I should lead with the fact that as of beginning this blog post, it is 5:43am. I am – unshockingly, and despite my best efforts – jetlagged. I don’t feel guilty about this fact; it just is. But attempting to fall asleep in vain has meant lying awake with my intrusive thoughts. I don’t mind intrusive thoughts, really. I’ve made some pretty ground-breaking realizations in my life in the course of my intrusive thoughts. In fact, intrusive thoughts in my formative years pretty much shaped my political views – how could I fall asleep knowing x, y, z was happening in the world? How could I reconcile a, b, c with my own relative comfort? Most importantly, what would I do to ensure that every night, I went to sleep knowing that – within reason – I did what I could to leave the world slightly better?
Sometimes it’s easier to lean into the sleeplessness. There’s a lot of wisdom to be found in delirium. Worse comes to worst, there’s always Civ.
On this particular occasion, my intrusive thoughts are mostly inward-looking. I’m twenty-four now. That doesn’t mean anything by itself; everyone has their own pace in life. For me, where I am in the world, at twenty-four, I’m making certain decisions that will shape my future, probably not irrevocably, but still. Making decisions necessarily balances retrospect with speculation. This morning, and God, I can’t believe it’s morning already, the air is heavy with retrospect. I’m thinking about my identity and the decisions I have made.
I’ve always shied away from identifying with the term “diaspora.” I’m ashamed to say that in my first few months studying in the US, I saw the Pakistani diaspora in an almost disparaging manner. Please understand: this was wholly projection. I was hyper-aware of my own accent, my mannerisms, my everything in relation to the people around me. Diasporic Pakistanis could at least claim American citizenship, and the protections that came with it. I could claim nothing but my visa documents, and even that was a tenuous grasp. At the same time, I chafed at the idea of being “fresh-off-the-boat.” I had already done the big move (from Lahore to Dubai) once: how many boats was I supposed to be fresh off of?! At least this time, the big move was my decision. I would not let someone else pigeon-hole me into my movement. And so diaspora would relegate me to perpetual motion, not to the stable ground I found myself on. More than that, it took me yet another word away from Pakistan. And that has been one of the leitmotifs of my young adulthood.
I don’t need to rehash my ongoing reckoning with my Pakistaniat. I’ve talked about my relationship with Urdu plenty of times. I’ve talked about my experiences with bureaucracy as a Pakistani before. I’ve talked about a lot of facets of being Pakistani. And it may well be that over the almost ten-odd years that this blog has existed, I’ve talked about this topic as well. But jetlag demands that I discuss it again, so here we are: I’m done feeling like I have to put an asterisk next to the word “Pakistani” as it relates to me.
The other day, when I was watching a video of myself reading a poem at an open mic in Boston, I felt a familiar dullness rise up inside me. My Ts were coming across too soft; other letters, I hit too hard; the one Urdu word in my otherwise English poem was just slightly too-affected with an American accent. It was an off-day for me, accent-wise. I felt disappointed. And then annoyed. Why the hell was I annoyed at my own voice for falling into its truest manifestation: somewhere in-between? I always say that partway through reading a poem, I become possessed by the spirit of the poem I’m reading. In that possession is the most honest reflection of myself as a writer. And I guess that writer has a bit of a weird accent. Should that be a cause of shame? At what point did my own truth become something to be embarassed about?
I’ve been pulled in all different directions by my life, and that’s a beautiful thing, even if it is exhausting. For my family back home, I’m the “American” cousin/daughter/niece/grandchild; for my American friends, I will always be Pakistani – and supremely proud of it. But my American friends also claim me as an American in addition to my Pakistaniat. The latter is not mutually exclusive with the former. And I’m certainly not an American, at least not yet – but their willingness to accept me as one of them, actual nationality be damned, my political opinions be damned, my insistence on throwing Eid parties and feeding people food far too spicy for them be damned, my propensity to wear shalwar kameez whenever I feel like it be damned, lacks a counterpart in the Pakistani part of my identity.
And maybe that’s unfair to say. I’m deeply, deeply loved by my family. But sometimes it feels as if by the simple act of living in the United States, I’ve somehow parsed away my right to claim 100% Pakistaniat.
That hurts. I also don’t see myself in percentages. That one identity has to be at the expense of another is a silly idea. I’m not letting Americans off the hook here either. Despite misconceptions, my progressivism was born and raised in Pakistan, not Boston, Massachusetts. Progressivism is not an inherently American proclivity, and you can see that for yourself by looking at the state of the American nation today. At the end of the day, my politics are richer for being exposed to different countries. By assuming that I’m so suspectible to one country or the other strips me of my agency, of my ability to choose the virtues I stand for, of my multitudinousness. It is also just genuinely an insult to the years I have spent nurturing myself as a scholar of politics, a future-practitioner thereof, and as a human being.
Years ago, I was asked by someone how I reconcile all my myriad identities. My answer was simple: I don’t, because I’ve never had to. I can be many things and every thing at once. I can be deeply Pakistani in Western business attire. I can be progressive in a kurta and jangly tulip pajamas. I can be jetlagged, and still write a blog post. And it doesn’t even have to be coherent! I can be whatever I decide to be, and I don’t have to justify that to anyone. I am Pakistani enough, always.