Pakistani American superhero Kamala Khan (Picture Credit: Jorge Molina, Marvel)
I am bilingual: I was born with two tongues, and both need to speak. Ask me about myself, and this metaphorical mutation can result in a bout of logorrhea that would swamp any listener; I am an INFP, a Taurus-Gemini cusp, a self-designated Hufflepuff, an Oscar Wilde fan-girl, and a recovering survivor of MCS (Middle-Child Syndrome).
For all that I tell others about myself, though, there is another side to me that I struggle to talk about as easily, and that is my cultural heritage. In some ways, my cultural identity speaks for itself. Regardless of the clothes I might choose, the brown color of my skin marks me as different. Even if I never spoke a word about being a second-generation American, the way I speak would be telling enough. My tongue performs verbal acrobatics, flipping nimbly from one tauter, crisper accent at work and school, to another, thicker, mellower one when I am with my parents and siblings. The truth is, no matter how proud I feel of my parents for straddling two worlds in their efforts to create an even better one for their children, I grew up often feeling, in the unspoken parts of my heart, like a double agent enmeshed in a life of stubborn secrets and half-decipherable code-words.
It started at school. In first grade, each student in my class was asked to write a short summary of their weekend, describing what they’d done, where they’d gone, and whom they’d spent time with. When I showed my summary to my mother, she was unimpressed. Rather than praising me for my skills as a raconteur, she was more concerned with my attempts to convey Pakistani conventions. She asked me why I’d chosen to try and translate saalan, the traditional Urdu word for a broth-like liquid that usually accompanies meat dishes, into “gravy;” why I’d decided to replace the word masjid – a Muslim place of worship – with “church;” and why I’d called the man who led prayer at the masjid a priest, though I knew full well his title was imam. I don’t much remember how I answered my mom when she asked those pointed questions, though I certainly remember how I felt: slightly flustered, and subtly disoriented – a feeling that followed me ever since, in all my writings and in all my speech. And, maybe, in a more general manner, in much of my life.
The school assignment had instructed us to share our weekend experiences – how could I share an experience that none of my classmates would relate to? I was the only Pakistani kid in my class, and one of the few South Asians in my grade. My classmates and I shared at least a rudimentary knowledge of gravy, church, and priests. And we shared a knowledge of the English language – not of Urdu.
One half of me, like all children, wanted to slip away from the tedious introspection regarding what it meant to be “different.” Kids specialize in hope, not pragmatics. I was a six-year-old whose favorite shirt was branded with the American flag in red, white, and blue sequins.
School for me was something of a paradise. I loved how there was something new every day; how it felt like the world kept exploding into something bigger and more exciting. In art class I learned about Picasso, and how any self-respecting artist must act self-deprecating and uncertain about her work (“Is it good? I’m the worst at drawing”). In social studies I learned that George Washington was the first president of the United States – and that Bill Clinton was not (a hard concept to grasp for an egocentric kid who thought time began with her birth).
I even learned about Jesus. A girl next to me at lunchtime – Madison – informed me one day over peanut butter sandwiches and milk that we had to go to church and read the Bible to go to Heaven. My curiosity was piqued – nowhere in Sunday School had I heard about church yet – was I missing out on something? When I told her that I didn’t know about Jesus, Madison put down her sandwich in shock. She promised to bring me the Bible the next day. In turn, I promised to smuggle in a Quran to share with her. Neither of us ended up doing anything of the kind, though we did continue discussing religion. In between debating the intricacies of the trinity and “true” monotheism – as well as kids could – she’d teach me how to make peanut butter crust-rolls (you smeared peanut butter over the crusts of a slice of bread, then rolled the crust off the bread and around itself). Madison and I became pretty good friends.
After school, I’d ride my bike with the upstairs neighbor, whizzing in and out of our apartment complex’s parking lots. Like many 90s kids, I’d get up every Saturday morning at eight to watch Kids W.B. (RIP), while consuming suspect amounts of sugary cereal and confidently conspiring with my brother and sister about what we’d do with our money if we ever won the sweepstakes advertised on the backs of Eggo boxes. Could there have been any childhood more quintessentially Millennial than one where you were inducted into the allures of corporate capitalism by frozen waffles? To top it off, I’d informed my pious parents one night after serious consideration that I was thinking of becoming the next Britney Spears when I grew up.
But there was another, less expressed, more foreign, and unmapped half to me that I couldn’t fathom housing inside the graphite edifices of the English words scrawled about my essays and diaries like sprawling cities. Edifice, interestingly enough, is a word that means both a physical structure, and a conglomerate of intricate ideas. Words are a manifestation of our incredibly nuanced and sensitive social climates; they reflect the balance between interpersonal and individual ideation. A climate where people struggle to reflect on themselves produces few social insights and collective advancements.
Even if we are no longer physically beholden to tenets of colonialism, the superstructures of the franchise still loom large in our thought patterns: I may be bilingual, but I think, dream, and feel in English. I’m ok with that, but could I really choose to be otherwise?
Growing up, it sometimes felt as though only the English words in my head were entitled to be there. Meanwhile, the Urdu words (and my Urduness in general) were vagabonds, skulking on the fringes of my psyche. I am in love with vagabonds – I always was – but I wanted to give them a home, too. I knew I should stand up for these trespassers, insist on a place for them – but I didn’t.
Growing up, it sometimes felt as though my Urduness was a vagabond, skulking on the fringes of my psyche.
Like the day after 9/11 when my upstairs neighbor informed me on our way to school that her mother had said it was “my people” who were responsible for the attack. I felt a little hurt, but I brushed it off because I was nearly late for class. Or in middle school when football players would crowd around the car at dismissal time and pound at the windows while jeering – I didn’t think they were doing it only to our car because the people inside looked different – actually, the only thing I could think about was how embarrassing it would be if my crush saw me looking so uncool (as though there were any other option for someone who insisted on wearing the same World Wildlife Fund shirt once a week and whose idea of fun was coming home to watch hours of MSNBC).
Or in high school, when I was called for a “random check” in an airport in Paris. The only other passenger held back was a drunk Indian woman at least twice my age. As we emptied our belongings, she kept asking the guard why only people like us were there. I stayed silent, remembering the guard who’d earlier given us some of his croissants and some orange juice. When I came home, I told my friends the story while laughing; to me, it was just another joke, an oddity of our times. Or in college, when one of my friends told me one day that I should move out of the sunlight because wasn’t I “dark enough already?” Something slipped in my heart, but I didn’t want to feel hurt enough to understand why it hurt.
The truth is, you want to be invincible. You want to believe that social circumstances don’t affect you as much as others. That you’re strong enough to decide differences don’t have to lead to divisiveness. You don’t want anyone to think you’re weak or pitiful.
It is a dirty thought, but sometimes when I’d italicize Urdu words, I felt drained of that invincibility, almost crippled; Urdu gains entry into the larger English landscape only when slopes and slants are made to accommodate them. And there’d be this nagging feeling that being bilingual was clandestine – I was cheating on my relationship with Urdu if I used too much English, and cheating on my relationship with English if I used too much Urdu. It made me wonder just how genuine I was being with my self-expression – or if I was really expressing myself at all. Or, as postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak plaintively and skeptically puts it, “Can the sub-altern speak?”
The author (right, aged 6), with her siblings
Not uncensored, I believe. How much can I talk about saalan, masjids, and imams, without talking about gravy, churches, and priests? How much does any utterance produced by a person of a previously or presently colonized nation, in a world irrevocably shaped by imperialism and neo-liberal capitalism, ever really say? English flows through my brain at all hours of the day, but the Indus River flows too, in my stream of conscious. Sometimes when I speak Urdu, I feel as though I am in a Borges story from Labyrinthine, swimming in the depths of ancient waters that I should know the way through, because my ancestors did, too. But I am a stranger, overcome by the vague and uncanny feeling that I do not belong so much to the waves as I do to whatever storm that displaces them. These feelings remained by my side throughout my growing years, especially when I was in high school.
Most teens in my day channeled their hormonal angst by listening frantically to My Chemical Romance and Death Cab for Cutie – or if you were a heretic, Panic! At the Disco. I decided to take another route: joining the speech and debate team at my school. This meant that I spent much of my time in high school reading articles, writing speeches, and cross-examining peers at international events – both august and campy ones.
But debate was more than a cerebral orgy. It was silent bus-rides before sunrise to strange schools and far-off cities where we would compete until night. It was playing too many illegally downloaded computer games at competitions, eating too much junk food after your round to cool your nerves, and talking too late into the early mornings on Google Hangout. It was shedding your ego and learning that we had to change how we looked at the world if we wanted to make it a better place.
I loved debate. It gave me friendships I still savor today, a lifelong love-hate relationship with The Economist, and the confidence that I had an opinion to offer on worldly issues like agriculture in Thailand, Chinese state-owned enterprises, or sanctions on Iran.
Speech also silenced me, though. I spoke on Brazil and India, North Korea and Palestine, but I never once made a speech about one foreign country in particular – Pakistan. At the same time I was receiving accolades statewide and nationwide for my speaking skills, I felt like a fraud for not being able to speak about the un-homeland that was so central to my life. It bothered me that I could not disentangle the blurry liminalities of biculturalism, or even begin to comprehend them. It also bothered me that sometimes, I really didn’t care. Truthfully, I have to wonder how much I care even now.
I spoke on Brazil and India, North Korea and Palestine, but I never once made a speech about one foreign country in particular – Pakistan.
Paradoxically, I also avoided speaking on Pakistan because I feared appearing too emotional in public. Debaters are taught to walk and talk with poise, and female debaters are taught to adopt mannerisms like huskier voices, to sound more like their male competitors. A female South Asian debater is especially discouraged from betraying any signs of timidity or intensity (two things I’ve, unfortunately, always had a lot of). I learned a lot from debate, but mostly I learned that your voice is no good if you can’t use it to speak for yourself.
The author (aged 17) with debate trophies
Another lesson: just because someone asks you for your voice doesn’t mean they’re asking you for your opinion. Like the time my family was suddenly stopped on our way out of a Dallas airport by a security woman who brandished handwritten letters. The official explained they were addressed to Pakistan. She needed to understand what was being said in them, in case they contained something suspicious. My parents, taken aback but compliant, began to translate the letters. At the time, I felt proud they were able to provide their linguistic knowledge and share their culture for the security of our nation.
Every time I look back at it, though, I can’t help but ask myself: in that moment, were my parents allies? Or were they assets? The official seemed like she needed my parents’ language skills, but also felt suspicious toward them. Her interest in my parents reflected a larger national attitude where language, and by extension, culture, is valued only when it can be tapped to ferret out foreign enemies. In translating the politicized correspondence, my parents were not speaking – they were just reading off a script that no one else happened to be able to decipher. Those letters, as it turned out, were messages of love and regards between family members.
Every bilingual speaker is conscripted into a war at an early age. Bodies of text lie on shroud-white pages in Word documents, with Urdu words underscored by blood-red splatters from spell-check. I am not pointing out this fact to argue that we ought to change TSA policy or the way Microsoft Word works, but rather, to point out the exact opposite: that cultural change can and must come from more creative and cathartic forces.
Every bilingual speaker is conscripted into a war at an early age.
After all, pain doesn’t ask for policy reform. Pain doesn’t ask for permission to be felt. Pain thumps its chest and contorts itself in every position imaginable that it might find a place where it feels it belongs. Pain demands to be listened to, whether its sound conforms to social norms or not. We are told to be stoic about our suffering, as though we are not human. Or to be angry about it, as though the rest of the world is not human.
For years I felt ashamed that I could not find the right script for being bilingual. I wanted to fit in somewhere, or at least feel validated for sticking out the right way. The older I grow, though, the more I realize that I don’t have time to fit in or stand out – or really stand around much at all. Real communication is dynamic and balanced; it makes Chaos its dance partner; its confidante. It’s moving and messy. It’s speaking with both tongues, content so long as it gets the message across.