Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Playing With Perceptions.

About Hetain Patel's TED Talk

Artist Hetain Patel toys with race, identity, language and accent — and challenges us to think beyond surface appearances.

About Hetain Patel

As a child, Hetain Patel wanted to be like Spider-Man or Bruce Lee. Later, he aimed to be like his father, who embodied a different kind of bravery.

As a conceptual artist, Patel has used photography, sculpture, installation and performance to challenge cultural identity and ask the question: What determines our identities?

For his work, he has grown a mustache exactly like the one his father wore when he emigrated from India to the United Kingdom in the 1960s, and remixed the practice of henna tattooing to incorporate English words and comic books.

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OK, picture this scene - there's a guy on the TED stage. He looks like he's from India or Pakistan, brown skin, slim probably about 30. And he's on a chair wearing a traditional Indian Kurta pajama. But he's not sitting, he's squatting like a yogi. And in another chair next to him is a woman who looks Chinese. Her name is Yuyu Rau. And the Indian looking guy, he's the performance artist Hetain Patel. And Yuyu is his translator.


HETAIN PATEL: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: So if you're confused, that's the point. Here's Hetain Patel.


PATEL: (Foreign language spoken).

YUYU RAU: Hi, I'm Hetain. I'm an artist. And this is Yuyu. I have asked her to translate for me.

PATEL: (Foreign language spoken).

RAU: I was born and raised near Manchester in England, but I'm not going to say it in English to you because I'm trying to avoid any assumptions that might be made from my northern accent.


PATEL: (Foreign language spoken).

RAU: The only problem with masking it with Chinese Mandarin is I can only speak this paragraph, which I have learned by heart when I was visiting in China.


RAU: So all I can do is keep repeating it in different tones and hope you won't notice.


PATEL: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: You do not speak Chinese?

PATEL: No, I don't.

RAZ: You actually speaking English with a Manchester accent.

PATEL: Yeah, yeah. I guess it was, you know, I like this idea that when we meet somebody, I think it's natural that we want to place them somewhere.

RAZ: Yeah.

PATEL: You know, in a part of the world, in a community, in an environment. And so I wanted to take that away a bit because the reality is that our lives and our personalities and whatnot are made up of so much more than your kind of localized area. You know, your localized area can be the world now.

RAZ: Hetain Patel was born in a town called Bolton, it's just outside Manchester. His parents immigrated to the UK from India back in the 1960s. And as a kid, he just wanted to be British.

PATEL: You know, I went to a school where I was the only nonwhite kid there. And so, you know, from a very young age, you kind of go into the whole process of trying to lose your Indian accent, trying to walk and talk like the natives and trying to fit in as you do as a kid.

RAZ: What were those stereotypes that people had of you and your culture that just drive you crazy?

PATEL: That we - (laughter) - it's funny when I think of these 'cause some of them are true - that we eat curry every day, that we eat Indian food every day, which we did. That we stink of curry.

RAZ: You just call that food.

PATEL: Exactly. Exactly. You know, it's the school dinners where you have egg, chips and beans that's exotic for us. And all the kind of stereotyped relationship to discipline, you know, the idea that we should work all the time and study and things like that. All that was true. But I think it was - I think the annoying thing that I think would drive me crazy in a way was that when you're young, you're made to feel that that's not a good thing.

RAZ: Yeah.

PATEL: You're made to feel that that's a bad thing. You know, when I was a kid, when I started primary school when I was 5 years - 6 years old, I was ashamed of the fact that I spoke Gujarati. I was ashamed of my Indian accent. I was ashamed that I ate curry at home. I was ashamed of the colors and the Hindu things at home. And that for, you know, a young kid, you know, is not good. So I think it's that that you're kind of made to feel that the difference is wrong or it's inferior or something that should exclude you.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, there's such a fine line between stereotyping and identity and - because on the one hand, when you're a kid, it's normal to want to just be like the other kids. But on the other hand, some - you know, there are elements of your identity that also get sort of pushed aside.

PATEL: Yeah, absolutely. That's a very good point. Sometimes I talk about my practice, my art practice, as kind of a continuous struggle to try to be free, freedom in a lot of ways. Whether it's to do stereotyping or what kind of jobs we're in or what kind of clothes we wear or what we allow - is self-permission, you know, it's what we allow ourselves to believe that we can do or to be or to act.

RAZ: I mean, that's really, I think, the core of it, like, it's about breaking free from that. Because having limitations put on you, whether you do it to yourself or others do it to you, it's like a trap, it's like a prison.

PATEL: Yeah, absolutely. It's not just about freeing yourself from boxes other people put you in or that you put yourself in, but it's also trying to free yourself from perceptions that you have about other people. You know, it has to be both of those way - not just about yourself, but how you see the outside world.

RAZ: Which is exactly why Hetain and his so-called translator Yuyu play with perceptions in their performances.


PATEL: (Foreign language spoken).

RAU: So my artwork is about challenging common assumptions based on what we look like or where we come from. What makes us who we are anyway?

PATEL: (Foreign language spoken).

RAU: I used to read Spiderman comics, watch kung fu movies, take philosophy lessons from Bruce Lee. He would say things like.

PATEL: (Imitating Bruce Lee) Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now, you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Put in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Be water, my friend.


RAU: This year, I'm 32 years old. The same age Bruce Lee was when he died. I have been wondering recently, if he were alive today, what advice he would give me.

PATEL: (Imitating Bruce Lee) Don't imitate my voice. It offends me.


RAU: Good advice. But I still think that we learn who we are by copying others. Who here hasn't imitated their childhood hero in the playground? - Or mom or father? I have.

PATEL: OK. So contrary to what we might usually assume, imitating somebody can reveal something unique. Every time I fail to become more like my father, I become more like myself. Every time I fail to become Bruce Lee, I become more authentically me. This is my art. I strive for authenticity, even if it comes in a shape that we might not usually expect. Thank you.


RAZ: Performance artist Hetain Patel. You have to watch his whole talk, it is so cool. It's at Our show today, ideas about stereotypes, prejudice and assumptions. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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