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Although I was born and raised in England, my mother took it upon herself to teach me Urdu, the dialect of our ancestors. I vividly remember my grandfather conversing with my uncles in Urdu and it often feeling as if they were speaking a foreign language that did not resonate with me. I watched their lips move and recognised that they were creating sound although their words remained alien. I was dressed in traditional clothing, fed Pakistani dishes, and only spoken to in words that felt distant, unfamiliar. I always remained silent because I did not feel present; I did not feel connected to them, to this language, to this culture. I was too young to understand what I was feeling, too young to verbalise these sentiments. However when I became old enough to have an opinion, I began to openly protest.
As I grew older, I watched as my cousins spoke fluent Urdu, revelling in the intricacies of their salwar kameez, discussing Bollywood films extensively and loving the customary traditions that contributed to our heritage. I wanted to love being Pakistani; I wanted to feel something but I was bewildered by the foreign words that transpired from my tongue. This language did not belong to me and I could not comprehend why I felt isolated from something that was supposed to be a part of the intrinsic fabric of who I was.
The first time I can remember visiting Pakistan was at the age of 8; although my mother tells me I visited prior to this, during infancy. Our visit lasted 3 whole months; I can recall roaming the streets in my t-shirt and jeans, acquiring looks from passers-by. The air was perpetually filled with the sound of angry motorists, men selling various assortments of multi-coloured food, cows candidly roaming around and the echoes of livid chickens infusing our oxygen at every other minute. I remember riding on the back of a motorcycle through the dark, as if living through the reverberations of a distant nightmare. I remember accidentally setting someone’s hair on fire as we walked through the street with our candle-lit Mehndi trays at twilight. I remember sulking on the roof, counting the multihued kites in the sky and momentarily spying on the neighbours to decipher whether they were really happy. I wrote to my father to tell him that I hated it there, I wanted to come home, I didn’t know which version of hell he had committed me to. Pakistan was supposedly our ‘homeland’ but how could home be a place that made me feel uneasy, secluded? As a consolation, my father began to send me comic books every week to keep me in high spirits. I woke up early every Friday to eagerly await the arrival of the postman. Comics accumulated by my bedside; a connection to England, home, the central part of myself.
My next visit was at the age of 12 when my isolation from Pakistan became more prominent. I was not allowed to wear my jeans outside of the house, I had hit puberty and was becoming a woman and thus was required to dress in traditional clothing. I was outraged. These clothes felt like a costume, like I was a part of a pretence. I decided to remain in the house for the rest of the trip, it was better than having to dress that way. After a disastrous journey to the airport, during which we were involved in relentless fog and a car crash, I decided that I did not ever want to return to Pakistan. However at the age of 15, I was coerced into revisiting. The manifestation of my estrangement had become overbearing by this point, it was then heightened by me being hospitalised after just 3 weeks of being there.
Some would argue that it was my experience with Pakistan that drove me to the ‘emancipation’ of culture, but rather these experiences reaffirmed my already apparent alienation. I had always felt detached, as if this culture belonged to somebody else and I could not resonate with it. Whenever I would try and speak in Urdu or wear traditional clothing, it was not intrinsic. I had to force these things, consciously make an effort to pretend, and I eventually became tired of trying to feel the things that I was supposed to feel.
As a teenager, my movements were progressively contributing to my marriageability and this began to govern my every activity. I came to realise quite early that I did not want the things that the culture wanted for me. I wanted a career, I wanted to achieve greatness, I could not stay at home and nurse my boundless children or consent to being a slave for my husband. Everyone around me seemed to happily accept these customs and thus my refusal was perceived an outrage. For years, I fought with the conception of being a housewife; I was destined to be more than that. I had endured years of education and fought for my own survival; I wanted more for my life. I wanted to travel, to move out, to explore and I could not do these things because they did not adhere to the societal standards that were ordained by the Pakistani culture. Unmarried women were not to be trusted. We were apparently nothing unless validated by men.
The idea of marriage and giving up my life made me deeply unhappy. I watched my cousins deal with raucous children, incessant drama with their in-laws and their own mislaid aspirations. The thought of succumbing to that life terrified me immeasurably. It meant subduing my personality, submitting to the role of a compliant daughter-in-law. I had tolerated too much suffering to give up my vivacity and dreams, but these were the cultural expectations. I could no longer meet up with my male friends because ‘what would people think?’ I was of marriageable age and thus the way that I conducted myself was fundamental. When I completed my Masters and wanted to go on to do my PhD, my mother objected because nobody would marry me if I was too educated. All that I could discern were recitations of marriage in every movement. I felt smothered, confined. What was the point in living my life if I could not choose how to live it? I could not outwardly dispute this because women did not have a voice and thus I began to internalise everything.
I am a firm believer in philosophising that you should be who you are. I have always felt British, inherently, consciously, and thus I feel that I have no right to claim to be a part of the Pakistani culture when I feel afflicted by it. Upon attending family gatherings, I am the outcast. I sit with my vivacious hair and constrained Urdu because I understand that it is a part of my heritage and thus I must participate to remain respectful. My grandfather made the decision to immigrate here because he wanted a better life for us. So here I am, fighting the customs of this indoctrinated culture in order to live the life that I have always desired.