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My life as a little brown girl growing up in Scarborough, UK

Updated November 21, 2017

Let me take you on a trip down memory lane, to a place far, far away from Pakistan, to an island, cold as it is damp, that was once the bastion of colonial rule, with its pomp and circumstance and Queen Victoria ruling the waves.

Now home in further away from its sprawling capital, and venture north, following the eastern coastline along the North Sea, passing Hull, Grimsby and Bridlington and Filey, until you reach the small town of Scarborough.

The Scarborough embodied in the lyrical and haunting folksong, Scarborough Fayre, made famous by Messers Simon and Garfunkel.

Scarborough. The quintessential Victorian spa town, and in its heyday, the equivalent of Cannes or St. Tropez, where the wealthy once flocked to take the waters, flushing out poisons from the industrial cities.

Resplendent buildings like the Spa and the Grand Hotel were the town’s crown jewels. The beach was for taking walks, for visitors to feel the briny air kiss their skin.

Fast forward to the present and you’ll find the Grand and the Spa have long lost their sheen. They’re tired and tarnished, relics of a bygone era now gone to seed.

Arcades with their flashing lights and electric white noise line South Bay. The smell of fish and chips soaks the air.

A rundown shopping mall dominates the town centre. Pawnbrokers and Pound shops litter the main high street. Marks & Spencer and Debenhams are the flagship stores, but wander through them and you’ll find they’re bereft of shoppers. So too, is the bookstore, Waterstones.

But the elderly populating the town gaze at Scarborough through rose-tinted glasses. For them, it’s a beautiful place, the pride of Britain. They’ll remember it untainted and unpeppered with immigrants.

Being part of the EU, they will say, has diminished what is great about Britain. We are an island for the English. Everyone out.

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We were one of those few immigrant families landed in Scarborough. My parents didn’t necessarily pick out the town as the place where they would eventually settle. Instead, they may say that Scarborough chose them.

For many years they lived the lives of nomad, completing hospital placement after hospital placement as they completed their medical training.

Perhaps it was the prospect of living by the sea which drew them there. Or its accompanying undulating countryside, the green and pleasant land feted by Robert Blake. A life far away from the dour-grey cities they had inhabited before. They’ve never really said.

Scarborough. This is the place my parents and I call home. The place where I was born, where I went to school. Scarborough: The place where I stood out from the crowd but was desperate to blend in.

It wasn’t that I hated the shade of my skin or the colour of my hair. I was more focused on doing what others did which would somehow diminish how I looked relative to others. Less of a square peg in a round hole, so to speak. So, I played sport – tennis, netball, hockey. I ran cross-country for my school.

And central to all of this was my father. He encouraged us to play sport. To him, gender didn’t matter. If I liked sport, if I was good at it, then that was a great thing indeed. He happily came to watch me play tennis and netball, trigger-happy with his camera.

His philosophy carried through to music. All of us played the piano – my sister, my brother and even my mother. Although my father loved all music, he lamented that when it came to playing, he didn’t have a musical bone in his body.

Instead, he channelled his ambition through his children, me in particular, taking me to my weekly piano lesson, to music competitions (where my mother nodded off to sleep). When I gave up playing, his disappointment was all too evident.

I spoke English all the time, even to my parents who’d talk to me in Urdu and frown when I replied in English. Back then, I understood Urdu very well. I even dreamed in in the language; I just couldn’t speak it.

This posed a problem whenever I went back to Pakistan. For each two or three week period I was there, I turned into a mute. Nodding, shaking my head. I mastered the art of sign language. I also came across as rude and unhappy.

So much so, that after one visit, my grandmother remarked to my mother that I needed to shake up my act. Though the word didn’t feature in my grandmother’s vocabulary, I suppose in her eyes I was the archetypal coconut.

My inability/refusal to speak in my mother tongue posed further problems. When we visited relatives in London or Birmingham. I stuck out like a sore thumb, wearing western clothes and unable to speak Urdu.

Moreover, I had little knowledge of the world of Bollywood; I barely knew the words to the songs my cousins sang at weddings. My shalwar kameez were woefully out of fashion simply because (a) there weren’t any shops in Scarborough where my mother could buy one, and (b) the ones I had were hand-me-downs or tailored from old sari material belonging to my mother.

All that aside, I hated wearing them because a girl who lived around the corner from me, someone I feared and revered, (in other words, she was cool) spotted me in one such outfit and asked why I was wearing pyjamas.

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In the Bihari community we were deemed to be a part of, we were different for other reasons too. Living in Scarborough, I was very much the country bumpkin. My city cousins seemed far more polished and grown up, painted in the smooth veneer of our culture and traditions which I very much lacked.

In my eyes they had a sophistication that I woefully lacked. A certain nous and confidence way before my years. While their weekends would be whiled away at each other’s houses sharing meals, my family and I would go out for long walks – an alien activity if ever there was one.

But there was also one other, very large difference. The elephant in the room. For much of my childhood, my father was a Communist and a staunch atheist (the two can be mutually exclusive).

He wouldn’t pray with all the others and would sit on his own, waiting for everyone to return from their conversations with God.

I hated that my father was different in that regard too. It made me uncomfortable, accentuating my differences within this community where everyone gossiped.

Sometimes I would plead with him to go and pray with all the others, just for the sake of it, and to his credit, he would gently say that he’d prefer not to. Only now I see how unbothered he was by who he was. If only earlier on, I had taken note.

Perhaps my desire to blend in was inextricably linked to the innate eagerness as a child to please and be compliant. Ask my older sister, my mother, and they would tell you I was pretty much a well-behaved girl. I did as I was told, I happily ate the cakes my sister baked.

I could see how doing well made my parents happy. It made my teachers happy too, and that was a key thing. I don’t know how I knew, but I sensed that if I did well, I’d also be singled out less.

Being the youngest out of three helped too. You watch, you learn, particularly from your siblings’ mistakes. And at school, I had a quicksilver grasp of everything I was taught, lapping it up like a sponge. School, it seemed, would be a breeze.

And yet, it wasn’t. My colour was an issue. One girl told me I didn’t need to join the Brownies because I was already brown. I was called Paki and Blackie on and off by different people.

One teacher asked me if I was Jewish and whether that was the reason why I didn’t celebrate Christmas. I wanted to sink into a hole, never to come out again.

Such was my desire to fit in, to seek approval, that shamefully, I picked on the only other Asian girl in my year, hoping I’d win kudos from my peers, and to some extent I did.

All my friends were white. I was ebony to my best friend’s ivory and in the style of Wonder and McCartney we played duets on the piano.

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As I morphed from child to teenager, the colour of my skin mattered more. I became an untouchable. Both a square (a swot) and brown, wearing NHS glasses coupled with bad skin.

My parents didn’t allow me to go out in the evenings, applying a different set of rules to me and my older brother who had the relative freedom to come and go. Cocooned in a home with only my studies to focus on, added to my naivety.

But to some extent I knew doing well was a way out. To gain independence, to live a life more free. I also had my mother’s example. She was a doctor.

Amongst my peers, I was the only one with a mother who worked full-time. Every day she’d go off to work, wearing a fitted jacket over a sari, a picture of elegance.

She was smart, she earned, she had financial independence, and I wanted that too. Never mind the fact that she was older than all the other mothers, that her salary exceeded that of my father’s.

If she didn’t have a career, I don’t think I would have been as ambitious or hungry for academic success. So even though I was labelled a swot, I was happy to remain one. In that regard I was content to stand out from the crowd.

And then it all unravelled after my GCSEs. I went off to sixth-form college. The glasses went, the skin improved. In short, people started to notice. Ensconced in a new environment, I was no longer the swot skulking in the shadows. I was almost an adult; it was time to rebel.

I won’t go into details, but you can imagine the rest: A straight A student going off the rails and her parents were none the wiser.

Until they found out.

And then it was off to boarding school in York, a city famed for its Roman and Viking history. I was 17, thrown into the Lower Sixth halfway through the academic year.

It was here where I understood what it really meant to be an outsider, catapulted into the realm of teenage girls with raging hormones and rampant angst. Most had eating disorders. Everyone was wary of me.

At the time I was a practising Muslim, my blind faith in Islam, I believed, kept me anchored to the ground. It was a superstitious approach to religion.

If I continued with my faith, I reasoned, nothing bad would happen to me. If I strayed – and yes, in my mind I used those very words – my world would collapse around me and I’d be imprisoned in a desolate pit of hell.

I was the only Muslim in the school and never felt more alien. Yes I was awkward, overly friendly. Once again, desperate to please, desperate to show I was normal and one of them, really, really.

Most people ignored me. There was another Asian girl there. Her father was Pakistani, her mother was English. She was beautiful and the queen of our year group. Truly exotic. A boy magnet too. From the beginning she gave me the cold shoulder.

The school star tennis player only started talking to me after we played a match where I narrowly lost. My English Language teacher told me I wasn’t going to get very far given the subject was, in her words, ‘extremely difficult’ and here I was jumping into the subject a little too late.

I ended up getting an A in my Lower Sixth exams. Not to be deterred, she claimed in front of everyone that English was not my mother tongue and I would continue to struggle.

She even set her conclusion in stone, writing words to that effect in her report which went into my UCAS and Cambridge University application forms.

This same English teacher nodded and smiled when a girl in our class said the Serb massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia Herzegovina was deserved because they were savages.

Suffice to say, my time at this school was one of the loneliest periods of my life. But I survived. I worked hard, spending most of my time in the library or in my study knowing that it was my ticket to a whole new world.

There I didn’t mind that I was different, the least popular girl in the year. Girls whispered behind my back, they blew hot then cold. In a way it was white noise that would come to an end.

And when I did get into Cambridge, I saw it as a big slap in the face of the English teacher who thought I’d never get in.

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But it’s funny how I’ve pasted over that experience. I don’t look back on it with bitterness. I don’t hold any grudges. Life’s too short. Boarding school was merely a small stepping stone in my life, but one I probably needed. I was tested, I was thrown into the deep end. It was time to sink or swim.

When I compare it with my childhood in Scarborough, it was certainly one of the bleaker periods in my life and in a way, it paints my memories of growing up as a minority in that seaside town a much lighter shade.

Because for all my need to fit in, for the differences I felt and for all the restrictions I had at home, they were minor. As a child I was still quite free. I had the freedom to go out and explore with my friends, to go out on bike rides for hours at a time.

Our imaginations were there to be used. We were wholly unencumbered by schedules or video games or social media, and we played to our heart’s content, pretending we were witches and wizards, or grand explorers, the world at our feet.

We were truly rulers of our own universe. Skin colour, religion, and gender didn’t matter. We were all equals. Those are the elements that are precious.

No childhood is perfect. There’s light as well as dark. It’s what you take from it when you look back. And my childhood, the freedom that I had of growing up in a small town couldn’t be replicated in the bigger cities, and it can’t be replicated in today’s world where we fear for our children’s safety.

Our childhoods make us. I can’t go back in time and wish I was more confident, less bothered by being different. But when I reflect on that period, I cherish the importance of being different and embracing my differences, for who would ever want to follow the crowd?


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