'A Family Divided'



There is a childhood photograph that has been on my desk for some time. As I work away, I often glance over and it always makes me smile. As a lecturer of the photographic arts, there are a plethora of motivational images that I could favour but it is this one that has pride of place next to my computer. To the left of the frame, my enthusiastic mum beams to camera with open body language. To the right, my stoic dad looks on disgruntled with crossed arms. I am in the middle. As someone who identifies as “Mixed Asian,” with an Indian, Thai and Chinese background, the composition of this image mirrors the mindset of the British immigrant community – we are open to integration while maintaining a degree of cautious segregation.

Now, many years later, my first-hand engagement with multicultural students from Europe, Asia and further afield, is fascinating. I find that a classroom acts as a microcosm for societal values. The perspectives, views and attitudes of my parents are still apparent in my immigrant students; however, several generations later these views do seem to have begun to be eroded.

Full Circle

“What you must understand, is that in my country, photography is just a job. There is no love or passion for it,” one student explains to me in an Eastern European accent when we discuss her motivation to make work. She looks at me with unshaken intent. The stereotype of valuing pragmatism over creativity is commonplace within the first wave of immigrant communities. My Indian relatives presented me with the career choices of doctor, lawyer or engineer at school. I presume that this trend is based upon survival instinct — obtain a path that offers social prestige, guaranteed income and distinguishes you from the indigenous population. Any interest that I expressed in the arts was swiftly shunted. Now, as an educator myself, I am the first to offer support to my students who may be experiencing similar situations.

Even after making the decision to pursue a role within the creative industries, I still found myself superimposing Asian values over my actions. A tally of academic qualifications was my goal even though they do not steer success as a practitioner. My Eastern European student reminded me to be wary of this. She, like many, have the perception that a college certificate guarantees the life of their choice. In a bid to challenge them, I often arrange placements and career talks with working professionals. This is often for my benefit as well as theirs.

New Associations

My generation may have been the first to blend cultural references. When asked at school, “Where are you from?” I had no issue explaining that my heritage was a mixture of several countries, with Western media acting as a constant undercurrent that conflicted with an Asian identity. I relied upon phone calls to stay in touch with friends and relatives at home, whereas my students today have the benefit of the internet to spur their communications. Social media in particular represents a platform to coalesce artistic movements. Each swipe casts a vote for the fate of their photography with collaborators spread across the globe. Today a student is free to express a preference with any culture’s tastes yet they always retain a fiery affinity with their country of origin.

As an educator, I am conscious to make students aware of British academic standards while tentatively displaying sensitivity for their individualisms. A dear mentor once told me a simple mantra, “Teach from what you know.” It is something that has sat with me. As I construct lectures on my computer with the gaze of my parents from that photograph looking on, it is a conscious choice to be respectful of the upbringing that they gave me. I feel proud to contribute to the lives of my students. As immigrants, they are far removed from the tropes portrayed by the press. Each is hard working, entrepreneurial and brimming with creativity. It is highly rewarding to be a part of an educational system that empowers, supports and encourages a melting pot of immigrants, identities and nationalities, each of which inform and enrich other immigrants.