By Sameen Amin
“I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen” — Jhumpa Lahiri, Indian-American novelist
The world is a funny place. Interconnected, yet so segmented. Affords so many freedoms, yet takes away so many rights. Celebrates your culture, but then laughs at your accent. So it is here, in these concocted contradictions and ignorant idiosyncrasies that I am faced with the question of belonging. It’s a loaded one, yet one that I’m asked most frequently. “Where are you from?” Often followed by, “but where are you really from?” Sounds like an innocent query. That is, if you know how to answer it. I’m from Canada by way of Pakistan, I guess. I grew up here, but I’m from there, I think. I’m a Pakistani-Canadian, wait no, I’m a Canadian-Pakistani. Constantly oscillating between two countries with distinct cultures can really make your head spin.
Canada is my adopted homeland, and Pakistan is my birthplace. I’m your quintessential, confused, hyphenated person. The dreaded hyphen, it may look like an insignificant dash, but it is so much more. Oh yes, that sweet, smooth line carries with it the monumental task of bridging my two sides, and ultimately forging my identity.
For me, growing up ‘brown’ in the West meant a constant cultural struggle. The two sides of my hyphen were never at peace. One would only shine at the expense of the other. At home, my parents created a space steeped in our Pakistani heritage. This, cushioned by frequent trips to my birthplace, served as a constant connection with where I came from. But daily life in Canada began to affirm a whole other side of me. It was a bizarre feeling, wanting to be at two places at once, wishing to be two different people with just one body. I couldn’t fathom talking about my Pakistani customs with my friends at school, for fear of being laughed at. No one likes the cultural “other”. My parents raised me in an open space and never pushed their beliefs on me, still I felt more and more disconnected from their reality. Their home was in Pakistan, constant and unchanged, mine was shifting. This once foreign land was my home now.
So, how do you learn to revel in the hazy grey area? Can you ever truly love straddling the fence? I did, eventually. But it was only when I stopped shutting myself out of me. I have come to embrace the blurriness in between. I’ve learned that who you are doesn’t have to be black and white. I stacked up the perks of having vastly different experiences to draw from; variety is the spice of life after all. Most importantly, I realized I am not alone. I’m among an entire generation of immigrant children who use these neat hyphenated monikers to describe themselves. My Pakistani culture will always constitute a large part of who I am, but my Canadian existence is the cornerstone of who I’ve become.
So just when I thought I had it all figured out, the fateful events of 9/11 happened. Suddenly, in a strange series of events my religion began to mitigate who I was. People started describing me as a Muslim-Canadian, my Pakistani heritage was just the cherry on top of the cake. Suffice to say, this perturbed me a little bit. Not only because I was more than just a “Muslim-Canadian” — the monolithic term that was being used to describe me, my Guyanese, Lebanese and East-African friend — but also because defining myself as just Muslim opened up a whole new can of worms. My religious affiliation has always been a sidebar to my identity, now it’s front and center. And in this post-9/11, a climate of fear surrounds me, and the place I’ve learned to comfortably call my home, now looks at me with suspicion. So I must traverse these loaded labels once again and reconceptualize my already hyphenated identity. Only this time, I know the drill. I’ve been here before.