elite just don’t want to know about other people’s problems cos they’re just too damn selfish to get involved? I think it might.

Ahhh, the Western fetishisation of ‘not getting involved’. If someone is crying, walk away – they might be crazy, or even if they’re not, why trouble yourself with their problems? Oh, and give them a filthy look so that they’ll be ashamed of daring to show their pain in public. That’s the way to do it. When have you ever heard a South Asian auntie (or uncle) say they weren’t going to get involved, or it isn’t any of their business?! South Asian culture is built on getting involved – yes, sometimes a little too much (‘do you want me to find a nice husband for you?!’), but it is what it is, and the idea that those behaviours and responses are wrong and need changing is something that white people have grilled into us. Oh, confrontations are bad, loyalty is bad, taking a side (that’s not your own) is bad. Having a fucking opinion is bad. We should all be glacial vanilla anodyne acolytes. Especially if you’re a women. Especially if you have brown skin. Cos no one wants to be the Angry Brown Woman do they? Look how ridiculous they look next to the nice Silent White Women? Making a fool of themselves shouting and drawing attention. This is why we’re better than them. This is why they can’t be trusted. Not one of us, you see. This ideology of silent tolerance is yet another othering stick to beat us with, another tool of cultural oppression. It has also created a culture of uncertainty, never knowing if someone really likes you, not being able to trust people because no one is expressing themselves honestly, and feeling isolated because our friendships aren’t really that close. Loneliness is pervasive because no one wants to look needy or risk the judgement that comes with asking for help, and betrayal and backstabbing are the routine responses to dislike or disapproval. What a nice world that stiff upper lip has created.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that East is better than West – anyone who’s had elder South Asian friends or family get all up in their business knows just how frustrating and suffocating that can be. It’s the assumed, inherent superiority of what is undeniably a profoundly unhealthy way of responding to emotions, and the way that this entrenches existing forms of cultural suppression that needs to change. Being described as ‘emotional’ should not be an insult. To acknowledge having feelings and to express them as they are should not be looked down on. I want to take a punch at that stiff upper lip and wipe the smirk right off it cos there is no Empire anymore.

January 2020

Got My Name Changed Back

January 2020

So, I’m starting with a cheeky nod to the fabulous Pistol Annies because even though this has been psychologically tougher than it should have been, I want it to be ultimately empowering, like the good ladies sing. This year I’m entering my fourth decade and really want to leave behind as much of the detritus I’ve collected up over the last 40 years as possible. Seriously, my list of new years resolutions is longer than The Irishman. Top of the pile is to finally shed a particularly ugly diminutive of my given name that has followed me around since childhood, chosen by my parents and co-opted by anyone and everyone who came into contact with me from the age of zero to 27.

You might think that asking folks to call you by your given name isn’t a big deal, but when that name is an unpronounceable counterintuitive mess that even most of my fellow Sri Lankans struggle with, the situation is a little bit different. Growing up in the racist, cultureless black hole that was Swindon in the 1980s, having a name like that only added to my awkward visibility, so reducing it to a simple one-syllable moniker that even ignorant North Wiltshire folk could spell may not sound like the worst idea. Ah, but there is the rub. This particularly ungainly non-word was most notable for its ability to rhyme with a substantial array of playground insults that progressed to teenage slurs then graduated to student pseudo-jests. Giving a child a name that rhymes with poo is literally the cruellest thing parents can do – Life Of Pi’s Piscine Patel got off bloody lightly in comparison. Surely, you say, adults wouldn’t sink to such base depths, especially not in London? Try being regularly greeted by a chorus of Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport and having to pretend to laugh along with everyone else so that you’re not one of those humourless Asians. Yeah. That.

So, when the choice is between being a good sport, a team player, and giving white people a name they can pronounce even though it stuck in my miserable throat, or being one of those difficult Asians who makes everyone else’s life harder by insisting on sticking to their weird multi-syllable name, I’ve been stuck between a rock and a hard place my whole life. Back in the 80s and 90s the onus was very much on us as immigrants to fit in. Teachers did not consider it their responsibility to learn the correct way to say my name and brutalised it with impunity and without apology. Of course, they didn’t bother halting the poo taunts either. That was just how things were if you had brown skin. By the time I went to university, I had it so ingrained in me to put up with being called my gross diminutive that even though I cringed every time I said it I never had the guts to challenge the supremacy of the English idiom. One thing I did learn at university is that having such a ridiculously infantalising name meant that no one took me seriously. Thus, when I (eventually) entered the workplace, I girded myself up and insisted, come hell or high water, that people call me by my full name. It’s both boring and exhausting having to constantly correct people’s pronunciation, but by the late 2000s even the doddery upper-class white men I worked for were aware that they had to at least try. Political correctness, innit.

Progress, you may think, but nothing in life is that simple. Unfortunately my friends from university as well as my family dug their heels. They didn’t want to change. It was too hard. How could they possibly be expected to remember? Did I really have a right to make this imposition on them? Couldn’t I just leave things as they were? Seriously, that’s how low my own comfort with my own name has been valued. And yes, like the nice compliant (read defeated) soul I was I said yes, fine. Cos I didn’t want to be one of those Asians. Fortunately, I’ve left most of those people behind now, but that nasty little name has hung around like, yes, you guessed it, you-know-what on a wall. Years have passed, and while I’ve kept my head (and my real name) up at work, my social circle has become so mixed that even new friends end up defaulting to that ghastly diminutive as they hear it from older friends. It feels like an inescapable backwards spiral pushing me down into being a person I don’t want to be. Yeah, my given name sucks but at least it has some weight to it, and at least hearing it doesn’t send me ricocheting into PTSD from years of bullying and torment (of which my name was just one part, I’m sure we’ll get to the rest another time).

2020 is going to be the year I put this sorry mess to bed. It’s the year I’m going to risk stirring up disapproval and become one of those Asians. Yesterday I sent out a missive to my nearest and dearest issuing a polite but firm request that that horrorshow of a name be retired for good. I’ve even made up a snappy new moniker for those who really can’t get their tongue around my given name. So far responses have been pretty positive, but it’s early days and I’m dreading the inevitable stand-off with head-in-the-sand elders, but in taking back my name I’m trying to take back a piece of my identity that I’ve had no say over until now and define it rather than it defining me.

So there you go. I got my name changed back.

Dirty John and Domestic Abuse

A domestic abuse survivor on why the show’s realism matters

NB – Contains spoilers

Watching Dirty John is hard. It’s scary and jarring and utterly disconcerting in the way it prods at thoughts and feelings I had almost forgotten about. The show is by far the most realistic televised depiction of the exact type of intelligent, strategic emotional and psychological abuse, which inevitably degenerated into physical abuse, I experienced over a five year relationship. The pinpoint accuracy of the process of love-bombing, the exuberant charm, perfectly pitched flattery, caution-to-the-wind head-over-heels emotional intensity that feels like everything you’ve ever dreamed of but never dared hope would come true, all laced with a cleverly subtle vulnerability to make you feel so needed and so special. It’s sociopathy as an art form. Eric Bana as John perfectly masters the tiny facial shifts that become increasingly familiar as you watch helplessly as the sociopath morphs from one incarnation of himself to another: the tragic, jilted ex husband, the bashfully-in-love charmer, the humbly over-achieving professional, none of which are real of course, but all of whom draw you into a web of lies that you ultimately become so unwillingly complicit in propping up that locating a single strand of truth becomes virtually impossible.

If this sounds far-fetched, one of the greatest strengths of the show is the way it breaks down this process for those who have been lucky enough not to experience these toxic people in their lives, without diminishing the intensity or severity of the con or degrading or ridiculing the victim. Connie Britton’s Deborah is a beautiful, successful woman-a self-made millionaire and loving single mother who is simply looking for love. She is smart, savvy and in control of every other aspect of her life, but her heart yearns for the completion of a life partner and the joy of a loving relationship. Like so many of us she is lonely, and that loneliness creates a vulnerability that allows Bana’s smooth-operating con artist to walk into her life pitching his stream of carefully calibrated lies and deceptions that make her believe she has finally found her white knight.

Of course, this is the easiest part of the story to understand-any human with a soul can see how easy it is to fall in love with the idea of a person that they have successfully peddled to you-a love created under false pretences. The challenge comes when Deborah discovers John’s secrets and begins to unpick the truth about his extremely unpleasant past and the con that she has been fed. Why does she stay? What could possibly possess her to remain with someone who has not only lied to her consistently about every single aspect of his life, but has a proven history of violence, sociopathy and drug addiction? How can she justify going back to him when her family, friends and law enforcement are all telling her to get as far away from him as possible? This is where the show really comes into its own. We see Deborah not as pathetic but as sympathetic. She believed in this man, in this love, with all her heart. She wants and needs it to be true because she has framed this narrative and taken it on as her own. He may have created the story, but he has sold it to her so effectively that she now completely believes in it, and to give up on it, to give up on him, would mean giving up on her own story-the story she wants for herself and her life. It would mean admitting she’d been conned, but more than that, she is terrified that nothing else will ever be as good, as fulfilling, as perfect as the story she’s been told. As Deborah uncovers the truth and confronts John, he throws himself on her mercy, lacing the facts she has with more lies to diminish his responsibility and throw doubt over reality. He also manipulated the power balance in the relationship so successfully that Deborah begins to feel in control. She feels strengthened by John’s pseudo-confession and the power it ostensibly offers her to accept or reject him. The sense of self she attains from taking on the role of his saviour is, if anything, at least as intoxicating as the initial process of love-bombing, and the scene where we see her nursing him through his cold-turkey withdrawal, taking charge of the situation and making herself indispensable to him is so real and recognisable to anyone who has been in this position: you feel that leaving someone you love when they are so vulnerable would be cruel and unfair, and you don’t even want to leave because you believe you are curing them, and that they will be a better person because of you and for you. At this point you are so hooked you are almost like an addict yourself.

We, the audience, are painfully aware that John is continuing to lie and manipulate Deborah, as well as continuing to use drugs, and any of us who have been through this know, this is just the start of the process. How many times you go around the Ferris wheel before you realise that nothing will ever change may vary, but the turning of the wheel remains the same. The lies, tricks and traps that are laid out for you, the subtle process of separating you from friends and family, expertly executed by John as he uses online stalking and intimidation to attack Deborah’s children as they try to guide her out of the relationship. It is easy to understand how and why friends and loved ones may end up distancing themselves from such a patently toxic person, for fear of being damaged by their behaviour as much as frustration with the victim’s perceived complicity. The very nature of that complicity does, in fact, make the victim more vulnerable and in need of help, but of course the cycle of lies, abuse and pushing other people away means they become increasingly less likely to receive it. Once the trap is set, breaking out of it becomes more and more impossible as you have fewer and fewer external resources to rely on, and ultimately more and more to lose in terms of self-respect and sanity. Taking the huge step of admitting that you are being conned and abused requires extraordinary levels of strength and courage, something that is often overlooked by people who have not been in this position, and Dirty John’s acknowledgement of this difficult reality is another of its huge strengths.

The complex role of family complicity in domestic abuse is also very well-handled in Dirty John, albeit in a bit of a Hollywood-ised fashion. We see Deborah’s very religious mother Arlane as a source of both strength and weakness to her daughter. While Deborah and Arlane have a close relationship, Deborah’s need for Arlane’s approval can cloud her judgement, and Arlane’s particular interpretation of Christianity, which has enabled her to publicly forgive and exhonerate her son-in-law for shooting and killing Deborah’s sister does not exactly provide Deborah with a strong moral compass to look to when dealing with abusive men. When you are in an abusive relationship and you go to friends and family for support and guidance, when they tell you to stay with your partner because they love you, because you shouldn’t be alone, because they like them or because you made a vow when you married they are letting you down-full stop, end of story. Whatever their motivation, be it illogical optimism, wilful ignorance, misplaced loyalty or sheer laziness, they are still letting you down. As we see how Deborah’s family history helps to enable John’s position it is striking to note the difference between Arlane’s response to the relationship and that of Deborah’s children who see right through John very early on. This difference in generational perspective is encouraging to me, and I’d like to think it’s an indicator that the bad old days of the older generation believing that any relationship is better than no relationship, especially for a woman of a certain age, are coming to a close. It can be very difficult to ask for help when you’re in an abusive relationship, and once you’ve built up the courage to go to someone, being told to be grateful for what you have cos you probably won’t do any better is a huge blow that can set you back months or even years. Your friend or family member is basically doing your abuser’s job for them.

One of the most striking things about Dirty John is the realism in the little details. The show is loosely based on real events as covered by the LA Times, and the writers exhibit exactly the correct balance of delicacy and perception required when presenting such harrowing events for those involved and anyone with similar experiences. When we see Deborah starry-eyed with love, and John slowly testing out his powers of metering it out, feeding her attention and affection until she becomes as hooked as if she’d eaten the fruit at Goblin Market, it is agonisingly familiar. When we see him flexing his emotional muscles, forcing her to take his side against her daughters for fear of the withdrawal of that love, there’s a painful stab of memory of your own version of that situation. When Deborah misses him so much that she goes back to him by choice, even though she knows about his violent, criminal history and lies about it to her children we’re squirming as we remember the untruths we had to tell to cover up our weakness and shame. While part of the watching process is cathartic, another part is agonising-raking up feelings of helplessness, horror and fear. Watching won’t sooth your PTSD but it will make you feel less alone, less stupid, less like a victim and more like a survivor. And for those who are fortunate enough never to have been in this situation, it will help you to see survivors as they really are-strong, courageous and ultimately ordinary. Dirty John is a cautionary tale, but it’s a tale that could happen to anyone. Whether you’re a Newport Beach millionaire or a London office worker, you can end up looking for love in the wrong place. If this show helps one person spot an abuser before they get their hooks in, or one friend help another out of this situation it has more than served its purpose-making a real, horrible human situation recognisable and understandable.

December 2019