February 4, 2014
Years ago, I was listening to a Hindi song. When I listen to any music, I pay attention to beats and lyrics. I listen attentively with Hindi songs especially because it helps me learn the language better. Anyway, I was listening to one particular song. The singers were singing about how their country is their pride and their soul. This song is from a Hindi movie about an Indian freedom fighter who dies for his country. The song moved me because the singers expressed such emotion, and I was moved also because I thought there are people who love their country that much. Soldiers die on the battlefield. Freedom fighters like Gandhi and countless, nameless others have died willingly for freedom and their countries. It made me think: I don’t love any country that much. I don’t really feel like I have a country.
As a family, it is difficult to definitively claim a country. We’ve moved quite a bit within the last century. If my family history is correct, we have roots in Lahore, Pakistan. So when asked, we say we are Pakistani. However, my paternal great-grandfather was born in Jalinder, in India. My paternal grandmother was born in Allahabad, and my maternal grandmother was born in Lahore. However even before Partition, the family divided itself between Kenya and Uganda. Then, in 1972, fate and Idi Amin brought my parents to America, where a year later, I was born.
Consequently, I have ties to three countries: India, Pakistan, and America. Kenya and Uganda don’t really factor into the equation for me because the Indo-Pak culture was so alive there that when I’m told about our life there, it doesn’t feel like a separate country. Anyway, the family’s stint there was relatively short. The reason I feel tied to India is that my culture and family customs come from there. The connection to both India and Pakistan exists because I have family from both areas.
Yet, I don’t feel like India or, for that matter, Pakistan is really my country. I wasn’t born in nor have I lived in either country. I was born in America, and naturally I feel certain loyalties to this country. When I hear people from other countries come here to visit or to work and start badmouthing the United States, I think to myself: If it’s so bad here, why did you even come visit? Or if the person lives here: If it’s so bad here why aren’t you in your country? Honestly, you cannot disparage this country in my presence because I love the glaringly opinionated bigmouth I was allowed to become living here.
Yet there were times in the past, I’ve been made to feel like I have no right to claim America as my country, either. Many times, it doesn’t occur to people that I might actually have been born in this country. One time, a co-worker suggested that my being “foreign” could be an advantage in employment. Similarly, it doesn’t occur to people that you might even share some things in common. When I was about 18 years old I worked in a personal care facility for the elderly. I cleaned the residents’ rooms, and I struck up a conversation with the son of one of the residents. At some point, he said, “You speak English very well.” I then informed him that I was born in this country to which he responded, “But still, you speak English very well.” I suppose in his mind English only belongs to Caucasians (the “true” Americans). If your family’s been here less than a hundred years and you’re conspicuously non-European, you don’t qualify.
Despite all the feelings of displacement, after all the complaints, there’s no other place in the world I would rather live than in the U.S. True, there are times when I have to dodge ignorance like bullets. But where would I not be touched by ignorance?
Now, I wholeheartedly embrace being a hybrid of cultures and communities. In the end, it’s not about displacement or allegiance, but acceptance; accepting your place in life, including where you live and where you’ve come from.
Until next time… look behind and beyond the veil…