Opinion

Sacred or Sham: Interfaith marriage in the Sikh community

My husband and I had a Sikh marriage ceremony (Anand Karaj) in a Gurdwara in Hong Kong earlier this year.

Clinging tightly to the ends of the red cloth draped between us, we walked around the Guru Granth Sahib four times.

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Photo: Davinder Chohan / Chohan Photography

With each round, a verse detailing the soul’s journey towards God was read aloud.

But according to guidelines recently released by the Sikh Council UK, some might consider our wedding to be a sham, as I’m not a Sikh.

Based on the Sikh code of conduct, the Sikh Rehat Maryada of 1932, the guidelines advise: “Persons professing faiths other than the Sikh faith cannot be joined in wedlock by the Anand Karaj ceremony.

Yet many Sikhs feel that this form of Sikhism is a hard line version of the faith they hold dear.

Sikh scholar Davinder Singh Panesar says, “Sikh teachings don’t see faith as a differentiator, but as something that enables people to come to common ground, common humanity.”

Guru Nanak, who founded the faith, emphasised heavily on the ‘oneness of humanity’.

“If the Gurus don’t accept division in faith, caste or gender, why is it being enforced on the Sikh community? It doesn’t make sense and contradicts Sikh teachings,” Davinder echoes.

Many of Sikhism’s practices are aimed at bringing equality to all types of people.

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“Recognise all of mankind as a single caste” – Guru Gobind Singh Ji

In every Gurdwara’s langar hall, where visitors are served food, everyone must sit on the floor as equals, regardless of their background, wealth or status.

Every Sikh is given the surname Singh, for men, and Kaur, for women, in an attempt to reduce the long-standing practice of caste discrimination.

Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Guru, was executed for opposing the Mughal’s forced conversion of Hindus to Islam.

Non-religious option

Retired civil servant Gurmukh Singh, who was invited by the Sikh Council to comment on the guidelines, believes that people of different faiths are on different religious ‘ladders’.

“Though a non-Sikh can understand the universal teachings of Gurbani (compositions of the Gurus) and also those of other religions; they are on their own chosen religious ladder.”

According to Gurmukh, the Sikh Council’s guidelines don’t oppose interfaith marriages, only against them happening in Gurdwaras.

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Sri Guru Singh Sabha, the largest Gurdwara in London. Photo: bethmoon527/Flickr

“The alternative of a civil marriage is there. If they are so compelled by their residual faith in religion, both sides can visit each other’s places of worship,” he explains.

Rachel and Iqbal Channa from London decided to do exactly this for their wedding.

“Neither of us sees ourselves as religious so we knew we didn’t want a religious ceremony,” Rachel explains.

The couple had a civil marriage ceremony in 2012 at Pinewood Studios in Slough.

A few months before, close family gathered with them in a Gurdwara, as prayers were read for the couple’s wellbeing.

Love bridges the cultural divide for Rachel and Iqbal, “It’s not really a big issue for us. Perhaps it makes things a bit more complex, but I’ve learnt so much.

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Minority faith

The Sikh Council guidelines propose that if a non-Sikh adopts Sikhism, the Gurdwara should assess their genuine intention to follow the faith.

But journalist and author Sunny Hundal, who grew up in a Sikh family, feels that this is hypocritical and discriminatory.

“Many Sikhs wear a turban and grow their hair for the ceremony and then cut it off the day after. But the Gurdwaras turn a blind eye to that.”

Some non-Sikhs are in the process of learning about the Sikh faith, like myself.

“The definition of a Sikh is a student, someone who is learning, who is on the way to enlightenment, through self-discovery, ethical work and selflessness,” Davinder explains.

Confident that the guidelines will provide clarification, helping to protect Sikh values, Gurmukh says:

“There are certain core socio-religious values of communities which should be defended. The married life of a householder, and bringing up of children in a harmonious one faith environment.”

But Davinder feels that the guidelines have had a negative affect, “It has divided the Sikh community, misrepresented Sikh teachings and will inevitably risk disenfranchising many in the coming generations.”

Davinder and his wife Shanta had an Anand Karaj in a Gurdwara, although Shanta was born to a Christian Mother and a Hindu Father. She has gone on to be ‘baptised’ into the Sikh faith and bring her children up as Sikhs.

Sunny is certain that the guidelines are pushing people away from the faith.

“If no Gurdwara is willing to host the religious ceremony, the couple will undoubtedly feel that the Sikh community has ex-communicated them. What are the chances they will now bring up their children as Sikhs? If you have a minority faith, you should be integrating, not turning people away.”

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Though my husband and I aren’t devoutly religious, we do plan to keep the Sikh faith at the core of our children’s upbringing.

My acceptance into the community has been reflected in the warmth of my family-in-law, showing the exact love and kindness that made me fall in love with Sikhism to begin with.

Belly of the Tantra (Review)

This revelatory documentary by Indian filmmaker Pankaj Purohit will keep you on edge as it unveils some of the most rarely seen moments of Hindu cult rituals.

Pankaj Purohit and producer Babita Modgil travel to the different parts of rural India and Nepal that are inhabited by a secretive, ancient cult, seeking the reasoning behind their egocentric mentality and “primal” ways.

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The film explores the life of a mysterious and eccentric group of people, the Aghori, whose ancient traditions challenge the modern perception of morality.

The Aghori are part of a Hindu sect who worship Shiva, known to dwell in cremation grounds and believed to have a spiritual connection to the dead. The majority of the Aghori population are sadhus (holy men), who have many devout followers and believe that they are all-powerful – even able to raise the dead.

“They have no boundaries,” says Pankaj, “they try to live outside modern society’s boundaries, they are limitless.”

Cannibalism, vagina worship, animal and even human sacrifice are common practice for this group of mysterious Sadhus. And not a frame of vivid imagery short, it’s no surprise this film is censored in India.

Their practices are illegal by Indian law, but deep into the Indian wilderness, far from any governmental control, these people can continue their ways.

An unbound approach

The director’s intentions for the film were of a curious nature, searching for understanding, rather than to expose controversial rituals that continue in modern India.

“I tried to go into the filming with an open mind, without all my preconceptions of what’s right and wrong,” explains Purohit.

Belly of the Tantra was made Gonzo-style, reeling the film crew and director into many of the rituals. “We had to drink with them, smoke what they were smoking and do what they were doing, otherwise they would have suspected us,” Purohit says.

As an artist more than a documentarian, Purohit wasn’t bound by journalistic principles, giving the film complete freedom to delve deep into this sensitive topic. This artistic license is reflected in the piece’s editing style, as well as narration style.

The film’s UK Premiere was this month’s Cine Rebis Underground Film Festival at the Horse Hospital in Russell Square, London, where its full, uncensored version received much support.

The director’s next piece will expose the use of cheap, hormone-inducing drugs on child prostitutes in India.

Propaganda desensitizes Iranian public to Baha’i persecution

Bahai house of worship

Baha’i House of Worship, Delhi, India.

Daily discrimination against Baha’is in Iran continues as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad convinces the Iranian population of the Religion’s attempt to undermine the State…

Read more: http://digitaljournal.com/article/347047#ixzz2PLqeSvVR

Diversity on the Rise

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The world is becoming an unavoidably interconnected place.

People from opposite ends of the social spectrum now often come into contact.

Social boundaries are ever-changing, and though cultural barriers are still enforced in some instances, they are being broken down in others.

Many of us have become something we label as ‘global citizens,’ our identities made up of a complex combination of ethnicities, nationalities, religious beliefs and cultural practices.

No longer is a Brit necessarily Caucasian by ethnicity. And though rarely heard of, a Chinese citizen may not necessarily be of Chinese ethnicity in today’s world.

A result of all these things is an increase in people of mixed ethnicities – mixed race people.

Now the largest and fastest growing ethnic group in the UK, were we all to be bunched together.

Even if those who deem themselves as purely of one ethnic group look deep into their origins, it’s nearly impossible that they wouldn’t have mixed ethnic lineages somewhere down the line.

NOW Who’s the Illegal Immigrant?

English Defence League leader Stephen Lennon has been sentenced to 10 months in prison for illegally entering the USA.

The irony of this is just too sweet. The leader of a group that spends half their time complaining about the problem of illegal immigrants to the UK, has been caught for doing exactly the same thing in the United States.

Having been refused entry to the US in the past, when he travelled to the US in September he decided to use Andrew McMaster’s passport instead. If that’s not illegal immigration, I don’t know what is.

Stephen Lennon, also known by his pseudonym Tommy Robinson, pleaded guilty to the offence for which he was caught when he was fingerprinted at JFK airport in New York, adding yet another criminal conviction to his collection.

His personal assistant Helen Gower has said that Lennon is likely to be released early with a tag on good behaviour, and their leader is “well chuffed at the result today.”

Who are the EDL?

For those of you who don’t hail from the UK, the EDL (English Defence League) are a right-wing, nationalist group who claim to be “peacefully protesting against militant Islam”. But its followers are all too happy to go on Twitter rants about their hatred of non-white ethnic groups, and to tell everyone in Britain who is not white to go back to their ‘own countries.’ At times they sound like frustrated children whose toys were taken away by their invisible Muslim enemy, hash-tagging #thicko at the ends of their sentences.

They often pick and choose their ‘evidence’ against Muslims, ignoring anything that shows Muslims in a good light, and giving a pedestal to anything they do wrong. A good example of this would be using the Rochdale grooming case, involving 9 Muslim men, to pin the blame on all Muslims and immigrants, while ignoring the 7 white men who did the same thing in Derby.

They have even gone as far as to cheer when tragic events happen. One follower commented that he was glad when the 2 year-old boy and 10 year-old Muslim children were killed in a hit-and-run in Leeds (though the comment has slyly been deleted by now). His justification was that Muslims kill innocent people all the time. What kind of person smiles at the death a child?

But it’s not just Muslims and immigrants they hate. Their followers, such as @CommonSense4Now, have mocked me on Twitter in the past for having a Master’s degree, which to them implied that I am rich and upper class (though I’m much the opposite). And he accused the University of Westminster as having a “Muslim extremist problem”.

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Anybody who bears at left of the extreme right on the political scale may also become victim to the group’s hatred. This picture posted on Twitter summarises their views on just about everybody but themselves:

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Sikhs are the latest victims of cultural ignorance

Many suspect that the man responsible for the shooting in a Wisconsin Sikh Temple in the US had mistaken them for Muslims.

6 people, including both the Temple’s President and Priest, have died after being shot by Wade Michael Page, who launched an attack on the Sikh place of worship on Sunday morning.

Though the gunman’s intention has not been confirmed, the former member of the Armed Services has been related to racist groups.

This tragedy is somewhat reminiscent of the 1984 riots in India. Tens of thousands of Sikhs were killed in retaliation to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, who was murdered by one of her Sikh guards.

Confused attackers

Since 9/11, Sikhs in the US and UK have reported a sharp rise in violent attacks against them.

As many Muslims and Sikhs wear turbans, those who are unfamiliar with the Religions often confuse them with one another.

Of course, whether the gunman had meant to do the same to Muslims in a Mosque, the act would be equally as outrageous.

The Sikh turban was born out of defiance, during a time in which only the ruling Muslim majority were allowed to wear them.

Guru Gobind Singh Ji had ordered all Sikhs to wear turbans as a sign of their moral standards. In the Religion that is strongly based on teachings of equality, the turban also served to dispel the belief that turbans were only for the upper classes.

A pious Sikh man in the Golden Temple, Amritsar. Photo: Nick Leonard / Flickr

Cultural ignorance

If you think about it, on TV, there is hardly ever a mention of different Religions, or Religion at all, unless they are being blamed for something. And in the public arena, it has become so sensitive, that people are scared of talking about it.

As President Obama reminded the US, though it may have been a little late, the Sikhs have done a lot for the nation.

Broadcasters and publishers need to make religious people more visible in positive contexts. And religious leaders need to be more active in sharing the true meanings of their Faiths.

Ultimately we need to strive towards building an atmosphere in which all people, religious or not, can share and learn from each other.

Gun Legality

Just over 2 weeks ago, similar images flashed across our screens as 12 lives were claimed by the “Batman shooting” in Colorado.

But US Politicians, who currently seem to be overlooking the issue of gun control in the fore-run to the elections, may no longer be able to ignore it after Sunday’s violence.

Olympic Medalists Reflect Multicultural Britain

The endless debate about whether Multicultural Britain is working was silenced tonight as 3 Olympic gold medalists showed the value of a diversity.

3 Olympic Athletes from 3 different backgrounds win 3 gold medals.

Photo: adifansnet / Flickr


Jessica Ennis held her gold medal high for the Heptathlon, Greg Rutherford for long jump and Mo Farah became the first British man to win the Men’s 10,000m.

All three of them, including Somalian-born Mo Farah, were proud to represent Great Britain. “This is my country,” Mo Farah answered to a rather silly question – “Would you have been prouder to have done it for Somalia?”

The medalists visually and metaphorically symobolise how people from different backgrounds can flourish in the UK.

Most of the British public are feeling a great sense of pride over tonight’s victories, regardless of the ethnic backgrounds of the athletes.

And hopefully that pride will bring people in Britain closer together, long after the Olympics finish.

Is Bombing Bigots Justified?

My initial reaction to the alleged plot of the three men from Birmingham to bomb the EDL was, “good, they deserve it.” But as my morality and logic kicked in, it became a little more complicated.

The men had been stopped in Sheffield for a routine check and later arrested in possession of guns and explosives. What gave away their alleged plan was a little note on the weapons which said “English Drunkards League.” You can join the dots.

The wrong message

The very definition of Terrorism is an act of violence with a political message behind it. But the only message behind bombing the EDL is “we’re exactly like you think we are”. The worst case is that it actually helps the EDL to gain more supporters by justifying their own existence.

It makes me shiver when the odd few Muslims irresponsibly lash out in response to controversy.

The perfect example of this was after the publishing of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Those who seemed intent on making the lives of ordinary Muslims a misery waved banners which read ‘Al-Qaeda’ and ‘bomb the West.’ Why on earth would any sane Muslim feed the very fire which causes Islamophobia in Europe?

I more than anybody would like to see an end to the hostility that Muslims in Britain have to put up with. But these fundamentalists are bent on achieving their ridiculous goal of eradicating the West, no matter how much Muslims suffer on the way.

Terror vs. Terror

They are the two polar ends of an abstract war between the far right and extremist Muslims. In simple terms, nutters against nutters.

The EDL aren’t exactly non-violent themselves. In true EDL style, members beat an Asian boy up and ran another over at a protest in Lancashire last year. On the same day, they had trapped MEP Sajjad Karim inside his own house along with his wife and children, and hurled abuse at them.

The group was originally a bunch of angry football hooligans who formed on anti-Islamic principles. Co-founder Tommy Robinson has apparently thought about stepping into politics. But there really is no need. Bigotry is already more than fairly represented by the British National Party.

It is one of the thorns that comes with the rose of Democracy that fascist and racist groups must be allowed to exist and express their views, as everybody else can. Even if they are violent thugs.

See my original story on TheBowlerHat.co.uk.

Living in Limbo

It’s a strange existence to be mixed race. Fitting in, neither here not there. We spend half the time pretending to be somebody, as if playing a game in which we’re trying to merge in. Will they notice that I’m not from here?

The first time I ever went to Hong Kong and stood on the MTR (underground) surrounded by Chinese faces, a strange feeling ran over me. Have I finally been accepted?…I thought as nobody batted an eyelid at my presence. But whether I had been accepted for how I look or not, I still didn’t belong there. It was a false kind of belonging.

Face value

The simple fact is that we are judged by our appearances. Though mine can vary from day to day from looking mixed, to East Asian, to Nepalese…there is no way that I look much like my dear white (Irish-Roma) Father. I happened to take the looks from my Malaysian-Chinese Mother, something my Father said he was glad about.

My parents and I, when I was a baby

In my hometown in Kent, I can walk into a pub filled with burly bigots, and they’ll look around the place shouting “Chinese take-away anybody?” As if the only thing a Chinese face would be doing there, is delivering Chinese food.

Upon the opening of my mouth, out comes a stark British accent. That’s enough to convince most people that I’m a local. But an odd few still don’t get it, even when I’m repeating “I was BORN here” over and over again.

Some people even used to ask my Dad whether he had bought my Mum and I off the internet! And we’d get funny looks at times when I became older, as I walked down the street with my Dad, people mistook me for his disturbingly young wife – as if they had stereotyped him as a perverted white man with a thing for Asian women.

Chatting with Puja Kapai, a Law Professor at Hong Kong University, she explained how her Indian appearance sometimes dilutes the strength of her message. When she teaches human rights law regarding ethnic minorities in Hong Kong (the place she grew up), students see her as an ethnic minority advocating  for her own rights. If it were a white teacher, they would find it more legitimate.

It’s the same story for my fiancé, who was born and lives in Hong Kong, but is ethnically Indian. Chinese locals find it very hard to accept that HK-born Indians are Hongkongers too. The waiter, no matter how confused I look at him, will speak to me in Cantonese and completely ignore the true local. And ironically, it is my fiance who speaks it fluently.

Staying true

Thankfully, the UK is one of those places where our ancestors could be from anywhere in the world, and we still have the right to call ourselves British. But that doesn’t mean everybody in the UK accepts that.

Growing up, I always strove to be more Asian. I used to think to myself as soon as I get to an Asian country, I will fit in. When people asked me where I was from, my answer would be “Malaysia”. But going to Asia made my sense of British identity stronger. Now I proud and comfortable to answer “England”, accepting who I am.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I am denying my other identities. Just being honest with myself and the world about the many dimensions there are to a person’s identity. We have ethnic, national, religious identities, which all intermingle. And to label yourself as one, doesn’t neglect the others. That’s just of the fun things about being so mixed up – being able to be many things at once.

Thanks

Last week my post “My Mixed-race Family” was Freshly Pressed. Thanks WordPress! And I just want to thank everybody who took the time to read or comment on it. Especially, thanks to the people who shared their own experiences and lives with me. It was a pleasure reading about them. I can’t tell you how much it means to know that people care about what I write.

The world needs more celebrities like Aamir Khan

Miles apart from your average vain and selfish celebrity, Aamir Khan has been using his influence and popularity to spread public awareness of India’s most controversial social issues.

Indian Bollywood actor, director and producer Aamir Khan launched his pioneering TV show Satyamev Jayate (Truth Alone Prevails) this May. And he didn’t begin half-heartedly. The show’s first season dived straight in at the deep end of cultural sensitivity to address female feticide, child sexual abuse, dowry system, honour killing and domestic violence.

It’s one thing to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to charities and NGOs. To create a charity and pay other people to run it for you while it has your name written all over it, boosting your image and your movie/music sales at the same time. This seems to be the extent of most celebrity’s humanitarian side.

But to physically talk to the people you claim to care about, stand up for them, and create a platform for discussion and awareness in an attempt to criminalise social wrongs is something else. Using your influence to make people pay attention to the issues that beg for attention, yet have never been discussed like this before.

In the UK and US, where celebrity culture has become ridiculous, documentary-makers and producers abide by the trends of the “infotainment” industry. Viewers are only interested in serious programmes if they are hosted/presented by a celebrity, resulting in shows where comedian Lenny Henry is put in the middle of a Kenyan slum.

But the only way to spread awareness and to open minds beyond superficiality is to educate. Once these issues are known to all, and their negative impacts realised, the road to change is paved.

Initial thoughts on HK’s ethnic relations

A bus drives by, splashed with intense bursts of colour. The words “Hong Kong: Asia’s World City” written across it’s side in gigantic lettering. Little do tourists know how unlike a world city it can sometimes act. Most people glide in and out of the city, without noticing the ethnic tension that exists there. But for those who stay in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hung Hom or similar areas, the multicultural face of Hong Kong is much clearer…and after a while, so is the tension.

Another day, I was sitting in Starbucks getting my daily dose of caffeine, when I noticed a plaque on the wall saying “We love diversity.” Then I looked around the room at the staff. And I couldn’t think what they meant for the life of me. It certainly couldn’t have been ethnic diversity they meant, because everyone there was Chinese.

Ethnic tensions

Having only been here for 5 days, I have already seen and experienced a number of racist incidents. The ethnic tensions in Hong Kong actually became even more apparent to me this time. Because now even I, as an Asian-looking person with a stark British accent, was beginning to be treated differently by both Chinese and Non-Chinese locals.

In the Indian supermarket, I gathered some paneer and spices in my basket and put them on the counter to pay. Somehow, standing directly in front and in plain sight of the lady behind the counter, I must have been invisible. Because she neither looked at me once, nor acknowledged my existence as she continued to speak in Punjabi another customer. I subtly but politely pushed my basket forward a bit, so that she might notice I was ready to pay.

Then a man pushed straight past me (I must have been invisible to him too), and put his items on the counter. The lady took his money and off he went. And all this time, she happened to be looking everywhere apart from at me. Finally, after every single other person in the shop had paid, she let me. I won’t even mention the part where the other shop lady swore at me in Punjabi, thinking I didn’t understand, because that would be too long-winded.

Documenting discrimination

I will be making a documentary about the dynamics of Hong Kong’s ethnic tensions through the life of HK-born Indian Jeffrey Andrews. Along with the other characters, his journey will explore the inequalities in the education system, job prospects and in prejudice in Hong Kong society in general. This video gives some idea of the kind of discrimination that happens.

Throughout the making of my documentary about racism in HK, I will be literally emptying my mind out into this blog. Watch this space for musings, rants and developments about my project. Anybody with opinions about this topic, please comment.

My mixed-race family

Embarking on a journey to discover my own ethnically diverse background.

Mixed-race people, like me, are now the largest and fastest growing ethnic minority in the UK. My own immediate family is a perfect example of the growing trend. My Mother is Chinese, born in Malaysia, and my Father was a mix between Irish and Roma travellers.

My parents and I

My Mother and Father on their wedding day

My parents didn’t go through the same challenges in marrying into a different ethnicity as many others did, including the BBC’s George Alagiah for example. In fact, for my Mother growing up as the only Chinese girl in her class, shortly after coming over from Malaysia, she luckily didn’t experience any racial discrimination. “I never thought why is he [my step-Father] white and why am I Chinese? We didn’t even think about race then,” she said.

This is quite a world apart from the England I grew up in – Folkestone, Kent in the 1990s. I had never thought of myself differently until I became of a conscious age, when people started pulling the corner of their eyes back in an attempt to imitate Chinese eyes. I got called ‘chinky’ and my Mother, Grandmother and I have all been told to ‘go back to your own country.’ Have times gotten worse?

After some time trying to reason that it is easier to live just saying I’m British, I was reminded by a lovely lady from a clinic in Folkestone today, that I should be proud of who I am. Because if I ignore it, the heritage of my parents and their parents will be lost forever.

Starting the search…

For me, the journey starts when my parents met in Pullman wine bar in Folkestone, Kent in 1987. My Mum must have been one of the few ethnic minorities that were in Folkestone at that time. Nowadays, it is far more diverse.

My parents and I in the 1990s

Admittedly, I don’t know as much about either of my ethnic backgrounds as I would like to know. All I have to remind me of it are the stories my Father told me of his Roma mother and Irish traveler Father, a few photos of my Mother’s childhood days in Malaysia, and my own face when I look in the mirror every morning, reminding me that I am different.

A huge, decrepit old Bible from the 1800s has my Mother’s step-Father’s family history written neatly in the front page. But there is nothing of this sort for my Mother or Father’s families. So it’s up to me to put the puzzle together.

My Grandmother and John’s families come together

The Malaysian-Chinese side

Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from her southern British accent, my Mother was born in Melaka in Malaysia. My Grandmother didn’t want my Mother or Aunt to know their Father after they divorced. His identity, along with my Mother’s long-lost brother, remain a mystery to us all. The remnants of an old photo of my Mother’s real Father, with his head cut off, lay in the cupboard.

My Grandmother later married an English man called John Hunter. He was an electrician and brought my Grandmother, mother and Aunt to England in the 1960s. Since a young age my Mother and Aunt then began to only speak English. This explains why none of us can speak Chinese very well. From what she and my Mother say, they were very happy with him. He was a real English gentleman – tall, well-dressed, and with pipe in hand.

My Grandmother and her English husband John.

Following clues

After my Grandmother passed away, we found a pile of photographs of our Malaysian and Singaporean family members. Most of them have also passed by now too. But one photo baffled me most. A family is posing for a typical family portrait shot. Their ethnic background is hard to work out. The Father, maybe Malay, is adorned fully in Islamic dress, even topped with a fez-like hat. His wife seems Chinese, and their children seem of mixed ethnicity. But who they are is a mystery to me. Maybe my family has been practicing mixed ethnic relations for longer than I had thought.

A photo found in my Grandmother’s cupboard

We also found an old-fashioned, yellowing photo of my Mother’s anonymous brother, smiling at the camera with a sweet innocence. Hand-written on the back reads “Your son, Ah Hong…Birthday: 9th September 1959.” But everything else about this man is a blur to her. The stamp from the printing company tells us it was printed in Malaysia.

Mum’s brother, Ah Hong

In another photo, the Chinese calendar on the wall says ‘1980’. A red and gold ancestral worship shrine is in the background. The people in the photo seem to be my Uncle (my Mother’s second cousin), his Mother and some nameless family members crowding around my Great-Grandfather for his birthday. He is a spit and image of my Grandmother. Every year, the Chinese side of my family, who now live in Singapore, still visit his shrine in Malaysia.

The more I look at that photo, the more a young man wearing Ray-ban sunglasses begins to look like a man I met in Singapore 3 years ago. He said we were related in some distant way, but I didn’t think to ask anything further.

The Irish and Traveller side

My Grandfather from my Father’s side, who I never knew, was originally from Kilkenny in the Republic of Ireland. He was an Irish traveller, not that many people in the family know that. That is, the family who still speak to us. My Father’s Mother was also Irish, but was half Irish and half Roma traveller. This explains the wanderlust I must have inherited.

My Father and I

Although he was born in Essex, my Father was still never content with being called English. He had a typical Irish pride. How we came to have the name ‘Castle’ as Irish descendents still puzzles me though. Years back, I stared for hours at a map of Ireland that marked every area by the name of the descendents of each village or town. But ‘Castle’ was nowhere to be seen.

Unfortunately, when my Father sadly passed away, all the memories of his childhood and background went along with him. Of course I remember many of the things he told me about. But sadly, memory fades. And the generations of my Father’s family who came after him seem to know nothing about their real heritage. It’s not exactly viewed as something to shout about these days.

Just the beginning

The gaps in my knowledge are troubling me. After all, if I don’t make an effort to search for the answers to my questions, who will teach my future children how interesting their ancestry is.

I owe this to my parents and my Aunt and Uncle alike, who set a beautiful example through their love, that it doesn’t matter where you are from or what you look like.

This is just the beginning of my search.

My Auntie Maggie and Uncle Kevin

Three conversations, three epic stories

Mobile media technology master Ilicco Elia, entrepreneurial journalist Don Omope and Mediastorm’s Brian Storm have agreed to talk to us about how and why their respective fields are changing, and their roles in that process.

Video journalist David Dunkley-Gyimah, our lecturer at the University of Westminster, has managed to pull some strings in the media world once again. After our chance to talk to the inspiring and award-winning director Eliot Rausch on Skype a couple of weeks back, this is our chance to broaden our horizons even further. The rapid growth of technological capability was resonant throughout all three our conversations, affecting the abilities of storytellers, journalists and even ordinary netizens.

Mobile technology

During his 20 years working for Thomson Reuters, Ilicco Elia was able to pioneer mobile services for the international news agency. He explains to us, while intermittently checking one of his six mobile phones, that mobile technology is no longer about how fast the internet or device is, but rather about how the consumer feels when using it. For the first time, smartphones such as the iPhone enable us to communicate with each other in ways that didn’t seem possible even as recent as 5 years ago. He smiles at the prospect of what mobile technology will evolve into in the coming 5 years.

Mobile technology has had a great impact on the practices of journalists too. Ilicco is reminisces of the first time he had encouraged a dis-believing colleague at Reuters, photographer Finbarr O’Reilly, to take a mobile phone with him into the field. But as the photographer and his camera equipment were battered by rebels in Chad, the mobile phone he had taken as backup suddenly became more useful than he had previously thought. Not only did the mobile phone provide the last resort backup, but it’s GPS function allowed him to be rescued.

For reporters, the mobile phone can facilitate a different kind of interview than a camera can. Many interviewees feel less intimidated by a mobile phone, and open up more in front of it. On top of this, as Ilicco elaborates, mobile phones allow journalists to film or photograph something, and send it directly back to the agency. Mobile technology therefore, doesn’t attempt to take away the role of the journalist, but to allow them more flexibility.

Taking control

Creative “Jack of all trades” Donald Omope has been making giant steps in the field of Entrepreneurial Journalism. Being able to photograph, shoot video, report, write and communicate well is impressive enough as it is. But knowing how to talk and interact with news agencies and broadcasting companies in way that they realise your worth, sets Don aside from the rest of us. He advises us that there are two ways to get to the top as a journalist. “You can start at the bottom of a company and slowly work your way up,” he says, “or you can build yourself up independently so that companies sought after you.” And that’s the approach he has taken.

And every step of the way, he has retained complete control over his life by making choices only for the benefit of his passions. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Westminster, he worked, saved up his student loan and even invested in stocks and shares in order to pay for his camera equipment.

During the 2011 riots in London, Don photographed the action in Tottenham. Don describes, that after arriving at the scene, it didn’t take him long as a local to suss out who was going to be the easier party to focus on, rioters or police. But it wasn’t that easy. At one point, he found a police baton crashing down on his head and camera, after repeated harassment to stop photographing them. But he knew his rights as a journalist. Later, as he spoke live to the BBC, he began to read out the badge number of the police officer who had attacked him, as he watched the colour disappear from the officer’s face.

“If you don’t have an idea, then you’ve got no hope (in this industry),” he exlains to us. It is important to look for your own niche, in which there is currently something missing. Then when you have your idea, you must use all the skills you have to make that idea materialise.

The days when one could get by with one skill are long gone, and Don has shown that being self-sufficient financially and journalistically can bring you closer to your dreams. With his passion in Film and seeing a gap in the market for it, he set up a website called African Screens, the only online magazine focusing on the African Film Industry.

Storytelling that counts

Brian Storm emphasises that storytelling itself has not changed over time, but changes in technology now mean that it is possible for anyone to tell a story and make it global. “It transcends all platforms, all devices…it’s still about telling stories.” The aim of award-winning multimedia production studio Mediastorm has been to tell stories that every human being can relate to, that get us thinking about what binds us as a people.

He takes us back to 1994 when  he was at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He had been working for a newspaper in Missouri as a stills photographer. But troubled by only being allowed 2 photos per story, he decided to create a platform that didn’t limit how a story is told – Mediastorm.

Besides its impressively high quality productions, what sets Mediastorm apart is most definitely its attitude. “Journalists go around pretending that they can be objective, but that’s impossible,” he says, “you can be fair to your subject, but you can’t be objective.” Preferring to call themselves storytellers, as opposed to journalists, the staff at Mediastorm, “don’t fit a traditional model, we fit what we care about.”

Some productions such as Walter Astrada’s ‘Undesired’, bringing light to the suffering of many Indian women as a consequence of gender inequality, have been criticised for being unbalanced. But Brian strongly upholds that their aim is to raise public awareness of these issues, and by provoking the emotions that it does, more people want to watch it.

He has a similar attitude to the Kony 2012 video, which has come under heavy fire recently. He applauds director Jason Russell for being able to get 30 billion people thinking about a topic they didn’t previously know about. Brian also surmises that critics of the video are simply envious that they weren’t able to do something with as much impact.

Three conclusions

After the day of talking to such inspirational characters, we walk away with many ideas buzzing around in our minds. Don empowers us by telling us that if we wish, we are able to control our own careers and stay close to our passions. Ilicco, by his example alone, shows us how much technology can develop in such a short space of time, making the lives of journalists incredibly flexible. And Brian Storm reminds us that although technology may be changing, the fundamental things that make us human remain the same.

Langar: Faith in Food

We started, as all visitors do, by taking off our shoes and covering our heads. For those who don’t usually wear turbans or a scarf, there are spare ones provided. As we followed the grandiose staircase upwards, the Sikh’s holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, housed under a golden canopy, came into view. After bowing in respect and sitting for a while to take in the sweet sounds of the holy book being sung aloud.

Gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, practice their service to Humanity by providing this free, round-the-clock kitchen. People of any race or religion are welcomed to eat Langar, which consists of solely vegetarian food, while sitting on the floor with everybody else. This dining style was introduced by the Sikh founder Guru Nanak Dev Ji as a symbol of everyone’s equality, a theme that is resonant throughout the Sikh Faith.

The whole system, from food preparation to cleaning up, is run by volunteers who offer their help and service selflessly. This is what in Sikhism is called Sewa. And those who give Sewa are Sewadars. The most warming part of this is that they don’t expect anything in return. As Gurdeep Singh took us on a tour around the kitchen, we watched as women tossed and beat dough into round, flat shapes to make chapatis. At the next table, men were leaning over a burning hot-plate, flipping the flattened dough until it was slightly browned.

Sewadars like Gurdeep Singh devote time to serving Langar almost every day. Preparing the dishes, which range from daal (lentils) to kheer (semolina), starts at 2 in the morning in order to feed hungry mouths by 5 a.m. In a continuous cycle throughout the day, trays are taken, filled and emptied by visiting worshippers, and given to another group of Sewadars who are in charge of washing up. By 9 or 10 at night, the kitchen is sparkling clean again, ready for another day of hard work to begin again in a few hours time.

The day that the Gurdwara is pulsing with energy and life is on a Sunday. The Sewadars, along with the the Chefs, feed from 5,000 to 10,000 people on this one day. We stood in the fridge among gallons upon gallons of milk that would all be used in one day to make kheer. 

After a long day, we took a metal tray from the pile. A ladel-full of daal, vegetable curry and kheer was added to our tray as we moved along. We were also offered chapatis, masala tea and jalebi, a sweet battered pretzel doused in syrup. As we sat and ate this delicious meal, the Gurbani, or devotional songs, played continuously, echoing throughout the spacious rooms, soothing the soul.

Southall is home to the grand, awe-inspiring Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara. But this isn’t the only place in London you can join this community experience. Upton Park and Southfields are also home to major Gurdwaras, as well as the oldest Gurdwara in Europe in Shepherd’s Bush.

Multimedia by Jody-Lan Castle and Bibek Rajbhandari, article by Jody-Lan Castle.

The global talent pool of the English Premiership

Arsenal were the victors of last night’s match in come-back against Aston Villa. But who was it all up to? Two goals by Robin Van Persie, and one by Theo Walcott. And the squad behind them were from the Czech Republic, Cameroon, Poland… With a team who 82% from abroad, this got us thinking how dependent are English teams on foreign talent? And what is the impact of this?

Audio recording and editing: Jody-Lan Castle and Michelle Shi

Racial relations in Folkestone, Kent

Amid all this discussion about racism in the UK, here is a look at how Folkestone in Kent is doing in terms of its racial relations.

Folkestone is a multicultural town, including large groups of Nepalese, Bangladeshi and Eastern European people.

These graphs show that the number of White British people has gradually declined over the past 10 years, and the number of ethnic minorities has risen.

The Nepalese Community is probably the most prominent ethnic group in Folkestone. In 1997, when the Gurkhas’ base was moved from Hong Kong to the UK, Folkestone became home to the Royal Gurkha Rifles. Now, over 350 Nepalese families live there. Here’s Susan Wallace, the Mayor of Folkestone, telling us about the Gurkhas.
In January 2011, an Afghan teenager was stabbed and killed by another Afghan boy. The cause was said to be a tribal feud. This incident polarised the public in Folkestone, and racial relations became tense. The newspapers at the time said that some parts of Folkestone were becoming ghettos.This is Barbara Witham, Events Organiser for Folkestone Town Centre Management and one of those responsible for Folkestone Multicultural Festival, commenting on the stabbing of an Afghan teenager in Folkestone last year.As the Economy worsens and unemployment stays high, the relations between ethnic groups in Folkestone will be strained. Hopefully, Folkestone will remain a peaceful seaside town.For a more detailed report, including public opinion and an interview with Bijay Hitan from the Nepalese Community of Folkestone, listen to this.

Racism issues at the forefront of British Media

Racism is becoming a part of everyday dialogue in Britain. The stories that have made the headlines are making us aware of the problems at hand, but are racial relations getting better in the UK?

Britain is a multicultural country, a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. But economic hardship, a majorly biased Media, and general ignorance cause relations that were already tense to be strained even further.

The 23-year old Indian student Anuj Bidve, who was shot dead in Salford, is the most recent victim of racial discrimination in the UK. And 18 years after Stephen Lawrence was stabbed to death just for being black, his racist killers have finally been sentenced. Debate continues over the Metropolitan Police’s disproportionate number of stop and searches of black youths, which may have led to London’s violence in the summer of 2011.

The issue of race has even become a serious topic in the world of Sports. The Commons culture committee, made up of MPs, is set to start its inquiry into racism in Sport following the increasing number of racism allegations against key sports figures. England captain John Terry is currently still being investigated for allegedly shouting racist remarks at Anton Ferdinand.

A recent survey carried out by thinktank British Future and the Observer newspaper found that people living in Britain who were not born there identify as strongly with Britain as those who are British-born. But the YouTube sensation ‘racist tram lady’, from South London, whose racist ranting has split opinion among Brits online, has renewed the bigoted idea that non-white people can’t be British. The most disturbing thing is that some people agree with what she said on the tram.

The Daily Mail and the Sun continue feed the general public with anti-Immigration propaganda, giving the impression that it is foreigners who are ‘stealing our jobs.’ The previously mentioned Observer survey also found that British people feel that people born outside of the UK, who reside in Britain, are having negative influences on crime levels, the availability of housing and jobs and the National Health Service. Yet, they did admit that those born outside Britain were having a positive influence on the Food Industry. Not surprising considering that most Brits see curry as their national dish.

As unemployment, funding cuts and a threatening recession strain the country further, and the Olympics just around the corner, the coming summer could prove a difficult and tense time for Britain. 2011 saw the Student protests, the London riots and the ‘Occupy’ movement. The last thing London needs during its year in the light of the Olympic torch is a repeat of last year’s civil disobedience and a discontented citizenry. Changes need to be made.

Article also published here: http://www.wespeaknews.com/world/racism-issues-at-the-forefront-of-british-media-15081.html

Bol, a film to tell everyone about

Bol (Speak) is a film that makes you physically sick. But it is a film that demands to be watched. It makes you face the disgusting things humans in this world do, which is something that people in this increasingly individualistic, materialistic world have forgotten how to do.

Throughout the movie, when you think the worst is over, it keeps going on. The plot centers around a strict Muslim Father who makes the lives of his daughters, eunuch son and wife a living hell.

Shaoib Mansoor, who also brought us Khuda Ke Liye, took 2 years to make this budget-movie which was released this Summer. But it was worth it. Even singer Atif Aslam has said he didn’t mind playing a controversial role as the movie was for a good cause.

Some of the issues covered include domestic violence, sexual abuse, forced marriage, honour-killing, the unfair treatment of eunuchs, tensions between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, police corruption, government ignorance and capital punishment.

Amr Kashmiri who plays 'Saifi' at the London Asian Film Festival 2012

Amr Kashmiri who plays ‘Saifi’ at the London Asian Film Festival 2012

Before anyone says, “here goes the Islamophobia again”…the film is made by Muslims. And they are not necessarily conveying anything negative about the Religion itself, but how it is used and misinterpreted.

Surprisingly for a Lollywood movie (yes, there is Lollywood from Lahore), covering such a wide span of social issues within Pakistani and South Asian society, the film was approved by the Central Board of Film Censors for release.

The title, Bol, and the ending of the story tell us that people, and especially women, need to speak up in societies like the one in this movie. Hopefully, this film will encourage them to do so.

Serving Pironi and Prosecco to the Mail on Sunday

Just a normal day in class, and a normal day at work. Well so I thought. Until I found myself having a B52 shot at the expense of one of the newspapers I loathe the most, the Mail of Sunday. After yesterday’s blogpost ranting about the Daily Mail, I ironically turned up at work to find Bob from the Mail on Sunday was hosting a party at our restaurant.

Standing behind the bar eavesdropping on people’s conversations, I didn’t hear anything more exciting than men moaning about the stress of having a wife and kids.

I did expect a bunch of bigots ranting about the state of Britain and immigrants stealing jobs, but I guess they save all that for their newspaper.

Funnily enough, it seems like Daily Mail staff have a certain look about them, which I’m not able to describe. All I know is, I will know a Daily Mail journalist if he walks into the room!

I overheard that the Telegraph’s party was on tonight too. Again my bad luck rears its ugliness…why couldn’t the Telegraph hold their party at ours!

When the food came out, some of the chicken seemed undercooked. One of them came to me and said jokingly, “We’d best send these back, unless you’re trying to send our entire department down with food poisoning?” And I had a little giggle to myself.

Not everyone at the party worked for the Daily Mail, there were some delightful people.

Bob, though I didn’t catch his last name, was very talkative. Well…at least to my white work colleagues.

When I asked everyone if they needed us to call taxis for them, he turned to everyone and said “does anyone need taxis? This………..(long pause)….woman is asking.” “Go on! Call me something racist, I dare you!” I was thinking in my head.

There seemed to be a consensus among my work colleagues and I, that the Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday is not a very nice newspaper. And my boss couldn’t seem to understand why, “I love them ‘cos they’re Fascists”, he said giggling.

Before anyone asks, no of course I did not get any contacts! I have a conscience you know!

The Daily Mail proves its ignorance once again

How on earth is the Daily Mail allowed to publish what it does, calling it Journalism?!

This week’s evidence of the Daily Mail’s ignorance and laziness was written on the 3rd December entitled: “Alarming rise of Muslim ‘honour attacks’ in the UK as police reveal thousands were carried out last year.”

My first bone to pick is that there was no evidence in the information released by the police that the majority, or any, of the victims or attackers were Muslims. In fact, Religion wasn’t included at all.

Though the common conception is that honour-killing is a Muslim phenomenon, there are actually high numbers of these crimes in some Sikh and Hindu communities too.

But of course, the Daily Mail has to play on the Islamophobia which is now in the public’s conscience, which was planted there by irresponsible press like the Daily Mail in the first place.

“Culprits hailed ‘heroes’ in the community for carrying out the attacks” it says. Again, not true. This sentence is meant to be assumed to be a fact, as it is featured in a bulleted list, giving it importance. It also seems like the Daily Mail is trying to imply that the whole Muslim community agrees that honour-killing is right, which we all know isn’t true.

Besides its outrageously biased writing style and basing fact on opinion, it also has quite shocking discussion section, asking crass questions like: “Are white children becoming the minority in British schools?” The kind of question designed to provoke bigots and BNP-supporters to rant about foreigners.

Hardly surprising that an online newspaper, whose entire front page is celebrity-ridden, doesn’t know how to write news.