I was four when I asked my mother what language we spoke at home.
I knew it wasn’t English, which I had to learn from scratch at preschool that year. I knew it wasn’t the flowing Urdu that poured out of the mouths of my friends’ mothers, because I was always left in the dust when I tried to understand them. I knew it wasn’t the thick, brazen tongue my first Arabic teacher spoke on the phone with her daughters, because at that time I still struggled to put together words whose meanings were locked away from me.
My mother laughed as she continued to pull my thick, wavy hair into two ponytails.
“We speak Pashto,” she told me, turning my head to look me in the eyes.
“Pashto? How come nobody else speaks it?”
My mother let go and looked away. “Yes, they do,” she answered. “They’re just not here.”
I am a staunch believer that nationality, ethnicity, and race cannot put individual over another. But sometimes, love for your background stems not from racial arrogance, but from an attachment to everything it symbolizes for you. In Pashto, I find the family members whose faces were always just out of reach, whose voices were always just beyond my memory, the relatives who live an ocean and several continents away.
When my father moved to America and started a family here, his decision was not unheard of. His sister and her husband, as well as two of his brothers and their families whom we were very close to, had also settled here. Another one of his brothers had also lived in the UK for some time. However, all of my father’s siblings eventually moved back to Pakistan, back to a familiar way of living and reputations already carved out and waiting for them. First my aunt and her husband, and then both my uncles. It was almost as if everyone was looking to us to also cross that vast ocean that separates countless loved ones. When my father decided to stay in the U.S., relatives back home did everything in their power to convince him to come back.
I, too, wished for either my cousins to move back or for us to move to Pakistan. I was no longer able to play hairdresser or YuGiOh! cards with them, no longer able to play hide-and-seek and watching Pokémon with them, no longer able to visit their houses or have them visit ours. When my cousins moved away, I lost my best friends, and the most cherished days of my childhood ended like that.
Many of my cousins grew up in the same house in Pakistan, and as a result maintained close bonds even after reaching adulthood. I always felt out of the loop. I couldn’t help but feel that I had missed out on something precious, knowing that I would never understand the countless inside jokes and adventures the rest of my cousins shared together. When the holidays would roll around, TV ads and magazine articles were a constant reminder that I had no family here.
But I seldom spoke of these things, since even as a child I could see the priceless sacrifices my own parents had made. I knew that they didn’t enjoy being away from generations of their families either, but that they chose to endure the separation. I could hear it in my father’s voice when he was reunited with his brothers over the phone. Those phone calls were two to three hours of jokes being cracked on both sides, as his family’s infamous sense of humor was allowed to flourish. I could feel it in my mother’s tears when she cried at the sight of her aging parents in tiny, pixelated pictures sent over Viber. I felt it in the pit of my stomach in the form of a longing, something that ached like hunger, scrolling through my cousins’ Facebook profiles.
It always stunned me that technology could bring two worlds so close together and yet keep them so far apart.
My parents have only done what they thought was best for us. But to live without a family is difficult. My father has been pulled in two directions over the Atlantic Ocean, and at times it feels like his ribs will be torn from his sternum. My mother has shouldered much more than she reveals. Her clavicles grow hollow from thinking this distance from her loved ones will one day all be worth it.
Without grandparents near enough to visit when things got tough, without cousins to challenge and prank, I grew up scrambling to salvage any remaining memories. If not properly paid attention to and maintained, these glimpses of a past life would wilt away without my realizing. So I reached for whatever I could and, in the process, I held dearly to what reminded me most of my family: Pashto and Pashtun culture.
Having met very, very few other Pashtun families in the U.S., clinging to our language culture was my only association with my family. We have shomleh, a sour yogurt drink, with dinner nearly every night. I still make the niyyah, or intention for my prayer in Pashto, as my mother taught me when I was a little girl, even though the rest of my prayers are in Arabic and English. I know countless Pashto jokes and stories my father enjoys telling. All the while, I continue to do everything that I do with the intention of one day being able to produce the fruit of my efforts to my grandparents, as a way of saying thank you, as a way of proving that all of this was not for nothing. In a room full of people talking, I will always be able to identify the sound of someone speaking in Pashto.
My experience is not unique to my situation. For the countless children of immigrants living in white-majority neighborhoods, our roots can often seem like far-off wisps of dreams countered by the realities we face every day. But we must embrace the vibrant beauties of our backgrounds, instead of stuffing our languages back down our throats.
We need not be ashamed of the tongues, ethnicities, and nationalities that make us stand out amongst the crowd. Instead, we should allow those pieces of us to prosper, thrive at our lips and sparkle in the glints of our eyes. Heads held high can never be beaten down by being different – rather, they take pride in it.