I sit here for 45 minutes, probably more, thinking about the question bouncing around in my head: Why does everyone seem to be stapled to one identity and I’m in a state of ambivalence?
Cool air pushes through the one-inch window space and I shiver. From where I sit at the edge of the bed, I see a dim light flickering in the library of the main building of my school. The gymnasium across the street is tucked between two six-story buildings, one of which is mine. In spite of the bedroom window being almost closed, I don’t have to strain to hear the laughter of passing strangers — prepubescent boys talking about yesterday night’s Mayweather vs Pacquiao fight, parents telling their kids to stop at the light, the super from my building saying hello to somebody. Ordinary life continues. Inside, everything feels slow and uncertain.
Tired of sitting, I stand and walk towards the dresser to touch the image of the person that stands before me. I hate how she has the boldness to mimic my every move. My cheeks are flushed and burning red. My lips are pale. My hair, not yet dried from the shower, is bunched together in a bun, baby curls falling in front of my face. The hijab sits at the top of the dresser in front of me. I reach out for it, slowly, then quickly pull my hand back. The bangles next to it wait for me.
The only thing that seems to comfort me is the aroma of my mother’s dinner cooking in the kitchen, a mix of different spices in rice. She’s making biryani, a common favorite back home. But I’m too scared to ask my mom if she needs help because I don’t want to face the discouraging comments that fly from her mouth.
You sit in front of a computer all day and never do any lady work! You are going to become crazy talking to yourself! You are not a proper female!
These exclamations eventually lead her to a tangent about how I’m too modern and that’s not how she was when she was my age. These sorts of comments lead me to questioning my identity. Actually, no… I know who I am. Right?
Everything is so contradictory, so paradoxical.
I am a New Yorker. I’m American by childhood and residency, Pakistani by lineage, Indian by ancestry. I’m a human being, but I’m treated like an alien. Alien is not belonging, being this abstract “thing” in the corner, not wanting to be touched. But I am also a cosmic superhero; I choose not to be like the rest. My identity is fluid. I am vibrant and colorful, but not perceived as “alien.”
All I know is that it’s a never-ending struggle to find an anchor to validate my existence to comfort me. I can only conclude that I am a South Asian diasporan child. Diaspora is a condition of fragmentation, not only of place, but of time. I will always be moving, always wandering. It’s the absence of something, the yearning to be whole.
I am grateful for the term diaspora — it gives me some comfort. At least I belong to some group, right? But even in my own community, where I am supposed to feel loved and supported, I am treated with hostility.
If I were to go back to the motherland, I am afraid I would be shunned for being too “Americanized.” I would be seen as inferior because I don’t live up to the standards of Pakistanis — a group I should naturally be in sync with, a group I am supposed to feel I belong to. Instead, I would get double takes on my clothes, my eccentric and diverse taste in food. Suitors might ask my parents for my hand in marriage. I’d be known as the “American girl,” or labeled as lost. If I were to say I didn’t like a certain food, my aunts would talk about my dilute nature. Have they ever wondered if I just don’t like it because I just don’t like it? They would make me feel as though I weren’t allowed to have a different opinion on anything relating to Pakistan because I just “don’t get it” and will never “truly understand anyway.”
But that’s not where it ends. Even if you disagree with someone about something that has little to do with your culture, the end argument will most likely always be, “Oh, you Americans.” It doesn’t matter how hard you work to perfect your Pakistani accent, how well you cook, or how light the color of your skin is. The bottom line is: you’ll never be enough.
However, in America, the place I like to call home, I sometimes feel ridiculed and shamed for sticking to my roots. I cannot wear henna without hearing that it looks prettier on a white girl’s skin. I am discouraged from wearing the hijab because of comments that are often born of ignorance. I can’t wear my traditional clothing without it first being ridiculed, and then appropriated.
I didn’t choose these circumstances, so why am I held responsible for them? I still struggle with this, but I’m starting to realize that not belonging to anything only refers to our limited options. One is either Pakistani or American. The reality is, however, that we can belong to something else entirely; even though we may not know what that is. The problem is that I’m constantly told not to claim — or be proud of — my otherness.
Through the 17 years of my life, I have learned the most toxic lesson of all: I am not meant to be heard. Perhaps the original sin lies at the hands of my immigrant parents, the ones who packed their bags when I was just three years old, begged for a ticket into gilded America, and dragged me along to seek a better life.
Based on my mother’s rare reminiscences when she is feeling particularly nostalgic, I can vividly imagine what it would have been like years back: my father’s excitement to enter a new world that held promises for a better tomorrow. A once closed door that opened for us was a blessing and a curse; and little did we know about the curse. Once the visa was verified, family trips were possible. However exciting this process might have been for my parents, as their child it was, and still is, hard for me to decipher my “home.”
Despite having no understanding of Pakistan’s struggle to gain liberation from British India, I can, however, recite all the important dates of America’s involvement in both world wars. Without being able to read or write in Urdu, my vocabulary is so advanced in English that sometimes I catch myself getting frustrated when my parents can’t keep up with my rapid-paced tongue. With such a severe disconnect from my Pakistani roots, and without being able to find solace in the soil that has sheltered me since birth, I often wonder — where is my home? Can first-generation children say they even have one?
I reach for the bangles and put them on my wrist to match the traditional attire of a Pakistani young woman; I stretch my hand toward the hijab.
Though it is hard and scary to find my true home, the journey allows me to understand myself in a more nuanced way. I am not just one or the other. I don’t need a label to anchor me, because understanding myself is enough.
I am other.
This time around, I am not afraid to say it.
Misbah Awan attends the Young Women Leadership School of Astoria, in New York. She is the product of the late 90s, and the older sister of three brothers. Recently, she was a keynote speaker for the YWCA’s annual symposium, where she spoke about the struggles of being a brown girl. Her Twitter handle is @mebemisbah.
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