Perfectly integrated but...

Research participant Lavan is a Sri Lankan Tamil born in Cardiff, Wales. He is a second-generation person of an immigrant family from Sri Lanka. Here are some snippets from his experience of being a Sri Lankan Tamil in the UK.

Can you tell us a little more about your family background, whatever you know about your immediate family, your extended family?

My experience of my family background is quite limited. But I know that after my parents met, they came over to this country to make a better life. I know they went through some difficulties. They struggled but they managed to get an education over here which helped them both get jobs. My dad is a civil engineer. My mother is a civil servant working for the Companies House. The only family that I know of are, apart from my immediate parents, my cousins, uncles and aunties who all came over here. The ones who stayed behind [in Sri Lanka] I may have visited them once, because I have been to Sri Lanka only once. Singapore is the other side of my family, my mother's side. That's where my grandparents, who are still living, are and whom we visit regularly. But because my father's parents died long before, I've never met them. So, especially considering the cost of flights and things I have got to make that decision to which country we are going to, and it always has been Singapore. So, growing up in this country as well is very different than, I imagine, how they grew up. My experiences are very British. They (my parents) had their Asian background; they had the Asian upbringing. But all my experiences were British in every sense of the word. So, on that level, we are very different and often I cannot relate to what my parents have gone through and, to be honest, as much as they haven't talked about it, I haven't asked them about their childhood either. So, it is very different.

Did your parents ever talk to you about Sri Lanka?

No. Not in the house, not here in Wales anyway. It's a very separate identity for them. Even when I started becoming aware when I was in Sri Lanka, a lot of it wasn't spoken in English which is the only language I know. It was all spoken in Tamil. So, it is my dad catching up with a lot of my uncles, people whom I had not met before. But because of the language barrier there was not much I could do.

Do you know any Tamil at all?

None. I mean a few words. A few phrases. Only things that could be used as source codes I guess. (laughs).

Describe your ancestral home or anything that you know about them back in Sri Lanka, if you know.

Having been to Sri Lanka only once when I was 12, I don't have much experience on how they grew up. I did spend a lot of time when I was twelve but that was a long time (ago) and I was a kid. Not many of these factors were actually of interest to me at the time.

About your education and occupation

Just like most of the British I went through the normal school system; did my GCSEs, did my A Levels and went on to the University of West of England in Bristol to study Biomedical Science. I achieved a 2:1 in that and since then I have looking to climb on to the career ladder but as anyone in this generation knows it's very hard. So, I had a few jobs. I worked a lot in sales, as a personal trainer for a little while and now I work in a call centre doing sales as well.

So, your education and your current occupation don’t match?

NO. The reason for that is, as mentioned before, everything depends on the basis of experience. You are kind of blindsided when you begin  your degree because you are told by your lecturers that you are in a good course, and you know you are in a good course, especially with biomedical science which is a part of the medical sciences. So, in theory it should have opened up many avenues.... and you know over the years, even during the course of my degree outside the schooling system, life had changed. You come out with a degree, even with a 2:1, and they will tell you to go get some experience. Fine. But when you go and get that experience and you can't because you need pre-experience on top of that. And then all you end up having is, instead of walking into a trainee role based on your degree, you have to go below that and compete with people who have got PhDs.

Do you think your ethnicity has anything to do with your experience in the job market?

That's a thing I can't say for sure whether it was positive or negative because there has been no way to collect any data on that, whether that's what has held me back or pushed me forward. So, it's really hard for me to say.

Do you have any idea why Sri Lankans ended up in Britain?

I didn't know that the (civil war) was the reason. I just thought the quality of life there, as I understand it, wasn't as good as the opportunities here. I didn't realise that there was a conflict going on and my dad doesn’t mention it even to this day. So, I don't know what the conflict was about or anything. I am still pretty much in the dark.

Were you in contact with any children of Sri Lankan background in school or where you study?

Oh no. I had no contact at all. While growing up the only Sri Lankans I knew were my parents and a few family members.

Do you think they guarded you from imparting the memories of this conflict so that they can protect you?

Whether they guarded me from it or whether they didn't even have to… because of the nature of my experience growing up as a kid, you know, 90 per cent of the people I ran into are white British. They don't know any of that anyway. So, there's nothing to guard me from. But why they didn't talk about it; is it because they didn't want to bring up the pain of their own memories or even transfer that pain onto me is not clear to me. Maybe, that's the reason. But I definitely blame myself for not asking more, I think. But we'll see if that changes.

So, have you thought to yourself at any time that you need to know more about Sri Lanka at all?

Embarrassingly no. In this day and age everyone is so very busy; everyone is trying so hard to make a living, and to be the person they want to be which takes a lot of work. And because that is not being related to my goals for myself, it's not of interest to me even at this time. But it's not something I want to forget either. I know there are definitely some important key facts, information and experience that they (my parents) went through that should be passed on definitely to future generations. But right now, I am just being lazy about it. But that's important.

So, at any time, in school or beyond that, did you experience any kind of discrimination which made you think about "why am I different" and things like that?

Yes. Throughout my life even from when I was a little kid at school; just for being different I guess you do get a lot of discrimination. You get a lot of bullying and then, even in adult life now, there's probably discrimination at workplace that I am not aware of, that is taking place. But growing up I always knew that that was the thing. It wasn't something new to me. That was something I expected. It wasn't this period of oppression but it's just how life was. And every other minority and females even nowadays go through this whole thing. So, it's not very different from anyone else.

So, for you the question never occurred: what the difference between White, Brown, Black? what society normally thinks about it? 

Yes. Well, growing up as a kid, definitely not. You know, I didn't see myself as being any different. Sure, I was of a different colour but even as a kid there was not much discrimination at that level, (when you are talking about young kids). But then as you grow up and you get into your teens, and as you get older, then you start to understand.

Someone else gives you that consciousness rather than you yourself having it.

Yes. Almost so. It's almost, generally, as you grow older and your mind develops, and you hear stories and.... your friends tell you things and you start to understand. It starts to progress from nothing into some bullying just because you look different, maybe. And then there is context behind it. Then their using of some hurtful words and things like that. It's all about things that are said, and some people are saying that in pure ignorance. They don't know what they are saying. It's just what they have heard being said to some select minorities and see it as some form of banter to put people down ... I mean that's the nature of bullying I suppose, picking on someone for something that's different. But you don’t understand it necessarily. But I've never really felt too much insulted about it. Because I had embedded myself so much as being a British citizen, I almost see when people are being racist as not being directed at me because I don't count myself as that in some ways. That's why my parents find that painful when they say I don't count myself as a Sri Lankan. It’s because my experiences are completely different to my dad’s; my experiences are much closer to a British White person.

You said your fiancé is English. Do your parents have any problems about your marrying or having a fiancé from that community?

No. I mean they do have their worldview. I am sure on a base level they would be happy if I did find a Sri Lankan. But they understand that they came over from Asia. They brought themselves over to Britain. They knew what that meant. They knew that they were leaving behind not only their country and their family but their people. There are a lot of Sri Lankans here now in the UK. But compared to where they are living and how they grew up (it’s totally different here). Over there, they didn’t have to see any white face as your next-door neighbour or as your friend, or your teacher. But it's not like that here. It's because of that they do understand, they do appreciate it. I think, for them, the main importance, which I haven't quite taken fullest advantage of it yet, is just making sure that they don't want the culture to be diluted and lost. That's what I am thinking. 

Your experience of growing up here was very unique and your identity: Sri Lankan, British  is in perfect order. So, are you very happy being British and living here? Or are you thinking that it would have been great if you lived in Sri Lanka?

Yes. Because my knowledge of Sri Lanka is very limited for me to say, "it would be great if I would live in Sri Lanka where there is no discrimination." But can't say that for certain. I have no idea.. And obviously when it comes to my parents, it's very different now.  How it was then, whether it was better or worse, I don't even know that. So, I wouldn't say that it would be great if I were in Sri Lanka.

Has your fiancé, who is English by origin, ever asked you about Sri Lanka or visiting Sri Lanka?

Yes. She has asked me about it a lot of times. But obviously because of my limited experience and knowledge I haven't been able to tell her that much. So that hasn't been that helpful. 

So, for any people, any Sri Lankan or any refugee who try to fit themselves into this community, this society what would you say?

 Because I have never personally been a refugee, I couldn’t give them advice. But what I can say, my parents having gone through that, for my sake personally, I believe they made the right decision. Again, I can't say for sure, but I believe that if they were to not make that decision and if they didn't leave and if they had still been in Sri Lanka I would argue my life would be worse off than it's now. Definitely, in terms of opportunities in life, I wouldn't have a Biomedical Science degree. I almost certainly wouldn't have one if I was in Sri Lanka where I might have become something else, probably pulling a Rickshaw or something like that.