Goodness, gracious, me - we Asians have arrived

`When I first came to this country I felt a shameful obligation never to be seen in Asian clothes'
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The Independent Culture
AT SEVEN o'clock last Saturday morning, a young journalist called Trish dragged me out of bed. With a voice too bright and a head a little dim, she asked me if I agreed that it was cool to be Asian now, and if brown was the new black. What do such questions mean?

It is true that it has never before felt quite so exciting and affirming to be an Asian in this country. And recent architectural emblems such as the exquisite London Hindu temple in Neasden and the new Edinburgh mosque are symbols of this. Young people from all these communities are able to assert both who they are and their Britishness.

And they do. You saw them in all their glory at this weekend's BBC Network East Mega Mela festival in Birmingham - the biggest ever celebration of the Asian presence in this country: 45,000 people attended the mela (fair) which had trade stalls selling fabulously ostentatious cars and furniture, wedding gear, clothes, and up-to-the-minute gadgetry of all sorts, including steely smooth electric spice grinders. I found myself much drawn to a little golden throne with pure silk cushions, created, I imagine, for that much-adored, precious little son.

There were models, Bollywood stars and accompanying hysterical teens, competitive chefs and the many emerging pop bands, including Joi whose music is complex and lyrical and born out of cultural hybridity. As Meera Syal says, we have finally found our voice.

I thought my heart would burst with pleasure - at times envy too - as beautiful young men and women (some wearing modern Indian designs which were so erotic, I found myself blushing to see them) walking so differently from that apologetic, head-bent shuffle mastered by the older generations. These young people dance, they sing, they shop, they drive fast cars.

Yet, unlike almost all other communities, they remain connected to the homelands. I recall, when I first came to this country, how I felt a shameful obligation never to be seen in public in Asian clothes and to keep my distance from my relatives so that my white friends would not see me as an alien.

Today, when I am with the same white friends, we animatedly discuss Syal's latest novel and whether women with blue eyes can wear saris. White kids emulate the characters in Goodness Gracious Me. I was both shocked and delighted to hear young children in the local primary school playground shouting "kiss my chaddis" (knickers), a catch phrase launched by that programme. During their live tour earlier this year, you saw the old and the young rolling about even when filthy Punjabi jokes were being told. People like Oona King, Mark Thompson and Paul Merton turned up and Merton was even seen smiling a bit. After long, arduous years, like all immigrants we seem to have reached that phase where we can allow ourselves some joy.

Pride too. Not just because Asians are becoming so successful economically, but because of their massive infiltration into the professions. In the arts, media and sports, star individuals are coming through.

There are 1.5 million Asians living in this country. Like Jews before them, many are now found in lush houses in Stockbrokerland. Just go to any London or Midlands public school, and you can see that huge numbers of their top pupils will be Asian. At St Paul's when my son was there, two such boys won an adult international competition for scientific discovery. And 26 per cent of our National Health Service doctors are of Asian background when we make up less than 3 per cent of the population. Our entrepreneurs know how to make millions and billions as well as the best of the rest, and we are beginning to see the first crop of self-made millionairesses.

At a recent grand event attended by luminaries like Clive Anderson, Asian women were celebrated. They included Baroness Usha Prashar, the head of the Parole Board; Zerbanoo Gifford, who has dreams and has set up a new Asian arts centre in London, and Bharti Patel, the beautician whose creams and potions are used by President Clinton, Cherie Blair and stars around the world.

Beyond any doubt, British Asians have arrived.

But this is still only a partial story. I look at the lovely women on the catwalks at the mela and wonder why not a single one of them has been plucked up by an agency. You go to the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and you see black actors, such as Josette Simon, but no Asian actors.

The BBC, our BBC, and Channel Four too almost totally ignores Asian Britons in mainstream programmes. Individuals such as George Aligaiah are obviously respected, but as participants on programmes that matter, we have gone missing. We have been given twilight zones, ethnic programmes. However, you only have to watch the always excellent Cafe 21 on Network East, where twentysomething Asians discuss politics and society, to see the potential there is.

Then there is the increasing hostility towards Asians who are now much more likely than any other group to be victims of racial violence. The perpetrators are both whites and blacks. Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are among the most impoverished people in this country and, sadly, middle class Asians are often contemptuous of them.

Education, self-employment and home ownership, the three pillars of Asian success, do not yet feature among these communities, and the anger which is growing among their young men may not be easily contained in the future.

Professor Bhikhu Parekh, who has written brilliantly on multicultural Britain, was given a lifetime achievement at the mela. In a profound speech he rejoiced in our achievements, but warned that we needed to beware of becoming so obsessed with money and style that we ended up "vulgar and crude". We needed to maintain depth, modesty and caution, and to think of others whose problems were, if anything, getting worse. This is why, Trish, my wake-up journalist, I can't say to you that brown is the new black or even white, and why you must teach yourself to ask more interesting questions the next time you are doing "Asians".

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