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The toxic phrase which holds South Asian children back

From the film Bend it Like Beckham. Picture: Helkon SK

Amna Saleem recalls a toxic term she heard when growing up, which succeeds only in trying to hold people back.

When I was 14, a country club not too far from my house in the suburbs was seeking a waitress for weekend and holiday shifts. I had once visited the grounds on a school outing and the fancy decor had left an impression. When I saw the advert in the paper, I figured if I couldn’t belong to the country club then surely working for one would be the next best option.

I also had a strong desire to earn my own money and real world experience teachers kept insisting we would need after high school. I’d have preferred they taught me how to do my taxes or buy a house, instead of encouraging me to wait on rich people, but it’s always important to learn about capitalism early.

I expected to face some classism and a racism, since I was the only person of colour in the entire building at all times. What I didn’t expect was the biggest challenge would be from my relatives.

I’d already had trouble from my parents about the job. At first they insisted I wait until I was 16. After some negotiation we agreed that I would quit if work got in the way of my education or health. Yet only a few weeks in my mother started to get nervous. She asked me how strict the uniform was, and if there was an alternative.

I explained that there was none. This was a lie: I could have chosen to wear trousers, but none of the other girls did, and in any case they were horrid. I didn’t want to give myself any more reason to stand out, either sartorially or culturally. But now, one night on the short drive home after collecting me on the late shift, my ma explained the problem.

It seemed certain aunties and uncles had taken exception to my job. It wasn’t concern it might interfere with my education or the need to intervene because they were worried I was denying myself a blissful childhood untouched by bad tips and microaggressions. Instead it was my bland uniform. The beige oversized shirt and black below-the-knee pencil skirt offended them, and not just because they were ugly. According to them the outfit was too form-fitting, the skirt too short and my pudgy legs too visible in the opaque tights.

I agree it was not the most flattering look for an awkward girl going through puberty, but it was hardly indecent. I was furious to learn I’d been so closely inspected. At 14 I was highly insecure about my changing body, especially as I grew breasts earlier than most and saw them as a burden. I was taught to hide my chest as if I were smuggling contraband under my jumper instead of a 34c bra. I understood that modesty was key, but it felt petty and unnecessary to me for people to be so overly concerned with a child that was not their own.

As we pulled up to our driveway, however, my mother hit me with the phrase every young south Asian kid dreads: ‘Log kya kahenge?’ This question in Punjabi was one I’d heard many times before. Literally speaking, it means ‘but what will people say?’ In truth, it is much more powerful than that.

In my culture this phrase takes on a huge weight. It sounds like a simple question, but it is actually a heavily loaded phrase designed to elicit shame and guilt. And while I love my culture and community, this one phrase sums up so much of what is wrong with it.

South Asian culture can be so warm and supportive, but unfortunately it’s hard to deny the extent to which it revolves around shame. Sometimes I feel like our community is an unofficial police state and our fellow community members are the informants.

Think of that classic scene in Bend it Like Beckham where Jess, an Indian girl, is spotted by her sister’s soon-to-be in-laws at the bus stop with her white friend Jules. She returns home only to be confronted by her furious family. You see, the soon-to-be in-laws had kindly dropped by to grass on Jess. They saw her at the bus stop with a boy! When she reveals that it was actually Jules and her pixie cut they saw, the tension in her father’s body quickly dissipates and he is visibly relieved. The in-laws leave, disappointed the drama they were keen to start had been extinguished so quickly.

When we watch that scene we all laugh, not because it’s particularly funny but because it’s a scenario that is so overly familiar to us. Most of us have had at least one run in like this if not more. It’s why many desi girls learn how to live a secret second life. They know they will be publicly shamed if they dare to live on their own terms. I know this because I experienced the same treatment for years.

Even though I was a homely-looking nerd I had the image of a provocative tearaway projected onto me. It was absurd and kind of hilarious. I could mostly be found reading fantasy novels or watching Charmed, carefully determining which powers I would have if I were a witch (telekinesis and conjuration, obviously). Yet people were convinced I was a promiscuous wild child who would lead their children astray. All due to the fact I chose to do rather tame things on my own terms, like have friends that were boys, go to sleepovers and politely question authority.

Quite frankly, I was too lazy to create a secret life, and my parents knew I was a good kid, so pushing my boundaries was a gamble I could afford to take. The only thing that could make me feel guilt was knowing there were kids like me who didn’t have the same luxury.

On that night in my driveway I was angry at my ma for being so concerned with what people thought. I resented having that stupid phrase used against me for something I considered pretty innocuous. So I refused to appease our relatives, telling her, in classic teenage fashion, that I didn’t care what people might say. I believe my exact response was: ‘They can suck it.’ This obnoxious display of insolence was rewarded with a 20-minute lecture in two languages (plus, if I am not mistaken, slight admiration).

I think now I was perhaps a wee bit more stubborn than I needed to be – especially as she had been defending me all this time. But I knew even then at such a young age that if I caved it would set a precedent where I would always be expected to back down. So I’m glad I remained steadfast in my decision – which, in the end, my parents respected.

After that I started to get ready at work instead so no one could spot me in my uniform and give my parents a hard time. But after a while I forgot and it was never mentioned again.

This is usually how things go down, to be honest. At 21, when I moved to Paris on my own for a year, everyone was up in arms, and again when I moved to London. But given a little time they would calm down and move on like nothing ever happened. It’s all entirely predictable.

Still, I think a lot about the ways in which log kya kahenge? affects us. When it’s not holding us back, it’s putting us in danger. It’s a method of control used by elders to manage the younger generation. It’s supposed to scare us into behaving in a manner they deem acceptable. There are consequences of not following the unwritten rules and these can range from missing out on excellent opportunities to being unfairly judged to actual death.

Log kya kahenge? is the phrase that’s responsible for encouraging women to stay with their abusive husbands. It’s uttered when women are raped, forcing them to pretend that everything is fine for the sake of their honour. It’s said to ambitious unmarried young women who wish to travel or go to a university abroad. It’s in the air whenever someone brings home a partner from a different religion or race. It’s what makes it so much harder for LGBTQ members of our community to come out. We allow it to permeate our very existence.

At the beginning of my career, I had to decide whether to write under my name or a nom de plume. I was afraid if I wrote under my own name I’d have to censor my work. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to write honestly, knowing my words could so easily be found. Log kya kahenge? I worried. I wondered whether overbearing members of my family would set out to make me regret it. But I chose not to compromise, I reminded myself that I had nothing to be ashamed of and I knew I wasn’t alone, which was only reinforced when I put my work out there and why I continue to do so.

I love being a part of two cultures. I actually don’t know any different but I know I wouldn’t change it if I could. I belong to both whether people like it or not. I find it particularly difficult to critique South Asian culture, however, as it can read as an open invitation to racists to chime in with their false equivalences and uneducated opinions. Ultimately, though, part of loving something is being able to call it out when you know things could be better. I’m a proud desi but pretending that our community doesn’t have problems does a disservice to us all. We deserve more.

The toxic concept of log kya kahenge? needs to die with the last generation. It’s something we can’t let filter through to future ones. We need to be the rule breakers and feminists we want to see in the world. Why should we live our lives based on what other people might say? As much as they might want to they can’t live our lives or control our destiny. Only we can.

Log kya kahenge? Who cares!

Amna Saleem is a Scottish Pakistani writer based in London. Her main areas are comedy, culture and politics; follow her @AGlasgowGirl

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