“Where are you from?”
It seems like a simple enough question, doesn’t it? But no other four words in the English language have such an automatic ability to strike me with anxiety. What does this question mean? Where was I born? Where do I live? Where do I consider home? When put like that, I have a different answer for each of those questions. I always wonder how I’m meant to answer this question when I don’t really know where I’m from or where I belong. How do I answer with one simple word while I travel between many? How do I create stability out of instability? I’m going to need people to be a bit more specific and not plunge me into an identity crisis from now on.
I wrote a while ago about Irishness, cultural identity, race, and not feeling like I belong in a place I call home. While everything in that article was relevant and important, it was only half the story. It’s a two-sided street, the mess that is my identity. The truth is, I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere – I never have. It’s not just an issue with Ireland. I’ve never felt like I belong in Pakistan either. Home for me has always been ambiguous and I’m not a very patriotic person. When doing my undergraduate dissertation, I read a lot about diaspora studies and all the researchers seemed to refer to the diaspora as dispersed peoples who wished to go back to their original homeland. But I don’t have a stable home, a fixed point, something I long to return to. My parents, who have fond memories of Pakistan, consider it their very first home – even though Ireland grew to be their home eventually. We’re part of the same diaspora, but their home isn’t my home. The place that’s most like ‘home’ for me is my childhood home in the suburbs of Dublin and the streets around it.
Belonging is a funny thing – a feeling I’m not particularly familiar with. The truth is, in a world obsessed with rigid cultural and national borders, not only will I never be Irish enough, I’ll also never be Pakistani enough. I was told I was whitewashed at a Pakistani wedding because I don’t really watch Pakistani dramas or Bollywood movies. I’m personally pioneering a new fashion-style called leggings-kameez, because sometimes shalwars annoy me and it’s easier to substitute them with leggings. I don’t actually like eating rotis, let alone making them, and I’m not a huge fan of daal either. Control your shock please. I haven’t gone in about 7 years, but when I visit Pakistan, I feel like an outsider there too, looking at everything with new inexperienced eyes. I can speak Urdu but I can’t read or write it. I can’t always understand people speaking advanced Urdu and I don’t get the jokes my family tells. After growing up in Ireland since the age of 3, despite my parents preserving various cultural traditions at home, I feel a strong disconnect to the cultural and traditional side of Pakistan at times. Yes, I love the food, language, events and clothing, but my social, cultural, political views and values are highly different, with an Irish, Western twist and no amount of trying will cause me to lose them. Pakistani aunties side-eye me for my clothing, being outspoken and often untraditional – read: un-Pakistani. Once a Pakistani woman told me she was afraid her new-born daughter would turn out like me once she grew up in Ireland. That shook me – I didn’t know there was anything wrong with me. Going outside the borders, something which comes so naturally to me, usually scares people.
My parents didn’t try to constrain me to Pakistani cultural traditions as they grew into life in Ireland too. As I grew up, I was able to hybridise easily, absorbing everything around me – the East and the West and everything in between – like a sponge. While at home, my parents raised me with certain religious and cultural principles, I went out to a multicultural school and came into contact with multiple worlds, cultures and religions. I could recite to you every bit of dialogue in the movie Mean Girls but I also know Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham off by heart. I’ve gotten used to eating plainer foods over the years (not too plain, mind you) but I would never say no to a plate of biryani (what a ridiculous thing to do). My schooling means I know more about Irish history and culture than admittedly Pakistani history and culture but I’m slowly learning. I know pretty much every Westlife song off by heart but I can also sing you the entire Kal Ho Naa Ho soundtrack. My wardrobe is full of little black dresses and leggings but I also have a shalwar-kameez for pretty much every colour of the rainbow. I usually alternate between multiple languages at home, though my Irish has been getting weaker since I finished my Leaving Cert. I can count perfectly in Irish but I struggle to make it up to 20 in Urdu. I won’t be wearing white to my wedding and my hands will be adorned with mehndi. My life is watercolours blending together – always fluid.
While having a merging cultural identity is great, it’s also incredibly isolating when you realise you’re not enough of anything to really truly belong. Being a perpetual outsider is something I’ve struggled to be okay with. When I was younger, it was much more of a problem. My parents struggled with the idea of a daughter raised in the West who was different from them in so many ways – I wore different clothes, I liked different music, I had different values, I wasn’t as religious as them or connected to Pakistani culture – and I, in turn, resented them for wanting me to be someone I just couldn’t be. At times I tried to be more of one thing than the other, performing in ways that weren’t natural for me. I still couldn’t be enough of either identity to be the acceptable, expected level. I saw so many people able to just be one cultural and national identity. I envied those who could answer the dreaded question with a simple answer, no questions asked. I internally-shivered when I was probed “where are you originally from?” because I felt like it was a lie to claim I belonged to Pakistan either when I was so disconnected from it in so many ways. I was often annoyed at being told I was “very western” – I didn’t even know what that meant. I was embarrassed when people laughed at me mispronouncing words in Urdu. When I went to Pakistan and spoke Urdu all the time, I became shy when people wanted me to speak in English. A younger me was confused when on a family holiday to Kerry, an old man giving us a tour asked my family where we’d come down from? My dad said Pakistan and I thought “no, we’re not, we only drove down from Dublin!” Still, I realised that both answers were correct but that man probably wanted to know my dad’s answer. I also envied non-white people who were born in Ireland – I felt like they were much more Irish than me by virtue of their birth certificates – I had nothing tying me down. I had two passports, two answers for everything, and a melting pot of culture, tradition, values and habits at home.
It sounds silly but I was worried about moving to the UK this summer – afraid that if I moved from Ireland, I’d have nothing to connect me to my Irishness – without a stable fixed home, I wouldn’t be able to lay my claim to Ireland too. After all, I’m Pakistani and I have the looks to prove it but nothing about my physical appearance screams “IRELAND”, despite what I feel about having grown up immersed here. While I have my Irish passport and my memories of growing up Ireland, they feel like flimsy connections – not solid enough to tie me to anything. I feel like claiming to be Irish-Pakistani makes it seem like I am in some way ethnically Irish and not just nationally and in the way I feel – it often makes me feel like a fraud. I was worried about what answer I’d give to the dreaded question with my Pakistani face and Irish accent once I’d moved to the UK (I’ve been asked it once, and when I answered ‘Dublin’, I luckily didn’t have to deal with a follow up “and where are you originally from?” – the nice woman herself was able to understand that I was a bit of both when she went on to discuss South Asian clothing with me and I felt grateful that it came so naturally). I was worried that if I moved from Ireland, I’d be an identity-less stranger stranded nowhere and everywhere. I have no plans to have any children right now, but I sometimes wonder what they and their answers will be if I can’t even properly articulate my own self.
I find it hard to categorise and compartmentalise myself, to only be one thing at any one time. It’s always scared me, not being able to belong anywhere too – I always felt like there was something wrong with me – but I’m trying to embrace being everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I was surprised at how fast I adapted to another country, another place, when I moved but I guess it’s not entirely surprising. I’m like a chameleon, I adapt pretty fast. I’ve gotten used to carving spaces for myself wherever I am, mixing conflicting things together in a giant cauldron. I once felt caught between two places but my feet are no longer just in two separate worlds, they walk everywhere. I don’t adhere to strict socio-cultural and national borders of identity and I probably never will. I’m not just a square peg that doesn’t fit into a round hole, I’m a bit of a hexagonal peg with a star attached trying to squeeze myself into shapes that can’t accommodate all my sides and edges. And I’m learning to be okay with that.