Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down]: An Interview with Suridh Hassan
I conducted this interview as part of Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down]. For more information about the project, read the project overview. To read additional entries as they come available, subscribe to The Letter.
A friend willing to make an introduction for this project connected me to her cousin, Suridh Hassan. Without her, Suridh and I would never have met, which would have made this project so much poorer. (Thank you, Shreya!)
Suridh and I connected via Skype. We talked over hot beverages: Mine an after-lunch green tea at my desk in Lausanne, Switzerland, and him a morning coffee at a cozy-looking coffee shop in Seattle, Washington, United States of America.
A Family History of International Movement
Suridh came into this world thanks to generations of people willing to cross borders and cultures.
His grandmother, a Swedish woman, met his grandfather, an Indian man, in London. After their marriage, she moved to India, where she spent most of her life.
Suridh’s mother, born in India and educated as a medical doctor, moved to London for work—where she met Suridh’s Indonesian father. They married and raised their family in the Haringey borough of North London. When his parents divorced, Suridh’s father moved back to Indonesia. Suridh and his mother stayed in London.
Suridh lived in north London until 2009. After working long—although ultimately fulfilling—months on what became an award-winning film, he wanted to travel and unwind. First, he went to Bangkok, where a U.K. friend of his had set up a booming design company. Next, he went to visit a friend in Cambodia, where he met the woman who became his wife.
At the time, his then girlfriend (now wife) worked in public health in a Cambodian hospital. After about a year in Cambodia, they decided to move to Jakarta; Suridh wanted to experience his father’s country. From Indonesia, they moved to Bangkok for two years, after which they moved to Singapore, where they had a child.
A year before we talked, Suridh, his wife, and their child moved to Seattle, Washington, in the United States. Seattle is his wife’s city of origin. Though something of a return for his wife, Suridh hadn’t lived in Seattle before their most recent move.
After an adulthood of regular relocations across southeast Asia, Suridh still considers north London home. “I love my city,” he said. “It built me as a person, as an entrepreneur.”
Though not comfortable with the term “patriotic,” Suridh said he did feel proud of his U.K. origins. “The U.K. produces great music, art, films. I have a set of references that I'm sure are great work. The training I had in the UK, the grounding it's given me, it’s given me a lot of confidence in my skills. There's a lineage in music, film, show. I feel part of that.”
Suridh added that he has always felt like a European as a Londoner. “Now that’s being taken away from me because of Brexit. That’s very disappointing,” he said. “I feel quite sad about Brexit.”
With such a variety of cultures and countries in his family history, how does Suridh define his ethnicity? His answer: “British Asian or Eurasian.”
His mother has Swedish-Indian lineage. His father comes from Indonesia. His grandmother and grandfather met in England before their move to India. His parents met and raised him in England. He grew up in England.
Partly, his Indonesian father draws Suridh to the “Asian” identifier, yet he said that his mother’s ties to India, the culture and country of her birth and upbringing, connect him emotionally to India—even though he has never lived in the country and doesn’t plan to live there. Suridh said that he grew up in the “global Indian community,” which included going to temple and Indian-culture events and immersion in the Indian culture “and everything that goes with that.”
These Indian roots feel more distant to Suridh since he left London. In London, he said, “you’re in it and you don’t have to try too hard.” When he moved to southeast Asia, he felt it became harder to stay connected to his Indian culture.
Suridh doesn’t do anything consciously or proactively to stay in touch with his Indian roots. Before having children, he said he didn’t think much about the need to maintain his cultural ties. Having children has made him feel he needs to more proactively cultivate his Indian heritage. “I want my kids to have those experiences, to connect with people at another level, and to understand that culture,” he said.
“I understand different cultures a lot better than other people,” he said. “I feel it gives me an advantage. I want my children to have that. It's a cool thing to be able to float in a different country.”
Expat or Immigrant?
In southeast Asia, Suridh felt like an expat. In Seattle, he feels like an immigrant.
We discussed the meaning of these terms to him, and why he feels different in the United States than he did in southeast Asia.
“In Asia, there's a big culture of expats,” he said. “There's a whole culture of colonialism, a culture of people coming over to work and do their four-, five-, ten-year stints and go back to their country in England, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany. Expats don't exist as a culture or concept in the United States.”
How would the cultures he listed define “expat,” in his thinking? “It's all semantics, isn't it? Some people consider an expat someone who moves from a more developed nation to a less developed nation. You don't really read that, but that's what we talk about,” he said. “The western people moving to nonwestern places. That's not the cool or good way to define things. But that’s the unsaid definition.”
In the United States, he feels like an immigrant for deeper reasons than simply the term “expat” having less resonance in the U.S. culture. “It’s the perception. My full name is Suridh Hassan. To the average person on the street, I am not Anglo-Saxon stock. Because of that, I feel much more akin to other immigrants. I can imagine what they're going through, I feel what they're going through, and I've seen it in my own family,” he said. “Also, I'm not entirely in the American system yet. I'm going through all the same things immigrants go through. I go down to the Seattle immigration office and I wait for my interview and I do all the things the other immigrants do. I just happen to have a British accent.”
With a bit of reflection, Suridh continued his thinking on the definitions of the terms “expat” and “immigrant.”
“Another definition, not necessarily what I agree with, is that immigrants come and stay and live forever, whereas expats don’t,” he said. “But I think that’s slightly warped, because I do identify as an immigrant, and I think many immigrants might want to go back. Western countries assume that they want to come and stay forever.”
Will Suridh Stay in the United States Forever?
Suridh doesn’t rule out moving back to London. In fact, he thinks he’d like to have a pied-à-terre there, and perhaps another spot somewhere along the Mediterranean. In this way, he’d live close enough to stay connected to his family and friends and his home, without moving back permanently full time.
Before then, though, he’d like to see more of the world: Central and South America. Africa. He’s not ready to move back to Europe quite yet.
His urge to move again doesn’t come from a rosy-glassed perspective on other locales; in fact, moving around so much has taught him that every place has its challenges. He enumerated a few: Tokyo had a lot of vans driving around, complaining about foreigners taking jobs. In Cambodia, they have a dictator. In Bangkok, he experienced the protests and had to take care not to say anything about the Thai king.
Mainly, his pull to live elsewhere before possibly settling down in Europe comes from discovering that “the world is a big and wonderful place.” Once his perspectives evolved from his starting point as a young adult in London, he found it hard to stop exploring.
“The days of being just in that original place are long gone. You can't go back,” he said. “There's a fascination in the trials and tribulations. In Tokyo, just trying to buy washing detergent was a challenge. You're using the colors from back home to figure out what isn't fabric softener but detergent. That gets addictive. The feeling of constant discovery gets addictive. You're never bored.”
A Thank You and a Connection
Though I at least had a personal reference to vouch for me, Suridh took a risk speaking to a stranger about a very personal topic—especially without anything concrete to show him where our conversation could lead. (I’d spoken to one person before Suridh and I talked, but I hadn’t yet written up the interview from the conversation.) In this small way—though more especially in the way he has lived his adventurous life—Suridh carries forward his family’s pioneering history.
Suridh does amazing creative work in film and in photography. To see Suridh’s work and to connect with him directly, visit his website. I particularly love his photography of the root bridges in Meghalaya (a part of the world of which I hadn’t before heard tell).
For more information about Stakes [Pull Up / Put Down], the project that generated this interview, read the project statement. If you would like to participate as an interview subject or have a participant to recommend, please contact me. To get updates on the project, subscribe to The Letter.