South Asian Heritage Month with Kuldip Sohanpal

Our EDI Manager, Kuldip Sohanpal shares his story and the importance of South Asian heritage month.

South Asian Heritage Month is from Monday 18 July to Wednesday 17 August and our equality, diversity and inclusion manager discusses what the celebration means to him.

Why is it important and what does it mean to me?

I suppose to fully understand the complexities of my personal makeup, I have to go back and assess my own historical migration to the UK. I was born in Africa – Kenya to be precise –  to parents who had come across to East Africa in search of a better life. My father was a Civil Engineer and my mother was a Secondary School Chemistry Teacher. For a large number of the Asian communities residing in Kenya, a quiet unease was developing, especially after the Amin regime has forced the Ugandan Asians to leave in a very short period of time (3 months).  Many Ugandan Asians who came to the UK settled in Leicester, whilst others found themselves moving into areas where there were already established communities with similar cultural backgrounds and more importantly wherever they would be able to find a job.  

With the experience of the Ugandan Asians in mind my parents made a decision to move – where to was still in question but the pull of family in the UK was strong.  We made the transition to the UK in the early 1970’s. Leaving a country where I woke up to the sounds of birds chirping, frogs croaking, the distant sounds of the Steamboat arriving into the harbour, the sun shining – as our last place I considered ‘home’ was on the Equator – a far cry away from arrival at Heathrow on a day which was cold, foggy, and grey. It was a long time before I saw a sun similar to the one I had grown up with. We soon moved to Leeds and then finally to Newcastle where my father got a job as a Civil engineer and this is where we eventually settled.

I mention the above as a backdrop to who I am and what makes me tick.  On arrival in Newcastle, we settled in Heaton. I attended school in High Heaton which had a small number of Asian pupils.  You could count them on the fingers of your hands. The small local Sikh community met on Sundays either at the local Temple (Gurudwara) as the main point of contact, or at the local cinema to see the latest Bollywood movie.

I suppose the sense of having an Asian identity within the Asian Diaspora in East Africa was something I had never really thought about – as most of us were categorised within the collective identity of  ‘Asianess’ arising from  the fact that in those days all Asian communities tended to mix together. We were distinctive from other ethnic groups and often shared a lot in common with each other.  We would celebrate all major functions across all faith groups together without even contemplating the concept of equality, especially as there was equal significance given to all major faiths, festivals and gatherings. The group identity was seen as one of belonging to this term of Asian. Our histories had a shared commonality and the notion of belonging within a bigger community was associated with unsaid rules – such as meeting elders from different groups and always calling someone or other Aunty  or Uncle but never by name which would signal disrespect. 

Our shared histories were reflected in the music we all listened to, the movies we all went to see reflecting stories from ‘back home’. The traditions and cultural nuances were not only reflected on the silver screen but were also practiced within the wider confines of home.  We were used to seeing huge billboards advertising Hero’s and Heroines and there was a weekend rush to get a ticket. Nearly all of the Asian community used this medium to engage with and reinforce their cultural heritage and identity and ameliorate the ache for belonging.  

Engagements,  wedding’s, the birth of a child, the tragedy of death was something that all Asian families shared – it was an extended family occasion.  As part of understanding our background and where we had come from, frequent references and treasured photographs of the Taj Mahal, The Golden Temple, Bhagat Singh, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Ghandi and Bollywood Legends were part and parcel of our makeup, and never the factionalism of Indians or Pakistanis or Bengalis. The respect for all was integral to living in an era of the now new coined word  ‘Equality’. This is not to say that there were never disagreements about culture and faith – there were, just addressed in an amicable way.

Coming to the UK I expected a similar outlook but was very surprised at how we were welcomed, warmly by lots, but at the same time mistrust from others. I still remember the day when the ‘P’ word was used and I was told to ‘go home’, being followed by the security personnel to ensure I did not ‘nick stuff,’ being told by a teacher, ‘we don’t live in trees here’ and many other incidents.  

Identity is shaped by language, clothes, music, birthplaces and community. While this is still true for many of the first generation, for the third or fourth generation of Asians some elements have changed, but are not necessarily expressed externally as there is still a fear of alienisation and ‘fear of not belonging’. Where the aspects pertaining to identity were an open expression in Africa in Britain the emphasis was of ‘fitting in.’ Celebration of culture and faith was only discussed and celebrated at home. As such a lot of the Asian families led a dual life – a Western way of trying to belong as soon as you left the house and became visible,  and an Eastern way as soon as you got home. This duality left a lot of people confused and had an impact on their Health and Wellbeing. The mindset though is shifting albeit at times slowly depending on where you are.

Over the years I have seen so many changes and shifts of attitudes for the better across the UK which I consider to be home. South Asian heritage seems to have developed, in some cases, an openness of acceptability around music, language, food and arts to name but a few. This heritage has been openly celebrated at the various annual Mela’s, that have taken place across our region. However, such celebrations have been seen as one-offs, until the next time round. We should not have to wait for another year to then celebrate the contribution and enrichment that comes from our diversity but rather ensure that understanding, educating and clarifying becomes integral to our collective understanding of who we are.

The theme for this year seems very apt – Celebrate, Commemorate and Educate.  For all of us, it’s about celebrating the richness the South Asian diaspora brings, commemorating the wonderful aspects of life and work that individuals of South Asian Heritage contribute and continuing to talk, share and educate each other.

It is good to see South Asian Heritage being celebrated and I look forward to building on this together over the coming years.

Kuldip Sohanpal
EDI Manager