by Parmy Virk
All too often we hear of the consequences of bullying and racism. Whether it happens at school, in the workplace, on the soccer pitch, or anywhere else for that matter, the consequences which result from the experience and exposure of bullying and racism are incredibly damaging and long-lasting. If you look up bully in the dictionary, it is defined as “an individual who habitually seeks to harm or intimidate those whom they perceive as vulnerable”. Similarly, if you look up racism in the dictionary, it is defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. Essentially, racism is a disturbing form of bullying.
Who is vulnerable? Everyone is vulnerable at some point in their lives. It is human nature to experience vulnerability whether that is because you’ve just moved to a new country and don’t understand the culture or speak the language, or because you’ve just started a new job and don’t have a clue what you’re doing yet, or maybe you feel you don’t have a solid support system to help you through a difficult situation. A person can feel vulnerable for a million different reasons. It is normal. With that said, we can assume that the odds of you knowing someone who has experienced bullying is excruciatingly high. How unsettling is that?
When we are experiencing a moment of vulnerability, our moods change. We become anxious, depressed, and stressed out. We become afraid of what we don’t know and of what we can’t control. We lose our confidence and start to believe we are incompetent, even when we are trying our best to excel. As soon as you add a bully into the picture, these feelings intensify by a horrendous amount. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst, a bully can raise your stress levels to over 100 and amplify all of these negative feelings. When your stress reaches such high levels, your mental pain actually becomes physical pain and vice versa.
Those being bullied often suffer in silence. Through a diminished sense of self-worth, a strong desire for change, and the lack of hope, these hurt individuals often contemplate self-harm. Sadly, some follow through with those thoughts as it can feel like there are no alternative options left.
In this article, I would like to be honest and open. I would like to bare myself through my own experiences, and I hope I can provide some solace and encouragement to those brave and vulnerable souls. Even if you can’t relate to the exact details of my story, I can almost guarantee that you have felt similar feelings before.
“Fresh Off the Boat”
My father emigrated to the UK from India in the late 1950s. It was common back then for the man of the household to emigrate before their family as it would give them a chance to find work and set up a life in preparation for when their family finally did arrive. My father anxiously walked out of the airport not knowing what he would find. To his amazement, a crowd of other Indian men, just like him, were standing there waiting for the latest group to arrive.
These men understood the struggles of coming to a new country and the loneliness of trying to start a new life alone. They had shown up to support all of the new men who were emigrating from their homeland. With minimal introductions and a plethora of trust, the newly-arrived men would go with these strangers to live in their homes, my father included.
My father was taken to Wolverhampton, England. There he lived with nine other men in a three-bedroom home. They had worked out a system where three men would cook, three men would work, and three men would sleep. This rotation worked well for them until they were able to save enough money to buy their own homes and bring their families over.
This article isn’t about my father; however, it does illustrate the type of hospitality and sense of community that we were used to in India. One that families tried to keep alive in their new UK communities to help them survive a new world.
Moving to Paradise
In 1961, my mother, five siblings, and my 6-year-old self joined my father in the industrial town of Wolverhampton. At the time, we didn’t really know what to expect. We lived in a small home with only two bedrooms to support eight people. My oldest sister actually used the bathtub as her bed, but this was much better than what we had in India. The taps ran fresh water whenever we needed it, and we didn’t have to bathe ourselves in a bucket by the well.
Living in the UK was very different. In India, I was always used to seeing my father as a well-respected and prestigious man, but here my father was double-wrapping his lunch for work as he was getting reprimanded at his workplace, and physically and emotionally abused on his way to his place of employment for the pungent smell that his food gave off. My father, who was a proud and hard-working man, was forced to eat his lunch in the toilets unless he chose to eat more socially-accepted food choices, which my mother did not know how to cook. How ironic this is today, as Indian food is now the No. 1 desired food throughout the UK.
Crayons or Candy?
At the age of 7, I was attending an English school and learning the language through exposure to the culture. I cannot begin to explain how different the world looked to me. I was seeing little cars and trucks that kids were playing with. I was seeing paper and pens and pencils of all different colours. It was all very overwhelming, but I was excited to make new friends.
On my first day at school I remember my teacher pointed to me and then pointed to a table. She wanted me to sit there. On the table, there was a pile of long and skinny brightly-coloured candy. I remember thinking, “Wow. They’re giving me candy because I’m new.” I excitedly unwrapped a delicious red treat and took a large bite. The candy tasted weird, but I thought that maybe this is what English sweets tasted like, so I continued chewing.
That’s when it happened. The very first time I experienced bullying. The whole entire class, including my teacher, pointed and laughed at me. Students started calling me gross and mimicked my actions. I was extremely confused until that confusion turned into realization and then into pure embarrassment. I had been eating crayons. The teacher had wanted me to go and draw while I waited for her to come and deal with me, but due to a language barrier, I didn’t understand. I had never seen crayons before and I had no idea what they were used for. In India, we had candies that looked similar and so I generalized what I knew and took a bite.
After this, I became known as the “Paki” who ate crayons. The other students were confused and amused by me. They had never seen or interacted with a brown-coloured person before. Sometimes these kids would call me gross and say that I was brown because I was dirty. Once, they tried to rub my skin colour off in hopes to try to clean my body. Others would avoid me at all costs. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to fit in, I would always be seen as a fly in a glass of milk.
Run, Run as Fast as You Can
At age 11, I attended a high school called Wobaston, which was located at the edge of Wolverhampton. It was a predominantly Caucasian, white, neighbourhood with blue-collar working families. The school was also composed largely of light-skinned, Caucasian children.
As more and more Indian families were emigrating to the UK, the tolerance for these individuals became less and less.
During our school lunchtimes, the “normal” kids would be playing with their friends without a care in the world. Us, brown kids, however, spent our lunches hiding and running from small gangs of older boys who liked to target us and beat us up for no other reason than the colour of our skin. Our lunch and bus monies would often be taken from us leaving us too hungry to focus in class, and too broke to take the bus home. All of the brown kids would wait for each other after school, so we could walk home together as it was too dangerous to walk home alone. Just as we waited for each other, the groups of gangs waited for us too.
The last day of each term was the worst day. We would all pretend to be sick, so our parents would let us stay home. This was unheard of in most of our families because hard-work and perseverance were always drilled into us. We must get an education and work hard so that we can live a good life in our new paradise. If we didn’t need to go to the hospital, then we could make it to school. Of course, our parents knew little about the racism and bullying that went on at school. It was kind of like an unspoken and hurtful understanding. We were all experiencing it in some shape or form, but we didn’t want to hurt each other by acknowledging our realities. Sacrifices were made and we were here because our lives would be better.
On the last day of term, the event called “running the gauntlet” commenced. Essentially, gangs of Caucasian, white, youths would structure themselves into two lines from the school exit to the bus stop. Us, minorities, had no choice but to run between the rows of gang members as fast as we could to get to the only bus stop. These individuals would kick and punch us. If we fell, they would cut off our school ties at the knots to show how weak we were. Also, young recruits from surrounding primary schools would be brought in to help with the beatings as part of their growing up. It was not only demeaning, but humiliating as well. We had to let little primary school children beat us up so that we could go home. If we fought back, there were more than enough older and stronger gang members to put us back into our places. We were now conditioned to avoid eye contact and hide from groups of white boys even if they were friendly.
As immigration became a political hot potato, a divisive and extremist Conservative MP, named Enoch Powell, played on those negative emotions. His famous televised speech in 1968, named “The Rivers of Blood”, caused the uprising of the racist skinhead movement, which resulted in race riots across the country. These people, known as skinheads back then, coined the phrase “Paki-bashing” where marauding gangs of skinheads went looking for people of colour to brutally beat regardless of whether they were men, women, or children. My family and I never felt safe.
In addition to this external turmoil, being Indian, but growing up British, caused an internal conflict with many of the individuals who were similar to me. We essentially lived in two countries. Outside of our home, we were in England, but inside our home, we were still living the Indian way. We could not fully adapt to either culture, which caused us to feel confused about our identities and where we fit in in society.
Having a girlfriend come over to the house was absolutely forbidden and unheard of. In fact, so was having a girlfriend at all. If she wasn’t Indian, then don’t even think about it. My non-Indian friends never fully understood why my sisters weren’t allowed to have male friends. It was extremely difficult to explain why I had to hide when my Indian neighbour saw me walking around the mall with a group of girls, or if I pretended not to know my friend who was openly smoking in front of my mom.
For You, I will
I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that the majority of the immigrant individuals who I speak to in my generation have felt forever in the debt of our parents. Our parents had sacrificed a much easier life and brought us to a new country to give us a chance to have a proper education and live a quality life. It was our responsibility not to let them down. Getting educated was their highest wish for us and that was what drove most of us to keep going.
In my case, I would not let my self-worth diminish. A determined focus on going to university, getting an education, leading to a good job would be my way to repay my parents for their sacrifices. I am forever grateful and humbled for the chances and opportunities my parents gave to me that they never had access to themselves.
Don’t Let the Bad Trump the Good
As much as I experienced hardship, I also experienced an abundance of positive moments as well. I loved growing up in England and I made a lot of lifelong friends there. It is far too easy to point fingers and blame others and fall into a vicious thought pattern that due to my experiences, others are bad, I have no worth, and there is no hope. You cannot dwell on the actions of others. You cannot control the actions of others. All you can do is make a habit to remind yourself that you are worth it. You are different, and that is your power.
There is not one person in the world who is worthy of your power, so do not let anyone take it. Do not allow the people who have wronged you or made you feel small change the way you perceive the world. Bullies are sad and hopeless. You are not. Any human being who needs to push someone down in order to feel adequate is not worthy of your thoughts.
Let’s not give anyone our power. This comes from within. You are in control of how you view yourself. No one can touch your soul, except for you. Practice gratitude and show yourself love. Know that you are much more than anything external. The more you say it and think it, the more you will start to believe it, and with that belief, the world will change dramatically in your favour.
Remember there are good people out there. If you are struggling and you need help organizing your thoughts and realizing how great you are, please reach out to someone. Anyone. Reach out to me in this post. You are worth the world and more, and you are not alone in how you feel. You are not a victim of your experiences. They do not define you. You are shaped by the pages in your story, but you are not defined by its bad chapters. Your story is not over.
Be different. Be exactly who you are. Stand out. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken”.
Written by Parmy Virk