Izzy Zaidi: An American-born, confused Desi

“Where are you from?”

“Maine.”

“No, I meant to ask, where were you born?”

“Buffalo, New York.”

“No, I mean, where are your parents from?”

“Pakistan.”

And now you know the secret of my brownness.

This kind of conversation has become the bane of my existence.

Around the time I was two, my family moved to Pakistan. I lived there for about five years, most of which was spent at school and (admittedly) being spoiled by my family—including the acquisition of a spring lamb that grew to be the size of a deer.

“Lamby” was an aggressive one. One day, he took to tackling little Izzy. In response, my father told me, “No more Lamby.” Later that afternoon, we had a barbeque. It was a swinging time. Well, not for me… The saga of Lamby is fraught with some deep-seated emotional turmoil, but that’s another story for a different time.

Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this.

There were glimpses throughout my childhood of anecdotes that might be atypical of classic American experience. However, I spent most of my time with my family, which was superb. I grew up with American TV, movies and pop culture. I don’t understand a lot of Pakistani humor and news and politics are often lost on me. When relocated to Mid-coast Maine, despite my perceived otherness, Maine became my home.

Growing up, my friends would tell me that they forgot I was not white. I never understood why this was such a mind-boggling concept for them, or why they felt it even needed to be said. What’s even more irritating is when someone takes to guessing my family’s background. (People often assume I’m Indian. There are more countries in South Asia than India.)

My parents never forced me or my brother to be “typical Pakistanis” but they never completely assimilated to whitewash Maine.

My mom would tell me I was an “ABCD”—American born, confused Desi. At home, we speak a mix of English and Urdu. Salaan tops our spaghetti and on Thanksgiving, we have tandoori turkey; however, despite the questions I received in grade school, I do not have an arranged marriage lined up. I am the product of my surroundings, yes. Certainly, my five years in Pakistan helped to shape me, but they do not define me.

Growing up, many of my friends took the time to learn about my culture. My friends would celebrate my holidays with me as I did with them. No, I am not your average Mainer, but that was okay because people in my hometown knew who I was and understand that heritage is not one solitary thing.

At Colby, I tend to be labeled in terms of binary identity—as either American or Pakistani. I don’t know why I cannot be both. I feel more at home in America, and feel more comfortable calling myself an American, but my Pakistani roots have affected me and I’m not going to deny them for the sake of fitting in with any particular group.

At Colby, we tend to only talk about culture and diversity through events that are solely song, dance, and food. There’s more to culture than just this; culture also stems from history, which tends to be placed under the more tangible signifiers like “exotic” clothing or “ethnic” food. It would be amazing to see more people discuss diversity and cultural difference without having to be bribed with flashy objects and snacks.

Since arriving at Colby last fall, people have inquired about my background. When I say I’m American, some people have told me quite blatantly that I was wrong. One of my best friends, who was an international student himself, went around telling people I was from Pakistan because he didn’t understand how I could call myself American with Pakistani parents. It was pretty melodramatic, actually.

Many of my American friends don’t make an effort to learn about my roots, but it’s a two-way street. During my first semester at the College, there was a solid group of students who thought I was an international student because of these rumors.

I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of two separate identities. When I am at home in Mid-coast Maine, I am a proud American who is proud of her Pakistani roots. At Colby, it’s sometimes a struggle to maintain this identity. I am the Batman.

In all seriousness, though, it’s unfortunate that people attempt to pigeonhole others into labels that are comfortable or more palatable to them. We’ve moved beyond the concept of binaries in terms of gender and sexuality, so why is it acceptable to enforce concrete labels for race and nationality? Honestly, my identity is my business and it’s not up to anyone other than me to say who I am.

It’s important to keep in mind that different people have different experiences. In the way that it is problematic to assign otherness to any given group, it’s equally problematic to assume that everyone is identifying a certain way or that part of a specific group (even if you’re part of that group) is going to feel the same about every… single… thing.

If you’re still confused about the correct way to handle these types of interactions, just remember what Gretchen Weiners says, “Oh my God, Karen. You can’t just ask people why they’re white.”

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