Though I have been raised in the UK my entire life, I find myself a lot less sure of my place in this post-Brexit society than I used to be. My identity is constantly in question; because I am a Pakistani Muslim I’m told that I am “not British enough”. Yet when I returned to Pakistan after a 15-year absence, the country my mother has always referred to as “back home” felt like an alien planet.
I fractured my relationship with my culture in the vain hope that it would stop people from questioning how “British” I am. I kept trying to be “just enough” before gradually coming to the conclusion that “just enough” was never enough; just when I thought I’d fully assimilated there would be yet another hoop I would have to jump through, another circus trick I had to perform to an audience who were never satisfied.
I insisted on speaking English at home instead of Urdu because I was terrified that others would label me a “Paki”. I cried every Eid and begged my mother to let me wear jeans because I didn’t want anyone to see me wearing salwar kameez. I told people to call me “Zen” because was embarrassed of my obviously ethnic name. I was taught by my peers that the worst thing you can be is a “freshie” - someone who dares to express their culture instead of hiding it. I laughed at but secretly envied the courage of those who proudly wore their heritage in the colour of their skin or in their name.
When my mother announced that we were going back, I secretly wanted to see if I too could adopt the spirit of those girls who wore kurtas with jeans, and effortlessly blended perfect Urdu with crisp English.
I was tired of being the token friend, the girl who was “brown, but not really”.
I arrived in Pakistan hoping that I would be able to reconcile the warring facets of my identity, but at the start of the trip I was even more conflicted. I felt completely isolated, my Urdu was weak due to lack of practise, I was unused to the feel and style of traditional clothes, and I had little knowledge of the customs because I’d spent my life running away from them.
But, after a week or so of being completely immersed in Pakistani culture, I slowly started connecting the jigsaw of my Pakistani heritage to that of my British identity. I spoke to my uncles about the history of Pakistan and of our family’s struggles trying to rebuild their lives in a new-born country. I honed my Urdu on my cousins (who were true to their word and didn’t laugh at how heavily my Urdu was tinged with my British accent), I bought a salwar kameez of my own accord and wore it out in public. I didn’t whisper my name; I spoke it clearly.
I was especially fascinated by my cousins, and how they kept themselves rooted in their culture but also firmly entrenched themselves in Western culture. They knew the lyrics to every song in Lemonade just as well as they knew the songs from Coke Studio Pakistan.
It astounded me how they were so comfortable embracing the duality of their identities. Like me, they had also grown up in a post-9/11 society that had told us to choose a side. Like me, they were told being brown meant you were with “them”, and you could only be part of “us” if you whitewashed yourself to avoid making people uncomfortable. The only difference was that where I had picked a side, they had refused. As they chattered in Urdu and danced to One Direction they seemed to be saying ‘look- we don’t need to be one or the other, we can be a part of both!”
My experiences helped me realise that I didn’t have to make a choice at verbal gunpoint to be British or to be Pakistani, I could simply hyphenate the two and live in both worlds.
Since coming back I have begun to actively unravel the web of internalised self-hatred. I ask about my culture more regularly, I listen to Pakistani music, and I’ve started learning how to read and write Urdu as well. I have created a community around myself that teaches me that not only is being brown ok, it should be celebrated.
Now, whenever people tell me to “go back home”, I smile and respond with “which one? I have two”.