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‘Home Sweet Bethnal Green’: An Immigrant’s Home-away-from-home

A love letter to the complex, beautiful and comforting melting pot of ethnicities in Bethnal Green.

‘Home sweet Bethnal Green’ is not a common phrase that people say or even a sentiment that pops into many people’s heads. I remember one of my close school friends (who’s white) talking about how she feared for her life (as a half-joke) when visiting Queen Mary’s (she’s at King’s now) because of the local environment. Whilst I know she wasn’t referencing race and more talking about the ‘feel’ of the surrounding area, it got me thinking about how, paradoxically, I absolutely love the East London environment and its hidden charm. And how my awareness of my parent’s immigrant status has influenced this attachment. My friend’s reluctance is not something I hold against her or others For many white English people, visiting Wembley, East Ham, and Bethnal Green is a culture shock of its own, but for immigrants and the children of immigrants, these areas have a sense of familiarity and ‘home’ that just can’t be explained. This is how I felt this year when I discovered the Asian markets of Bethnal Green in my final year at QM. A chance walk with my flatmate led me to discover a whole new world of different sights, smells and sounds. 

Seeing Indian vegetable markets and being able to handpick okra, like I’d seen my mum do when I was much younger and we visited the ‘cash and carry’ stores of Wembley, was a completely new experience for me and gave me a sense of comfort and reassurance amidst all the COVID-19/lockdown pandemonium and stress. Buying fresh chillies, mango, paneer, and spices such as cardamom and saffron filled me with happiness and a sense of belonging that I hadn’t felt when going shopping regularly at Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s back home in Hertfordshire. Hearing the different languages, accents and dialects reminded me of the atmosphere I regularly experience on our annual family trips to India. 

These markets provided me with the much-needed feeling of home during the festival of Diwali last year, which I had to celebrate for the first time away from family because I was staying in London during the second national lockdown. Walking into a shop which had the word ‘Bazaar’ in its title (a common title for many shops in Chennai e.g., Pondy Bazaar) and easily buying the ingredients for the Diwali meal my flatmate and I were preparing, left me feeling incredibly excited and amazed at how a mini Asian ecosystem existed only 10 minutes away from my flat. I remember finding the Indian spice, Asafoetida (a vital ingredient for many South-Indian dishes) and taking a picture and sending it to my mum immediately, shocked that I had finally found this spice that can never be bought in non-ethnic markets. When I spoke to my mum on the phone later that day, recounting my shopping experience and the thrill it gave me, she told me “why do you think your dad and I were so excited to discover East Ham and Wembley!”. 

These areas of the UK, where brown and black faces are the majority for once, help with the homesickness and isolation that many immigrant families first feel when they come to the UK.

It allows them to be free and speak in languages and with accents that are so out of place in their work lives (my mum has an English version of her name and her accent to make it easier to integrate, my dad has stopped caring I think!). 

Photo by Evgeny Nelmin via Unsplash

Another thing that struck me about this ethnic minority haven that Bethnal Green offered, is the blend of different cultures and communities present. I immediately thought Bethnal Green was a ‘little India’. But the more I explored, I saw Turkish influences, hearing Turkish music playing at the fish market and seeing the fishmonger happily sharpen his knives to this music, dancing and singing loudly. There were also Middle Eastern and Arab nuances present, along with Eastern European, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani infusions. It was so incredibly refreshing to not hear a word of English around me (the very thing which causes a slight look of discomfort on my friend’s face when she visits me in Whitechapel), and to instead walk into the ‘X Bazaar’ shop and hear “salaam alaikum” around me and to then be wished ‘happy Diwali’ at checkout by the Muslim staff member. Bethnal Green is also a testament to the unity and support networks provided by these predominantly immigrant and ethnic minority boroughs in the UK, proving wrong the stereotype and misconception that such an amalgamation of different cultures can only cause disharmony. 

The age-old Hindu-Muslim tension stemming from Pakistan-India distrust is often riled up in Indian media, at cricket matches even, and of course by India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi. Modi is set on creating a Hindustan India, which is only for Hindus, ignoring the fact that Muslims have been in India since the time of the Mughals, with the famous Mughal ruler, Shah Jahan, building the iconic Taj Mahal. When I think about how much this tension and rivalry is stoked up (not forgetting the role the British Empire played by causing the India-Pakistan split that many would argue was the start of this volatile relationship), and consider it in the context of the harmony I see regularly in Bethnal Green and Stepney Green, it saddens me to think that people both in the UK and India believe that different religions, communities and cultural practices can’t co-exist peacefully. When the environment of East London, a huge ethnic melting pot, proves this sentiment wrong on so many levels. 

I feel proud and privileged to have experienced living in East London these past three years and am so incredibly grateful to the way it has helped me solidify my cultural and personal identity as a second-generation Indian living in modern-day, multicultural Britain.

But with the solidification of Brexit, rising distrust of foreigners in general, and the daily ‘othering’ that black and brown people still face in predominantly white areas, I think it is important that more people visit and appreciate the beauty and harmony of ethnically diverse regions. I remember bringing up in a recent interview how much I love hearing Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Arabic etc. around me in Stepney Green, and the fact that I can’t help smiling when I see public signage firstly written in English and then in Urdu. And every time I visit Wembley with my family to visit the temple, I can’t help admiring the fact that next door to our temple is a Mosque, the epitome of harmony, currently lacking in India now more than ever perhaps. 

The more I’ve come to appreciate my surroundings in East London, the more it has put me in touch with my immigrant roots and clarified my personal identity and how much Western and Eastern influence I want in my life in the future and for my children. I will definitely be sad to leave at the end of my degree, but eternally grateful for the feeling of belonging and ‘home’ that I’ve been given, something my own parents first discovered 25 years ago when they made the huge journey from India to England. 

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