“She’s lost weight.”
Inwardly, I sighed. Outwardly I nodded, affirming her untruth, not wanting to be difficult. In reality, the Small One hadn’t lost any weight, she was just looking a little slender, possibly because she was taller, but I agreed anyway. I agreed because it was easier than disagreeing; I agreed because disagreeing would have meant I’d have had to enter into a conversation about it, a conversation I didn’t really want to have. It was easier to agree and shut down the possibility of any debate. Looking back, perhaps it was not the best example for the Small One: if she sees me backing down, placidly, will she always do the same?
Before I even address that, perhaps a little context. Asian women are nosy. Inquisitive, intrusive, rude, meddling and just downright nosy. Perhaps it’s a sub-continent thing, perhaps it’s something we breed into our families, perhaps it’s something that’s never been challenged and therefore just continues. Born to Pakistani parents, raised in England, everything quintessentially British had somehow escaped this Auntie: that too-polite-apologeticness and refusal to meddle and ask awkward questions, that avoidance of being intrusive, politely making small talk instead. Despite spending the majority of her life here, Auntie – let’s call her Auntie No.4 – made it her business to be in your business. The swathes of material she wore and that face veil, both symbols of religiosity, did not deter her from her meddlesome holy quest of gleaning over shiny nugget of information, until you were bled dry and had nothing else left to give. I remember a number of years ago, being grilled as to why I wasn’t pregnant and when I was going to have some babies, as though my empty womb had deliberately expelled my last pregnancy to spite her and her kin, like I was withholding that which they all desired to be disagreeable and difficult. Conversations like that shut me down, I can’t defend myself against the onslaught so I just curl up and wait for the storm to pass. Sometimes it does, other times it doesn’t; it just rages on around me while I will myself elsewhere.
That is why yesterday, I took the path of least resistance: it was just easier. What I should have said was, “She’s probably just got taller and therefore looks slender. In reality, she weighs exactly the same. Having said all that, I don’t understand why her weight has any bearing on her as a person. It seems you are only mentioning it because she is a girl. I’ve never heard you or any others comment on the weight gain or loss of a male child, it’s just not the done thing. But a girl’s weight is bandied about a discussed like it is the only thing of importance. No wonder eating disorders are on the rise. In fact, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention my daughter’s weight or size in front of her again. I don’t want your comments to have a psychological effect on her.” Had I not shied away from a fight, that’s what I should have said. But that’s the story of my life when it comes to Auntie No. 4, I just back down because it’s easier.
It’s easier to shut down the debate than to invite it, especially since it would have meant I’d have had to continue conversing with her. She maybe would have pulled out the “Elder” Card that they rely on so heavily: we’re your elders and you shouldn’t speak back to us like that. And therein lies the problem; elders doesn not always mean ‘betters’, but that’s how it’s used in this context. It’s a stick to beat you with and a justification for bullying you. You can’t answer your elders back because it’s disrespectful; it matters not how rude they are to you, how they bully you, how they question your every move; to retaliate is to disrespect, to disrespect is to show you’ve not been raised right and we all know what that means. Her mother didn’t teach her how to speak to elders. A colossal slap in the face. It’s the “Your Mum” of insults from Asian elders and it’s usually the one that stops us from ever retaliating.
It’s a culture of bullying we proudly uphold though; respecting your elders by not telling them to mind their own business is one thing, but allowing them to bully you is another. Take this example from the same day. Auntie No. 1 saw me with my new fabulous bag. It’s a small 13 litre rucksack that I bought recently as regular ladies handbags are designed to cause all sorts of back problems and this way my hands are free to chase after and hold the Small One. It’s lovely and comfortable and I love it. It helpfully has a flower motif on it to show it’s for ladies. Auntie No. 1 thought it important to point out that I wasn’t going camping when she saw me with it. I was well aware I wasn’t going camping, what kind of idiot goes camping with only a 13 litre pack? I tried to justify why I had it: my hands are free this way, it’s comfortable, I can look after the Small One better if I don’t have to worry about holding my bag. Also, I had my kindle in there so I could sit and read and not talk to anyone.
This carried on through the evening every time someone spied my bag in this gathering. Asian women can’t help themselves, they have to comment on everything. And if someone is just that little bit different, they stand out, like me with my 13 litre hiking handbag. Or perhaps it is just these women? Why have you got a backpack on? Are you going hiking? You’re wearing a rucksack! Yes, I really am! It was like I’d walked in wearing nipple tassels and a sparkly thong, twirling my tassels provocatively in their faces. Until I bought one, I never knew a small rucksack could cause so much controversy at a family gathering.
If it wasn’t the rucksack it would have been something else. Had I removed my headscarf to reveal my sparkly headpiece, I’d have had to listen to taunts about how I looked like a hippy, how that was different, and how my hair looked…nice? I know this because I had worn this particular headpiece at a family wedding and had to endure the comments then; having forgotten, or just repressed the memory, I stupidly wore it again. So when I remembered, I decided not to remove my headscarf, despite it being a segregated gathering. And that’s what this elder meddling does to you: you plan your whole outfit to make it as non-controversial as possible, as drab as possible, remember not to stand out so you don’t get commented at or remembered. At last that’s what I did when I hung up the shalwar kameez I had ironed to wear and instead opted for plainer, darker clothes in a bid to remain inconspicuous.
The Small One however, has not been bullied by them for long enough to know any better. She wanted to wear her sparkly shalwar kameez, gold and cream with the shiny sequins and embroidery. And on her feet she wanted her Spider-man sandals. Because she’s two-years-old and that’s what she wanted to wear. Fair enough, yes? No. She was asked repeatedly why she was wearing those shoes with that lovely dress. Didn’t she want some pretty shoes like [insert female name here] who was wearing sparkly pink shoes that matched her dress? Didn’t she want to look pretty? My toddler didn’t respond, but I could see her face and the small cogs whirring in her brain. Get lost, I AM pretty. And why does being pretty matter so much anyway? Why haven’t you asked about the prettiness of any of the male children present? Is it because you are promulgating the sexist stereotype that girls are defined by their attractiveness and therefore their self-worth is based on their looks? I’m more than just my looks; I’m more than just pretty.
I really hope that’s what the look on her downcast face said and not, Why did I wear these shoes? I had better not wear them again. Please leave me alone. A veteran to Asian auntie taunts, I am now re-thinking my daughter’s wardrobe, especially since she always looks different and stands out. I don’t want her to become an object of ridicule like her mum; I just want her to be left alone so she can be herself. I know that’s ironic, but I don’t want her to end up like me: a doormat for her elders’ bullying, so they can wipe their feet, fluff up their feathers and strut about, crushing her personality into a passive nothingness.