Immigration and Changes in British Society around the Time Period the Novel is Set Thesis
Updated: Jan 2nd, 2020
The novel, Buddha of Suburbia, was set in a period when the British society was experiencing several social dilemmas regarding how to handle intercultural influences in the post-colonial period. In fact, BBC explains that the novel is as much about Amir’s personal experiences (to find his true identity) as it is Britain’s struggle to accept a multicultural society (BBC 2005, 1).
Several experiences are given to show the cultural and racial struggles of the minority population in Britain. Some of the struggles and challenges faced by Karim have been significantly eroded in today’s globalized society but they still mirror the same challenges facing the world today (in terms of racial and social prejudice).
In Britain, the post-colonial period heralded a new period of multicultural dynamism (especially in London). Not many people were open to the prospect of a multicultural society and therefore, many people were not willing to accept other cultures and races. Consequently, there was a lot of racism during the period that Buddha of Surburbia was written.
The novel gives evidence of extreme racism that Karim experienced in the school playground when he was called different names like ‘shit face’, ‘curry face’, and other derogatory terms (Kureishi 2009). In fact, Karim considered it lucky to go home without any injury. Here, it can be clearly seen that violence was used as a tool to fight multiculturalism and any non-conformance to societal norms was frowned upon, if not punished.
However, Karim’s personal journey to find his identity is not only defined by racial extremes, there is enough evidence to suggest that Britain was also experiencing a strong exclusivity of class (a secondary phenomenon to the immigration situation at the time) that proved a big hurdle for Karim and other immigrants of his stature to succeed.
From the exclusivity of class experienced in Britain at the time, Karim realized that he was among the disadvantaged people in the society and British natives often had very low expectation of him in this regard (Andersen 2011). Largely, this is a fair representation of the perception immigrants in Britain had at the time. Immigrants were mainly perceived to be disadvantaged and their place in Britain was to serve (BBC 2005, 1).
Karim’s experience in Britain is cognizant of this fact and there is no better way to show the low expectations of immigrants than through the educational system. Karim’s schooling experience was characterized by the acquisition of practical skills as opposed to the acquisition of academic skills. Largely, this phenomenon described the expectations of most immigrants. Their disadvantaged status was clearly visible in this regard.
Nonetheless, in the 70s, there was a general restriction of immigrants who could stay in Britain. The changes in immigrant status were partly informed by the growing concern among Britons of an expanding immigrant community. Even in the wake of these legislative changes, immigration did not entirely stop because there was a strong need for workers in the British economy (BBC 2005, 1).
The use of immigrant soldiers to fight for the British during the First World War and the Second World War also increased immigration into the UK. After the war, many people who had a British passport were automatically admitted to the UK. Others gained entry into the UK because of their relations with resident immigrants.
Even though strict regulations were enforced in the UK after the mass migration of workers into Britain, the non-white population still increased because many of the non-white population were children born in Britain (BBC 2005, 1). This immigrant status explains Karim’s presence in Britain because he was born of an immigrant father.
What is Identity?
The concept of identity has often been ambiguous but it has been applied in many disciplines across the world. However, this concept has mainly been used in political science to explain national, ethnic, racial or gender issues (Fearon 1999, 4). Many researchers have different interpretations to the term and many more have deemed it a social terminology characterizes social membership rules that highlight a specific category of behaviors (Fearon 1999, 4).
Other researchers have perceived the concept to be a set of socially distinguishing features that people take pride in (Fearon 1999, 4). Homi Bhabha and Stuart Hall’s definition of identity have not differed much from the common definition of identity, although their definitions are heavily contextualized to the post-colonial period (Drake 2003).
Homi Bhabha is of the opinion that a lot of racial identities and racial conflicts witnessed today draw their roots from the colonial era. Hall also perceives the concept of identity to be largely defined by historical and cultural ideals that have been passed on from generation to generation.
Through this analysis, Hall believes that identity is more than a discipline to study or even critic, it is still an ongoing process that its end cannot be easily established. Indeed, like his counterpart, Bhabha, Hall believes that the concept of identity is an ongoing production (Drake 2003).
Bhabha is also of the opinion that within the realm of identity, there are unique gaps that support the notion of ‘hybridity’. The possibility of cultural ‘hybridity’ is hereby assumed to lack a basis for imposed hierarchy. This gap in identity forms the groundwork for Bhabha’s further assertion that identity can also be perceived as a product of two ethnicities. For example, Karim was born from a Hindu father but he was predominantly raised in Britain (within the English culture).
Here, we can see that his identity is a product of two ethnic backgrounds (Andersen 2011). By avoiding the risk of essentialism, Bhabha explains that negative people are always the ones behind a unified definition of identity to mobilize support for their personal pursuits (Drake 2003). Therefore, any issue that may be perceived to be contrary to the idea of unified culture is perceived to be radical.
The concept of ‘hybridity’ (as a platform to explain personal identity) has been firmly supported by Bhabha and Hall but by a long shot, it was used as a fearful discourse of racial mixing that characterized a large part of the 18th century.
The common notion characterizing this period was firmly entrenched in scientific ideals which perpetrated the assumption that Africans, Asians and other ethnic minorities were mainly inferior to the white race (and the fear of miscegenation that followed the popularity of this ideology suggested that hybrid identities were going to neutralize the European race). In fact, hybrid identities were perceived to be more inferior to the minority traces (blacks, Asians, pacific islanders and the likes) (Drake 2003).
Therefore, according to Bhabha, the notion of colonial ‘hybridity’ altered the state of power because it produced colonial ambivalence among colonial masters. Bhabha gives the example of how cohesive groups in the society have expressed their dominance over other groups (based on group identities) and proposes that this perception of identity is not factual because of its insensitivity to the awareness of subject positions (Drake 2003).
In other words, Bhabha proposes that identity should move beyond the singularities of individual ownership to the processes that create these cultural differences. Similarly, if two groups were to clash because of their cultural differences, the basis for the conflict should be assumed to be the identity space between the two different groups. The conflict zone can similarly be perceived to be the hybrid culture.
Bhabha and Hall therefore perceive identity from the “in between” spaces existing between two divergent cultural groups that profess different identities.
When we use Bhabha and Hall’s understanding of identity (in the cultural context), we can easily understand Karim’s personal journey to find his identity. Born in a post-colonial Indian culture and a post-imperialist English society, Karim’s identity should not be perceived from any of the two extremes.
This is Bhabha’s argument and basis for criticism against the individualistic perception of identity. Instead, he proposes the cultural divide between the Indian and British cultures as the new paradigm for analyzing personal identities (Drake 2003). Therefore, in Karim’s situation, we would understand his identity from the cultural space between the Indian and British cultures. This is the hybrid identity that characterizes the definition of identity in the post-colonial world.
The idea of a nation being uniquely pure and holistic is therefore flawed, according to Bhabha and Hall’s perception of culture. This view has been expressed in different pieces of literature written by the two cultural theorists. Bhabha’s works have mainly been borrowed from the narrative, the Location of Culture while Hall’s works have mainly been cited from Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies. Bhabha’s assertions have also been supported by the commitment theory.
Female/male development of identity
The development of identity among males or females has been largely guided by Erikson’s theory (Streitmatter 1993). However, researchers have often criticized Erikson’s theory for failing to conceptualize the female experience in identity development. Through such criticisms, different authors have analyzed the gender differences between male and female identity development but few have come up with any meaningful differences in identity development between the different genders.
In further studies aimed at investigating whether the process of identity formation differed across the genders and whether the domains across the two genders differ, it was observed that males and females had the same experiences in identity development, except for the foreclosure stage (Streitmatter 1993). Males are more foreclosed that females (especially referring to political ideologies). Similarly, moratorium and identity achievement is more profound in females (when it comes to family-related issues) (Streitmatter 1993).
Principally, when we analyze Karim’s search for personal identity, we see a strong inclination to political and class identity as opposed to his quest for family identity. The quest from family identity would mainly denote a female-centered identity development model (according to Erikson) (Streitmatter 1993). The concept of male socialization therefore greatly defines Karim’s quest to establish an acceptable identity for himself.
Indeed, Erikson’s identity theory can be used to explain Karim’s personal journey to acquire a unique identity. In light of the different identity development processes between the sexes, it is therefore clearly visible that Erikson’s theory on identity development process is mainly skewed towards explaining the masculine development model.
Karim’s identity development process therefore transcends the concepts of intimacy and generalization to take a more political understanding of the cultural differences existing within different societies.
Development of identity and its differences between 1st and 2nd generation immigrants
Many studies have identified the differences between first generation immigrants and second generation immigrants in Europe and other developed nations. Indeed, these two groups have different identity development processes. Among the most prominent differences in the development of identity among first and second generation immigrants is that second generation immigrants develop a strong personal identity during childhood as opposed to later stages in life (Hardison 2007).
Second generation immigrants have a stronger sense of ethnic identity as opposed to first generation immigrants and therefore, they tend to preferably associate with people from their ethnic groups. In addition, second generation immigrants do not have a strong sense of racial prejudice because they are good at interacting with people from other cultures. This phenomenon has contradicted previous studies which show that developing a strong ethnic identity in early years is an indicator for developing future racial prejudice (Hardison 2007).
However, first generation immigrants have a stronger sense of racial prejudice as opposed to second generation immigrants. Their sense of identity development is therefore exclusionary because they do not freely associate with people from other races or ethnicities.
When we analyze the differences in identity development between first generation and second generation immigrants, we see that Karim’s ability to easily integrate with other communities is representative of the ability of second generation immigrants to freely interact with people from other ethnicities.
Concisely, Karim was able to fit into the New York social scene because he did not have strong racial prejudices. However, undoubtedly, Karim’s father (Haroon) would experience more difficulty (coming from a Hindu background and living in a British society) to adapt to the same situation as Karim would.
Postcolonial influences on the individuals identity in Britain
In his book, Asian adolescents in the West, Paul A. Singh Ghuman explains that Asian immigrants living in western countries are often confronted by different cultural dynamics that affect their belief and value systems (Ghuman 2001, 3). He further explains that these cultural dynamics may have different implications on a person’s well-being, including the roles in the society and the observation of cultural or religious obligations.
Other conflicts are far-stretched. For example, focusing on the Asian societal values, we can see that there is a lot of emphasis on kinship and family relationships. However, the British society fosters principles of individualism. Such clashes only highlight the postcolonial influences on an individual’s identity in Britain.
However, after digging deep into the above issue, we can see that postcolonial influences on an individual’s identity transcend value intrusion; it fosters a dual identity among individuals where a person cannot purely associate with a specific cultural identity. This principle has been explained in earlier sections of this paper but it is a predominant post colonial influence on individual identities in the postcolonial period.
Here, individuals can be seen to speak two languages or possess dynamic linguistic skills that express their biculturalism. Concisely, individuals living in this setup express their identities in a hyphenated way even though they still respect the values and ideals of their paternal cultures (Ghuman 2001, 3). Often, the adaptation to the host culture is nothing more than a functional adaptation.
Studies by Ghuman show that many Asian adolescents living in the west do not want to lose their cultural identities (such as names) by adopting western cultural ideals (Ghuman 2001, 3). For example, the Punjabi community has been referred by the white majority as Indians but few Punjabis identify themselves this way. Comprehensively, we can see that the post-colonial influence on identity is significantly limited to functional adaptation.
The development/changes of Haroon and Anwar
There are many parallels that have been drawn between first generation immigrants and second generation immigrants. These parallels can easily be used to draw the distinction between Karim and his father Haroon (plus Anwar). The latter represents the first generation group of immigrants. Indeed, the changes witnessed in Haroon and Anwar mainly stem from their status as first generation immigrants.
Like second generation immigrants, first generation immigrants are mainly motivated by the dream to pursue a fulfilling life (Andersen 2011). This ambition is shared between Karim and his father. Like his son, Haaron feels stuck by the Suburban life and because of his frustrations, he seeks a better life by seeking acceptance in the British society. Haaron also exhibits signs of having interest in the modern life (fueled by the fear to fail) (Kureishi 2009).
Haaron’s need to prove himself as a recognized and successful member of the society comes as no surprise (as can be seen when he wants his wife to be present for his first performance at eastern Mystique so she can see that he is not a failure but a successful and respected man of the society).
Haroon’s pursuit of success forces him to adopt the exotic characteristics branded to him by the British natives. Bhabha and Hall refer to this quest for identity as unsatisfactory because he disputes previous views on identity which were propagated by philosophers such as Edward Said (Fleming 2001, 146).
Instead, Bhabha suggests that colonial power and discourse is not entirely possessed by the colonizer because the colonialists are constructed in a repertoire of conflicting positions (Fleming 2001, 146). However, Haroon’s quest to seek approval by the British is explained by Bhabha as emanating from the fact that he renders them a site of ‘fixity’ and ‘fantasy’.
Nonetheless, Haaron’s efforts to seek recognition in the society can be best represented when he wears a caricature mask to conform to the British perception of the Indian culture. In fact, Anderson suggests that Haaron exaggerates his image so that he can win favor from the British and accomplish whatever goals he had for himself.
It is through such commitments that Anwar criticizes Haroon for being pro-western. Haroon’s pursuit for a better life is also expressed in his commitment to change his immigrant status when he goes to live with Eva. Even though he pursues this strategy with utmost resilience, his quest to attain recognition still remains questionable at the end of the novel.
Living in a period of economic suppression and extensive racial prejudice, Anwar decides to make a better living for himself by setting up a shop and operating a market in Britain. Largely, this venture characterizes Anwar’s economic development in a country that immigrants and minority population groups are not fully accepted.
Anwar’s opposition to the western culture is depicted as a strong motivation for his idealistic and traditional Indian prejudice. He is portrayed as a shrewd Indian and a shrewd conservative in the midst of a society characterized by conformity. As opposed to Haroon, Anwar does not conform to British stereotypes and remains true to his cultural heritage. It is through this conviction that Anwar’s character seems contravenes everything that Haroon stands for.
It is equally through Anwar’s conviction to stay authentic to his Indian roots that he lives his life according to the expectations of his Indian culture. Indeed, like a respectable Indian father, Anwar strives to dictate the destiny of his daughter (Jamila) by picking a husband for her. When Jamila refuses to be married to the preferred suitor, Anwal goes on a hunger strike. This action shows the extent that Anwal is willing to go to preserve his cultural identity.
He fights any attempt to conform to the British way of life where daughters choose who to marry. In his perception, succumbing to such cultural ambiguities is a mockery of the Indian culture and he would rather stick to his Indian identity rather than support his daughter’s decision to marry someone of her choice.
As first generation immigrants, Haroon and Anwar have a strong need to survive in their new environment, (as opposed to living a fulfilling life by finding happiness in the society). After coming to Britain in their twenties, Haroon and Anwar are mainly motivated by the will to make a good living for themselves. Haroon however becomes more liberal by pursuing non-conventional ways of making money but Anwar stays true to his Indian ways.
As observed in earlier sections of this paper, Anwar sets up a shop and strives to make it successful by requesting the support of his family members in running the shop. This continuity is very important to him, such that, he bases his reservation to accept his son in law from his contribution to the shop. From this understanding, we can see that Anwar’s main preoccupation was making a living for himself. In a snapshot, his pursuit for success is mainly motivated by survival.
On the other hand, Haroon pursues an unconventional way to make a living for himself, but like Anwar, he is mainly preoccupied to survive in a harsh environment. Haroon plays the role of a guru where he ostensibly dawns Indian regalia to match his role (as a guru). Like many Indian immigrants in Britain, Haroon was small. He used his exotic characteristics to stand out and gain recognition among other immigrants.
He wore a red and gold waist coat and Indian pajamas to suit his new role as an exotic ‘guru’ but still, he could not wash away the immigrant stature. Karim refers to the fact that his father could not efficiently find his way along the streets because he acted like an Indian, just off the boat (Andersen 2011).
Haroon’s complaint of the workplace environment also exposes how important it would be for him to be promoted in his workplace. Haroon is quoted by Kureishi as saying “The whites will never promote us. (…) Not an Indian while there is a white man left on the earth” (Kureishi 2009, 98).
This statement manifests the racist environment Haroon and other immigrants were living in, but by extension, it also shows how important it was for Haroon (and other first generation immigrants) to make a good living for themselves and their families. In other words, Haroon’s statement was a somewhat desperate concern for their socio-economic status and how they felt they were doomed to a specific social class for the rest of their immigrant stay in Britain.
However, in the midst of all the desperation and hopelessness surrounding his immigrant status and the lack of hope therewith, Haroon still strives to change his life by longing for recognition and acceptance. Haroon tries to change his social status by seeking recognition and desiring to gain acceptance from those around him. For example, he brings a dictionary to the train so that he can learn a new word to impress the Englishman (Yousaf 2002).
Like Anwar, the wellbeing of Haroon’s child is as important as their need to survive in Britain’s harsh reality. Already, we have seen that Anwar wanted his daughter to marry someone of his choice – someone whom he believed would be profitable not only to his daughter but also to him (especially in the shop).
Like other first generation immigrants, Haroon also stressed the importance of success to his son. He struggled so much to help his son get a good education, such that, it became almost too obvious that he cared more for his son’s education than his wellbeing. Haroon pushed his son to become either a doctor or a lawyer because he believed this was the most important hallmark of success not only for his son but also for himself and his family.
Kureishi quotes Karim when he said that “Someone else pissed over my shoes, and all that my Dad thought about was me becoming a doctor” (Kureishi 2009, 63). Anderson explains that Haroon’s wish to see his son succeed was partly motivated by his failures and personal quest for success (through his son) (Anderson 2011). However, the dream to see his son succeed in education turns out to be a failure too.
The loss of this dream is not only depicted as a failure for Karim but once again, a failure of his father too (Kureishi 2009). To a first generation immigrant, the failure of a child’s educational pursuit is heartbreaking. Indeed, referring to his decision to leave education, Karim explains that telling his dad about his choice to leave education would “break his immigrant heart” (Kureishi 2009, 94).
Through the failure of his son, Karim loses all the possibilities of gaining respect through his children and all he is left with is the possibility of redeeming himself through his spiritual works. He achieves a significant degree of success in this regard.
Haroon’s metamorphosis as a first generation immigrant is also conceptualized by his desire to redeem himself and change the perception that he cannot succeed. Through his relationship with Eva, Haroon changes his method of seeking recognition by focusing on his differences with the Britons and abandoning all efforts to be like the British.
He takes advantage of the stereotypes leveled against him by acting them out to the satisfaction of the British. In fact, he transforms and harnesses these stereotypes into tools that will fuel his ambition to gain recognition and acceptance in the British society (as opposed to being a victim of stereotypes). The process to gain the new identity as a guru is termed by Anderson as an exaggerated process of self authentication (which largely works well for Haroon) (Andersen 2011).
Bhabha explains that through the divide created by two cultural extremes, there is a designated space which can be taken advantage of to create a unique form of hybrid culture. He further explains that this space entertains cultural differences but rarely manifests in hierarchical differentiation between the cultures involved (Fleming 2001). Precisely, Haroon not only shows the British what it is to be Indian but goes overboard and exaggerates his cultural identities to the amusement of the British.
Karim admires Haroon’s new attitude but he is repulsed by the fact that after about two decades of assimilation, his father’s return to his Indian roots is exaggerated (and does not truly represent his real values, beliefs or ideals). Furthermore, he faults his Dad for not raising him up to appreciate his Indian ancestry. Karim says“(…) looking at these strange creatures now – the Indians (…) I felt ashamed and incomplete at the same time, as if half of me were missing (…). Partly, I blamed Dad for this” (Kureishi 2009, 212).
Moving from India and settling into the British landscape, Haroon faces a lot of social stigma and criticism which motivates his personal pursuits as an immigrant in Britain. For example, following his decision to marry Eva, Haroon receives a lot of criticism from his colleagues and other people of influence.
From these criticisms, clearly, marrying a Briton and abandoning one’s cultural roots is considered an act of failure in the Indian culture. From both sides of the divide (Indian and British societies), Haroon is treated as an outcast and a failure. These sentiments make Haroon feel bad and contempt with his life (Yousaf 2002).
The criticisms Haroon receives from his Indian and British families are mainly informed by his immigrant status and the fact that he abandoned his family for a British woman. The latter is mainly perceived as the sole reason for the Indian people to look down upon him but Haroon’s immigrant status (and the fact that he lived in the suburbs) is used as the main basis of criticism by his British family.
When we analyze these criticisms, we can easily draw a comparison between Haroon’s status and the insights regarding identity status by Bhabha and Hall. Particularly, Bhabha explains that identity should not be perceived from only one angle but from the dual characteristics that birth a specific identity status in the postcolonial society.
Therefore, if we were to identify Haroon’s identity in the context of Bhabha’s framework we would arrive at a hybrid identity which cannot be described by either his Indian culture or his British association. Indeed, Haroon seems like a reject of both cultures because his way of life is not “pure” to any of the cultures or expectations describe above.
However, the Indian and British critics pursue a pure form of identity which is used as an exclusionary basis to criticize anyone that does not conform to their “pure’ identity. These characteristics highlight the personal journey of first generation immigrants in Britain.
Andersen, Morten. 2011. “The Buddha of Suburbia: Cultural Identity in a Multicultural Society.” Roskilde University. Web.
BBC. 2005. “Short History of Immigration.” BBC. Web.
Drake, Alfred. 2003. “Hall and Bhabha,” Chapman University. Web.
Fearon, James. 1999. “What Is Identity (As We Now Use The Word)?” Stanford University. Web.
Fleming, Dan. 2001. Formations: A 21st Century Media Studies Textbook. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Ghuman, Paul. 2001. “Self-identity issues of South Asian young people in Australian schools.” Find Articles. Web.
Hardison, Tamara. 2007. “Second-Generation Immigrant Children Develop Strong Sense of Ethnic Identity Without Racial Prejudices.” Yahoo. Web.
Kureishi, Hanif. 2009. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber & Faber Limited.
Streitmatter, Janice. 1993. “Gender Differences in Identity Development: An Examination of Longitudinal Data.” Questia.com. Web.
Yousaf, Nahem. 2002. Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia: A Reader’s Guide. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.
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