Throughout my life, I’ve faced this constant separation from my identity – both from myself, and those around me. My family moved from Pakistan to Canada when I was 2 years old so I didn’t get to understand much of what came from living there, but I did have to face the consequences from moving away.
I always felt very out of place. It was like I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Simply put, I never felt a sense of belonging. I never knew how to fit in.
My mom never felt like she fit in with the culture in Pakistan. There was a harshness she felt with the institutions put in place and there were structures built that she could never adapt herself in to. So when we all moved to Canada, she taught me how to keep my faith. She taught me the value of kindness. She taught me that despite all the mistakes I make in my life, I will always be loved. She taught me the humbling nature of helping, healing, loving, and truthtelling.
However, she did receive a lot of backlash from that. She received constant disapproval, rejection, shame, and hate for raising my sister and I the way she did. She got this from both sides of our family, as well as the Islamic communities in Canada.
We didn’t cover our bodies up like we were supposed to. We didn’t go to the Mosque very often like we were supposed to. We didn’t practice religion the way we were supposed to. So surprisingly enough, we weren’t really welcomed in.
I hope to never offend anyone who does follow these practices because they just didn’t fit me and I’m telling my story about the way I was brought up. These practices were never of my focus. It wasn’t really about how I chose to dress or present myself. It wasn’t about doing things the way I was supposed to. It was more about being kind and treating people with respect. It was all about love, and only love, because everything good is rooted from there.
So basically, I didn’t fit in with much of that community. But then, I was thrown into neighborhoods and schools filled with white people, and suddenly I was expected to fit in there. It’s hilarious because often times, I feel like my life is a series of social experiments where someone forgot to tell me that I was the field researcher.
I’d watch TV and I could never see anyone who looked like me. I went to school and never felt like I could relate to anyone. I felt different and intrusive, and the beauty of elementary school is the brutal honesty of children who tell you exactly what you’ve been telling yourself all along: You don’t belong here.
I was bullied quite a lot and when I did find friends, it didn’t take them long to notice I wasn’t like them. So I would walk to school every single morning in fear that I would have no one to talk to again.
It didn’t help that I was also a book nerd and more introverted. I always preferred doing things on my own and keeping to myself, but when that is the only choice you are given, you can’t help but long for connection. All I wanted was to be wanted – by friends, boys…animals – whatever, I’ll take it!
Moving around often, I felt like I had a lot of fresh starts. There were so many opportunities for me to be a different person – one who was invisible enough to not be noticed, but social enough to have some friends. Somehow, it always ended up the same, with me at recess, sitting in the corner with a book in hand, constantly checking to make sure there weren’t many people around. I feared people, so so much.
Lucky for me, as I entered 6th, 7th, and 8th grade, I did manage to find people, but I didn’t have enough of a social background to understand how to connect with them. So with friends, I became their sidekick, their underdog. Looking back, I remember trying to analyze their dialogue: how they spoke and what they said, how they presented themselves and behaved so that I could mimic it. I literally felt like an alien learning how to be human – specifically a white human. I tried so hard to become the people I was friends with, but as soon as they all became bored of being friends with their reflection, they left. And when they left me, I would lose my identity again.
Then came high school, which is a bit of a blur. I began to really understand my weird, sarcastic personality. I became social, and often, the life of the party. Perhaps all that time studying how to be human finally worked to my benefit. I hopped from clique to clique, circle to circle, friends with everybody, close to no one. My favourite people were the drug addicts: the honest, the bold, and the outcasted. I mean, they were all jacked up, but they were my people.
15 was the age I discovered the beautiful escape that came from binge drinking, and so I began to drink excessively all the time. I rarely showed up to class to the point where the receptionist at the office knew my mother and as soon as she’d see the number pop up, she’d already signed me out for the day.
I started being recognized as the girl was “so pretty for a brown girl” because I was “basically white,” and I loved it. Finally, I would think; Finally, I almost fit in. What a fucking achievement.
When visiting family, I would receive constant praise over my complexion which was fairer than most brown peoples’. I took in all the compliments as personal success. I was so naive and so damn proud of myself.
I would get these comments from close friends, colleagues, boys, other students, everyone. So I started to use it in my defense if anyone were to question or threaten my belonging.
I’d feel threatened if anyone asked where I was from. “Pakistan, but I moved to Canada when I was 2 so I’m basically white.” I kid you not, that was ALWAYS my response. So that became my identity: almost white.
Race and religion have always been sensitive topics for me that I refused to talk about and even write about (which should have been some sort of a red flag for me but I ignored it). To be honest, I only started to feel slightly comfortable talking about it as of recently – maybe a couple of months ago. So I’m still in the midst of uncovering the underlying truth that I spent my whole life trying to hide.
I still don’t know how to heal or what to make from all of this, but all I do know is ‘not this’. All I can understand is that this was a deep shaming of myself that I tried to uphold for far too long.
No, I am not fully comfortable with it, especially now, after this election. Especially now, ever since all my fears of hatred, not belonging, and discrimination were validated. So yes, this election hit me pretty hard even though I live in Canada because this is not a national issue, it’s a global one. It’s one that has been apparent my entire life and yet, I still put all of my efforts into denying its existence.
If anything, this woke me up, as it did for so many people: minorities, women, the LGBTQ community, etc. I’ve been beginning to think that maybe this is a period of awakening. This is a period of opening, sharing, accepting and truthtelling.
I have a lot of family in the United States, most of whom are already facing more discrimination and hate than ever before, while experiencing their deepest fears come alive. Being someone who loves to fix, problem solve and heal, I feel tremendously helpless.
I think what we can do right now is continue to bring our strength forward, keep our love open, and speak our truths loudly. None of this is okay, but who we are in the midst of this chaos can make it better.