“Where are you from?” I get asked this all the time. I usually say “Huddersfield” or “West Yorkshire” or something along those lines.
Then the question “Where are you really from?”
I say “I was born in England” and then there’s a look of bemusement.
I ask “Do you mean what is my ethnic origin?”
“Ah yes Doctor. That’s what I meant…”
Why does it matter where I’m from? Or where my family are from? Does that make me any less of a Doctor to some of my patients? I hope it doesn’t but it does make me wonder if that’s what they are thinking. Hopefully they just ask out of interest, but I have had the unfortunate experience of patients refusing to see me because of the colour of my skin before. As Healthcare Professionals, we are taught to have no judgement against our patients’ beliefs; but is this one OK? That my naturally-bronzed hands cannot examine your pale skin, my brown ears may not hear your heartbeat in the way you want them to – even though I have a special interest in Cardiology and the white Doctor you asked to see instead of me is my junior.
Back to the intended question – My Dad was from Pakistan, my Mum too. Mum came to England as a school girl aged 14 with my grandparents and her siblings. They arrived in Manchester on the 28th July 1972 after a twenty day journey by road from Pakistan. Can you imagine doing that trip now? She has told me the tales of that adventurous voyage including eating all the different cuisines across Asia and Europe; her favourite memory of food on that journey was sitting and eating meat and naan-bread in Afghanistan with all the other travellers, talking about the possible adventures that lay ahead. Mum told me that it was mainly single men on that bus as not many people had brought their families with them yet. Another memory that makes her smile is trying to buy breakfast in Bulgaria, no one understood each other so they made chicken noises to ask for some eggs to eat.
Mum started school in Manchester in September 1972 not knowing a single word of English. She went into her Year Nine class and a white girl kicked her in the legs for not understanding her. Mum came home crying. That abuse continued until eventually my grandfather decided to take her out of school and she started working as a Sewing Machinist at the age of fourteen. Her dream was to become a teacher but she never got the opportunity to do this. Now she’s been in England for forty-eight years, and completed multiple training courses – with English even better than mine- she is still asked frequently if she understands what is being said to her by strangers when she’s out and about.
Daddy was 22 when he came to England, it was 27th May 1979. We have video evidence of this stylish arrival. He was wearing a suit with bell-bottom trousers and a colourful round collar shirt. He had a minibus of family that went to London to collect him. Daddy already had two brothers living and working in Huddersfield. Until these three brothers started their own ‘Car Spares’ business, Daddy started working in one of the wool mills in. Huddersfield. I remember stories he told me about this time; including hiding to eat his food because people complained about the smell of curry. How ironic that now curry is seen as the national dish of England!
I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to me for my parents to be from South Asia and have made these journeys here from Pakistan. Thinking back to stories of their own childhood, I was interested to find out if the people I know were aware of the creation of Pakistan. I asked some friends if they knew about the Partition of India in 1947. Most of my (non-South Asian) friends had never heard of it. My family were actually from India and were made to move to this new land “Pakistan”. Because this is where the Muslims were told to go. My family had to leave everything behind.
I remember my grandmother telling me one particular memory of that time. They had what she described as a beautiful house, she was very house-proud; she said she particularly loved one certain dining set with plates and bowls with an intricate pattern, I wish I could remember what the pattern was. Sadly, she’s no longer alive for me to ask her but she told me she wanted to take this with her but she couldn’t. They had to leave everything and start this new life in this new land. No one knew where they were going, who they were going with or where they would live. She always felt she was one of the lucky ones because the family didn’t get separated from one another during this journey. Some people from Daddy’s side of the family got separated whilst traveling and staying in different camps on the journey. Thankfully, they were eventually reunited.
These stories have formed part of my upbringing. They have made me learn that anything can be taken from you at any time. Why don’t people in the United Kingdom know about Partition?
I din’t start writing this to talk about history, that has been done before with much greater flair than I can achieve. I wanted to share a bit of my story; how I felt when I was younger despite being born in England. I would be embarrassed to wear Asian clothes. Sometimes, when I wore ‘shalwar kameez’ (shalwar– trousers, kameez – the top/dress) people would point and laugh at me. I remember asking my Mum to get me more “English clothes”. I understand now why my parents were so upset by this notion. They didn’t want me to lose my identity.
Daddy passed away 2011. Whenever anyone asked him, “Where is home for you?” he would always say, “Pakistan.” I wish I could tell him I understand now why he always said that, even after many years living here in England. It was always the moon and star of Pakistan that would be displayed when the Cricket World Cup was on. I know now that home is where we feel the greatest sense of belonging. I think Daddy never really thought he belonged here. Even now if I go out in “shalwar kameez” I get treated differently. Most recently I’ve been asked “Do you speak English?!”. I have to say – I’ve also had some wonderful exchanges too; most prominently, friends being interested in South Asian culture and in the food. I have had some friends absolutely delighted at being invited to my wedding.
There really is a spectrum of people in this world, isn’t there?
Daddy encouraged me to go to Medical School. He used to tell me becoming a Doctor would mean I can help people but he also used to say that if I ever needed to leave this country, it is a universal profession and I could take my skills anywhere; maybe he thought one day we might get asked to leave! I think about the challenges that were faced by all the South Asians that migrated across lands to their current homes. What power and bravery they have shown. I feel sad that these stories might be forgotten as we start to write our own stories here in England. There are always reminders that I am ‘different’ but my concerns are not how I look, but the health inequalities I have seen. As a female Doctor with South Asian heritage, it disheartens me that our South Asian community have a much higher rate of non-attendance to cancer screening; that South Asians are less likely to seek help for mental health conditions – a white person is twice as likely to be getting help for their mental health disorder; our huge risk of Heart Disease and Diabetes. I am one of the many Doctors who are trying to raise awareness of these issues. I hope we can make a difference.
I’m proud of being British but I’m also proud of my heritage. I’m proud of my family for coming to this country with nothing and building a life here. I am proud of my grandmother for leaving her beautiful crockery; I am proud of my mother for accepting the racism she faced and not letting it control her life; I am proud of Daddy for showing me that with hard work and determination anything is achievable, that if I just concentrate on myself, and not the people around me, I can succeed.
Daddy was able to attend my graduation from Medical School in 2010. But I feel he never really got to see me building my life around the lessons that he taught me. I’m not embarrassed to wear ‘shalwar kameez’ anymore, I am glad I learnt Urdu, it means I have good communication with my family that reside in Pakistan. It means I can speak to older South Asian patients here in England with words that make them feel at home.
So, where am I from?
I am from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire.
What is my origin?
Pakistan and India.
Where is home?
Home is England in Summer 2008. I was with my parents and brother; back from University in between my 3 rd and 4 th year of Medical School and it was just before we found out about Daddy’s diagnosis of cancer. This is the time in my life I felt the greatest sense of belonging.
Dr Henna Anwar
BSc(Hons) MMedSci MBChB
GPST3 Pennine Scheme
Former Medical Registrar after completion of Core Medical Training
(before change to Accreditation of Transferable Competencies (ACTF) pathway GP training).
Radio Sangam Presenter: Doctor Henna’s Ladies Hour Sundays 10-11am.