Culture, Family, Gender & Identity, Life

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 a 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.

Born in the ’90s 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 ’90s, 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 realizing how little of the language I truly knew.  

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 realized 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 realized 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.

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 awareness and acceptance for different people, and different ways of life, from birth.