What Are You, Really?
Issue 10, Volume 113
By Hifza Kaleem
In the early, awkward stage of getting to know someone, I am often met with the question, “Where are you from?” To me, the answer is simple. I am from New York—Queens, to be exact. I have called this bright, bustling city home for my entire life. Unfortunately, this answer is unsatisfactory to most. It is usually followed by another query, one that has always left me confused: “But what are you, really?”
Like many biracial or mixed kids, I do not quite know the answer. Technically, I am half Pakistani, half Guyanese, yet entirely American. My father was born in Pakistan, my mother was born in Guyana, and I was born here. This is a long-winded explanation that I have stumbled through on numerous occasions, questioning its truth more and more each time. As I hear myself speak, I feel like a fraud, pretending to claim three identities while not truly belonging to any.
On the surface, I am undeniably Pakistani—my brown skin, thick black hair, and sharp nose are all clear indicators of my heritage. However, appearances can be deceiving. I tend to feel like a fish out of water among my paternal relatives; my American wardrobe sticks out like a sore thumb among the colorful shalwar kameez that my cousins wear. At least I can understand my cousins when they speak—I spend most conversations with my aunts and uncles in confusion, cluelessly nodding as I wait for someone to translate their fast-paced Urdu. During dinners, I find myself whispering to my mother to ask what a dish is, only to stick to my typical biryani or makhani.
Still, for all that deems me not “Pakistani enough” to claim my Pakistani roots, I also fail to be “Guyanese enough” for my Guyanese side. I tend to have to spend more time explaining this part of my ethnicity; most people do not even know where Guyana is. When I tell them that it is a country in South America, they react with confusion: how can someone with such South Asian features be from a South American country? It is far easier for them to reduce me to my Pakistani roots, or, better yet, assume that being brown equates to being Indian.
Yet, I am not entirely disconnected from my Guyanese roots, a fact I owe to my maternal relatives. It is as though my percieved isolation from my Guyanese origins has been made up for by the bonds I share with them. Growing up, the time I spent with my maternal grandparents was always rich with stories of their lives back home—stories that painted vivid pictures of the people and places that came before me.
I am still the outlier in my family, the one with a set of customs and traditions that are unfamiliar to the rest. For instance, among Pakistanis, it is standard to call one’s older cousins “bhai” or “baji” (depending on if they are male or female). It is a sign of respect, so imagine my confusion when I heard my maternal grandparents calling spinach “bhaji.” Such things seem insignificant, but make up a larger cycle of incompatibility; my maternal side considers my paternal side foreign, whereas my paternal side finds my maternal family unusual. Pakistani weddings, for example, are massive and lengthy, filled with ceremonies such as Mehndis and activities like dancing. Guyanese weddings are far shorter, with simpler agendas that include heartfelt speeches. Weddings are not the only cultural ceremonies in stark contrast; I have noticed differences in everything from Eid celebrations to funerals. These variations might seem small, but they add up, especially as I am told that certain actions are “so Pakistani,” whereas others are “undeniably Guyanese.” Throughout all of this, I am stuck in the middle, trying to figure out my place.
My detachment from my background is only amplified by my American upbringing. Growing up in the United States presents societal norms and practices that are not traditional in my family; being a second-generation American has given me a puzzling definition of “normal.” The status quo here is far different from that of Pakistan or Guyana, making my childhood unique. Leaving the borough I live in for high school, for example, would have been an outlandish thought to most of my family. My mother could not even leave her home borough for college, and understandably so. My family came to America for better opportunities and braved a whole new environment, which inevitably sparked fear and distrust. Most of my relatives share relatively strict and sheltered upbringings. I, on the other hand, live an “Americanized” life.
I am no stranger to being called whitewashed. Still, hearing it from friends and family alike can be isolating. I consider the label to be one of the main reasons I feel at odds with my heritage, and yet, I must acknowledge that I will never be perceived as “American.” Though I am incredibly fortunate to live in New York, a diverse melting pot home to a plethora of cultures, ethnicities, and religions, nothing can make up for America’s underlying racism. My food, clothing, and faith—which act as bridges between the worlds my heritage spans—will always be seen as “different,” much like my very being.
It is human nature to let our differences define our identities. In today’s society, people hold opinions so strongly that we often allow their pre-existing views to limit us, forcing us into restrictive boxes. I have found myself falling into this pattern. I have tried to fit other’s expectations of being Guyanese, Pakistani, or American, contributing to the unease I have felt with my cultural identity. I try to remind myself that being different is not necessarily a bad thing. As isolating as it may seem, forging your own path is a part of life. Even if I do not fit the standard definition of a perfect Pakistani, Guyanese, or American, I can be all three in my own way, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Ultimately, I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by a loving family, no matter the cultural divides between us. They are the ones who have carried my culture for generations and taught me who I am, something far more meaningful than any label ever could be. So, perhaps the question should not be “What are you?” but “Who are you?” I would be much more interested in hearing the answer to that.