Culture, Culture + Taste

When I lost my parents’ language, I lost my culture, too

If I could speak to my younger self, I’d tell her to embrace her heritage.

In Khaled Hosseini’s book, And the Mountains Echoed, an Afghan-American named Pari asks her father why she had to attend lessons to read and write her mother tongue as child. The response her father gives resonates with me to this very day:  

If culture is a house, then language was the key to the front door; to all the rooms inside. Without it,…you ended up wayward, without a proper home or a legitimate identity.”

I had never truly experienced a ”light bulb” moment until I read those sentences as a 20-year-old student two years ago. My estrangement and inability to identify with the country of my grandparent’s birth, Pakistan, had all suddenly made sense.

From a young age, my inability to speak either language was a source of shame. Click To Tweet

Born in the 90’s to a British-born mother and a father who immigrated from Pakistan to Britain as a child, I was raised in a predominantly English-speaking family. This was unusual back in the early 90’s, although it is definitely more common today. Subsequently, unlike other British-Pakistani children our ages, my siblings and I had a very limited ability to speak and understand Urdu or Potwari (a dialect of Urdu).

The degree to which my siblings and I understood and expressed our language varied; as the second youngest, my ability to speak Urdu was pretty much non-existent, while my eldest sibling was able to hold a basic conversation.

Criticism from family elders and our teasing cousins led to a harmful association with my mother tongue. From a young age, my inability to speak either language was a source of shame.

This shame meant that, until I was around 15 years old, I hid the fact that I wasn’t a proficient bilingual even from close friends. It meant that I avoided any Aunty who didn’t speak English very well at gatherings or in the community. It meant that I smiled, nodded my head, and went along with my parents who would insist that I was a fluent bilingual, but was “just too shy to speak it”, to those who would ask. It meant that any desire to learn the language was suppressed by a combination of dread and embarrassment at the possibility of my parents and family members realising how little of the language I truly knew.  

I smiled, nodded, and went along with my parents who would insist that I was fluent. Click To Tweet

It also meant that I often felt more British than Pakistani. I would use the negative aspects of the culture as an excuse to not concern myself with the good. I never understood, cared for, or identified with the history of Pakistan, my heritage, or any of its cultural offerings. Except for the food, of course.

However, when I read the passage in And the Mountains Echoed, I realised that for most of my life, I had mistakenly attributed my diminutive attachment to Pakistan as the cause of my inability to speak its languages. Upon reflection, I realised that this detachment was actually the result of my inability to speak the languages.

This realisation was followed by a bitter sense of loss: the loss of the ability to be bilingual, the loss of habits and a sense of humour I couldn’t understand, and the loss of an appreciation of a culture into which I was born. A loss of identity.

It also meant that I often felt more British than Pakistani. Click To Tweet

I decided to write this article as a sort of therapeutic tool, to express the sentiment of alienation towards the Pakistani culture, which had been circulating internally for over 20 years.

If I could speak to my younger self, I’d tell her this: embrace your heritage. Perceive your dual cultures as something positive. Ignore the disheartening and snide remarks regarding your supposed ‘white-washed-ness’ from others.

And remember, at the very least, holding on to your roots will allow for an awareness and acceptance for different people, and differing ways of life, from birth. 

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