Divian Ladwa, The Trouble with Asian Men, 2005

I've learned to live with my Asian male guilt

by Nirpal Dhaliwal
Evening Standard | 30 May 2007

Last week, my brother and I saw a terrific play, The Trouble with Asian Men, at the Artsdepot in North Finchley. It consists of monologues, taken verbatim from interviews with a broad range of men. The result is an honest, funny and touching insight into modern British Asian masculinity. 

Asian men are in a strange position, over-represented in so many areas in Britain – from the medical profession through to suicide bombing – and the play deals with their confusion and vulnerability. These men are uncertain about their cultural identity, their relationships with women, and are mired in guilt at not living up to the religious ideals or expectations of their families. 

It chimed with both my brother and me, though we’re very different characters. Eight years younger and much more sensible than me, my brother’s an accountant who takes family responsibilities far more seriously than I have. Though I’m the oldest child, I’ve always been somewhat wayward. Our mum jokingly calls us “JR and Bobby”.

Over the past week, I’ve taken stick in the press following my marriage break-up. The columnist Johann Hari called me an “unreconstructed misogynist”. But calling an Asian male a “misogynist” is the lamest cliché going. I was never violent, rarely raised my voice, and my wife’s income tripled during our marriage. I hardly held her back. I was a rubbish husband; but that’s no proof of misogyny. 

The play is a great antidote to many of the clichés that surround Asian men, revealing their strength and selflessness. After his father’s death, one character sacrificed himself to his family, submitting to an arranged marriage with a cousin in Pakistan. He wanted to bring them some happiness and solidity, but knew he’d grow old with a woman he didn’t love. His tone wasn’t bitter, just gentle and resigned. 

These men want to do the right thing by their wives, families and the broader community, but have no idea how to do it. Assimilating wholeheartedly into British culture requires abandoning values their parents hold dear – a real dilemma, when they’ve undertaken the trauma of migration to give you a better life. 

I still feel guilty about not being a more conventional son, though my parents encouraged me to follow an individual path and are proud of my achievements. I’m lucky to have escaped the communal pressures many Asian men have to cope with, and try not to judge their compromises too harshly. The juggling act they perform deserves understanding, not the usual glib accusations of chauvinism. White people don’t face these problems of identity and divided loyalties, and shouldn’t jump to conclusions on what makes an Asian man tick.