Where are you from?
No, I mean where are you really from?
On my travels, people look at me and seem to have an idea of who I am. Where I come from, what my name must be and what I must sound like. They seem sort of confused by what I wear nonetheless they seem to have a pretty good idea of what makes me ‘me’. Until I open my mouth.
When people hear me speak, I see the flash of confusion spread across their face. I see their eyes wonder, their mind going around in circles. I count down the time until I’m asked my favourite question….‘Where are you from’ - if I could get a penny every time I hear this.
Despite me insisting I was born and raised in England, I see the doubt linger on peoples' faces. I know they are unsettled by my response, considering I clearly have brown skin. They ask me again, just checking to be sure I’ve heard them right. My answer is still the same. They ask me again but adding the world ‘really’ as if that changes something. Yet, I understand the ‘subtly’ in their question, their meaning behind my ethnicity and digging at the history of my ancestors. I decide to give them the answer for which they have been waiting.
I always explain it in the same way. At this point it sounds robotic and like mandatory instructions before we talk about anything else. I start with telling where my parents are from. My Dad is from India and my Mum is from Kenya. Saying this I see them utter under their breath ‘ah she is mixed race’. I give them enough time to draw that conclusion before stating that my mother is ‘Indian’ too despite being born in Kenya. With this final response, I see some sort of satisfaction appear on peoples' faces. As if suddenly the world makes sense. As if suddenly they have truly understood me. If any more questions are asked, it's about be being Indian, ignorant to the English accent with which I speak.
At camp, most of the staff are familiar with my accent. They expect the unusual. Not everyone is black or white. People recognize my voice as a typical accent from London. At first, questions focus around where I grew up in England. I appreciate the time people at camp take to know who I am. Where I was born. Where I lived. Where I went to school. What I like about being British. Naturally, I talk about my family background and how that influenced my lifestyle in England. Some staff seem surprised, some nod in agreement. I wasn’t expecting everyone to know I was a British Indian. I could tell some staff were more familiar meeting people from different backgrounds than others. However, everyone was open, they were ready to listen. I have come to understand that openness to be one of the essential criteria that our Director seeks out in staff and we all try to develop in our campers.
Between the staff and I, we found similar interests and dislikes based on things that made me British or Indian. The staff felt comfortable enough to ask me further questions, eager to know what foods I grew up with and what music I listened to. They may have had previous assumptions but they were ready to challenge them.
With the diversity we build at camp each summer, I knew children’s reaction to who I am and what I was, was going to vary. What I love the most about camp is that we provide a space to learn. Garrett and Jess encourage me, and our staff to talk about who we are, what ethnicity we are, what our heritage is. Our role is powerful. I realised I could expand people’s understanding to what British means. Challenge the view that England is not filled with white British people.
Our role at camp has so much potential for helping children to be educated about the world. I love telling campers about London. Talking about this diverse city, being exposed to different ethnicities, cultures, in some ways quite similar to what we do here at camp. I don’t mind being asked the blunt questions that comes with it, in fact we encourage them at Hawkeye.
I only truly learned about Kenyans, Germans, Americans, and South Africans for example when I had met people who lived in these places. I love that children, at Hawkeye, get this privilege. They can be exposed to a social setting that is so hard to do elsewhere. They meet people from all over the world, an experience I know I would have loved as a child and value now as an adult.
Meeting people from different cultures and nations is so important, it challenges our core perceptions of things such as; ‘developing and developed countries,’ ‘race vs ethnicity,’ ‘rich vs poor,’ etc. Just because I label my skin colour and my culture as being ‘Indian’ doesn’t mean I wear a red dot on my head. Nor do most Indians I know .
Camp Hawkeye provides an environment for children to see beyond what they hear and read in the media. To understand what individual differences mean. How we can all be present, get along, work together in one place, learn to live with and accept our differences.
After a couple weeks of camp with our excessive sunshine, I tan. I tan extremely well and sometimes some of the campers, maybe staff, think I am black. Or they think I am black because my mother came from Kenya. Or because I love RnB and Hip-hop. Or because I worked and lived Kenya.
I remember sitting by the fire with campers from each cabin and we talked about developing countries. We talked about Kenya. They had certain views about what life must be like. Some campers thought Kenyans lived exactly like Americans. Some thought they were all poor. I felt so lucky that I could explain what it was like to live there, to them it seemed like a different world. I could see the campers understanding more about what they were grateful for, especially after I explained we had no washing machine where I stayed. I explained that not all Kenyans were black, they have a huge community of Indian people and a not so huge community of white people. I am so glad they felt comfortable enough to ask including campers from the youngest cabin. I was so proud of how we were working together to challenge the stereotypes that exist around us.
I am happy that we, our staff and our campers, change each other’s perceptions about race, religion, gender, age etc….
One of the staff members told me this year, as a camper he hadn't met that many black people until he came to camp!
I heard a camper say that all his likes and dislikes are related to him being black. I listen with care and patience. It’s interesting to see how we identify ourselves, especially when we are young. This child thought all his mannerisms were due to the way he looked on the outside. I spoke about this with the Leadership Team at camp. They helped me learn about how important young people’s ethnicity is to their identity. The following day, the same camper brought up a similar conversation with me. I shared some of my likes and dislikes with him. I compared my interests to my parents or my sister’s interests. He could see the many ways we differed despite us all being Indian and having the same skin colour. I didn’t expect the camper to change his thoughts overnight, but I knew we gave him something to think about.
At Hawkeye, we recognise our differences, it’s important to know they exist. Sometimes there may be reasons behind our differences and sometimes there isn’t. Being a certain colour doesn’t define who I am or dictate what I must be like.
Being in a diverse environment sets us up for successes for the future. Now at camp, we have Indian Americans, we even have children all the way from China. Of course, a lot of us, including myself, will come with our own presumptions. Yet, at Hawkeye we know this is a safe place to ask. We don’t fixate on our own assumptions and ignore our curiosity.
I knew that someday campers, staff and parent’s conversations with me would help other Indians at camp. That not every Indian person lived like ‘Bride and Prejudice’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or ‘Bend it like Beckham’. Once, a lady handed me an Indian cooking book thinking that was something we would bond over – don’t worry this didn’t happen at camp. Having staff who look different is extremely important to me, to the staff and to the campers. We learn to love people that don’t always look like us. Or that someone that looks like you achieves something you never thought you could, until now.
When I came back in 2017, I knew the day would come when I saw an Indian American family at our camp. We were both comforted by having another similar looking person at camp. I knew they saw me as a new member of staff and I saw her as a new camper. I knew them being here, was the true place that mattered. This place that I, she, or anyone can say they are from without hearing a question or hesitant remark in return.
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