I grew up in a predominantly white community with white best friends. I don’t really know when I learned to become embarrassed of my heritage but it probably happened somewhere between first and third grade.
Maybe it stemmed from the fact that I never had a solid group of brown friends, I had a best friend in grade school named Aleena who was Pakistani but we both seemed to have shed the non-American side of ourselves. Our conversations were limited in scope to petty gossip and American pop-culture. Besides the color of our skin, you’d have no indication of our culture.
Besides her, I didn’t fit in with many Pakistani people that I knew. Or at least I didn’t care to. Their views were too conservative, their interpretation of Islam too strict, I was always too “Americanized” for them.
I consistently spent my life unable to feel like I was fitting in. I surrounded myself with white friends but hated it when they’d get weirded out my mother’s hijab or my odd name. But these were the girls I wanted to be friends with, so I began to become like them.
I spoke like them, I dressed like them but most of all, I resented every part of me that wasn’t like them. I hid my hands when they were covered in brown henna, I asked my mom to drop me at the entrance of the school rather than going all the way in and I cringed when someone asked me where I was from, especially when they asked where I was realllly from.
I met my best friend Sophie during this phase, she was a white girl straight out catholic school. While writing this, I asked her to describe me when we first met and she said:
“You were basically a white girl with an odd name, I didn’t know how much your family was into your culture until I went to your house”
If that doesn’t give you any indication of how white-washed I was, I don’t know what will. Besides my family, I had no real roots in the desi community and I liked it that way. I was insistent on burying that part of myself.
I did everything I could do to fit in at school yet despite having good friends, I never felt like I belonged.
I don’t think I truly found my place until high school.
It all came in little waves. I think it started somewhere on twitter in eleventh grade, I started following other desi people and would see them post about the unique lives of Indian-Americans and I began to realize I wasn’t alone.
Then after months of scrolling through desi people in pretty dresses, I, myself began doing these little photoshoots with my cousins where we’d dress up in lenghas and shalwar kamiz and I started to appreciate the fashion bit by bit.
It was probably after I got diagnosed with Celiac disease when I began to appreciate our food. After finding out I couldn’t eat gluten or dairy, my mom and I spend countless hours coming up recipes for foods I grew up eating but could no longer touch. It was an odd time because on one hand, I found out I was allergic to everything good but on the other hand, it made me appreciate food, especially desi food, on a level you wouldn’t be able to understand. Even today, if I find something good I can eat, I’m savoring every bite.
These things were tiny factors in helping me embrace where I came from, my group of best friends in senior year were the biggest.
I met this girl Farrah in AP US History who was from Bangladesh. She was sort of my token brown friend at the time, I texted her about Bollywood movies and cultural events all summer. That summer was significant for many reasons. That summer, I also brought my best friend Sophie to my cousin’s wedding. This led me to begin teaching her about all aspects of Paki culture.
In an effort to make playlists for her and show her Bollywood movies, I began to enjoy these things myself. Then on the first day of classes, a girl named Leona Suleman sat next to me in AP Environmental Science and little did I know she was going to shape senior year for me.
She was weird in that she wanted to speak Urdu sometimes and she would have Bollywood dance parties with me. She, Sophie, Farrah and I formed our own little group. And boy, was this group brown. Little by little, without realizing it, these people came together to help me embrace where I came from. It was because of these people that when I started college this fall, I could proudly say “I’m Pakistani.”
In college, I have found my own little brown group on campus that understands my very specific complaints about my mom or the strange aunty-humor jokes I find funny on Facebook. My friend Hasiba jokes that she’s the biggest fob she knows and yet she’s become one of my closest friends. A few years ago I’d cringe at how desi she is but today, I love how she wears her culture like a crown (or maybe that’s just her hijab =p)
All my friends still joke that I’m the “whitest brown girl” they know and most of my friends remain white and you know what, that’s okay. I love both sides of me, the side that spends Saturday nights watching rom-coms with my sorority sisters and the side that gets to wear elaborate shalwar kamiz to Pakistani parties that last a little too long.
Sure, I use the word “like” a lot and consistently jam out to T-Swift but I’m also proud of my Pakistani features, the struggles of my immigrant parents and every ounce of my colorful, amazing culture.