The case of the missing cultural identity

I was born in Pakistan, grew up in the United States, lived in Canada, then shifted to the U.S., only to return to Canada and now I’m back in the good ol’ U.S.A. (for now). That’s quite a mouthful when someone asks me where I am from. To avoid the detailed geography lesson, I give them the cliff notes version, replying I’m from “here” (here being where ever I happen to be at the moment).That response earned me quite the evil eye from a corpulent ‘auntie’ the other day.
Her chins quivered and arms jiggled as she knowingly bellowed so everyone in the room would catch her remark, “Oh, so you’re one of THOSE girls, haan?” One of those girls? Umm, sure.

My extended family traces its roots to South Africa, India, Kashmir, Iran and Punjab. The maternal side bounces between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Canada. The paternal side remains grounded in Pakistan. My immediate family has branched into metropolitan cities all over North America. Is it a wonder I’m at a loss for words when asked a simple social nicety: Where are you from? Where am I from, really? I’m not sure myself. Sometimes, the unadorned question inflates into a larger uncertainty: Who am I?

At times, I’m the rich, colorful and vibrant Southeast Asia – Pakistan, India, Kashmir, Iran and Punjab all rolled in to one. All the cultural traditions my mother pounded into me as a young child come to life as I attempt to raise my own young family. I grew up hearing the standard line,“In Pakistan, it was never like this!” in response to my petulant adolescent grousing about limits over clothing, cosmetics, and everything in between. As an adult, I cook spicy lentils and chicken curry for the family; I wear bejeweled, multihued shalwar kameez with pride; I sway along to the haunting strums of Ravi Shankar’s sitar and the acoustic twang of Junoon’s electric guitar as I drive– and I do this all happily and eagerly, without a single cranky complaint. The very language, music, dress and cuisine I so desperately wanted to distance myself from as an adolescent, I now try to inculcate in my children . I find myself reciting the same exact words, in Urdu of course, to my children as my mother once said to me – “Talk to me in Urdu, I don’t understand English!” My children get agitated, but oblige. For now.

Still, at other times, I’m the coarse, rough, and broad-minded McAmerican. I argue incessantly whereas a well-mannered Pakistani girl would know when to hold her tongue; I wear ripped jeans (my mother’s reaction to this fashion debacle was worth recording); and at times, I wear shirts that don’t cover my bum — I shouldn’t have to tell you that a good and decent Pakistani girl would take great pains to make sure her shirt is of appropriate, modest length. My husband and I indulge in the occasional date night. DATE? The word is a full-blown expletive in my culture because dating outside of marriage is considered a big no-no, the ultimate four-letter word. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Never mind, that the D-A-T-E is with my own husband!

Amidst my ‘white’ friends, I represent an exotic culture – the chick who can cook a mean curry, wears cute cultural clothes, and seamlessly switches mid-sentence between her native language and English without a blink. But they have their own set of bewildered questions. “Arranged marriage – did your parents force you?” they lean in and ask knowingly. “You didn’t even date your husband before you married him?” is another question that comes paired with an incredulous expression. “Why can’t you wear shorts and a tank? You poor thing, you must be roasting in your T-shirt!” is another pitying comment I am accustomed to receiving. On the other hand, among Pakistani friends and family, I am no less of an outlier. I represent the ‘outsider’ – the person who is served condescension on a silver platter, and is on the outermost rung of understanding true South Asian culture. I’ve been on the receiving end of many Pakistani aunties’ wagging tongues – ‘Uff, how will she properly manage a home of her own? After all, she’s been raised in America.”

I’ve grown up with Indian, Middle Eastern, African American, and European influences in the many geographical destinations where I have traveled and lived. My cultural identity fluctuates. Sometimes, I feel South Asian; sometimes, North American. Even as I sit at my desk writing, I’m sipping Colombian coffee, flavored with crushed cardamom of course, and eating apple pie. Racy Bollywood songs play in the distant background while dinner bakes in the oven— – an Italian lasagna. So you tell me, where am I from?
Annie Qaiser is a freelance writer/editor based in St. Paul, MN.

(Photo Credit: Asim Bharwani)

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