Identity. It is perhaps one of the most confusing things we face as people and on the whole, something that rarely comes to full fruition in its clarity. Though, through the exploration of it, whether that’s looking at your family tree or connecting with your culture, there are ways we can understand it. Arguably, it becomes that little bit more confused when you are the product of two cultures, two societies and two different sets of values – perhaps, two identities all together.
As a second generation immigrant, I was born into these two, intrinsically different cultures of England and India. I was raised Sikh but went to a Christian school. I used to think Tom Cruise was the world’s most famous actor, then I grew to understand Shah Rukh Khan’s influence. For every western idea, there was an eastern one that came with it and vice versa. And what’s more, from watching the episodes of ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ or hearing the jokes at the dinner table, there came the classic Indian stereotypes. Whether they were about marriage or cooking, they were clear. But the one that always stood out to me was the stereotype of making sure you went into a ‘stable’ career. ‘Stable’ in this context meaning well paid and secure – law, medicine, dentistry etc. Whilst these are all incredible occupations, they are inherently less creative, STEM subjects. But what if you’re not cut out for the STEM subjects?
“Ria is not naturally talented, but she makes a remarkable effort” (or something along those lines) was the classic comment from teachers at school, in most of my subjects. I was not naturally talented in maths or science, and as much as my father would have loved for one of his 3 daughters to become an engineer like him, none of us were blessed in that department, unfortunately. I tried, I really did and I wanted to become an architect for a long time. The reason I even had a hope for that occupation was because of the artistic design side of it. I happened to be quite good at that. And finally, it became clear what my strengths were – creative. Art and English. Finally, I had something I loved and thrived in, the creative arts.
It’s sad though, that due to a mix of these overhanging Indian stereotypes and the lack of support for the creative arts in the British education system I felt my strengths weren’t strong enough. I am extremely lucky, however, to have parents, who, in bringing up three daughters in English society whilst keeping their Indian values, allowed and encouraged us to be who we wanted and do what we loved. The question at degree talks was never, “Do you prefer medicine or law?” but rather, “What drives you to achieve, what do you love to do?” And for that, I am so grateful. Not only was I given free reign over my choices, I was encouraged unconditionally to follow my passion, which for me was and still is, English and Art.
I am now halfway through an English degree that I am in love with. Every week I discuss critical theory and abstract concepts. I apply them to literature and the world I live in, discussing and writing about them regularly.
I write and create content on a daily basis for my blog, Matriarch, exploring topics from health to culture and engaging and growing a diverse community.
I own my own henna business, Henna Artist Ria. This has given me yet another platform through which I get to express my creativity through my culture and has offered me the chance to teach that to others.
I am 19. Already at this point in my life, I have multiple outlets and passions. They let me explore both my culture and my identity through the creative arts, whether it’s writing a blog post or spending hours on new henna designs. As an Asian woman, it couldn’t be further from what I grew up believing I could achieve. Creative futures just aren’t viewed as “traditional” or “stable”. They’re not seen as enough. It is so sad to me that salary and recognition qualifies the worth of an occupation. It does not mean that we graft or care any less. The so called “risk” of not having this stable, linear career path is well worth the return I get by following a passion and exploring my creativity and culture.
Now I feel that I am in such an interesting position. I aim to explore my incredibly creative culture – the very same one that tells me that being a “creative” isn’t enough. I suppose a part of me wants to prove these stereotypes wrong, that you can have a creative passion and sustain yourself doing it. I aim to prove this through a cultural skill of henna artistry and to me this seems the perfect way to do that. This is a tradition that goes back centuries, deeply rooted in our culture and traditions. I feel so privileged that I have the opportunity to have grown up with it, have taught myself and now bring it into English society and share it with others. My blog goes hand in hand with this as a way to track progressive discussions about my exploration, breaking the taboo nature of both traditional Indian and British ‘stiff upper lip’ culture.
I identify myself as a second generation, British Indian, Sikh Punjabi woman. But I won’t settle into the stereotypes. Those labels are in a continuous process of development that are redefined with every generation. The emergence of so many Asian (particularly female) creatives who are shaping these labels and shifting these stereotypes is exciting. We are the generations forming these new hybrid identities. And I can honestly say, without the creative arts, I would be struggling a lot more with my identity, culture and future.
Ria is a student, blogger and henna artist. Whilst studying English at the University of Exeter, she launched her blog, Matriarch, in 2019 focusing on topics ranging from her health, culture and identity. Between her blog, and budding Instagram community to go with it, Ria also launched her own henna artist business in 2020, practicing self-taught, traditional, Punjabi artistry.