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Jesal Patel

A Self-Portrait

Where do you begin telling someone your life story… I guess I should start with my parents…my parents mean everything to me; they’ve done everything for me and my little sister and because of them I’m who I am today.  My mum was a refugee from Uganda and my dad is what society called an economic migrant from Kenya.   Life must have been hard for them and sometimes I forget that because now they own a very successful blow moulding company – they are truly a success story because they did turn their rags into riches.  I can’t really imagine how hard it must have been for them, especially for my mum.   In Uganda my mum’s family were incredibly wealthy and forced to leave everything behind by Iddi Amin; they came here with literally nothing, except the clothes they were wearing.  They reached England and fortunately never had to stay in a refugee camp because they knew people here.   That’s one thing about Indian society that is so special; you can stay with someone you’ve only met once if you need to and that’s what my mum, her parents and five brothers did.  Now people would never guess that something like that would have ever happened to my mum’s family because they have become a huge success in the property market.   I’m still incredibly close to my mum’s family; the children all practically grew up together.  My grandfather’s house is huge and I remember when we used to play hide and seek and forty – forty in the garden - things were so much simpler then than they are now.

When you’re that young only little things seem important – I guess for most people that’s always true.  When I was about six we moved from London to High Wycombe because my parents started the factory.  I started a new private, primary school; I never appreciated how much my parents sacrificed to send us to this upper / middle class school until a few years ago when my dad told that when they enrolled us they were two weeks from bankruptcy.   I still can’t believe they did that but they thought, and still think, that education is the most important thing.  Maybe because my mum was never able to finish school, as soon as she got to England at about 16 she had to start working, and my dad wasn’t a natural academic and spent his school years playing hockey and getting into trouble.   My sister and I were the only two ‘non –white’ students; it was full of children that were very well – off and we weren’t, which made me feel even more different.  We never went skiing at Easter, or had loads of extra money for luxuries.  Don’t get me wrong we had enough but just not everything and to a six year old sometimes what we had didn’t seemed like enough.   I was different at that school and I tried my very hardest to fit but I never got it quite right.  I remember going through phases where I felt like I didn’t fit in at all and other times when I did.

Like in all ages there were all these new trends that emerged; I remember there was a time when stickers were the best things ever; we even named the three types…shinies, bumpies and the plain ones.  All the girls in my class had a collection of stickers, I was so jealous.   I had the ones that you got free with different things and hardly anyone wanted to trade with me.  My parents gave me everything I could possibly need but not everything I wanted and like most six year old I felt resentful.  One day we were clearing out our desks at school and this girl in front of me, I still remember her name – sammi -, had taken out all of her books and placed them just in front of me.   I gave in to a moment of temptation, I reached out, took her sticker – album and hid it between my books.  I can’t remember exactly how I felt but my heart was beating fast, I felt sure the whole class could hear it, my palms became clammy and then all I wanted to do was put it back…but there was never the opportunity, or maybe I just didn’t want to see it.   I felt guilty but not enough to turn myself in.  The next day at school our teacher asked if anyone knew what had happened to sammi’s album – I felt sick.  A little while later the headmistress asked to see me, obviously I knew what it was about but I pretended I had no idea.   She then told me that the previous night my form teacher had gone through our desks and found the stolen album.  I can’t even remember how I felt it passed by in a blur.  I had to take home an envelope addressed to my parents; giving it to them was one of the worst things I ever had to do. They felt do let down, so upset, like they thought that they weren’t doing enough for me, even though they were trying their hardest and had already sacrificed so much.  They didn’t even punish me but I wished they had because their disappointment was a thousand times worse.   Looking back it must have been really hard for my parents because even though my sister and I felt slightly isolated we were only children and when you’re young prejudices are only slight.  It was slightly different for my parents because they never belonged to the circle of parents – ‘the Friends of Ladymede’.   My parents spoke with accents; I feel awful saying this but when I was little I found it embarrassing that my parents stumbled over worlds and pronounced things wrong; they say “pie – jamaz” instead of “pyjamas”.    Now I feel different and am incredibly impressed that they were both able to learn English so quickly without even being taught it.   My mum had to cope with the other children’s parents at parties and home – time but my dad tried to avoid it more; he would come to award – days but you could tell that he felt uncomfortable.  People were never openly racist; they were nice and civil but they knew, and my parents knew, that they were different from one another.

Racism is something that I still find quite confusing; I have only once felt the hatred of open racism but I think that everyone holds his or her own prejudices still.  They don’t necessarily openly voice them but the fact that they look at you and the first thing they think is ‘she’s brown’ is a form of racism in itself – but can that mentality ever go away?   The only time that I have truly felt racism is outside a club last year – this European man in his twenties walked over to me and started shouting that England was for the European and ‘pakis’ should leave or be killed.  I didn’t even reply at first because I was in complete shock; I had never experienced such hate and I nearly cried there and then.   I mean how could this man that could hardly speak English tell me that this wasn’t really my home and that I had no right to be here.  I was born in England but my parents weren’t; English is my first language and the place I consider to be home but then does that mean I’m English?   I have brown skin, I look Asian but then I can hardly speak any Hindu and probably know more about Christianity than Hinduism, even though I consider myself to be Hindu.  When I last went to India about 7 years ago I was seen as an outsider because I can’t really speak the language and my attitude is Westernised, the way I dress is Westernised, I don’t even like Indian food!   Basically I sometimes used to feel that I didn’t fit in completely in England or in India; I’m too white to be Indian and I’m too brown to be English.


I still hate in when someone asks me where I’m from because I never know whether they mean where I live or where I’m originally from.  I remember being in a club once and an Asian guy came over to talk to me and when he asked me ‘Where are you from’ I said High Wycombe and he started shouting abuse at me like ‘ You think you’re white but you’re not’ and ‘You think you’re better than me but at least I stay true to my roots.’   I don’t see myself as having a ‘confused’ upbringing but I guess I have, to a certain extent.  Growing up I went to Wycombe High School and all my friends there were white; this was never a problem for me because I had more in common with them than the other Asian girls, who didn’t tend to like, or weren’t allowed, to go clubbing and go shopping.   This was never a problem till I was about 14 and started going to discos at village halls- I used to be the only person of Asian origin and occasionally I felt different, other, outside the norm.  People could never pronounce my name, which is Indian, and I used to have to repeat it over and over, which I used to hate.   My white friends knew I wasn’t Pakistani and so they thought I wouldn’t be offended if they used the derogatory term ‘Paki’ but I was.  I have brown skin and so do Pakistanis; therefore we look the same; my friends didn’t realise that it offended me when the said ‘Oh look at that paki!’ but it did and I never said anything because that would openly highlight the differences between them and me…which I preferred to ignore.   This sort of makes it seem that my friends weren’t true friends but they were, they still are about 8 years on from the time I was just referring to.

Now things are different; I am still aware that  when I go into a room I stand out because I’m not white but now I don’t see it as negative – I’m different, not better or worse but just different.  Most white people sit out in the sun and risk getting skin cancer to go brown; I already am but only recently have I started to appreciate the colour of my skin and all that comes with it.   It’s slightly confusing but when I say ‘my family’ I don’t just mean my mum, dad and little sister but my mum’s five brothers and their families too.  My friends cant quite understand how close we are, the parents are all friends as well as relatives and the children are all friends as well as just being cousins.   About 25 of us go on holiday together, even to places like Africa – the tour companies usually hate us because there are just so many of us.  When I was a bit younger it used to annoy me that we had to go to London all the time to see my family, especially when I used to want to go out with my friends.   But now I appreciate the bonds between us; I know that if I ever need anything – money, someone to talk to, somewhere to stay – I always have about twenty people I can count on, which is a pretty amazing feeling.  Another thing about my family is that because the adults didn’t all have the chance to get a proper education the next generation have been indoctrinated to believe that one must go to school and work hard.   To say the very least we have a lot of pressure on us to perform well; the expectations are high and this is a problem when someone doesn’t live up to them.  My eldest cousin went to Oxford, the next to Cambridge, two to UCL and one to LSC so when it was my turn I aspired to go to Oxford to study English.   This is slightly ironic in the sense that in my primary school I used to come bottom in the class in this subject!  I worked quite hard during my A – levels but I was quite lucky because ideas and concepts came to me quite easily…therefore I carried on the family tradition and their expectations for me soared.

Yesterday three people in my family went to get their A – level grades; two did well but one didn’t get the grades he needed and expected; the high expectations from the family made it worse for him because even if it was subconscious he was compared to everyone else.   The dynamics of this extended family are amazing but at the same time they can be suffocating.  In small doses we work well together but in constant contact the problems bubble to the surface and occasionally explode – like an intense light shining on paper will eventually catch fire.   There has always been a divide between the girls and the boys, ever since we were little kids at family dinners the boys would sit in one room and the girls in another.  The parents perpetuate the idea that girls and boys are equal but girls should still do the washing up, as tradition states.   This used to annoy me but its something that I’ve just come to accept…all the parents were raised to believe that the men went out and earned the money and the woman’s place was in the house.  That way of thinking has changed - the girls have to get an education and become successful but still there is the belief that one day they will get married and probably stop working.   To some people this idea may seem sexist but it is one I have come to simply accept…if one day I do have children I probably won’t have the same ideas but I understand that its hard for the parents bringing up children in a culture so foreign to their own.   There is a slight gap between the first and second generation and its expected; luckily for us, the second generation, the adults were able to adapt and fit in, to an extent, in this country.  They have changed the way the think; they treat their children differently to the way their parents treated them; for example I had a lot more freedom that my mum when I was about 12 than she had when she was 18.   It’s a bit confusing but my mum was the youngest of 6 children and she was the only girl so on one hand she was spoilt and on the other she had little freedom because her brothers and parents were very protective over her.

This over protective characteristic has passed onto the next generation of boys; my male cousins feel like they have to look after the girls – protect them from all the evil in the world.  I remember once I was walking with my youngest boy cousin, he must have been about 10, and a car hooted as it drove past…my little cousin said something along the lines of ‘are you ok’…I still find that quite funny because this little boy thought that he should look after me and defend me against a car hooting.   The boys have this idealised idea that the girls are innocent and good – they like the fact that they themselves are not – like most teenage boys they brag about their latest conquests but it’s a complete double – standard because they would hate it if we were ever considered to be a ‘conquest’.   It’s nice that they care but sometimes too much care equals suffocation.   That’s sort of the way my family works, on the surface we are the Brady Bunch but underneath there are a few problems.  Luckily for us the problems are not so bad that they cant be dealt with; I feel incredibly privileged to be part of a family that is so close, even if at times I feel claustrophobic, enclosed, trapped, I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Three years go we travelled around South Africa, we being 25 of us, and to say the very least we, the children, fought would probably be an understatement – its fine now.   We have all forgiven and almost forgotten and thinking back on the holiday I remember the good things.

Going to Africa was an amazing experience.  I’ve never been hugely fond of animals – I’m petrified of rats and mice and scared of dogs – but going on safari is something I won’t ever forget.  I saw a stand off between a pride of lions and a herd of wilder beats, hyenas devouring the remains of a zebra, eagles soaring the sky… I saw more than I can write here but it taught me the beauty of nature, something that is hidden behind buildings and pollution in England.   I often look at the sky – I like it best when the sun is just about to set and the sky is filled with golds, oranges and reds.  I also look up at they sky when there is a full moon and everything is still and quite…its like you’re the only one there for a second.   When I was little I used to lie outside on a sunny day and look at the different shapes that the clouds made…I haven’t done that for a while, perhaps because I’m getting older and no longer have the time, or perhaps I’m forgetting about the small things that can light up a person’s world, even for just a minute.   In Zimbabwe I did two things that taught me that I can do anything if I really want to – I bungee jumped over Victoria Falls (the highest natural bungee in the world) and I went white – water rafting on the Grade 5 Zambezi River.  The first exhilarating experience was petrifying – you stand on a bridge over the river and behind you there is the roar of the huge waterfall…the instructor screamed 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, BUNGEEEEE and I jumped off a platform with nothing under me but rapids.   It was terrifying but as I was hanging upside down it was one of the most peaceful experiences ever.  All I could see was the brilliant blue sky above me, the sound of the gushing waterfall seemed so very faraway and distant…it sounds a little insane but I entertained the idea that I had died and this was Heaven – peaceful and calm – however, I was suddenly pulled back into the real world…the blood was rushing to my head, the straps around my feet felt tighter and tighter and I was suddenly hoisted back up towards the bridge then suddenly dropped again…. I don’t think words can express the mixture of the pure adrenalin rush and the tranquilness and calming feeling that I experienced as I hung there.   Looking back it seems almost like a dream because it was over so, so quickly but it is a memory that I will always remember.  White water rafting was an extreme sport of a very different nature – it was much more scary, much more intense and the likelihood of injury was much greater.   The rapids were so big that sometimes the raft was literally vertical, the whirlpools so powerful that at times you could feel the raft being pulled in, you got so wet that it felt like you had just jumped, fully – clothed, into a swimming pool.  These two amazing experiences taught me that I can overcome my fears; I can strive to attain my goals, at least if I want to.   Extreme sports are exhilarating yet petrifying experiences but now I know that if I can jump of a bridge I can take risks, I can overcome things in life that stand in the way of me attaining my goals.

When I grow up I at least know that I have people around me who will support me if I need it.  The future seems like quite a scary place for me…sometimes it hits me that I’m 19, I’m at university, I can drive, I’m almost an adult, even though I still feel like a little kid.   I still need my parents to look after me when I get sick, I still sometimes throw a tantrum when I don’t get my own way, I still watch cartoons like Tom and Jerry but next year I wont even be classed as a teenager.  20 has always seemed really old to me, like a major milestone in life, an age of complete responsibility but now it doesn’t seem quite so big because I have the security of university.   Everyone always said university was a time to grow up and I just thought it was like boarding school with much more freedom; but, when I’m at Oxford its like being in a bubble completely separate from everywhere else.  I still speak to my mum, dad and sister but it always seems like there’s no time to text or phone someone because there is always so much going on – a last minute essay, a tute, going clubbing or just sitting in a friends room chatting about anything and everything.   I feel so lucky to love university, to finally completely fit into the new environment that I have been submerged into.

I remember the first day…my parents dropped me and a few hours later they left and I went back to my new room and nearly cried…for the first time in a long time I didn’t know what to do.  Luckily for me my neighbour was lovely, and funny and up for pretty much everything…we went to the pub and since then I’ve missed my mum and dad because I love them but I’ve never wished that I was back home.   I’ve grown up a bit at university, when I first got there I didn’t know how to make pasta ( one day in the very beginning of the first term I was starving and tried to boil pasta without any water!) but I’ve slowly learnt to cook, to budget my money, to be more independent.   I’ve always been a tiny bit shy, I’ve always wanted to fit in and I think at uni I’ve found my own niche.  I’ve gone from the scared fresher on my first day to the new LMH Jcr social sec and I’m loving every minute of it.  I don’t really know what the future will bring, to be honest I hardly think about it because I’m so caught up in the hustle and bustle of every day life…I want to change the world – when I watch the news it makes me either want to cry or get angry at the injustice and inhumanity…I want to shout at the prime minister and those that are under him for making such huge mistakes.   I know people think that to stop violence, violence is needed but it just seems so unfair when innocent people have to die…I want to change this BUT how does one person do this?  I don’t think I’m giving enough, brave enough, strong enough to change the world…little things are still important to me, like clothes, music, makeup, even though they’re miniscule compared to important things, like wars, famines, natural disasters.   I think I’m quite materialistic and selfish.  I hate watching the news because it makes me feel sad, bitter and angry so I try not to watch it; I flick the channel when there is a commercial for the N.S.P.C.C or an animal rights group because its nicer to live in a dream world where bad things don’t happen – or just seem far away and distant.   The war in Libya seems too far away, almost like it doesn’t exist – like a movie, or tragic book – I get angry at myself for watching it and wanting to do something to change it but then forgetting about it a few minutes later.

I want to change things that are actually important but then I also want a high – flying job – I always though I wanted to be a high profile corporate solicitor…but do I really?  The truth is I don’t know what I want…I want this amazing career but I think I also want a nice husband and the regular 2.4 children – but is that just what my parents want for me?   Life still seems quite confusing…I don’t know what to think about the future. I sort of believe in fate but then I believe that I create my own destiny – the things I do today will affect my tomorrow – and whatever does happen tomorrow will be a result of my own actions and decisions.   Just reading that makes me feel really grown up – I’m responsible for my life – but I can’t control things therefore surely there is an element of fate? I don’t completely know whether I believe in free will or fate, whether I’m an atheist or a Hindu -   I’m not really religious; I’m more culturally Hindu that anything else so I don’t even know whether I believe in reincarnation or Heaven, whether I actually believe in a God or not.  I guess I’m quite fake in the sense that I pray to a god, any God, when I want something, like before an exam or a results day… I think I do it as an insurance, a just in case.    I’m not sure about a lot of things…I don’t know exactly what I believe and who I am – but I’m slowly learning more things every day…I doubt I’ll ever know the secrets of the universe and what happens next so I’m just seeing what happens – sometimes you make things happens and at other times things happen that you can’t control – maybe I have to truly accept that I can’t control everything that happens to me and live life as it comes – I have to accept that, yes, I should strive to reach my goals but sometimes that doesn’t make dreams come true. I’m not superwoman but I know that if I want something badly enough I have people who love me, belief in myself and the knowledge that things happen for a reason sometimes – what seems like failure can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.   It’s quite a scary thought thinking that there are some things that are beyond your control.

I have always had a problem trusting too many people with my real feelings, mainly because I think I might get hurt.  I let some people in, one of my elder cousins and a few close friends.  I think people are always judging me – what I do, where I go out, what I wear – and it makes it hard for me to let people in.   I have three friends that mean the world to me; they know the good things, the bad things and the awful things about me but don’t judge me; they are my true friends.  I’m slowly starting to learn that the problem isn’t other people judging me but the fact that I judge others and assume they are doing the same to me – maybe I sound a bit self – important but I think that even though I’m might outwardly appear quite confident inside I feel shy and scared.   I have all these expectations on me and so far I have constantly reached them; I have never felt the bitter disappointment on a results day, I got into Oxford, my first choice university.  In my high school I used to try not to do things that could result in disappointment, like elections.   I just thought ‘why put yourself out there and risk public humiliation.’  When I came to Oxford I wanted to do more things, extra – curricular things have always been a weakness, so I decided to run for JCR social sec – there was strong competition and sometimes I though failure and humiliation was imminent.   Hustings (speech to the JCR) was one of the scariest things I have ever had to do…but I did it…and was elected.  I have started doing things that are slightly risky, things that may result in disappointment but now I think I understand the motto – for things never ventured are never gained.

I want to do as much as possible with my life.   In the main hall of my primary school there used to be a plaque on the wall with the quote - “What lies behind us, and what lies before us are tiny matters, compared to what lies within us”.  I don’t even know who said it; but, what I do know is that I wont forget it – every day I want to live life to the fullest – I’m not saying I’m going to change the world – but even if I change it a bit then I’ve done something that matters, something that counts.