Socialist Worker

Across the generations

Issue No. 1672

PAKISTANI GEORGE 'Genghis' Khan wants his children to make him proud. They should be proper Muslims and have their marriages arranged by their father. It's tradition - anything less would bring shame upon them all. His kids have other ideas. So begins East is East, a hilarious British film about the culture clash between first and second generation immigrants, set in Salford in the 1970s.

George attempts to coerce his kids into studying Arabic, wearing traditional dress and going to prayers. But he is undermined by the fact that his children don't feel Pakistani. And why should they? Their dad owns a fish and chip shop (what could be more English?) and their mother is white. Given the chance, they would rather be at a nightclub or playing football than at the mosque.

It is a battle that many young Asians will relate to. Second generation Asians have been pathbreakers. Mostly, our parents came to this country with next to nothing in their pockets and had to fight for everything they've got. They paid their taxes and they slogged their guts out here, but they still think of themselves as Indian or Pakistani. We, on the other hand, are born British. We feel we have rights - rights we have been prepared to fight for.

This confidence and the fusion of cultures are reflected in East is East. But it is also reflected in music. Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawney have been winning awards for albums which combine traditional Asian instrumentation with the beats of European dance music. There are British-Asian comedies on prime time television and, at last, there is an Asian professional footballer. However, recognition has been a long time coming.

In the early 1970s I moved from London, where I was surrounded by many different skin colours and cultures, to Reading, where the same could not be said. My first school was all white, my second and third mostly white. To me, being half Asian was a curse. By the age of 12 there cannot have been a racist term of abuse I had not heard, and I lived in fear that people I thought of as friends would call me names like 'Paki'. When I was 13 a girl I was going out with was followed around our schoolyard by a gang chanting, 'Paki-lover, Paki-lover.' Like Tariq in East is East, I would try and hide my Asianness as best I could.

But the portrayal of whites in the film is problematic. George's wife is fiercely anti-racist. The white children in the neigbourhood all want to join the Khan gang. Racism is the preserve of one Enoch Powell loving neighbour and a nightclub bouncer. Where are the contradictions that we expect to see in real life? At school, even among racists, there were great contradictions. How can a kid who is telling a joke that starts with, 'How do you stop a Paki from drowning?' also name every record by the artist then known as Prince and spend all their money on getting a wet look perm?

It was something you could argue about. He thought that blacks were cool. It wasn't just music. Blacks didn't take shit - everyone knew about the Brixton riots. And Asians? 'Well they're different, aren't they?' He thought you could put shit through their letter boxes and nothing much would happen.

This film is part of a new representation of Asians in Britain. The fact that we have fought back has made it possible. From the Bradford riots against police harassment to the fight for justice for Ricky Reel, Asians have shown that they don't take shit either.

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Sat 13 Nov 1999, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1672
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