Throughout my life, I’ve felt disconnected from my own identity – a predicament I took to be framed and exacerbated by myself, as well as those around me. It was only later that I understood the far greater societal impact of it all.
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 of 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 truth-telling.
However, she received 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 simply didn’t fit me and this is only my personal experience with the way I was brought up. Though these practices were not of my focus, the way I understood how to be a good person was all about being kind and treating people with respect. It was all about love, and only love, because everything good is rooted from there – which I can now say after having studied them, that most religious texts aim to teach.
So in conclusion, I didn’t fit in with much of that community.
But after moving to Canada, I was readily tossed into all white neighborhoods and schools, and suddenly I was expected to fit in there. It humors me 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 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.
My inner circle recognized me as the girl who was so “pretty for a brown girl” because I was “basically white,” (yes those are the literal words that were used) 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 people. 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 a red flag for me). To be honest, I only started to feel slightly comfortable talking about it four years ago and today, I am still nearly brought to tears when I have to explain myself for being offended by someone else’s ignorance. You can say I’m still in the midst of bringing to light the underlying truth I spent my whole life trying to hide. I also understand that I have a long way left to go.
I still don’t know how to heal or what to make from all of this, but all I do know is this cannot be my reality any longer. All I can understand is that this was a deep shaming of myself that I tried to uphold for far too long.
I’ve been beginning to think that maybe this is a period of awakening: A period of waking up to how we choose to spend our time, how we perceive ourselves, and what sorts of demons live in our minds when we are left alone with them.
A lot of things have been brought to the surface lately and it’s time I deal with them. Perhaps it’s time we all do.