Tribe Talk

Once in a while – perhaps five or six times a year – I’ll find myself standing next to an Asian girl on the train silently wondering what she’s like as a person. She’ll usually be like me in many ways: not ├╝ber glamorous but not exactly Waynetta Slob either; dressed conservatively from a western point of view, but liberally from an eastern one. Perhaps I’ll catch a snippet of her phone conversation or see her pause at an interesting poster, and suddenly I’ll feel an overwhelming sense of wistfulness.

You see, over the last 10 years, I’ve seen my pool of female Asian friends drain painfully dry. It’s true that we all have a string of faded friendships behind us, but I’ve found this specific flavour particularly hard to maintain. In the early years it was because many of my friends married young, had kids or moved away, their absences punctuated by occasional stories of overbearing parents or controlling in-laws. Our bonds splintered in the way our lives already had. Then onto university where I studied Computer Science – not a subject known for its proliferation of female grads.

A few years after graduation, I began to lose more friends to marriage. Some fell out of touch because they were happy and busy with kids and husbands and jobs and lives, which felt natural and of course I was happy they were happy. With others, however, there was something more pernicious at play. The last time I met a particular friend, she had told her mother-in-law she was working an extra shift when in reality, she was having dinner with us. Another recently told me she was at her mum’s for a week rather than at her in-laws and was therefore able to meet up. I hate talking about this because it reinforces ugly stereotypes about my community and portrays these women as weak when in reality they are strong and intelligent, but also mindful of their families’ rules of respectability.

I was reminded of just how much I take my lifestyle for granted when I came back from a trip abroad earlier this year. A 24-year-old Asian girl I worked with at the time looked at me wistfully and said: “That’s what I’d do if I was in control of my life: travel.”

“You are in control of your life,” I insisted like some second-grade therapist. She shook her head and said plaintively, “No, I’m not.” And it’s true: she’s not – just like I wasn’t when I was 24 and living with my parents, blindly walking into an arranged marriage I knew I didn’t want. But I digress.

If you’re wondering about the emphasis on Asian female friends, let me try to explain. I have lots of white British friends (of course), but I need some friends with whom I can share ‘tribe talk’. I’ll use an example to explain what I mean: When I was at Asian Woman magazine, one of the girls (who was dating a white man, shock horror) told us how weird she felt calling her boyfriend’s parents by name. We all murmured in agreement, commenting on how odd it would feel. Our one white-British colleague said: “What on Earth’s wrong with that?”

I explained that we don’t call any elders by their names. Everyone unrelated is a kala or sasi (aunt) or mama or sasa (uncle). Elder sisters are afa while brothers are bhaisaab. Calling an elder (particularly the parents of your partner) would be deeply disrespectful. I was met with bewilderment at which point another colleague stepped in and said, “Don’t worry. It’s just tribe talk.”

It was a great way to describe something rather intangible. Many, if not most, Asian girls of my generation share a common bond. I suppose you could liken it to Jewish guilt. It’s a bond forged by the patriarchal culture we grew up in, by the freedoms that were curbed, by the marriages that were arranged, by the heritage that we bear. There’s a comfortable understanding of each other’s lives that doesn’t come as easily with others. This is why I miss those faded friendships so much. It’s why I wonder silently about those strangers on the train. They are women I could be friends with, but haven’t quite found my way to. Sometimes they make me hopeful, but mostly they make me sad because they remind me of everything that is lost and all that could have been.