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Across generations, South and Southeast Asians reflect on colonialism’s impact on identity

“There’s a respect there that I just feel our generation has lost. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we’re losing that," an Indian American college student said.
Image: Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II inspects a guard of honor at the presidential palace in New Delhi on Oct. 13, 1997.Ravi Raveendran / AFP via Getty Images

When 21-year-old Samaa Khullar found out Queen Elizabeth  had died, she was in a U.S. college classroom filled with other people of color. 

“We had just wrapped up a conversation about white feminism,” the New York University student said. “Everyone was checking their phones and saw that she died. There were a lot of South Asian girls and East Asian girls and girls from the African diaspora, as well. No one was in mourning.” 

Since the queen’s death, South and Southeast Asians have been sharing how colonialism has shaped identity, and how it’s played out differently across generations, cultures and through different periods of immigration. 

For many South Asians, the queen’s death represents the chipping away of an institution that dictated the lives of their parents and grandparents — even their own in some cases, they said.

Samaa Khullar with her father.
Samaa Khullar with her father.Courtesy Samaa Khullar

Khullar’s father and grandparents lived through the tangible impacts of British rule in India, and she says she grew up with the knowledge of imperial oppression. But while her parents don’t necessarily associate the late monarch with that violence, she very much does. 

Queen Elizabeth’s death allowed her to open up conversations with her family members about the modern royal family’s implications in all that they experienced on the subcontinent — even after the British soldiers were long gone. 

“There’s a respect there that I just feel our generation has lost,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we’re losing that.”

“For the people who are living in these places, and then for the generations that followed and have memories of these conflicts and wars, she is at the center of that.”

— Cindy Ewing, University of Toronto

A diaspora generation growing up in the U.S. feels the pain of colonialism in a different way than their parents, experts say. Those who live in North America or the U.K. say it’s all around them — and that Elizabeth II is inherently implicated.

Ultimately, the queen’s reign cannot be “divorced from the political legacy of the British Empire,” Cindy Ewing, assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto, told NBC Asian America.

“She was the single most visible symbol of the empire,” said Ewing, whose focus includes Southeast Asia and colonialism. “The territory of the British Empire was so rife with conflict, with war, even instances of genocide. And so for the people who are living in these places, and then for the generations that followed and have memories of these conflicts and wars, she is at the center of that.”

Generational divides

After the British pulled out of Asia, many territories were left with a “political vacuum” that was often marked by mass violence and instability, Amy Dao, assistant professor of geography and anthropology at Cal Poly Pomona, said. For many elders, colonial rule is etched into their “unresolved trauma” that eventually persisted across generations. Some who experienced displacement blamed the violence on insurgency movements rather than the colonial powers that prompted many of the revolutions, she added. For some, there’s relative stability associated with colonial powers. 

“During that time supposedly their life is pretty stable, even though it was managed very violently. And maybe everyday life stayed pretty consistent,” Dao said. “I could see why their understanding of their trauma is coming from the upheaval and revolution that happened in the post-colonial moment.”

Ewing also said that while younger generations of Asian Americans are questioning or criticizing the legacy of colonialism following the queen’s death, some older generations of Asians remember her fondly, associating the monarchy with stability.

In the wake of the queen’s death, Khullar said she has seen this idealization ingrained in her own communities, too. When her parents found out the news, they had a different reaction than she expected, she said.  

“My mom was like, ‘Oh, it’s sad to see her reign end.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’” she said. “I was like, ‘She literally ruined everything.’”

Though her father and grandparents had a firsthand account of British colonialism, Khullar said in South Asia, there is a culture of respect that runs deep, and many don’t associate the queen with the harm inflicted on former colonies. 

Now attending college in the U.S., she said she’s had an opportunity to unlearn much of what was indoctrinated into her as a child in British schools. She acknowledges that her parents, navigating white spaces far from home, may never have had that opportunity.

“There’s such a weird fascination and almost a parasocial relationship, where you think that they care about you,” she said. “I have to keep reminding my parents that they don’t. They do not care about us.”

Years of trying to survive as immigrants in a predominantly white society have also forced South Asians in the diaspora to swallow their suffering and trauma, Khullar said. 

“Their whole lives, they were accustomed to being polite towards their British colleagues, and their peers,” she said. “And I know that now, it’s just become so ingrained that they feel they can’t express their sorrow about their own pain.”

A violent history

Ewing said that while the queen’s early rule, which began in 1952, coincided with independence movements across several British colonies, the empire itself was guilty of stifling them to maintain control. In Southeast Asia, the British Empire launched counterinsurgency movements in the 1950s and 1960s across Vietnam, Myanmar, Burma and Malaya, a British colony of several states on the Malay peninsula that later made up part of what is now Malaysia. 

British military movements were often violent. In Malaya, for example, the empire employed a range of scorched earth tactics, forced migration and lockdown of entire communities. The warfare against the communist Malayan National Liberation Army, which started in the late 1940s, spanned over a decade. The pursuit of independence, Ewing said, was “directly prevented” by the British Empire. 

Throughout Queen Elizabeth’s childhood and adolescence, the subcontinent was still ruled by the British. She became queen five years after Indian and Pakistani independence and partition in 1952. But the impacts of British rule continued into her reign and beyond. Colonization in South Asia, though a few decades removed, still shapes the subcontinent and the diaspora, experts said. 

Queen Elizabeth’s family members, including her father and predecessor, were known as “emperors” and “empresses” of India. South Asians in the diaspora say they haven’t forgotten that. 

South Asians say they’re bombarded with everyday reminders

At her former college campus in London, academic Fatima Rajina recalled how she was confronted daily with the royal family’s legacy on the subcontinent. 

“When you walk into my campus, the first thing you see is a statue of Queen Victoria on her throne. And at the bottom it’s carved, ‘The Empress of India,’” said Rajina, who is a Bangladeshi Brit and a research fellow at the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre. “That has shaped my identity. I remember just being furious…I had to see her presence every day for four years.”

In London, train stations, statues and buildings are named after officers of the British Raj, the name for direct crown rule in India, Rajina said. South Asians who now live there are forced to encounter them every day. 

“Colonialism’s presence is there pretty much in every building,’’ she said. “Go to the British Museum and you will see artifacts that were looted and stolen.”

The Kohinoor Diamond, the most famous artifact taken from South Asia by the British, was worn by Queen Elizabeth’s mother at her daughter’s coronation. It remains a part of the crown jewels, and the royal family has no public plans to return it.

For lower income people in the U.K., especially those who descend from colonized countries, Rajina said the royals and their opulence are physical embodiments of deeply rooted classism and lack of social mobility in the country. 

“People outside of Britain don’t understand how feudal and classist this society is,” she said. “It might be quirky to come and see Kensington Palace or Buckingham Palace. But for a lot of us who live here who drive past these monuments, these aren’t just a tourist hotspot. These are memories of people who died, people who were oppressed and looted by her and her family.”

The British Empire has shrunk in size, but the legacy of its violence and plundering remains across the world, she said. 

“People have been trying to dilute the monarchy and the royal family’s relationship to colonialism and imperialism,” she said. “They’re very much representative of modern-day colonialism and how it has continued from its past.”

Colonialism and a feeling of belonging

“For the latter generations … the memory of the empire and the memory of colonialism directly shaped how we think about our ability to possess our own history, the right to land or to lay claim to our own past and its resources.”

— Cindy Ewing, University of Toronto

Khullar, who is Indian and Palestinian, grew up with the queen as a constant presence in her life. Attending English schools during her childhood in Dubai, once a British protectorate, she remembers pausing class in third grade to watch William and Kate’s wedding. Every Christmas, she would be forced to listen to “God Save the Queen” and sit in the corner while the other kids decorated crosses and tree ornaments. 

“I felt so out of place because I was an Indian Muslim,” she said. “We were like seven or eight. And I realize now that we were being indoctrinated into something that we didn’t believe in. It was a club that we couldn’t be a part of.”

Ewing said that the confusion that some Asian Americans feel around belonging — the notion that they do not fit neatly into the culture of the U.S. or of their heritage — can be traced back, in many ways, to British colonialism.

“For the latter generations … the memory of the empire and the memory of colonialism directly shaped how we think about our ability to possess our own history, the right to land or to lay claim to our own past and its resources,” Ewing said. 

Colonial rule not only displaced people from their land and homes, but also estranged them from other cultural markers like language. Singapore, for example, was under British rule for 150 years, during which time English was instituted as a required language for both government and educational instruction. But even after it had gained independence in 1965, Singapore continued the colonial practice, Ewing said, effectively displacing Chinese and other indigenous languages to Singapore. 

”One of the divides in many Asian American communities is often language, the ability to communicate with older generations,” Ewing said. “This reality which affects the day-to-day interactions that Asian Americans may have with their parents or their grandparents is a direct legacy of colonialism.”

But as much as British colonialism has shaped identities in the diaspora, so has the process of decolonization and independence movements. The fall of the British Empire in many Southeast Asian countries led to massive upheaval that prompted societal change and also movements to reclaim indigenous culture. 

“It’s still part of this larger search for cultural meaning and interest in what history shows us really belonged, or what really belongs to these indigenous generations,” Ewing said.