One of my earliest memories is of a car journey with my father, when I was about six years old. A man suddenly ran in front of our vehicle to grab a ball his child had thrown into the road. “Sorry, Doc!” he shouted to dad, both hands in the air, as he smiled apologetically.
That was the stereotype of Asian men which was prevalent during my childhood; they were known to be respectable, educated and hard working. Yet somehow, over the last few years, the predominant image of Asian men has completely transformed. We are bombarded with stories across the media of terrorism, grooming and drug dealing, and it's led to the unfair generalisation and vilification of swathes of Asian men: Indian Gujarati Hindus, Pakistani Punjabi Muslims, British Bangladeshis, Sri Lankan Buddhists, Mauritians... I could go on. So, which of these men are we exactly referring to when we talk about “Asian men”?
Despite all being seen under this umbrella term, there is a huge disparity between the successes and challenges of these distinct communities. It was during my time as a teacher that I really became aware of the extent and impact of these diverse experiences. Statistically, in education, Pakistani boys are now one of the lowest performing ethnic minority groups in the country and are being outperformed by Pakistani girls, while Indian boys are the highest performing group among South Asian ethnic minorities and there has been significant improvement in the results of British-Bangladeshis. To talk of the experience of "Asian boys" at school, then, is to look at the frame around a painting rather than the meaningful brushstrokes.
Venturing behind the headlines and gaining an insight into the lives of specific Asian men growing up in modern Britain was the premise for my new documentary for BBC Two, “Lost Boys? What’s Going Wrong for Asian Men”. Handling such a sensitive topic certainly made me nervous – but I also knew that if this film was going to be made, I wanted to be the one to lead it with the insight I had, as a member of the wide Asian community. Yet very quickly, I realised that my own experience of being British Pakistani was not the mainstream experience. Living in London, I had seamlessly integrated with a range of cultures but this was different to the British Pakistanis who lived in more segregated areas. Hence, I started my journey by visiting some of the most highly populated Asian areas around the UK to determine whether this was a limiting factor for some Asian men.
In Bradford, one young man who helped me to appreciate this struggle was Nav, who had grown up locally and left for university – before dropping out. Nav had an ardent desire for knowledge, but being from a predominantly Pakistani area, he found the transition to university difficult; he felt “like a fish out of water” when he was faced with people called “David and John”, yet he was also desperate to hear perspectives that were different to those he had grown up with. Through him, I explored some of the attitudes that prevail around education in the community and also gained an insight into how it can be growing up in a society that sometimes feels, as Nav describes, like it “came to a first world country with a third world mentality”.
I also met 17-year old Luqman – the most emotional part of my journey, but also perhaps the biggest privilege. Luqman had supported his family since the age of 13 by working six days a week and refusing to be tempted by quick routes to making money because “he was a Muslim and wanted to show people that they’re good and kind hearted”. Luqman wanted to become a social worker and “give back to society” – but I couldn’t help but wonder what society had given him.
After spending time with Luqman, I questioned the extent to which statistics were an accurate representation of how well communities were doing: Luqman’s definition of a successful man was someone who supported and cared for his family, so they “had food” and “could wash their faces with hot water” – whereas in my eyes, his success was immeasurable. He made me reflect on all the years I had spent working with young people from deprived areas – and it struck me that this was an issue of social mobility in Britain rather than anything to do with ethnicity at all.
Another important revelation for me whilst making this film was that 70pc of all British Pakistanis are from one small region in Pakistan – Mirpur. As my family migrated from the bigger cities of Pakistan, I realised that the history of our immigration stories also impacted on how we settled in the UK. I travelled back to Mirpur to find out why our experiences were so different, despite both being Pakistani. There, I met a grandfather, who was one of the first wave of immigrants to Britain in the 1960s, and some younger British-Pakistanis who are now making that same epic journey in reverse – returning to Pakistan from Britain in search of a better life there.
Along with exploring the British Pakistani story, I also travelled to Leicester and spent time with British-Gujaratis like Paven, who is following in his family tradition of entrepreneurship. And I spoke to Parle who is building a career as a writer and performer with online videos that playfully satirise some of the stereotypes within his own community. I talked to them about the expectations placed on young Asian men in Britain, and the link between financial security and cultural openness.
The filming of this project was challenging, emotional and insightful, but I knew I had to keep my end goal in sight. I wanted to humanise the faces of the boys who are battling to find their place in the world and highlight some of the challenges they come up against, by giving them the rare chance of sharing how they feel in their own words. Ultimately, if this film just gets the conversation started and sparks debate, I would consider that a great success.
Lost Boys? What’s Going Wrong For Asian Men will air on BBC Two on Sunday 12 August at 10pm