“Anya’s very proud of being half-half.”
It was a term I had heard for the first time, even though it shouldn’t have been. And maybe what surprised me most was the ease with which Anya’s mother spoke it.
It’s so easy to stick on labels. White. Brown. Black. Smart. Old. Young.
But it’s not as easy to peel them off. Even when we do, we’re still left with remnants of the little white bits that stick firmly to the surface, and never really disappear.
Half-half is an identity Anya and her mother Mita have created for themselves amidst a world of sticky labels and even stickier social rules. On the surface, Anya is half Indian and half British. Mita is a Gujarati woman who eleven years ago, married Nick, a Caucasian British man.
But Anya is the essence of their cross-cultural relationship. She is the positive product of what many South Asians would term a ‘negative arrangement.’
As South Asian parents, we have the tendency to worry about what will happen if our children marry someone from another race and our grandchildren are suddenly a different skin colour, speak a different language, and look nothing like ourselves.
Contrary to the fear that children of cross-cultural couples will lose a part of their parents’ culture, Anya is an example of the opposite.
“I think when we do have Indian festivals and we go to London to celebrate them,” Mita says, “Anya’s even more excited than anyone else from the children because for her it’s a novelty. I’ve got to say that’s one of the most positive things. If I was married to an Indian guy I don’t think we’d make so much of an effort and so much of a fuss, and there would not be so much excitement around those festivals.”
Mita says unlike her own childhood in which she often viewed going to festivals and cultural events as a chore, Anya thrives on them. “She knows Krishna bhagwan, she knows about garba , she knows about rakshabandhan, and she can’t wait for it. And even if it’s just like popping into the stores for Indian sweets and foods or saris and bangles or whatever, for Anya it’s like “wow”; she’s in a different world.
For me, I enjoy it as well…so I think a lot of it has to do with how you bring them up and I get excited about it so she’ll get excited about it. It’s as simple as that really.”
Mita says that although Nick and her make efforts to expose Anya to each of their different cultures, a lot of how she has developed came naturally.
“I’ve got to say, I didn’t plan it to be like this. I thought I’d become more English to a certain extent and I’m not. I’ve actually gone the other way probably because I know how much strength religion and festivals gave me, and how much I enjoyed them, and I don’t want her to miss out on them. I guess I’m doing it subconsciously and consciously both I think.”
Although Anya has absorbed the Indian culture so well, Mita acknowledges that the two cultures she is exposed to – British and Indian – are distinctly different.
“They are two different cultures with two very different paths. I think there’s a clear distinction in Anya’s life of her English side and her Indian side. And I think English people tend to be, and I’m generalizing here, but from my experience, they’re more structured, they’re more sort of planned. You plan visits; you behave at all times kind of thing. Whereas in the Asian culture it’s very much sort of ‘let them enjoy themselves,’ ‘let them do what they want’—so there is a clear cultural difference in bringing up children.”
And how do Nick and her find that balance in bringing up Anya?
“Nick doesn’t stop me from talking about religion, or about culture, or about educating her about the Indian way of things. He embraces it, and he may not believe it, but it’s part of our family life. She’s probably more influenced by that than she is the English side. Because we do see his family occasionally, but it’s very different from the Indian way of life. The Indian way of life, when we go to Mom and Dad’s, everything’s free for all, eat what you want, when you want. There’s no structure. So I think there’s a real distinction between the two cultures, and Anya sees both of that, and I think she takes the positive in both of that. I think she fits in with whatever, and she’s quite a happy-go-lucky sort of person.”
Mita says it’s important to talk about the different cultures and the positive sides of each, and make small efforts to incorporate them into a child’s life.
“One of the positives we’ve got is like Friday nights is bhajia night, and Sundays are roast dinners—so that’s quite a nice sort of balance of different things. It’s a nice sort of tradition. It’s all about positive influences.
I think we do also make a lot of effort in explaining. As children grow up they’ll ask: ‘Why have I got dark skin? Why has daddy got white skin? We’ve had those questions and we talk about them, and because she’s in between she really values that.
She’s quite happy to talk to people about it. Even though she’s six, she’s very proud of ‘My daddy’s English and my mommy’s Indian’. It’s not a taboo subject for her. It’s quite a positive thing, and she talks about how in the summer when we go on holiday she’s got skin like her mom: ‘Do I look like mommy now?’ which is really lovely. It’s a really nice part of the parenting actually, when you see that. And she’s got green eyes so she says, ‘I’ve got my daddy’s eyes and my mommy’s skin’ which is lovely for her to be so happy and content within herself. My sisters always comment on that, on how positive she is about herself as a person and her identity.
When her friends come over to play, any opportunity she gets she’ll get all the lehengas out and her bangles and her chanla and whatever, and they all dress up. That’s the thing to do at Anya’s house. So again that’s a real positive because the majority of them are English, and when they come here it’s a bit of a novelty for them as well. So it’s almost like Anya’s educating them and that shows the confidence of her being, and of how proud she is of the nice things that she’s got that are culturally Indian.”
In a society and culture constantly in fear of change, Anya is a fragment of hope. She is a six-year-old child who has made peace between brown and white, found a balance between rigidity and flexibility, and has embraced the treasure that is to be found in difference.
If being half-half means accepting, valuing, and understanding the conflicting nature of different cultures, perhaps it is a label more of us should want to wear.