Ayesha Syed is a human rights activist and future lawyer. She is an enthusiast who is passionate by all that this world has to offer. In her story, Ayesha describes a candid guilt for the complex emotions she experienced regarding her parents’ identity while growing up, her eventual reconciliation with it, and how she takes pride in her individuality today. She interns with MALA for its “Elevate Y/our Journey” project.
A great wave of guilt washes over me every time I look back on how ashamed I was of my background during my childhood. Growing up in white, suburban Indiana presented me with several opportunities to see how different I was from those around me. Those differences were amplified when I would compare my Pakistani Muslim parents who immigrated to America to the parents of other kids I knew from school.
I would shudder inside every time one of my parents would mispronounce an English word in public. I would try to walk a couple steps ahead of my parents when they would speak Urdu to each other outside of our home. I’d reprimand my mother for wearing traditional Pakistani clothes to the supermarket and frantically apologize on her behalf if she accidentally mixed an Urdu “yes” in while speaking to the cashier. Trying to conceal who I was went as far as me showing my friends random toys from around my house I claimed I received for Christmas because telling them I didn’t celebrate it wasn’t something I could stomach.
I was tired of unwelcoming stares from strangers and wished so badly to look like everyone else and come from families that looked and acted like everyone else’s. I was tired of feeling un-American.
What I didn’t understand was that my world was so much bigger than the suburb I lived in. And just because I didn’t feel at home in that specific part of my country didn’t mean there wasn’t a place for me in at all. As I grew older, I was lucky enough to travel around home and abroad. Doing so helped me realize being a child of immigrants is as American as it gets. Although it may not seem like it all the time, immigrants and immigration make up the foundation of our country.
I began to admire the way my parents were able to switch back and forth between two languages so effortlessly with such fluidity while most of my friends’ parents could only speak English. I began taking pride in Pakistani culture and traditions because they were something no one else I knew had. I learned most people’s stares came out of curiosity as opposed to scrutiny. I realized I was lucky to have two worlds that shaped my identity and that there was no reason to be embarrassed about that.
When I hear my parents mispronounce words now, I am not embarrassed. Instead, I am reminded of the sacrifices they made and the struggles they went through so that I could call myself an American. I now view my parents’ differences as symbols of strength that I’m not sure I would have within myself if I were put through the same obstacles. The only thing I am ashamed of now is the fact that I was ashamed then. I can’t help but think that by feeling that way, I was betraying my parents whilst betraying my identity.
Fortunately, I can now appreciate living in a country where people from all walks of life reside and there is always a chance to learn about a culture that isn’t yours. Being different should never be a source of embarrassment or anxiety for any human being. Whether you’re different because of your ethnicity, your religion, your gender, your sexuality, or otherwise, that difference is something to be celebrated. Despite recent events and political ongoings, I still believe America is a nation that welcomes your differences. With everything I do in the future, I hope to remind others that embracing each other’s differences is a lot easier than fearing them.