Proud American

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The big unsaid narrative buried in a naturalization is the one that is supposed to say I’m moving up, baby! When you naturalize, the question frequently in the minds of fellow Americans is, boy, just how relieved are you to be like us? How great must it be to be at the top of the world?

Naturally, we celebrated by eating at the Chinese buffet. Raihana flitted in, and chirped excitedly, “I like this place because it’s very familiar. It makes me feel safe.” The familiar is usually much safer. Except when the familiar is tied up with ransom kidnappings, bombings, and armed burglaries.

I am bitter that Pakistan has to be that place that, whenever mentioned, causes Americans’ eyebrows to be raised. “Will you be safe when you are visiting your parents?” or the more politically correct, “Oh, that’s so interesting.” When mango season rolls around, my parents tell me, they cannot enjoy a good Anwar Ratol without a heavy sigh and, “Ah-ha, my Shabana doesn’t get any of these mangoes.” When I sit in a clean, mahogany-furnished courtroom, and am courteously ushered to my seat by White people, I sigh, and think, if only my Lahore friends were able to get through the day without wondering if there was going to be a riot on the street, if only my mother was able to rely on electricity all day and all night, and if only the police were better paid and not corrupt so my parents hadn’t had to experience armed burglaries three frigging times. I am happy for what I have. I am bitter for what my possible, un-immigrated self does not.

I asked Raihana (because I share all my angst with my 8 year-old daughter), “Do you think I did the right thing by immigrating?” She finished a mouthful of clam as thoughtfully as you can chew a mouthful of clam and said with characteristic bluntness, “There are some things that are good, and some that are bad. It’s bad because you had to leave your home-sweet-home” – I smiled – “and it’s good because now you’re in your” – she raised her eyebrows and opened her eyes wide, and raised her index fingers in exaggerated air-quotes “now you’re in your home sweet home” and of course we ended up laughing.

America is home now. This is not a treacherous or pro-imperialist thing to say. This is about picking Raihana up from school and exchanging pleasantries with her teacher, about knowing how to deposit checks at the bank, about spending Sunday afternoon at the public library. As “Intisar”, one of my research participants told me, “it’s just life, we just go through it.”

So America is home. And Pakistan, despite the fact that my heart breaks to say it, is less home every year that I spend away from it. Despite the fact that the cold, foggy mornings I walked to classrooms at the Convent of Jesus & Mary school in Lahore are still alive for me, electrically alive, the reality of Pakistan has grown up without me.

Am I proud of this? Would you be proud of leaving your deepest memories behind, like the protagonist in Memento? Would it be anything other than traumatic to let go? 

If I feel pride, I should describe it as a class-based pride. When I stand in line at airports, and we glance at each other’s passports, and mine is a royal burgundy (that would be my U.K. passport) and yours might be a green (Zareena Grewal describes the impact of her “haughty navy blue vinyl”). It’s similar to the way we glance comparatively at each other’s outfits, and I shrink a little in my Old Navy sweats when I stand next to a woman in Chanel.

Even Raihana recognizes this. She went on to say, “Mama, it’s a good thing you immigrated because America is a good country” and then she said “it’s a richer country, and aren’t you happy that I don’t go to a really poor school?”

Ultimately, class defines many of our choices. Today, many middle class Pakistanis invest hard-earned savings into their children’s American education, as they themselves watch the terrorists become more fearless and the authorities more and more ineffectual. They hope that they are investing in tomorrow, and many are teaching their children the wisdom of jumping from a sinking ship.

Am I proud I jumped? Seriously? I have deep shame and embarrassment when I speak to Pakistani academics like the ones I interviewed who dedicate their days to making things better. I could have been in their position. Does holding a navy blue passport make me better than them? Maybe it makes me more of a coward, in some ways. I hold in deepest respect my Pakistani family and friends who make their way to work in searing heat, and without the benefit (often) of airconditioning or even fans, those fathers riding Kawasaki motorcycles with five children in school uniforms, those mothers walking to their house-maid jobs so that they can put daal and onions on the table for their children, those children in their grubby khaki school uniforms trying to focus on schoolwork in 110 degree heat.

Yes, I admire much about the United States political system, and I find personal relief in its friendly individualism. Yes, it is home in many ways, and I am glad that my daughter has the benefit of a public library system of stupendous power and resources, that I have access to almost every research database I need, and that everyday life – despite the pockmarked roads of Champaign post-snow – is very, very easy. That ease of everyday life is, in part, what drives much of America’s immigration narrative. Once you’ve tasted this ease, the availability of clean public toilets, the highway system, the scale of life, the size of homes (sorry, Britain), the variety of climate within its borders, the relative emphasis on customer service (have you tried complaining about gas, electricity, and telephones in Pakistan?) – most of us can do nothing but fight tooth and claw to hold on tight. Is there pride in that fight? Some would say there is, the pride of agency, the pride of rejecting a fatalistic victimhood (no, the two don’t necessarily go together), the pride of self-empowerment, the pride of self-respect, the pride that rejects a meek embrace of whatever comes. No que sera, sera in this pride.

But as I fill up on cheap gas, enjoy daily showers, and print reams and reams of journal articles, I know, too, that this pride rests on the backs of billions who do not enjoy daily showers or even potable water, who have outdated textbooks in their schools, and who walk miles and miles in unforgiving weather to work.

Authentic culture and pristine religion

In my distress at cultural inaccuracies and inauthenticity (see America the khubsoorat), there are parallels in my struggles with “traditionalist” Muslims who find “progressive” Islam wanting and inauthentic. When Muslims frame their Islam “mere Islam,” untouched by human hands, and my Islam adulterated, corrupted, shaped by human fallibility, I protest against their unfounded claims. After all, religion – religious texts and sources – go through the human medium before reaching us no matter how “mere” its adherents may claim to be. So why the coyness about ijtihad? Why the distress at indigenizing religious practice? Why the hissy fits over scholarly reinterpretation of sources? Why the extreme contempt for contemporary sources and scholarship that inch away from medieval scholarship?

Religion, like culture, shifts and changes. This does not detract from its Divine origins. Religion, like culture, must find a hospitable habitat and, in order to do so, must shift its weight, wiggle, and stretch a little. Maybe a lot.

I know I retain a core of nostalgia about that old-time religion and the desi culture of the 1980s and 1990s. But every time I follow the crowd into Lahore Airport, I know that that culture is gone. It has shifted and become something else. It is not unrecognizable, but it is not what it used to be. Year after year, I land there, holding in my heart the shreds of a hope that I might find my bachpan ke din again. I am not a child anymore, nor is my homeland. We are all growed up.

When I follow the queue of dazed Pakistanis, bearded men, disheveled women, and restless children, into O’Hare, I can see that they have changed. Some of the demeanor and the mannerisms I donned again for a 3-week visit in Lahore has already puddled around my feet and I am back, baby. We can get together and tease each other with rude Punjabi jokes, poke fun at homeland politicians, and enjoy each other’s biryani, but we always order cheese pizza for our children. And we tune netflix to Shrek so the kids can be quiet and we can relax and talk in Urdu.

America the khubsoorat*

* khubsoorat (Urdu/Hindi): beautiful

I am preoccupied by only one aspect of the Coca Cola ‘America the Beautiful’ commercial. I cannot understand the Hindi lyrics. It’s not that it’s a poor translation. I have no idea what kind of translation it is. Every time I search for the Hindi lyrics, I face a barrage of articles about hate discourse. So I give up, and join the ranks of those protesting against the hate. Then I return to puzzle over the crystalline voice of the singer again, in the extended video, and it continues to present an almost total blank in terms of meaning. My first-generation friends and my friends in India are likewise puzzled.

So my main concern with the Coke ad is this: why the hell would they make use of Hindi if they weren’t going to do a decent job of translation? Why wouldn’t they choose a more proficient Hindi speaker? Or at least coach her in better articulation? I shudder, for example, when she says paharon (mountains) instead of pahadon but that notoriously difficult r/d sound inevitably stumps novice speakers of Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi.

But as I shudder, and turn up my nose at the Whitified Hindi that is almost unrecognizable to me, I turn my gaze upon my 7-year old daughter, who can only speak Urdu in snippets and phrases. Some day, a first-generation snob like me will laugh at her and cause her to blush for her lack of authentic cultural capital.

Culture moves on. Language moves on. For all my first-generation nostalgia and expertise, it is the Raihanas and the Sushmitas that will shape Hindi and Urdu as they are spoken in North America in the future. Maybe Raihana will go to grad school and Pakistan to study Urdu poetry and maybe she will spend hours perfecting her accent. (I’m hoping she chooses the sciences, actually). But most Raihanas will be delighted with their ability to sing about pahars, eat nan, and dance bhangra at parties. And this is the process of language change over generations. I recognize it as an anthropologist. I shudder as a lover of Urdu.

At its core, too, this inner turmoil of mine is about cultural authenticity and cultural ownership. This is my cultural capital, and I don’t like it being commodified, sold, and consumed in its “bastardized” forms, with the name of Hindi or Urdu. I imagine that I have possession of this commodity – yes, I commodify it too – and I claim ownership. I evaluate the secondary ownership of second-generation cultural members and find it wanting. But the process of cultural change takes one sneering glance at my protestations, and trundles on.

Another time, another space, what might you be?

wooden house in winter forestWe are who we are. Or are we? We become what we can become, we realize possibilities that are available to us, that are within reaching distance. The tendrils of our hearts and minds curl around the persons who are biologically or become socially connected to us. We mold ourselves into shapes that fit those persons. If we don’t, we are socially inept, or emotionally dysfunctional, or loners.

The pace of most lives is so rhythmically steady that we don’t have the opportunity to stop and consider who else we could be, or could have been. The thought of a potential other Me can be exhilarating, can be terrifying. Reflecting on that other Me is a waste of time, isn’t it? Philosophical garbage, right?


It’s early January. We recently concluded my daughter’s winter break and a whole lot of togetherness. It’s beautiful and cozy togetherness, and it fills up all the empty spaces in your heart and mind until there is nothing else there. At times, I felt like I was in a lazy groundhog day with surround-television.

It’s Saturday evening right now. My husband took my daughter to a children’s event at the public library – because that’s what good parents do. He often does this, and gives me time to myself. I spend more time with my daughter during weekdays.

I just got home from the gym, where I have been spending more time than usual recently, and a quick trip to the grocery store for raspberries and grapefruit juice. I was surprised to find that my family wasn’t home yet. I dropped the groceries, prayed the evening prayer, and did not turn on the lights. The fairy lights – we call them Eid-Miladunnabi lights (it’s the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on January 13) sparkled in the dark living room. It was utterly quiet. I sat there quietly, full of wonder at this unusual experience. A tranquil silence, no urgent tasks pending, and no other person.

When Svend and Raihana are not with me, I miss them. I feel incomplete. Right at this moment, though, I felt like I was peering from the darkness into a bright window of alternative possibility. Who could I be right now? In the silence, in the aloneness, there is another me that I might access.

Not for long. They are back home, and I have a 7-year old voracious reader leaning on my shoulder. So I’ll just pack away those possibilities – which are, after all, not – and savor what I’ve got right here. 

No more Disney Princesses

A mother in California, sick of Disney representation of girls and women, came up with a new cast of characters – the Guardian Princesses. This is a hopeful sign, but Setsu Shigematsu cannot do it alone. Disney with its enormous, hegemonic power – cultural as well as financial – is too big for one person to battle alone. I hope Shigematsu finds allies and backing in her work because I am one of those many, many parents (and others) who are sick to death of the Disney/Pixar girl image problem. I would really like girls to have a narrative that is not centered around the climactic appearance of romance and a man, but most entertainment products for children appear to follow the dominant romance narrative. This is more than a feminist issue. The narrative is reductive. It centers the life-story around the identification of that Other Person who will make life meaningful. That expectation is often a destructive and depressing force which can detract from a person’s strength and aims.

May I a little spitefully hope that someone other than the big corporations picks up where they failed. Why should they get to make money off all the consumers, feminist and nonfeminist alike? When Merida belches and doesn’t care for fancy outfits, this is good, and the change in body representation is helpful, but for me, the plot is the key issue. When everything in the plot revolves around a man/romance/marriage, any degree of proud, strong, assertive, feminist female character only succeeds in showing that that, too, can be domesticated into patriarchy. The feminist representation becomes harmful because it’s just a way to nab a wider audience. The Guardian Princesses will be a change from the Disney norm if the plot is not man-driven.

Citizen of the world

calvinAs a critical scholar of citizenship and pluralism, I can’t really celebrate almost anything. Nerds are a somber and disconsolate breed. Still, passing my U.S. citizenship test as I did this week gives me pleasure. Let me tell you why.

  • First, I now share the same citizenship as my husband and child, so we can stand in the same queue on arrival into the U.S. If the political climate in this country takes a serious downward turn, I won’t be so fearful of becoming separated from my family.
  • Second, my daughter now sees that I am not an unalloyed foreigner but am Pakistani, British, as well as American. Like Lola, I am collecting a collection.
  • Third, I am from a test-and-rote based culture but I have not had the chance to practice my mad cramming skillz in a very long time. Cramming the 100 questions forced me to put aside work on my article on Muslim American women and dance, but it was a highly edifying process. For example, I now know that the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are the longest in the United States, and that a male citizen of any race can vote. This changes my perspective on life in a significant way.
  • My only complaint is that my interviewer at the Chicago office did not ask me all ten questions and did not test me on three sentences each for English writing and reading. She only asked me 6 questions – and yes, she asked me for one of the two longest rivers and I told her both, hoping to get some kind of extra credit. I was actually hoping she would ask me for the names of Native American tribes so I could go through a beautiful list of names – Hopi, Inuit, Cherokee, Choctaw, Apache, Sioux, and so on. I’m glad, however, that I was tested on my knowledge of the Speaker’s name, though I resent not being asked about my local Congressman, Illinois Senators, and our governor, especially after I had managed to stop getting them mixed up. The interviewer gave up after having me read one sentence in English, which is patently unfair.
  • She asked me if I had a middle name. I said no. This is kind of a sore point for me. Despite all my marks of cultural assimilation, I have only two names. I feel like a rapper – Snoop Dogg; Ice Tea; Vanilla Ice; Shabana Mir – instead of a scholar and writer with a respectable series of three names. At the very least, a middle initial that didn’t stand for anything except appropriate rhythm would be handy. One feels so much weightier with three names.
  • Maybe this is why my interviewer asked me if I wanted to change my name. I was a little stumped. Was citizenship contingent upon my response? I took a chance and said no, since I am in the illustrious company of Omid Safi and–okay, that’s it.
  • Notably, my interviewer asked me if I’d ever been arrested, convicted, or addicted to drugs. I decided to forego all mention of coffee and the occasional allergy medication and continued to say no.
  • She asked me if I’d ever been a member of any terrorist organization. I really should mention academe because this is a pretty terrifying institution.
  • In response to at least 4-5 different questions, I expressed my total and eager willingness to bear arms and hurt other people for the United States, whether in the army or under civilian command. Knowing as Svend White does how terrible my aim is, I would be concerned for any army or civilian command that handed me weapons, but if the United States doesn’t mind, well, why not.
  • I should lodge a vociferous complaint about the Immigration and Naturalization Service because I was forced to sign my name on the absolute worst passport photographs I have EVER had. I am hopeful that they won’t stick it in my passport because this is a mug shot. I look obese, puffy, and ill; I have stringy, blond-streaked hair hanging over my forehead; and the Walgreens photographer instructed me specifically not to smile, so I look like I’m ready to fall down dead. If this picture ends up in my passport, I’m going for my fourth nationality.

cartoonNaturally, my family and I celebrated U.S. citizenship by escaping to the Pakistani neighborhood on Devon Street in Chicago, pigging out on Karahi Chicken, picking up halwa puri and gajar halwa, and praying my afternoon prayer in the basement musalla at Tahoora bakery.

Like Diogenes, I aspire to cosmopolitan ideals, and like Anthony K. Appiah’s (see Cosmopolitanism), I am an American citizen who is also Pakistani and somewhat British. I say ‘somewhat British’ because I catch myself whenever I describe myself as ‘British’ and recall a professor who scrunched up his face with ill humor saying, to the Zambian students at Cambridge University: ‘She’s about as British as I am Zambian but she’s got a British passport.’

I want to ask that professor exactly what he meant by British – since he was White, a social-justice-educator type who does – ironically – inclusion in education. He does inclusion in education, though: his inclusion is focused on particular student populations, not on interlopers in the British bodypolitic who were born in the U.K. and happen to have very good English. So I want to ask him, and myself, and my daughter, where do we draw boundaries and borders and lines? Which ones serve a good purpose? Which ones can we cross? I have just crossed another border, in terms of my official paperwork, but I can’t help asking myself if I have actually also put myself behind another boundary, line, demarcation that divides me from humanity.

The book is here!

Photo on 11-16-13 at 5.36 PM Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity – my first full-length book – is here from the University of North Carolina Press.

This is a big day. I was struck by the fact that my editor, Elaine, reminded me in her letter to celebrate properly. I suspect Elaine knows academic authors too well. We see every accomplishment, every book, every journal article, and every award in the context of academic productivity.

So in this photograph, I am taking the time to celebrate “properly” with my esteemed co-author, my seven-year old daughter. It is Raihana’s sacrifice of a good deal of quality time as well as her raising of questions about being Muslim, American, Pakistani, and White all at the same time that have resulted in this book. I owe her big time.

The book is available at the University of North Carolina Press.

 

Squashing the Pakistani out of me

I’ve been carrying the US Citizenship test materials in my car, planning on putting the CD in my stereo just as soon as I’m done listening to ‘Brick Lane.’ Raihana saw the booklet yesterday. And completely unexpectedly, she said:

“Mama, I don’t want the Pakistani to get squashed out of you – the way the Dursleys said they’d squash the magic out of Harry Potter. – Because I want to learn more things about Pakistan everyday!”

On the one hand, I am pleased that my daughter has a protective and nurturing impulse toward Pakistani culture. I’m also happy that she is consciously aware of the processes of cultural assimilation, stigma, and acculturation.

On the other hand, I’m concerned that she possibly suspects that I am “acting [too] white.” I’d also perhaps prefer that she were not aware of the expectation that I “squash” the Pakistani out – but this awareness is inevitable. She has shown an acute awareness that not everyone knows about Urdu, Eid, and dupattas, and at times is quite put out by this.

At other times, she parades a dupatta around so that everyone will know about Pakistan. At such times, I have conflicting impulses: I want to protect her from racist bigotry yet I want her to be proud and comfortable in her skin.

‘Croods’: musings on fatherhood

We watched Croods yesterday. Bravo, DreamWorks. You combined evolutionary science with well-timed cultural analysis of a historical shift in parenting styles as we know them. The distantly loving ‘cavemen’ dads of a previous generation are giving way to the protective but more permissive and more nurturing fathers of today – at least in the popular imagination they are. So it’s to be expected that I found myself awash in tears in the last half hour of the movie, holding my 7-year old daughter’s hand, as my heart ached for my own parents. When Grug finds himself unable to connect and communicate with his daughter Eep, I cringed as I recall the innumerable explosive conversations I had with my father (and to a lesser degree, my mother).

The saddest moment of the movie is probably when Grug resolutely steels himself, without hesitation, to toss all the members of his family into the distance over to safety, saying, “All I have is my strength,” accepting that he is just a caveman with few original ideas, little flexibility for changing times, and sparse emotional intelligence. But he loves truly and strongly, and his emotional illiteracy is reflected in his lack of narcissistic self-regard as he does not spare a single thought for himself. I see this in many fathers.

Naturally, as I write this, I am awash with tears again. I think of the stolid, strong, volatile-tempered father, who was absent from home through much of my youth because he was working two jobs and when he returned home, he was tired, sullen, and focused on his dinner. I think of how he was unable to exorcise his childhood nightmares of losing his mother, and thereafter perpetually negotiating access to his father via a difficult stepmother.

Even now, when he sees me off at Lahore airport, he turns away without a word after embracing me tight, unable to speak. No Disney speeches from my abbu. I remember the day when he vented his frustration at our complex relationship in words of hurtful anger and when I shouted that I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just communicate, why he had to always end up hurting me instead, why couldn’t he just say things without erupting like a volcano.

And then in 1993, my parents shuttled from office to office, negotiating with difficult bureaucrats, struggling to help me pursue my dream of an education abroad, even as I sensed their hearts breaking. My parents were now retired, no longer active, and they would suffer no late-in-life move to the West. Like Grug, my father picked me up bodily, and tossed me into the void where he could not follow me.

How does a parent have the strength to do that? As a parent, I don’t know. Maybe I will not learn until a very, very distant day in the future when my daughter, grown up, tells me she has to detach herself from Mama, that she is no longer “hooked” to Mama, and that she has a life to live, a life that is separate from my own. For now, I will plan on college down the street and a house next door (a la My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The Grugs of a previous generation have changed with changing times, and it has been painful. Who knows what changes lie ahead for the children of these fathers?

 

Inward struggles of an academic researcher

I am in one of my pre-creative stages of academic writing. Unless you are one of those horribly prolific academic authors – in which case, stay away from me because I will be unable to control my envy – you know what this means. I have data from a pilot qualitative project that I conducted in Lahore during 4 hot and frantically busy weeks of teaching and advising at a public university. Since the methods were exploratory, the data are, naturally, messy. I know that as a qualitative researcher I should relish the messiness of data, knowing that life is messy and complex and that if the data were tidy and immediately classifiable, red flags and warning bells should go up/off. Still, when I am trawling through transcripts of intense conversations that are widely dissimilar from each other, I do sometimes wish for a closed-ended survey. When you’re grading a large stack of papers, the closed-ended exam is what you’d have, ideally. But it tells you little, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and the survey effectively targets that goal. Hence the pilot study.

So at this time, I am staring, through my data, at a variety of paths leading out in a variety of directions. It is also difficult that I am doing international research and that I am woefully ignorant of the work that has been done in Pakistan on the reforms in Pakistani academe. A lot of such work is government documents which is, let’s be honest – yawn. There is so much reading between the lines to do in government documents. And when I come across Pakistani officialese, I find myself completely befuddled. Maybe my training in informal American academic-speak has left me grievously inadequate to the task of formal jargon. This is not to say that I am, like – stupid or linguistically impoverished. I think.

I am looking forward to doing another round of interviews and observations at the university this summer. But since life is complicated, and I have a family which won’t accompany me this time, I cannot spend more than two weeks there. I do sometimes wish I was one of those fiercely independent academics who deal, efficiently and productively, with long periods of time away from their families, and build their research careers on such stints. I am told that when my child is older, this will become easier. As of now, my daughter gazes at me in relief when I return home after a couple of hours’ absence. So the guilt is overwhelming.

The mothering guilt is another problem with the pre-creative stage of academic writing. When I was immersed in finalizing my book manuscript (it is on its way, thanks for asking), the work was simple (well – I mean -), I knew what I was doing, by and large. Actually, I had so much to do, I had no time to feel lost. Right now, I am stuck, staring at the different paths. I am at risk, while productively contemplating my choices and the literature, of wasting (well – “waste” is an ugly word) wasting abundant quantities of time wandering in directions that will ultimately prove worthless (another ugly word). I know there is no such thing as waste in the research process. After all, as I stroll into studies of academic climate, and then gaze over into studies of work-life balance, I can only benefit from a wide-ranging appetite for contextual knowledge. But there is no category in my resume that says “Academic Appetite” or “Desultory Wanderings.” If they didn’t result in a tangible artifact, they don’t really count for much. When I am a tenured professor, I can be the expert whose musings and wanderings will be of value – someone who scatters academic value on her way as she ‘wastes’ time.