My Pakistani upbringing helped make me the American I am today

How I learned to live in the melting pot without burning

My childhood could be described as an identity crisis. Although I had only been to Pakistan for a total of 20 days, I quickly learned to love my culture with the help of my parents.

My grandparents would always make jokes about my broken Urdu and “American accent” when I would talk to them on the phone. In my grandparents’ eyes, I was an Americanized Pakistani. Although I was born and raised in America, my parents did a great job exposing me to my culture. I would wear Pakistani clothing every now and then, eat South Asian food, and wear henna whenever a special occasion would come up.

However, things got different when I started middle school. It was then that I noticed just how different my thick, dark eyebrows and my tan skin was from my friends who were all fair skinned with blonde hair. Despite being born and raised in America, I never felt like a true American.

I remember the day after my aunt’s wedding, a boy in my class asked if I had burned both of my hands. His smirk confirmed to me that he was talking about my henna stained hands. Another classmate referred to my henna as a secret tattoo that only terrorists had.

After several comments about my henna, I decided the best way to avoid being made fun of was to simply not get the henna done again, abandoning my culture to conform to the western ideas of beauty. I recall throwing away my lunches at school because the food my mom packed “smelled weird”. I remember someone asking me if my mom was a terrorist after they saw her with her headscarf. I was consumed with confusion, pain, and anger. I remember coming home and my mom immediately wiped away my tears. I told her that the comments said about her made me angry. She calmly replied and said I should ignore them, that there’s no reason to stoop down to their level.

My middle school years consisted of me living a double life. I was too modern for my parents who saw me slowly losing grip of my culture and I was too different for people at school.

For the next couple of years, I completely lost track of my culture. I refused to get out of the car when I was wearing traditional Pakistani clothing. I refused to wear henna even for special occasions and even religious holidays. I was confused. I wasn’t a true Pakistani because I abandoned my culture and I never felt accepted as a true American. I was never able to fully belong to either identity.

It was surprising to see that even the rest of my South Asian friends were going through similar problems at school. But there was a certain point in my life where everything changed and South Asian culture was appreciated.

I found my friends asking me if my mom would be able to do “henna tattoos” for them and if I had any spare bindis they could wear. I didn’t fully notice this sudden change until I was browsing through Tumblr one day. I recall how dumbfounded I was when I saw pictures of girls at Coachella wearing bindis, putting their index and middle fingers that were stained with henna, in the air. The same things that I was made fun of in middle school for, were now the new trend.

Although I was belittled to nothing for the bindi on my forehead, girls were applauded for wearing the bindis that made them look exotic and quirky.

I felt ashamed, not because of my culture, but because I had abandoned my heritage to better comply to the American culture. I refused to wear my bindis, while girls, who weren’t South Asian, took pride in wearing them.

I realized then, that no matter how much I was ridiculed for displaying my culture, I should have continued getting henna and being content with my chestnut-colored skin. I realized then, that if I had continued to gratify my culture, these bindi’s would not be the fashion statement that they are considered now.

I felt foolish that I had to wait for others to appreciate my South Asian heritage before I could fully learn to love it. I felt like I was reducing my own people to shadows. I finally realized that it was not about being American or Pakistani first, but more so, it was about learning to carry my culture while being a South-Asian, Pakistani-American woman who learned to live in the melting pot without burning.

UT Austin