By SADAF AYAZ
November 25, 2017
“Earlier in the year, in the midst of this year’s election season, I felt more and more like I had been told what I meant to the country I had lived in all my life–and it was nothing close to what I had in my mind. “
Imagine this: You, alone. Standing in the middle of a bridge.
Slowly, both ends of the bridge start falling apart, a piece at a time, moving inward. There’s no way out. And with each blink, the bridge disintegrates more and more into the body of water below.
Soon, the few pieces of the bridge that you are standing on lose their hold too, and you go tumbling down, deep into the endless sea.
What I have just described is my identity. And the identity of several others just like me.
You see, most people have a home. Many people do not.
I must’ve been seven years old, maybe eight, when I realized I was stuck. Trapped in the middle of the bridge between two places I loved.
A tentative step to the right and I got pushed with hate.
A step too close to the left, and I got kicked out like a trespasser.
Distraught, I stood still.
And even that lead me to fall and disappoint–myself and others.
When I was younger, and I didn’t quite understand, I thought it was pretty cool to belong to both America and Pakistan. I was different from my peers in more ways than others and back then being different meant you that belonged.
It seemed like I would always be with the winners. Having two identities, two countries to root for, always excited me. I realized that if one wasn’t up to par at one thing, the other always made up for it, so at the end of the day when I added the halves I was still a hundred percent complete, a hundred percent a winner.
It was nice knowing I held firmly to two identities that helped define me–that I was a mixture of both what ran in my blood and what ran through my thoughts.
I was born in Pakistan, and within a year I came to America. Over the next 16 years, I spent almost all my time in America learning, living and dreaming the American dream while also learning, living, and dreaming the Pakistani dream. My dreams and thoughts had become a whole mixture of the two. And that was all excellent until recently when things have been seeming to be much out of reach.
Earlier in the year, in the midst of this year’s election season, I felt more and more like I had been told what I meant to the country I had lived in all my life–and it was nothing close to what I had in my mind. With a person like Trump who was running for President and was slowly becoming more popular, several people became more violent and intolerant with their thoughts and their words. The silent stares were no longer silent, and the fake smiles were no longer present. As words like “B**,” “rag-head,” “terrorist,” and phrases like “go back to your country you terrorist,” “what’s underneath that thing, a bomb? You f-ing terrorist,” and rants from random people on the train who sat across from me or stood right before me spitting reasons for me to kill myself became more and more consistent on my daily ventures across the city I called home, I was forced to question what my options were for survival.
Would I stay in America, move to Canada or London, or would I go back to the country that made up the other half of my identity?
I was fine with, even happy, to move back to Pakistan, I had even made elaborate plans on how I would continue achieving my dreams while living in a third world country because to me, it didn’t matter. Anger ran in my blood too, and I thought that if I wasn’t accepted here, it didn’t matter, I would live in the country that loved and accepted me.
Or so I thought.
A while back, I went to Pakistan to attend my cousin’s wedding. I had already made plans to visit colleges there and find out the process of admission, just in case if things got just that bad. However, I was immediately welcomed with what people in Pakistan thought of me. At the airport security checkpoint, a Pakistani guard asked me a few questions and I answered in Urdu. Albeit my Urdu isn’t perfect, I know it isn’t bad either. However, he thought otherwise. A few steps after I walked forward, him and his friend cackled over it. “Patanahi yeh Amriki loge Urdu bolne ki koshish kyun karte hain–bilawaja ke liye apne aap ko bohot aala samajthe hain. Bakwaas. Udhar hi rehna chahiye en behayaon ko.”–I don’t know why these American people try to speak Urdu, they think they are something big, they’re not even close to Pakistanis. Posers. They should stay in that country–these shameless people.”
I wish I could’ve said something then–yelled at him for making me feel like a stranger because I couldn’t speak Urdu well enough. I had come with hopes of finding the acceptance I remembered feeling eight years ago when I had visited. But, all I could feel was the same feeling of disgust and anger I was running away from.
I was distraught.
The place I thought would give me comfort, my second option was also an unaccepting space for me.
As you grow older you notice more things and although as a child you wish to be more grownup, sometimes it seems like it would’ve been better not to know what was going on in the “adult world.”
I think the feeling of immense joy over belonging to two nations started to become a point of sadness when I began to realize exactly what my position was in both countries: nothing. I wasn’t accepted in either place that I called home.
When I called myself an American or told people that I belonged to America, people often took a step back and took in my look from top to bottom. With my hijab–the scarf I wrapped around my head, my brown skin, my obviously South Asian features, and the slight accent that seeped through my English, people only laughed at the American title I often gave myself. It’s even more surprising and just the more hurtful when you realize a country that was made to accept and built on diversity addressed you like that.
“You’re not a American, you’re a terrorist,” people have said. “The only relationship you have to America is of hate.”
“But I love America!”
I could cry all day and night.
And as if for the moments when my love for the country was explicitly shared, they had gone deaf.
“Yes, you hate America,” they replied still.
Similarly, when I said I was Pakistani or that I belonged to Pakistan as well, people often took back a step and took in my look from bottom to top. With my hijab styled in “that Arabic way” and my skin slightly too quick to get a sunburn, a smile too wide and a laugh too loud for a “Pakistani girl” and an accent not nearly as perfect because of my lack of expertise at rolling my “r” the way people who speak Urdu do, people only laughed.
People enjoyed mocking me: “You’re just one of those pretentious Americans who think speaking in English makes them smart. You’re just a Pakistani by blood but in reality, there is nothing Pakistani about you.”
“No, but I love Pakistan!” I could cry like a madwoman but people continued to jump to their own conclusions–as if I were only mute.
“Yes, of course you love America and [therefore, must!] hate Pakistan.”
For a while, small things like that do not bother people. But soon they start to irk, pinch, and prick people in ways never imagined.
The same happened to me.
For a while it seemed like a mixed identity issue that any person that socially identified themselves with more than one group of people would go through and so I ignored it. However, soon it became an issue. Because home is one of the only things that comforts people. Home is the safe hideaway you go to clear away the thoughts of the world. To hide behind walls and for a few moments, instead of thinking of belonging and fitting in with the rest of the world, enjoy just being you.
But if the places I always considered home cause people to disregard me as a simple minded wannabe, where truly do I belong? Do I too not deserve the right to peace and belonging?
Not having either base when before I thought I had both became overwhelming. While some may enjoy the dervish-life, I didn’t. And because of that, I often got stuck in the battle to become more American when in America and more Pakistani when in Pakistan. And soon in the race to run after two unachievable goals, I lost myself and one day I questioned: Who am I?
Life just seemed like a constant rat race–going round and round, looking for an exit from the living hell, faking happiness I felt I would never have. And I realized that in the effort to fit in I had become a foreigner trying to become a native, and a native trying to become a foreigner. In the attempt to open the foreign door, I got locked out of my previous home. And today, as I’m pushed out of this unwelcoming home, I find myself in between two locked doors.
Where do I go now?
I didn’t belong anywhere.
It took me time to realize that it was okay.
It was okay to be pushed out of the only places you could call home and to not fit into either. It was okay, to not fit in. It was okay, to call that gray space that only you and a few others could see, home.
I realized that just like the fable of the donkey, father, and son–society didn’t seem to accept either situation that came about.
Society didn’t accept the father riding on the donkey while his son walked along.
Nor did it accept the son sitting on the donkey while the father walked along.
Nor did it accept that neither the son nor the father sat on the donkey.
It is true that society never accepts, and perhaps never will.
Moreover, far too often, we are used to seeing everyone perfectly content in the areas of black and white that they were placed in. It seems safer, and firmer. True. However, often we become chained to those darker tones of strict identity. So much so that sometimes we miss the fact that we were given a chance to be a little different. To explore a little more and to think further apart. Those things may not help us in feeling welcome at times, but just the same why is there such a need to feel welcome? Yes, a home base is sometimes necessary, but it doesn’t have to be one place that holds you perfectly. Sometimes, it’s okay to lay within a gray scale that doesn’t cover you too well. It’s okay to be a foreign citizen.
At least we get to see the world in a spectrum very few people get to, standing on the middle of the bridge where we could see both black, white, and gray.