I spent most of my life before university in a limited list of places: home, school, the chicken shop, the East London Mosque, and my nan’s. By extension, I was primarily around people similar to me: Muslim, non-White, inner-city Londoners coming from low-income backgrounds who — maybe, except my nan — have a universal appreciation for ‘Hot & Tasty’ boxes.

I knew coming to Cambridge would teach me about ways of life that both contrasted and intersected with my own. The gong at formals evoked that same anxiety induced by stampedes of schoolboys charging their way through me to their lesson. The unsolicited quoting of Latin proverbs in supervisions left me dazed, not unlike my how nan’s Bengali ones do. What I didn’t know, however, was that I had access to these lessons before I even came to Cambridge.

Except, they existed ten minutes from my home in London — in the form of a little boy who wore a tweed jacket and was obsessed with Lego.

“To him, I was a new skin colour, a new religion and a whole new way of life”

On my first day nannying, I was welcomed at the door by a lady and her son sitting on her hip. She invited me into what can only be described as ‘if Wembley was a house’, and we politely went over the babysitting basics: her son’s allergies, bedtime and whatnot. That is until he asked something along the lines of:

‘Do you have hair underneath your headscarf?’

Pause. Mum looked at me to assess any offence. The boy was now standing at my feet, his neck craned back and his eyes fixed on my escaped baby hairs.

I smiled and told him I was indeed not bald.

We eventually got used to being each other’s only company for the majority of the day. ‘Are you from Muslim?’ He asked whilst observing me through the mirrors of the Westfield bathrooms. ‘Are your parents the same colour as you?’ He questioned on the hottest day of the year, realising that I didn’t need the sun to be tanned. ‘Do you want this brownie, you know, because you’re brown?’ He laughed, shoving his meal deal snack in my face.

At the tender age of five, he had never known many Muslims, working-class, or non-white people. The majority of his life was also experienced in a limited number of places. Private school, his Wembley-sized house, Waitrose and grandma’s holiday home in France.

“I could almost hear his words coming out of the mouths of people I knew at university”

He wasn’t, however, yet at the mental capacity to understand how his privilege played out in wider society. He’d scream after I refused to buy him a more expensive ‘prize’ in museum shops. Or he’d become a behemoth if I said that he couldn’t play with his Lego until he ate some of his dinner. There we would be in all our glory: a bourgeois five-year-old boy telling me he hates me for not buying him a California roll, and my skint self — too busy to reply because I’m bending the wire of my knock-off phone charger in that one position so it would work.

At five I only went to free museums with my nan, both of us probably at the same reading age and equally as unable to decipher any of the captions. And in an Asian household, children refusing to eat dinner wouldn’t be solved using a £200 Lego Ninjago set, but a £2 sandal from Shoezone. I explained this to him (except the Shoezone part, of course) in that child-friendly, ‘when-I-was-your-age’ manner. But he looked at me blankly. He expected to have all his wants fulfilled. It was the only way of life he’d ever known.


Mountain View

From 'too brown' to 'not brown enough'

Sometimes, he’d make me feel like that girl in reception who felt too visible in a class of white kids again. But mostly, he’d take me back to Cambridge. Why do you wear that scarf? Where are you really from? I could almost hear his words coming out of the mouths of people I knew at university. He didn’t only see me as a new babysitter. Like some of my flatmates, to him, I was a new skin colour, a new religion and a whole new way of life.

Yet in spite of the rude stares from fellow commuters when he’d fall asleep on me on the tube, or parents who’d look at me like I was a kidnapper during school pickups, we were alike. We both have messy kitchens, except my mum can’t afford a daily cleaner. We both have strong attachments to our parents; he wailed whenever his mum was at work, and I’d secretly shed tears when I first moved away for university. We both were competitive, losing at Bananagrams being enough to get us in a mood. We both know what it means to have loved ones, to lose loved ones, to be loved and to feel loss.

I think he enjoyed being around his broke, brown babysitter. ‘Can I ask my mum to give you money?’ he’d plead after hearing about my Sainsbury’s birthday cakes, or my dishwasher-less kitchen. ’Is this one Halal?’ he’d ask whilst pointing at the beef jerky we’d pass in the snack aisle of his local Waitrose. ‘I saw Nabiha’s hair today!’ he’d say triumphantly to his mum once she’d come home — sometimes I’d show him it to distract him from the fact he didn’t have a California roll at hand.

But I was defined beyond being just broke and brown. I was a good babysitter. In fact, I deduced this from his mumbling of, ‘Why don’t you just stay?’ on my last day.