The Double Lives of Young South Asians

I’ve concealed friendships, piercings, playing the drums, relationships – and I'm not the only one.

There’s a single universal phrase that, when spoken aloud, sends every young South Asian person into a panic: logh kya kahenge. In Urdu and Hindi, it means: “What will people say?”

Picture this: Your mum and dad call you into the kitchen. They give you that look of parental disappointment, as if they’ve just watched a viral video of you in a K-hole at a drug-fuelled orgy, when, in reality, all you’ve done is get lunch with a male friend. That’s when they hit you with it: “Logh kya kahenge?

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It’s one of the reasons why many young South Asians in the UK live double lives, lying to their family about their identities and who they really are. They don’t want to risk being found out and more importantly, face the repercussions that will follow. The risk factor is high: You can be disowned and ostracised by your own community. It’s unhealthy, toxic, and can lead to intergenerational guilt, trauma and serious consequences for people’s mental health. Unfortunately, no one really talks about it that much.

I’m a textbook example: I’ve concealed friendships, piercings, playing the drums, relationships and even working as a journalist. The biggest piercing I hid was my tongue – I got it done because I really fancied Keith Flint out of The Prodigy (yes, really). I’ll spare you the details of the drama that ensued when my strict Pakistani mum found out, but let’s just say that, even now, I don’t put it in when I see her. 

It’s just one of many things growing up that I hid from my parents. Although there are no official statistics, for many British Asians, it’s just easier to live a double life – and you’d be surprised how common it is. Scroll through TikTok videos tagged #strictparents or #brownproblems and you’ll commonly see people like me talking about the stress of having to lie to their parents.

When Brighton-based coder Siri was growing up, living a double life was the only way to cope. (They’ve asked to withhold their last name for privacy reasons.) Their Punjabi-Hindu parents immigrated to the UK from Tanzania, which, like many East African countries, had sizeable South Asian communities who’d been sent there to build infrastructure and the railways during colonialism. When some of these communities relocated to the UK, they brought the trauma from their own lives with them. 

Freshta, 25: "I wouldn't tell [my mum] that I was actually going to a club.”

“Growing up, I’d find myself having to hide my male friends, or my gender or sexuality,” the 30-year-old explains. “I feel like I had to keep my life very much a secret from my parents for a really long time. I didn't really socialise with friends because I would get in trouble for it.”

Because Siri’s mum didn’t like the way they dressed, it made them self-conscious about their body. They got tattoos as a coping mechanism. “My mum would say that certain items of clothing would show too much skin and so I always, even now as an adult, am frightened of wearing low cut tops or anything like that. I felt a lot of shame about my body as a result. That's why I ended up getting so many tattoos because I wanted to hide the cleavage area. Now, because I have a chest piece, I feel like nobody's looking at that region.”

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While there are bigger life choices that are concealed from parents, such as your partner, marital status, sexuality, who you socialise with and even your job, it’s the everyday things that one would take for granted, like taking up a sport – yes, just like in Bend It Like Beckham, that can sometimes bring “shame” on your family, too. 

You’re probably wondering why our parents and relatives are like this. Before EDL sorts start pointing the finger at our religions or calling our cultures backwards, the reality is that it goes far deeper than the lazy stereotypes of how British South Asians are portrayed. 

It’s easy to claim that immigrants brought their own regressive rules and values with them to the UK. But it’s more complicated to talk about the fact that, when many of people from my parents’ generation came here, trauma packed its suitcase and migrated with them. The majority of Siri’s family fled Tanzania between 1973 and 1974, not long after Ugandan President Idi Amin began stoking the tension between the two countries and expelled Ugandan Indians from their own country. 

Siri: "I feel like whatever trauma my grandmother suffered, my mum would then inherit that."

Mental health wasn’t talked about at the time, much like it was in the rest of British society (see: the stiff upper lip). Support wasn’t available. When Siri’s parents came to the UK, they, like most South Asian immigrants, felt like they had to cling onto their roots as a minority in a post-colonial and very racist Britain. 

“I feel like whatever trauma my grandmother suffered, my mum would then inherit that,” Siri explains. “And then my mum's values and principles are from a person that's already experienced so much trauma around marriage, commitment and relationships and friendships.”

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Freshta, 25, had a similar experience with her mum. “I feel like I was in a constant state of anxiety all the time and for a while, I just really dumbed down what I was doing,” she says. 

Coming from an Afghan-Pakistani Muslim background, she doesn’t disclose much of her life, including her career as a DJ. “I just kind of said that I'd gone to this radio station and we were practising DJing and it was just like, a bit of fun. Then my mum realised I was going out a lot more and she would ask me where I'm going more often. I would tell her I was paid to DJ somewhere. I wouldn't tell her that I was actually going to a club.”

In 2018, a ComRes study found that British Asians are more socially conservative than their white counterparts when it comes to identity, interracial marriages and religon – but it also found that over half of them “toned down” their Asianness to fit into society. Large numbers of South Asians came to the UK from the 50s onwards, with many from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds coming from rural backgrounds and most vulnerable to hyper-cyclical unemployment. But assimilating into this strange new land was an important method of warding off racism, and explains the 54 percent of Asians trying to fit in. 

Many South Asian families wanted to hold onto their roots and culture when they arrived in the UK. Accessing socio-economic opportunities and jobs – mainly manual labour in factories, shops and agriculture – meant living hand to mouth. For them, it was about survival.

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In areas with large Bangladeshi populations like Tower Hamlets, it’s only been 25 years or so since the National Front stopped doing weekly protests on Brick Lane. Our parents are holding onto the way they were brought up, and their intentions don’t always come from a malicious place.

Transgenerational trauma can have significant effects on individual and family systems,” says Dr Lalitaa Suglani, a psychologist who is part of South Asian Therapists, a guide and directory that was started in 2020 to provide vital mental health resources to the community. “Immigrants left their entire lives and moved to a different place to have a better chance and education. For their children to be living differently from the way they want or expect to live, feels almost like a betrayal.” 

Daytimers arts and culture director Amad Ilyas.

But are things slowly improving? Amad Ilyas, who is the arts and culture director of Daytimers – a South Asian creative collective – thinks so. As the name suggests, daytime raves in the 90s and early 2000s existed to accommodate young Asians who were only able to go out during office or school hours without their parents knowing. Daytimers’ events now are helping South Asians come together from all backgrounds.

“It’s like a renaissance where you can be yourself. We see it with Daytimers and all these platforms for people to really be themselves outside of what they were hiding,” Amad says. “I think that's really important because growing up in South Asian households, we're expected to behave a certain way. If you don't behave that certain way, then you're like an outcast or your work is felt a lot less because you just don't fit within that bubble.”

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Originally from New Jersey, it took time for him to be able to open up to his Pakistani parents. “It took a lot of years for them to process – and for me to even process and really accept who I was. I can now really respect my queerness and not have to negate it with South Asian identity or my Muslim upbringing. I don't need to compartmentalise it. I could be all three of these things. My whole life, I had to hide certain things from my parents because it didn’t click with them. My queerness, obviously, my profession, the music I was listening to, the scenes I was in. At what point do you have to sacrifice yourself to make them happy?”

Dr Suglani is also optimistic: “It’s hard to unpack decades of trauma, but hopefully we’re getting past what people think. We do not have to switch between two identities – you can be what fits you.

“This is about developing tools for managing multicultural exchange from a young age [that] creates opportunities for beautiful cultural exchange, but more than that, it alleviates and helps you to understand the guilt that comes with feeling like you have to choose. Education, discussion and reasoning are imperative.” 

I’ve always been cynical about being more open with my family, but it turns out I’m not alone in this. Perhaps there’s strength in numbers – and maybe, just maybe, I can show my mum that tongue piercing someday.

@ZabMustefa / @_yushy

Tagged:

trauma, asians, South Asian, British Asian, intergenerational trauma

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