What Happens When Your Ethnicity and Your Nationality Don’t Align?
It started in first grade, shortly after my classmates discovered that there were other sects in Islam. As if relentlessly bullying me for not belonging to the same religion (in their eyes) wasn’t enough, they had to come after my identity as well.
Ironically, it happened on Pakistan Day, 23rd March. Everyone was wearing their “traditional” clothes. In an array of colorful ethnic dresses belonging to the five provinces of Pakistan, I stood out in my coral saree and my mother’s pearls. My hair was in an updo, and not a single person in the room looked like me.
My aunt had reassured me that my saree would represent a certain fraction of the Pakistani people. Then how come no one else was dressed like me?
The girl who started the bullying was the first to point out: perhaps I belonged to the Zorastranian community, but that couldn’t be true; I attended Islamiat. So, what was it?
Why had my family allowed me to wear a saree when the rest of my classmates wore shalwar kameez and other traditional clothes?
I was a child- the eldest child, of course- but there was no reason for me to wear something that didn’t represent my country. But it was 2004, and religious extremism from Zia’s time had finally cooled down enough for everyone to relax for a couple of years. My family, in particular, had finally shed its pseudo conservatism and was slowly starting to return to our roots.
I still remember the day my mother stopped wearing a scarf. We didn’t speak when she stepped out of the house with nothing but a dupatta only partly covering her head. But even at aged six, I could feel the relief radiating from her. We didn’t have to pretend anymore.
But what were we pretending to be? And more importantly, why was I wearing a saree to represent Pakistani culture?
The answer would come years later, during another 23rd March festival in school. I was chosen specifically to wear a saree to represent “Urdu-speaking” people. I didn’t really understand why I was representing Urdu speakers, because every Pakistani spoke Urdu, right?
Well, no, not exactly.
I found out that day that some people were called “Urdu-speaking”; those who came from India and didn’t know any of the other provisional languages. But my parents knew Sindhi; they’d studied it in school. Surely, that was enough?
Again, the answer was no.
As I grew up, I realized that there were various types of “Urdu speakers.” As my family gained financial prosperity, I switched schools for more exclusive, more expensive ones. I found more people like me. People who only spoke Urdu and English…and French, German and a couple of other European languages if they chose to. But no one talked about it.
I was safe. I was able to spend seven years of my life without thinking too much about being an “Urdu speaker.” Somehow, it seemed like an insult, a derogatory term that never seizes to bother me.
Today, whenever my mother says that we’re “Urdu speaking,” my siblings and I correct her but back then, it was a badge of shame. As though I wasn’t Pakistani enough.
University, however, was a completely different story. My complexion has always been something I’ve been extremely aware of. As someone who spent the majority of her childhood out under the scorching Karachi sun, I knew that I had more melanin in my skin than the rest of my family.
There was a time when it was a sort of badge of honor for me. Unlike my cousins who fainted at the sight of blood and couldn’t handle roughhousing, I could climb trees, break my leg, break my ankle every other month, and I lived to tell the tale.
I was proud of it.
Until it became obvious that other girls were taking special care of their complexion to appear like the Turkish people we went to university with. It wasn’t bad initially, but when I transferred to a place where there were more Pakistani girls, I realized its extent.
Every accomplishment of mine was overshadowed by the darkness of my skin. My ability to speak another language, be good at my course was negated against the fact that I wasn’t fair enough. I spent two years listening to back-handed comments about how I had “perfect” skin and then being called black the very next minute.
Even my identity wasn’t good enough. The word “Urdu speaking” came back to haunt me.
It didn’t stop there.
Suddenly, my city, the former capital, the city that made Pakistan, was a horrible place to live in. Of course, I am frustrated by the way Karachi functions; I would never want to return to it; but, it is home, and I don’t believe it deserves the criticism people give it.
Especially because the only reason it received hate was because it housed people like me.
It was annoying and frustrating, but it was something I allowed myself to endure to be Pakistani. I wasn’t Pakistani enough. I had never been Pakistani enough.
My ancestors’ sacrifice for the country was never enough compared to those who stayed home when the partition was announced.
My family gave Pakistan blood, sweat, and money, but it wasn’t enough. When it finally dawned on me that I would never be enough for Pakistan, I had the mad idea to get a DNA test to see where I really was from.
We weren’t Indians; we weren’t Bengalis- my uncles HATE being called that. So, what were we?
In the end, I found out that we were Persian. Sixty-three percent Persian to be exact; twelve percent Middle Eastern, and so on. My ancestors traveled quite a bit, but I was only seven percent South Asian.
It was true then. I could never be Pakistani enough because I’m only seven percent Pakistani (maybe half if we count India as well). And while my passport is green, and my mother tongue will always be Urdu, it’s both a blessing and a curse to know that everyone had been right all along.
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