Short note: the fallacy of being enough

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.

Voulez-vous bhangra avec moi?

I’m a little annoyed, but I’m also a little sad. And this may be elitist, but I’m Lahori. We can get elitist. But no offense meant, I promise!

I get invited to a lot of South Asia-related events on campus, and I can say that I have not been to a single one since I first went to Northeastern. A lot of people would chalk that up to self-loathing, or seeing my identity as having westernized itself, or being a nation-traitor, or just complete apathy towards my heritage in general. If you’re one of my very good friends you know all of that to be categorically untrue. I know all those accusations to be antitheses to the very person I am. And, for the record, I do bhangra/faux-kathak in my room when I’m listening to desi music.

There’s going to be a South Asia week at Northeastern. I’m not going.

Your South Asia week won’t ease the pain of not having been home in five years. It won’t make me feel like I’m back walking the main market streets of Lahore, smelling molten jalebiyaan, hearing thait Punjabi that I can just about understand. It won’t give me the excitement I felt going to the various Rafi Peer Theater’s workshops and events and the literary festivals. It won’t look like any of the things I associated with Lahore – colors and trucks and massive, ancient willows and oaks, old buildings and new buildings, colonial and mughal and modern, parks with as much litter as flowers, old movie posters and huge billboards with Brad Pitt and Victoria’s Secret Angels, graffiti, poetry, political statements splayed across walls alongside beautiful murals painted by students from art schools, museums and boutiques, innumerable bookstores, innumerable dens of debauchery, innumerable beggars on the streets, innumerable women in their sleeveless kurtas-and-jeans and in their burqas-

Your South Asia week will only break my heart. It will only feel like a gimmick to me, and I’m sorry about that. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you have fun, but my identity doesn’t hinge on attending Bollywood zumba lessons, as much as sometimes I wish it did. My identity looks to the next time I go back to Pakistan, and I don’t half-ass my wishes.

But hey, if you want a private bhangra party, I will happily arrange that.

What’s in a name?

Try everything. A lot of people downplay the importance of names, but then why do you have people who change their names later on in life? Because a name is just that important – it is your identity beyond your personality, your talents, your ambitions and goals and accomplishments. No matter what you do, your name will always be of the first on-paper indicator of who you are, and if your name is uncommon, this is all the more potent.

Uncommon in this context means an “exotic” name, an “ethnic” name – two words I use dubiously and with no small amount of eye-rolling – a name that is unheard of and, thus, unpronounceable by the majority of people who surround you, and when your name cannot be easily pronounced, two big things could happen:

  1. The person to whom you introduced yourself, or who asked you for your name, asks to clarify the pronunciation with a sheepishly apologetic look, or;
  2. They don’t clarify anything and continue pronouncing your name the way they deem fit.

When called out on the pronunciation, this variety of person usually follows it up with, “Well, it’s close enough.”

Good job, sir. Here’s a cookie for being “close enough.”

Worse, you could get a “Well, your name is so difficult! Do you expect me to learn to pronounce it perfectly?”

Actually, yes, that is exactly what I expect you to do. It’s a name, assigned to me at birth (or later on in life for whatever reason) that identifies and distinguishes me from (most) people. I do expect you to pronounce it perfect. And no, Nee-ha is not close enough.

I have met so many people who insist on pronouncing my name incorrectly that, frankly, it’s getting boring. But that doesn’t stop me from being absolutely obstinate about pronouncing it correctly. It’s two syllables, and two very easy syllables at that.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t ask someone how to pronounce a name. In fact, I encourage it! But don’t say it in an exasperated, “Ugh, how dare you have such a beautifully unique and complex name, it’s too difficult for my ethnocentric and basic perception of names to be able to grasp.”

Then you just sound kind of dumb. You also sound rude.

Honestly, I’ve just scratched at the surface of this problem. So many people have had a harder time than me with their names. They have been forced to simplify the pronunciation, or even adopt a “mainstream” nickname all together just to be able to avoid the embarrassment of getting your name mispronounced. More than that, we live in a world where your name is often an indicator of how people ought to treat you. Heaven help you if you have an “Arab-sounding name.” You could have a “ghetto-sounding name” and people instantly assume your class, race, and family background. Dare ye have a name longer than three syllables? Time to make a nickname out of the first three letters! Huzzah for convenience!

Okay, the last may or may not be an annoyance. I go by “Nei” more often than not. But really, it’s the intention that counts. If you’re nothing more than an acquaintance…please, just ask. In the immortal words of John Green, “Use your words!” You’d be surprised how helpful that is.

I was lucky enough to spend my high school life in a school with 91+ nationalities, where teachers are accustomed to clearing out pronunciations before they go around mispronouncing them – mostly, anyway – but not everyone gets it that easy. If you’re an immigrant to a place like the USA then you will more often than not have a very hard time of it. And that’s sad. But it’s something that can be easily remedied by understanding that names are different everywhere, and that asking for someone’s pronunciation isn’t going to hurt your ego.

Names are important in nuanced ways. The name “Omar” does not denote your family’s inherent allegiance to al-Qaida or whatever. It’s just a lovely name that is used by Muslims – and of course other ethnicities! – around the world.

And to those who’ve had their first and last name mispronounced, don’t shy away from correcting people. Be proud of your name. You don’t have to compromise it just to fit in, or just to be spared the embarrassment, or just to adhere to a narrow-minded individual’s ethnocentric idea of what constitutes a proper name.

My name is Neiha Sharjeel Khan Lasharie, and boy, will I make you pronounce it right.

On identity

I was watching a vlog on Youtube earlier about how most people tend to identify themselves by their nationalities first, rather than any personal aspects they may have. This is all well and good – I myself am a patriot and often call myself a Pakistani-Muslim before anything else – but when that’s established, what do you then identify as?

In our “formative years,” a lot of people struggle to place their identity, unless you’re one of the lucky few who’re resolute enough to have decided upon their debut from their mama’s womb. Other people work it out at some point or the other. Others still don’t figure it out until well into their lives and allow themselves to fall under the predictable mundanity of life as an alternative.

Which, you know, is alright too. Playing it safe has its own merits – and consequences – in life. Hell, sometimes going WITHOUT an identity is easier, particularly if you’re…well, less than favored by the mainstream media.

And then there’s the identity you’re labelled with. Oh, the virtues of scapegoating; what must it be like, to be so nonexistent?

Nothing good comes out of scapegoating. All you’re doing is backing an innocent man into a corner until they have no choice but to break and mould themselves to what society expects of them. Where does rebellion spout from, after all? Deviant behavior is often the product of society, rather than the ugly defect we all like to see it as.

But I digress. And as I lay on this couch, sneezing until my lungs spray out my nostril I don’t apologize for the image, I ponder my own identity.

I’m a Pakistani. A Muslim. A feminist, an egalitarian, sure. But I’m a loud and proud nerd. I’m a geek in the best sense of the word. I love my quirks, I love my Doctor Who, I love academics. I’m a fashionista. I guess I’m an eclectic – I devour everything in little bits and relish each and every bit of it.

…or maybe I’m just trying to find an identity.

Yeah, it’s probably the latter.

I should just go back to sneezing like a good girl.

BUT, readers, what is your identity? Leave a comment down below! I’ll get back to y’all once I figure out what my identity is.