When I think of Pakistan, the dust suffocates my memory. I remember how it rose up in the air, how it gathered in the streets. I remember how it stuck to the clothes of those shouting on the sides of the road, how it settled in the lines of my grandfather’s tombstone. I remember how my grandmother poured water over that stone and dirt—love, present even a decade after his passing.
When I think of Pakistan, the noise rises up too, all at once. I remember the rhythm of easy, rounded vowels hanging in lucid sunlight, as chai was poured and platters full of food were passed around. I remember the clamoring of rickshaws and shopkeepers in the bustling streets of Lahore. I remember the full houses of my aunts and uncles, the chaos of a seemingly never ending stream of family members. I remember my churiyan [bangles], purple and gold and jangling on my wrists.
My memories are blurry and faded. Because when I think of Pakistan, I remember one visit, when I was seven years old—and nothing since.
Today, 11 years later, I live in a quiet suburban neighborhood and drive on wide, clean roads. I’ve traded in my elaborate churiyan for bare wrists. I am a citizen by birth, English comes to me with familiar ease, and this country is all I’ve ever really known. My very personality has been shaped by living in this society and working to succeed in it.
But I don’t know how American I can ever be. And I don’t know how American I want to be. My first language was Urdu. My self has been shaped by the stares that I get, the inappropriate questions that new people who meet me ask about my religion or ethnicity. And I grew up wearing Pakistani clothes everyday, having Pakistani food at every meal, listening to Pakistani music during every car ride. I still maintain a standing addiction to mango juice (I have actual cartons of it in my dorm room—it’s a problem). This is my self too.
I know that I must recognize my American identity. Growing up in this country has afforded me privileges that I can’t ignore, whether they be as simple as having constant access to electricity or as large as being able to attend the best educational institutions in the world. And I can’t deny that I do love English and pasta and football. But I also can’t deny that my royal blue passport comes with strings attached—with foreign policy that seeks to protect me as a citizen, but considers those that look like me on the other side of the world dispensable, with social structures that force me to accommodate discrimination and marginalization.
And so, I have the choice and the power to reject this identity too. I do not need to enter a race to be the all-American girl. I can choose not to run entirely. I do not need to fit a space that already exists, and that may not be large enough for everything that is me. I can create my own.
In this space, I can speak Urdu. I can wear kurtas and shalwar kameez. In this space, I can read poetry written by people of color who aren’t Rupi Kaur. In this space, I can stuff myself with food that is spicy enough that, for once, I don’t need extra Sriracha. In this space, I can honor traditions of hospitality and selflessness. I can cherish a collectivist culture that ties individuals to family and to each other in a way that I have not found anywhere else.
I don’t know if I can exist in both spaces. I don’t really want to. Beyond cultural imagery lies very real political tension. Here, I am expected to support policies that repress people who in another life could have been me. Here, I am expected to support an imperialist agenda that harms the country my parents came from, a country that we’re all still rooting for. This dissonance frees me from any real desire to even be American. But when your Urdu isn’t quite smooth enough to fit in there, and the scarf on your head gives you away here, where do you go? What is home?
When I was seven, I knew what home was. It was the sound of churiyan. In my closet, I had a shoebox stuffed to the brim with all different kinds that my grandmother would bring for me from Pakistan. They were bright green, soft pink, sparkly gold. I loved when, during Eid prayer, the churiyan would clink together as I moved my hands in prostration.
When I got older, the sound of churiyan faded away. It was replaced by the noise of pop music and reality television, teachers and friends. Today, I’m not sure what or where home is, and I don’t know if I’ll ever know. But I know to find that home, I must honor the Pakistan within me. Because I’ve still never found anything quite as beautiful as churiyan. And that says more than my words ever could.
Shireen Younus ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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