Date: 2012-06-29 17:01:58
Category: all categories
Metatags: Women, Youth, Personal Narratives, Immigrant, Muslim, Christian,
Living on the Outside: A Memoir
In High School I felt like an outsider. I was the only Muslim girl in my class. You wouldn’t think that for a school in Mississauga, but it was a Catholic school. I went to mass and all the assemblies that required me to cross my arms around my chest and sinfully stare into the priest’s eyes. Sometimes I would just stay in my seat while classmates walked to the front of the gym and ate from the Holy Communion. In the mornings we stood for the daily prayer and signed the cross.
My mother insisted we go to John Cabot Catholic S.S, and not the public school all my friends went to. We were not to associate with the thugs and “street kids”. It was her attempt to anglicize us-something she strove to do all her life. When we moved to Canada in 1994 we had a pretty good command of English, most of the schools in Pakistan encourage English speaking. My mother fit right in. She renewed her closet with denim jeans and woolen sweaters, started smoking cigarettes and bought a Bee Gees album. When we started speaking English with relatives, they would criticize my mother for not teaching us proper Urdu.
“Look, your children have forgotten their mother tongue! How terrible Shahida, why don’t you speak to them in Urdu more, you don’t want your grandkids to be completely Canadian!”
“What’s the use, they live in Canada, might as well know English to get a proper education and career. What good will Urdu do for them?”
After 9/11 we were all supposed to be Arab. Mama would tell everyone we’re Lebanese, and I even believed it for a while. My best friends were all from the Middle East, we listened to Arabic music, I learned how to curse and got blonde highlights. I remember going to South Asian grocery stores with mama, something I refuse to do even today. She insists on speaking English to the butchers; when it is obvious they are having a difficult time understanding her. They would respond back in broken tongue, while everyone in the store stared wondering why white people want halal meat.
When I was in grade seven we moved to Virginia where my father got a job with one of his cousins. Most kids at school thought I was Hispanic and I loved it. In seventh grade I saw a girl wearing a thong that was peeking out from under her jeans. That same day I went to the mall and bought 3 for 15 dollars at La Senza. In order to accentuate my curves I wore them with extra tight jeans and felt grown up and sexy, swayed my hips when I walked and spoke to guys in a sultry way. Mama found them in the laundry and threw them out the next week.
What I remember most about growing up is having this longing for something. I still don’t know what it is, but I know my parents have it too. It’s in their eyes, in the way they take a compliment, looking down and never fully accepting, in the way they pray, with misty eyes. Baba used to tell me that money was everything, and without it you’re nobody. As a child sitting on his lap I made sure he knew all that matters is love. They still live paycheck to paycheck, my father working in Virginia, and us living here as eager recipients of monthly email transfers.
I don’t remember much about living in Pakistan, I moved here when I was four. It’s still concerning- watching home videos of myself running around and not remembering it even happening. Almost like you have another past that is out of reach, and not matter how far you extend your arms it’s unattainable. My past is not for me to understand. Sometimes I feel like something tragic happened to me in Pakistan and I’m still suffering from the trauma, so my mind has blocked all passageways as a means of coping.
There is a term used in Urdu ; “apis se bahir”, which literally translates into “outside of yourself”. My mother would use it if I stayed out too late or wore something too revealing, and she definitely said it when she found my thongs in the laundry basket. The term is problematic in so many ways and invokes feelings of discomfort. Don’t be too outside of yourself; it assumes that you are part of the larger community, and forces a set of values upon you. You cannot reclaim a self because of the conditions which you carry. You must wear the weight of the community like a back pack fastened tight onto your body.
I have acquired the status of “therapist” in the family, trying to learn what my parents long for. I thought it would help, but instead uncovered a whole barrage of intimacy issues and marital conflict that makes matters worse. The other day I was talking with Baba and asked him what it was like growing up and moving here, how he handles living away from us. He recalled having to go to food banks so we could have food in our bellies, and working odd jobs for us. I was trying to maintain professionalism and was pleased with my skills.
“So, you’re suffering?” I asked with finger tips joined together,
I didn’t expect him to start crying and repeat “yes, I’m suffering” at least 5 times, sobbing holding his head in his hands. That was an interesting experience, seeing Baba cry like that. I’ve seen his eyes teary, when I do well in school or get a job that I really want, but never like that. Since then I have revoked my title, and am on a quest to explore my own longing.