The first time I helped my father fill out a form was when I was 10 years old. My elementary school English was better than his and it was less painful on his pride to ask me rather than my mother. The couple of dollars I earned as a result were just as much bribe as reward. He didn’t want anyone to know about his losing battle with the English language.
I was his innocent confidant and ally. But even so, I remember wondering why he just couldn’t learn English. What was so hard about taking a few classes? They were free at our local library! It took me another decade to realize my father didn’t go to school after immigrating to Canada from Pakistan because he was too busy surviving. When I finally had the insight to ask him about his immigrant experience he described it in two words: hard work.
This man with wrinkled knots around his knuckles, a permanent hunch in his back and deep lines around his eyes and mouth had not sat behind a desk a day in his life. Son of a successful construction Moghul, my father was a natural engineer, working on sites with his dad since his early teens. But love changed the course of his life and he ended up chasing a beautiful, headstrong young woman who was all wrong for him across two continents and an ocean. The rest of his life was about working double shifts in factories to give his family what everyone said an uneducated immigrant could never give.
My father’s story is the story of thousands of others; bright, talented people, working the gears of a life just as foreign to them as they are to it. I am the very Canadian daughter of my Pakistani mom and dad. And up until recently I didn’t give much of a hoot about their struggles. My parents were always the conservative hands holding back my very liberal self from sky diving head first into life.
I accused them of being backwards, ignorant, paranoid and narrow minded. My father’s lack of English skills was embarrassing, especially in front of the neighbors and during parent teacher conferences. My mother’s kitchen made my nerves twitch; friends who came to visit always wanted to know what that smell was. In the winter I would be so bundled up I once had to be taken to the ER due to heat stroke because my parents were terrified of the cold.
If childhood was odd (to say the least) growing up was a kind of madness. By the age of 16 my folks had decided everything about me from who I was going to marry to what career I would pursue.
With all that being said, I’m old enough now and have gone through enough hardships in life to finally see my parents, and all Desi parents for what they are. So I now have a few words in their defense:
1. I am enjoying peace, stability, opportunities and luxuries because my parents had the courage and endurance to build something out of nothing.
2. Their neurotic fears and subsequent need to control are protective measures. We both share the same world, but they’ve spent more time struggling in it than I have. For many immigrants life becomes synonymous with hardships, so it’s understandable why they want their children to be safe and independent in good marriages and high paying jobs.
3. My parents never got to finish school but it gave them the vision and drive to push their children academically. It takes a big person to set the bar high for your children knowing they will exceed you to the point that they’ll someday be in a position to look down on you.
4. Language, although important is not the only means through which people communicate. Sometimes the person with the least words has the most to say. My parents spoke through their actions. I understood, once I learned their language.
5. And lastly, those friends who were wondering what that smell was, wanted to know because they wanted to eat! Deep down inside they coveted the biryani I had for lunch over their peanut butter and jelly.
Although I didn’t finish med school or marry the man they chose for me, I still learned and am learning a great deal from my old school mom and dad; enduring and priceless lessons in family, friendship, love, commitment, courage, resilience, faith and most importantly, identity.
— Summer Yasmin
Image from http://doctors4career.org/Hinglish.aspx