Asians who entered secondary schools during the 1970s and early 1980s experienced a society still coming to terms with difference. The 1980s were also a particularly significant moment globally, politically, culturally, socially, creatively. The decade had a big effect on the patterns of life and thinking across communities.
Ausaf was one young Asian growing up in Birmingham, trying to make sense of everything:
The eighties came around. The difference between the 70s and 80s is that if the 70s were ‘black and white’ in the 80s, someone’s turned the colour on.
At that time, I went to secondary school. Now that was a bit of a culture shock to me because my secondary school was right at the other end of Birmingham, in the Maypole area. The school I went to was predominantly white. There was about 1,200 students. And there was only four Asians at the time when I joined. I was there from when I was eleven years old till I did my O-Levels, until I was fifteen or sixteen years old. That was quite a culture shock because I went from an Asian-dominated area to a non-Asian-dominated area.
It was around that time that I had my first few experiences of racism. It wasn’t very overt, in the sense that people were shouting foul language to me. But it was in the sense they were looking at me. The wouldn’t come near me. They would make certain references behind my back. It was very covert. Sometimes it was meant for my ears. A lot of times it was people just laughing. Initially, I didn’t even know what they were talking about. Anyhow, I just put my head down and grinned and ‘beared’ it. I worked out by a certain stage, this is racism. In those days, you had to grow a thicker skin. You couldn’t go in complaining and making a big issue about it. It’s just the way things were at the time. We just had to put up with it. However, when I was fourteen years old, and I think this was a changing point, I had a growth spurt. I grew, and I grew quite tall, taller than the other students. Suddenly I was one of the bigger boys. One day, someone wanted to fight me for some reason. It wasn’t a racist reason, it was some other stupid reason. I didn’t know why that person wanted to fight me. Luckily for me, because of how tall I was, and my arms were proportionally long, I done what I did and I, easily within a few seconds, dispatched the gentleman. I didn’t how I did that, to be honest, but I did it. And it was amazing, the moment I dispatched that person, they came back, shook my hands, and they were my friend.
He went to college:
Then after school, I went to [Joseph Chamberlain] college. The college had predominantly Asian [students]. I found my element, because I was accepted, or, well, felt accepted. There were non-Asians as well. But there was no problem. They accepted us, we accepted them. All the things that I wanted to do but couldn’t at school, at College I did. I did everything I wanted to do that I wasn’t able to do until that time. But I think I enjoyed it too much because I ended up failing the exams [..] So I moved college after that one year. I moved to Hall Green College. I took a BTEC [in National Business Studies]. I found a subject I liked. I did it in two years instead of three and left for university.
Alongside his studies, Ausaf was destined to follow a family tradition:
I knew my father was a wrestler. I’d heard all the stories. But I wasn’t into any organised sports until I was eighteen, nineteen. I had fights, but they were more like scraps, they weren’t organised fights. They were more like reactions on the street. But I never backed down, which was unbecoming of me. One day, one of my good friends, Patrick, a quintessential Irish Boy, really great guy, he introduced me to a sport called Thai boxing, saying, “There’s a teacher there, it’s a great sport, let’s go Birmingham University, he teaches there.” So, I went. I was hooked. I enjoyed the lesson. It wasn’t like karate. Because of my background, having so many street fights, the first day was how to disarm someone with a knife and move on in. And I thought, oh good, I don’t have to do months before I get to that stage. I put myself into it wholeheartedly. It took me about five or six years. But I kept at it, kept at it, went through a number of amateur competitions, and, finally, during my university years, I qualified as an instructor.
He also described the significance of the 1980s:
Something switched from the seventies. One of the biggest impacts upon me was music. It was the songs. It was the New Romantics that were coming out. It was Culture Club. It was Spandau Ballet. It was Duran Duran. All my teens went through the eighties. In your teens you kind of soak up everything external. I think I felt I was at the right time because I soaked up everything that had to do with the eighties, Phil Collins, every aspect of it. I could sometimes define the year by the song hits, it got to that stage. The years merged together but the songs kept them apart, when this song came out, when that happened. I link to certain songs, events that have happened. The eighties were a great changer, not just musically, politically. There was Reagan and Thatcher, the duo. There was the Berlin Wall coming down. There was the Cold War at its height.
Also, I remember at the local level, the daytime parties for Asians. That was a phenomenon in itself. That was like, a night club in the day, and Asians go? And I went, everyone was going. This was when I was in college. It was around the mid-eighties, not early eighties, latter of half of the eighties.
Economically, musically, creatively, movies. You got your Jean Claude van Dammes, Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, ‘Commando’, ‘Rambo’. It was a calypso of creative outpourings, and the eighties was full of it. People were just experimenting. Eighties has got a lot to do with my life. In fact, I class that decade as the most formative of my life.
As this story illustrates, the 1980s was profound in the way it brought different people together and simultaneously introduced the world to them.