Between a Rock and A Hard Place
The Niche Experiences of Studying at an Elite University in the UK as a South Asian Woman
As one of the very few South Asian women studying modern languages at an elite university in the UK, it is pretty rare that you’ll stumble across another person with similar experiences to yours.
Enter Zahra – a recent Cambridge graduate with a degree in Modern and Medieval Languages, who is about to begin a new job as a Business Analyst at McKinsey. She identifies as a third generation Pakistani woman living in London, with her mum being born in the UK and her parents moving to the UK during the 60s. By comparison, I graduated from Durham University in July 2019 with a degree in Chinese Studies and am currently looking for work in the creative industry. I identify as a second generation Pakistani woman, with both my grandparents also moving over to the UK during the 60s, my mum being born in the UK and my dad being raised here from the age of five.
In this interview, Zahra and I discuss our reasoning behind choosing to pursue language degrees at elite universities in the UK as opposed to more traditionally ‘successful’ degrees, the pressures placed on women in the South Asian community, our own experiences as brown women during our respective years abroad and how we relate to our Pakistani culture in the present day.
Nuriya: My parents raised me in a pretty liberal environment, so I don’t face judgement in my everyday life and I am allowed to make the decisions I want to make. But I’ll be judged for those decisions eventually – not by my immediate family, who love the fact that I’m making my own choices, but by everyone else in the South Asian community, particularly family friends and my extended family.
Zahra: My mum trained as a primary school teacher, so education was important for her. But she never had any ideas in mind in terms of ‘you have to be a doctor or lawyer’ because we don’t have any in my family. So it’s not from the immediate family that I hear those kinds of comments or that type of judgement, which means it doesn’t routinely occur to me that people still think like this; nobody ever dictated what I should study.
I originally really wanted to do a maths degree - I was doing three language A Levels, maths and further maths. At school, my languages teacher told me that I’d have a shot at Oxbridge and by that point I was being kind of seduced by the idea of going to Cambridge because I knew I wasn’t ever going to be a Cambridge mathematician. So I figured I’d give it a shot. But even at that point, I was only keen to do languages if it was at a ‘good’ university because I knew others don’t look upon languages as a prestigious subject, so I had to compensate somehow. I’m lucky that it worked out well - because I might have ended up in the same exact same place despite studying something else.
Communicating that message to people a lot earlier on is really important. It doesn’t actually matter what I study, I can just choose to be interested in finance or the sort, as long as I can justify that to other people, then it’s not a big deal.
Nuriya: I wanted to do languages at A level, as I did Mandarin and German at GCSE level and really enjoyed them both, but my school didn’t offer either of those languages. Instead, I did maths, further maths, physics and chemistry at A level and by the end of year thirteen, I was pretty mathed out. I was the only person in my further maths class of thirteen who did something non-maths related at university – everyone else went into accountancy, chemistry, physics, engineering, economics. I knew my brain could work like that, but I didn’t want to do it at university.
My decision to do Chinese Studies at Durham University again relates back to this idea of studying at a top university. At the start of my gap year, I went through the list of degrees offered by all of the Russell Group universities and picked out the ones that were the most interesting. Ultimately, I was not willing to go to a rubbish university. I picked Durham because of the prestige, it was going to look the best on my CV and I knew that my South Asian family would be the proudest of me if I went to Durham University. I was the eldest grandchild, I was the first one to go to university from my generation, so there was pressure on me to make the right choice and to not mess it up.
I’ve got three younger cousins on my dad’s side of the family and they are all boys, so I’m the eldest cousin and on top of that, I’m the only girl - which makes things a little difficult sometimes. I remember the time when my granddad bought my two younger cousins a medal each for their recent achievements at school. When my granddad told us about this, I jokingly asked, ‘Where’s my medal?’ And he turned to me, looked me dead in the eye, and said, ‘Well you have to achieve something really good to get a medal.’ I’ve never seen it so black and white as when my two male cousins got medals for their GCSE’s and athletics, but I’m told that I’m not doing well enough whilst pursuing a Chinese Studies degree at Durham University.
Zahra: I think a lot of the time it comes from a place of ignorance because it has just not been done before. I would often get asked by family friends, ‘Well, what do you plan to do with a languages degree? What does that actually mean? Do you just sit and learn vocabulary?’
Nuriya: ‘Do you want to become a translator?’
Zahra: Yeah, exactly! There’s this mistaken perception that it’s a vocational degree, which it isn’t. A language degree has vocational skill as one of the side benefits, but fundamentally it’s a mixture of all of the different arts subjects. And if you think all of them are useless as well, that’s a separate conversation!
Nuriya: People always have to know the purpose behind a degree, especially within the South Asian community. We’ve both been privileged enough to have immediate families where they just support us regardless, but so many of my South Asian friends have ended up in positions they have made decisions based on immense pressure from the community around them. The mentality in the South Asian community is that you become a doctor, lawyer, banker or engineer – that seems to be all there is. Or you don’t work at all and marry a rich man to support you.
Zahra: Another difficult thing with languages is that the subject inherently has a social mobility issue. I couldn’t have afforded private tuition and I had quite a random education where I moved around to a lot, so it’s really unusual to be interested in languages. For many, it’s just a hobby, it’s something that you do if you and your family holidayed in Italy every year – there were so many people who had that experience. There are a lot of barriers to entry to doing a modern languages degree which people don’t necessarily realise. And I think that’s the worry – what are you going to do with that language if you can’t live in that specific country or if you can’t interact with local people there? I personally want to be based in London for the immediate future, even though I can speak quite a few different European languages, and I think a lot of people find that weird.
Nuriya: So many people have asked me whether I’m moving to China after finishing my degree. The short answer is no, because I did a year abroad in China and I didn’t particularly like living there. A lot of people have also asked me whether I’ll be using it in my future job. To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that, because learning Chinese as a language was great but that wasn’t my entire degree – my full degree was learning the language, the culture and the history of China. The language part helped me with learning the culture and history part, but the culture was what I found the most interesting.
In fact, my understanding of international affairs has really gone up since my year abroad, because when you’re the one living in Hangzhou and sitting in the canteen watching what the Chinese government is showing their citizens on the TV, you begin to understand how China works as a nation. Through my degree, I also gained an appreciation for histories that are not necessarily told in the British curriculum. When you study the history of another country in depth, you realise that it’s not as black and white as they make it in the British history textbooks at school – there are so many different sides to history, which is something I never knew until I got to university. I’m more likely to apply this deeper level of understanding of the world to my future career than my conversational Mandarin language skills.
Zahra: I definitely agree with that. I think people don’t realise that languages are not just a skill, it’s an entire academic subject. You don’t go to these universities because the language teaching is great. Actually, it’s kind of abysmal at Cambridge, so learning how to think, write and communicate in another language is the bigger takeaway.
Last year, I was teaching English in middle schools in Paris, and as soon as I introduced myself to the kids, they said, ‘You’re not English.’ I told them I come from London, but they didn’t believe me. It’s very different when you come from the UK because comparatively we have a positive attitude towards multiculturalism, but in France, that’s seen as something negative. The society is acknowledged to be diverse, but it’s not a multicultural society where you’ve got people who are really interested in other cultures. They were immediately really interested in knowing less about me coming from London, but why I looked the way I did, why I was there. A lot of people, because of the diasporas that are in France, assumed I was Arab as well. And when you’re dealing with kids, they just say what they want.
Nuriya: The same thing happened to me when I lived in China. I’d try to explain to a Chinese person that I was born and raised in London and the vast majority just did not understand how that was possible. There was one guy who, after I told him that I was from England, said, "How are you English if you do not have white skin?" There aren't many foreigners in China and they tend to stereotype them because that’s what they’re used to. For example, the general idea is that Black people must be from Africa, brown people must be from India or Pakistan, white people are European or American. It was just really strange for me, because I’ve grown up in London my entire life where everyone is from everywhere and nobody questions it. Then I went to Durham and realised that there’s a lot of white people in this country, I forgot about that…
Zahra: Oh my god, that was me when I arrived at Cambridge!
Nuriya: Whilst living in Durham, I would count the number of brown people on my hand I saw in one day because I would get excited when someone looked like me. And then I went to China and realised that the whole world is not opened up to multiculturalism in the same way London is. It made me value the experiences that I had growing up in London, the fact that I didn’t have to think about the colour of my skin as being something that made me vastly different from everyone else or made me feel like a complete outsider. Because of my experiences in China, I have become more vocal about issues surrounding minorities, particularly colourism and racism - I think that’s the true value of the year abroad and a modern languages degree. And then going back to the South Asian community, they just think languages are completely irrelevant.
Zahra: Exactly. I think it’s one of those things where people in the South Asian community find it really difficult to compute because when you move to a different country and have that memory of how difficult things were when you were young, it’s part of their protective instinct. You don’t want somebody to go and do something that will hold them back, when you already know that you have been disadvantaged because of class or race, amongst other things.
You know, you and I will never be English in the true sense of the word as people might want it to be. The caution emerges from there, because every step that you make might have twice as many repercussions as your white counterpart. Ultimately they just need to hear us out and acknowledge that it doesn’t make that much of a difference, but that’s quite difficult. I actually love the reaction that I get when people realise that I speak most of the European languages because I don’t look like I would!
Nuriya: Going to Durham University and being able to count the number of brown people on my hands that I saw daily made me realise that I was a minority and that London is actually a very multicultural nice little bubble.
Zahra: It’s really destabilising because I think people don’t acknowledge that when you start university, you’re in a new place, you’re doing a new subject, and then suddenly you’re also contending with being a visible minority. I personally had a really tough first year at university. The narrative that I was being fed up until the point that I went to university was, ‘You’ll get along with everyone because you will be just as nerdy, there will be someone there who is really into your subject and that’s all that you need.’ People did say it was a really white place, but I don’t think any knew what that practically meant.
Nuriya: My college had eight hundred undergraduates in it, but even then, there were only three Pakistanis in my year group and we found each other within the first week or two of starting university. And the fact that we went out of our ways to distinguish ourselves apart from the white majority, I’d never done that in my life. Even then, I was the only British born Pakistani in my year group, so I couldn’t fully relate to anyone in my year group. And then I’d go out and know that if there was another brown person around, they would definitely come and chat to me or talk to me because that was just our thing. I’ve never experienced that in my life, because I’ve never been such a minority that when you see another person who looks like you, it’s a big deal.
Zahra: There’s always an opportunity cost for those students as well. After my first year, I had to ask myself if it was worth it. It felt really unfair to have to worry about the next step, as that’s the mentality you develop over time. You think that it’ll pay off, but you are not going to enjoy it in the meantime. If you go in thinking that and that you’re kind of aware of that reality then it’s fine, but if you don’t, it does takes much more time to be accustomed to that and it’s a shame because obviously you don’t get your university years back in that regard. But it’s true, if you go into university as a minority and then on top of that, you’re a minority on your course, even others from similar background won’t necessarily understand your choices.
I definitely wasn’t prepared for how people would perceive me, or how much I’d feel singled out during university, based on what I consider trivial things, e.g. choosing to cook or not going out. I was at the receiving end of a lot of unfounded assumptions and whilst it was tiring at the start, I had to take it in my stride.
Nuriya: I luckily didn't struggle like that at Durham, but I think it was purely based on the fact that I arrived at university with dip-dyed bright blue hair. I dyed my hair because I just wanted to do something a bit different, but being noticed as the girl with blue hair during Freshers’ Week accidentally erased the issues of having brown skin. I was seen as cool and Western enough to dye my hair blue, so I didn’t pose an issue to white people. I think if I hadn’t done that, I’m not sure what kind of experience I would have had at Durham.
Even with my dip dyed blue hair, I can’t count how many times I had to try and explain something to someone that I don’t know very much about because I’m just supposed to know about it as a brown person. And if I don’t know about it, then I’m a bad brown person.
Zahra: There is this weird thing when you’re non-white, there’s this automatic assumption that you should and have to be interested in the reason or the culture as to why you are not white. So there’s this immediate line of questioning, ‘What do you know about Pakistani culture, can you speak the language?’ And it’s like, well a lot of white people have German grandparents and nobody cares whether they speak German – you only care because I literally carry the difference on my skin. There’s not that level of responsibility that is associated with someone who is white and a now a fifth-generation immigrant, for example, but because I look different, you expect me to offer me something in line with that perception and then when you realise that I’m more like you than I am different, it’s just a bit disappointing.
Nuriya: I’m quite detached from what is going on in Pakistan, so I always find that automatic assumption quite weird too. If you back a few generations on my Dad’s side of the family, my whole family was actually British - my great-grandmother was called Mary Smith for God’s sake. And when I tell people that, they just think it’s rubbish – but why do people question it? That’s why that side of the family is quite light-skinned, those are our roots. Some people just don’t understand at all and they really don’t want to understand. It’s easier for people to distinguish and stereotype people than to actually hear them out.
To be honest, I’m someone who’s never been massively vocal about the fact that I’m brown – I don’t discriminate against myself before I’ve even got there, I’d rather give things a go and if someone discriminates against me in the process, then I’ll point it out to them. But I’ve had it quite a few times where white people at Durham have expected me to know things or educate them on things. The number of times I’ve been asked about arranged marriages - do I look like I’ve come from a traditional family who are going to arrange my marriage? My immediate family are pretty liberal, so the fact that anyone assumes that I’d know about arrange marriages is beyond me.
Zahra: I remember feeling interrogated when I had to discuss the burkini ban in my first-year oral exams – even in Spanish, despite the article talking about France! Bizarre and confusing.
Nuriya: That must have been so confusing! It’s the assumptions that come with being brown and being in a certain place, at a top institution surrounded by white people. They just expect things and ask you things that you’re supposed to know, but how are you supposed to know?
Zahra: I’ve only been to Pakistan once, so I don’t know much about the culture. My mother made me learn Urdu from a young age because her Dad told her it was really important to teach her kids Urdu, as by the third generation a lot of kids don’t speak it.
Nuriya: I used to go to Pakistan twice every year as a kid until I was about nine or ten, so I know a few odd words of Urdu that I picked up, but I was raised speaking English with my parents. I wish I had properly learnt Urdu and it’s one of my aims to learn Arabic and then from there, try and learn Urdu. I’m going to have kids and they’re probably not going to learn Urdu, so the language chain is gone. Also, my kids are inevitably going to have brown skin, so is it going to be their responsibility to tell people about their culture, even though it’s not even their culture anymore? There are so many assumptions in our society based on what we are supposed to know based on the colour of our skin.
Zahra: I think that’s definitely true. Additionally, sometimes if you go into a situation where you know you’re the minority, you might assume that you don’t have anything in common with the other person if there is a white majority. It almost makes you exempt from putting in the effort to see if you do actually have things in common with them.
I think on the flip side, if people ask you questions related to your culture, they feel like they’re being mindful or respectful of your differences and it’s almost like getting it out of the way, like a tick box exercise. I don’t know how much of that is a conscious thought: maybe if you don’t ignore it, then you’re not being dismissive or showing care. But it often does not translate well and it’s usually not a very informed approach. I think when that’s a point of departure, when you first get to know someone and that’s what they’re interested in, then it feels a bit disingenuous. It’s a bit difficult to move beyond that and feel that you can have anything in common other than this question and answer relationship.
Nuriya: I completely agree with you. We are not a tick box exercise, we’re just people trying to crack on with our lives! I think it’s one thing to be curious about another culture and do the research yourself, but it’s another thing to rely on your one brown friend to provide you with all the answers to your cultural questions just because they are brown. That happens way too often in predominantly white institutions such as Durham and Cambridge.
Speaking to Zahra about our relatively niche experiences has opened my eyes to a number of key issues that British-born South Asian women face within society.
Firstly, as British-born brown people living in the UK, white people seem to continuously place us in between a rock and a hard place. Regardless of being born and raised in the UK, with some of us never having visited South Asia during our lifetimes, our position in society as brown people tends to be based on our ability to answer a wide variety of questions about South Asian culture. The burden of providing knowledge about South Asian culture should not immediately fall on the shoulders of South Asian people. If you’d like to learn more about South Asian culture, please visit www.google.co.uk and type in ‘South Asian culture’ instead of throwing random questions at your nearest brown friend.
Secondly, nobody will warn you about the challenges of being an ethnic minority attending a university in the UK with a predominantly white student body. Being at university is challenging enough for the majority of young people, so why do we expect minority students to navigate their way around discrimination without making a fuss? Additionally, having worked at Durham University for a year in a student facing role, I believe that elite universities in particular do not put their full efforts towards making sure minority students are welcomed, accepted and looked after when enrolled in their institutions. Instead, they stick buzzwords such as ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ onto all of their promotional material and only use promotional photographs that include ethnic minorities within them. This marketing strategy is not only misleading for prospective students, but it also allows these institutions to dismiss the prevalence of the issue at hand by acting in a performative manner.
Finally, as South Asian women with relatively liberal parents supporting our decisions, both Zahra and I find ourselves in good stead to pursue our respective careers. However, many South Asian women living in the UK do not have this privilege, with familial pressures influencing key decisions in their lives, such as undertaking specific degrees or fulfilling womanly duties, such as marriage or having children, by a certain age. When you meet a British-born South Asian woman, please do not assume that you know how they have been brought up by their families. There are a whole range of South Asian families from multiple generations raising their children in a variety of ways across the UK, therefore our experiences vastly differ on the whole. In short, and it’s sad that I even have to say this, please do not assume that all young South Asian women in the UK are going to have arranged marriages and love eating spicy curries.
I’d like to thank Zahra for taking the time to discuss her experiences with me.