Monday, September 27, 2010

When does the hyphenation end? Thoughts from a Pakistani-American

All my life I've been asked a particular question which if you're a person of color, I'm sure you've been asked too: Where are you from? When younger I answered Florida. Sometimes I'd get an awkward nod at this response, but other times the questioner would persist, sometimes politely by, "I mean ethnically speaking. . ." and sometimes not so politely (though I refuse to impute bad intent): No where are you really from? Pakistan, I would respond though a tiny voice in my head wondered because I'm not really from here?

My parents are from Pakistan but the last time I stepped foot in Pakistan I was eight years old. Yes I share genetic makeup with people of that part of the world. Yes I speak the language and own shalwar kamiz and value my ancestral homeland and much of my writing is inspired by Pakistan, but I was born here. I'm a U.S. Citizen by birthright. My home is here, my family is here, my career is here. I am from here. This led to many an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) moment growing up but I've come to accept myself as a Pakistani-American. I'm a blend of east meets west. Mostly west, but undeniably east as well.

But now I look at my son. His grandparents have lived here longer than they lived in Pakistan, his parents are from here, he is from here, and yet are people still going to ask him where he is really from? Ofcourse they are. And while I am proud that I am Pakistani. Proud of my son's dark brown eyes and soft black hair and the history behind his DNA when I look at him I wonder: when does the hyphenation end? How many generations does it take to get to call yourself American full-stop? I'm not sure since African-Americans are still called that despite having lived here hundreds of years without ever setting foot in the motherland or knowing anyone who lives there. And then I wonder, is it only white people who can be American-sans-hyphen despite the rich heritage of countries from which they also hail?

With a country growing in diversity every second of the day, I wonder when the hyphens will end because as much as its important to celebrate our cultural diversity, predicating the word American with a hyphen implies that you are not fully from here even if here is all you know. And what a strange place to vacillate between when you are not from there, but not perceived fully from here either. I want my son to be proud to of Pakistani heritage but I hope he will know that when people ask him where he is really from, the answer is here.


pj said...

interesting...i married a gora boy whose farm family has lived here....umpteenth generations. He refuses to call himself anything but Canadian.(maybe northern european mutt if pushed) and since we are so obsessed with 'knowing our roots and honouring them' in canada, this STILL doesnt fly, despite the green eyes and blond hair...even with our intercultural marriage we had to find an ethnic SOMETHING amd went for the remote polish side so that we could make cabbage rolls for the wedding to compliment the butter chicken.

I think people are obsessed with categorizing no matter what - to see if sterotypes still hold maybe, to put people in pre-fab packages. and if they dont fit they look for reasons why? (he HAS been asked, how did you manage to marry one of THEM? i thought they stuck to their own kind!....sigh.). I hold no illusions that our kids will be free of this either...

Tracy López said...

Aisha, as you know we've discussed this at length, and I'm glad that all those questions, confusion, and frustration have culminated in this well-worded post.

I love culture, so I can't imagine forgetting our roots - whether those roots be Pakistani, Latin, African, Chinese, Irish, or any number of combinations. Culture is beautiful... That being said, I think we can hold onto our past while moving towards the future. I think we can be proud of our culture and stop labeling ourselves.

The first step is for light-skinned people to stop demanding that non-light-skinned people explain themselves. It's unacceptable. As you said, it isn't ill-intentioned, it's curiosity, but it is unfair that some of us have to constantly explain ourselves as if we're not "real" Americans.

My sons are perfect examples of this. The older son is darker like his father, the younger one is lighter like me. The older son is asked some variation of the "Where are you from?" question on a monthly basis. My youngest son? NEVER. Not once in his whole life has he had to explain himself.

Honestly, I think that light-skinned people do not give it any thought. They have no idea how burdensome their questions are. They think they're making polite conversation. They think that you're flattered that they want to know more about you.

The solution, I imagine, is sensitivity training on the job, and diversity programs in schools. Education is key to changing the way people think. We also must do away with paper work which demands we put ourselves in "race boxes". The government must stop trying to label and divide us.

I've discussed this topic on my blog and it's the Canadians who are always most horrified by the race issue in the U.S. It really made me see ourselves (Americans), from a distance. To Canadians, we seem to be horribly behind the times. They do not ask race in Canada, they just call themselves Canadians.

In the year 2010, with Barack Obama as our President, I think it's about time we all started calling ourselves Americans.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Thanks for the food for thought!

sprogblogger said...

Lovely post, Aisha, and one that I'm anticipating being an issue for my darker-than-me boy in the future, so of particular interest to me.

Grace said...

I get this question all the time. It's funny, Tracy mentioned that her younger light-skinned son does not get asked this yet I do as another light-skinned Latina. I wonder why that is? Maybe because I am a woman? People regularly come up to me and guess my ethnic background without any other introduction. I hope we can move past this too. I hear "what are you?" often and to that my family has taken to answering "a human being."

I hope that our children are embraced for who they are and do not have to explain themselves.

Aisha said...

PJ- thanks for providing your unique perspective. I think that its great that Canadians are itnerested in knowing their roots. I hope W will never forget his, but I also don't want to feel like he's not "really from here". like you said though, there are no illusions this issue will ever go away.

Tracy, thanks as always for the food for the thought. I was thinking about it further and realized that even Native-Americans are hyphenated Americans, the ones that initially came, lol. So the only ones who don't have to qualify their Americanhood are white people? You have a unique perspective in that you have two boys one who darker, one lighter and can see the difference in how they are perceived and treated. Not necessarily worse, but definitely and noticeably different. And I agree with you on all the solutions you offered. I know we have talked about these issues before. . . dont know when it will happen but one can hope I guess.

Anon, thanks :)

Susan, I know you come from a rich heritage- do people EVER ask you where you are from?

Grace- welcome to the blog and thanks for the comment! interesting- I also wonder why? And yes, the "what are you" question. UGH I forgot about that! That is the most offensive way to put it of all. Thanks for your take on this.

Simeen Alikhan said...

I guess I am in the minority-- when people ask where I'm from, although I have lived here since I was a year old, I say "India." I think it's pretty clear people aren't asking if I grew up in Florida or if I've lived in Maryland all my life-- if someone says "where are you from?" they most likely mean, what is your ethnicity? And I actually like being asked that question. I am proud to be Indian and happy that someone wants to know more about me. I don't assume they have any bad intentions (and of course this could just be my naivite). I'm also proud to be an American citizen, and there is no other country in the world I would rather live in, but I am always proud (and quick!) to answer "Indian" if someone asks what I am.

Aisha said...

Thanks for the comment Simeen! Like you, wen people ask, I say Pakistan, more specifically, "I'm from Florida but my parents are from Pakistan." so much so it got embarassing when a lobbyist was trying to figure out my district and I went into a speel about Pakistan, lol:

I think its good and important to be proud of ones heritage- don't get me wrong- and like I said in my post- when people ask I rarely impute bad intent moreso curiosity, but at the same time I just wonder how many chains down the generations of Americans do we go before you're just American, period.

Aisha said...

And I wanted to add Simeen, a point I forgot to make in my main post. While I'm cool with being labeled Pakistani-American because I do have cultural ties to the motherland, how many ties will Waleed have? Will certainly try to give him the superficia culture as much as I can of knowing what we wear, having a few outfits, enjoying desi food, and hopefully speaking a bit of the language, but really. . . he's going to be even more on the American hyphen of the equation than me. And then his kids? I just end up wondering how far down the line you go? As long as the DNA is there?

Michele said...

Does it ever end? I mean, I refer to myself as "Irish-American" because my dad's family (generations ago) were from Ireland and my mom's family is Native American. I actually had someone tell me that, unless we are 100% NA, we should never use the term "American" (although I dont buy that). You, my friend, are an American. I am, too. We were born here. This is our country. Ethnically, you are Pakistani, I'm Irish, and the list goes on. But we are American. Our differences are what makes the melting pot that this country is.

(But, as a side note, it really pisses me off when someone says "No, REALLY, where are you from?" I always want to answer "Earth. And you???")

rickshawdiaries said...

Great post, as always Aisha. I've gone through the phases of getting irritated, offended, & amused, and now just treat it as a teachable moment.

I say, 'I'm from California, my parents came from Pakistan 40 years ago' to make the distinction.

Or if they say, "Where are you really from?" I'll force them to clarify by asking in return, "Are you asking my ethnic heritage?"

Hopefully they're more sensitive to the next person they ask.

I like the idea of reversing tables & asking them in turn where they are from. Will make for some interesting convos! :)

katery said...

it must be frustrating not being able to escape that question, i don't know why as americans we are so curious about everybody's backgrounds, we are ALL (save the native americans) immigrants, so i'm not sure why one person thinks they have any more right to be here than another.

Simeen Alikhan said...

This really is a very interesting topic and I appreciate seeing all the different viewpoints-- I mean there's stuff I just didn't consider but this has helped me open my eyes a bit. In regards to your question of how far down the line does this go... I suppose for me it really does have to do with DNA and your ethnicity. Whether my kids go to India and Pakistan or not in their lifetimes, they'll still be both Indian and Pakistani (at least in my eyes). They, of course, might label themselves-- just American :)

Aisha said...

Michele, thanks for your perspective! I didn't realize you were part Native-American. Your children have such a rich heritage!

Baraka, thanks for your perspective. I think the asking white people where they are really from should be done- it could be a blog in and of itself, lol.

Katery, thanks, yeah- I understand curiosity- that's fine- but when you can tell the person is simply trying to pigeon hole you- it can get frustrating!

Simeen- thanks for your take on this- refreshing to hear your take. . . and also gave me antoher way to look at it too.

katery said...

yes, i completely understand, it is different when you are constantly asked a question like that based on the color of your skin or the clothes you wear, it's not right or fair and i wish that this country would learn to be a little more accepting and tolerant.

Dan Martin said...

Actually, as a 'white people' myself, I get asked "where are you from?" too, but it usually seems to mean "in which state did you grow up?" This is not even easy for me as I've lived all over the U.S....

I know people sometimes ask me for my ethnic heritage too...they don't ask "where are you from?" for that part, and come to think of it, I can't recall how it's phrased. My answer is that my ancestors came from Switzerland to Philadelphia seeking freedom from religious persecution in 1728.

It doesn't come with the "no really" element you describe, though. And I resonate with your irritation at being asked that's almost as though you're accused of being disenguous, and that is unfair. But I think, perhaps because we're a nation of immigrants, many have a stronger-than-average curiousity as to each other's heritage. Properly framed (and phrased), I'm not sure that's all bad...

Great post anyhow!

C said...

Ok this is an old post, but I needed to comment. I live in India right? so should have no issues like you mention, right? WRONG! I am a bengali, born and brought up in Delhi, now living in Hyderabad. Its very common to ask where you are from because they want to know about our roots. So I say I am a Bengali born and brought up in Delhi. Then the Bias creeps up. So am a Bengali? Then I must love fish. I MUST have long hair. Oh am from Delhi? A un-cultured north Indian eh? So you see, its human nature!

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