Truths about the hopes and fears of Asian teenagers

Daud is a 14-year-old British Asian boy who washes dishes until 1am to help his widowed mother make ends meet. Shama is a young Bangladeshi woman who has an illiterate mother and a father who has been jobless for five years. She left school early and worked in a department store to support her family, but after several years of struggle she is now studying maths at London University.

Open University researcher Ghazala Bhatti recounted their stories at the BERA conference to illustrate the hardships that many working-class British Asian teenagers endure.

She interviewed 50 Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people over three years in youth clubs, hamburger bars, community education centres, street corners and parks and gained an insight into their daily lives, hopes and fears. She also interviewed several of their teachers and uncovered some serious misconceptions about British Asians.

One business studies teacher told her: "Asians help each other, don't they? If the boys don't do well academically they will find work with their relations in shops I expect? There are many corner shops around here."

In fact, only six of the young people interviewed came from shop-owning families and none of them wanted their sons and daughters to follow suit. One Urdu-speaking father told Ghazala Bhatti: "If my son ends up running a shop, my shop, it will mean that this country didn't change things for the better for my children."

Most of the teenagers had adopted the same attitude. The young Bangladeshis seemed particularly fearful of the future but, overall, the young British Asians were more ambitious than their white peers. Their hopes for their own future were tied up with their family's financial circumstances (many sent money back to dependent relatives in the subcontinent) and parental employment or unemployment. Dowry collection was another consideration, although only two of the 25 girls were expected to marry early.

Nevertheless, 33 of the 50 wanted to carry on to further education. Of these, 15 hoped to obtain degrees, three in medicine and five in law. Ominously, none of the 50 expressed any interest in becoming a teacher. Some complained that their teachers had racist attitudes and none of them saw their peripatetic Section 11 Asian teachers as positive role models.

One 15-year-old Indian girl told Ghazala Bhatti: "Ever seen an Indian teacher teaching white kids? They turn up their noses at them teachers. I've never seen Mr Hewitt (the deputy head) talking to Mrs Dutt once! Teachers take more notice of Sally (the cleaner) than Indian and Pakistani teachers."

Ghazala Bhatti was concerned to find that teaching was not even a second or third career choice for the teenagers she interviewed. "The need for supporting Asian and African-Caribbean teachers during training and in school has been made before and cannot be emphasised enough as Britain approaches the next millennium."

But the main message to emerge from her research is summed up by Nazim, a 16-year-old whose father is unemployed. He was, he said, under pressure to "be cool, to study, find a job, look after the family. Life's bloody tough man . . . you have to be both British and Pakistani."

"I asked my teacher what shall I be?" Hopes for the future, mixed feelings about the past, Ghazala Bhatti, School of Education, Open University.

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