Symmetry in Our Misshapenness: On Learning How to Belong -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

I’m taking a break from performing stand-up comedy. When I’m asked why, I tell my friends that I’m just not feeling it right now, or that I’m not sure if stand-up is my medium. It’s easier to say these things than to admit that the material I was writing and performing was making me uneasy.

On stage, I worked through my inability to reconcile my cultural identity with how I perceived myself. I’ve been discriminated against in all sorts of ways for being Pakistani, but as I would say on stage, I sometimes forgot that I even was Pakistani. I didn’t mean that seeing my skin was this constant rude reminder, just that I was raised in Canada and identify with a westernized version of myself, far from my Pakistani roots.

Yet with each performance of my set, I realized that in working through my inner conflict in front of an audience, I was othering myself. I was identifying with a mostly white audience and saying, “Look at these parts of me that I am not comfortable with. Isn’t it funny that I sometimes wish my name were Emily so I wouldn’t have to apologize for my identity being unfamiliar and exotic to people?” It was met with a positive reaction, but something about it left me feeling slightly hollow.

I still identify with parts of that set, and I appreciate that it resonated with certain people in the audience who related to my experience. But I no longer want to relate to others by marking my differences. For as long as I can remember, I have used comedy to approach facets of my cultural identity which I struggle to accept. Now, instead of picking out the things I don’t identify with, I’m starting to explore what I do connect with. What are the aspects of myself and my upbringing that I know to be true, and which experiences resonate with me?

What I know to be true is that I moved from Karachi to Toronto at the age of six. I was not raised alongside my large extended family, a network of cousins and aunts and uncles that I never truly got to know or share lasting experiences with. Since arriving in Canada, it has been just my mother, my father, and me. The three of us are a solid unit but largely untethered from the world we left behind, fumbling our way through this new territory with only each other to cling to for comfort.

I went to an elementary school called Brown School, a fact I would make knowing jokes about for years to come. Despite the name, I could count on one hand the number of students who had brown skin. I began to realize I was different when I noticed gaps in our shared cultural memory. My favourite TV show from back home was Jem and the Holograms. I would watch it every morning before preschool while my mom spooned cereal into my stubborn mouth. We would record the episodes on a cassette as they aired, pausing the recording at commercial breaks for an uninterrupted viewing experience later. I still have these tapes, and I still regret not recording these Pakistani commercials from 1994. None of my Canadian friends knew who Jem or Synergy or Kimber were, because Pakistani television was ten years behind Canadian television and my childhood obsession was a relic from a time before their existence.

As a young kid, I thought this disconnect was the only thing truly separating me from my peers. Now when I reflect on this time, I realize how internalized my desire for approval from my mostly white peer group truly was. I eschewed the food my mother cooked and packed for me because I was scared the smell would make other kids tease me. My lunch menu consisted of chicken nuggets, potato patties and Chef Boyardee. I couldn’t talk about how much I loved Kuch Kuch Hota Hai without being met with confusion, so I bonded with my friends over Sailor Moon and The Spice Girls. What started as a desire to connect with my peers turned into a full-blown love affair with North American pop culture. I was eleven when I became obsessed with Empire Records and Moulin Rouge and The Cure, devouring anything that I connected with emotionally. I felt cool, and defined myself through my tastes.

As I grew older and immersed myself in North American culture, I lost touch with my Pakistani roots. Urdu felt foreign on my tongue and I tripped over my words when meeting my parents’ friends. “Yeh toh bilkul gori bun gayee hai,” they’d say. “She’s become totally white.” I used the term “whitewashed” to describe myself more times than I can count.

I remember being fascinated by Bend it Like Beckham when I was eleven. I recognized this crazy, vibrant, loving family on the big screen like they were my own. I loved the fusion of British and Punjabi music, I related to Jesminder’s conflict of wanting to please her family while pursuing her dreams, but the part of that film that excited me the most was that she ended up with the white guy. I ended up developing a crush on Jonathan Rhys Meyers because he wanted to be with a girl who looked like me. It made him more attainable in my eyes, more open-minded somehow. What my little preteen heart took away from that relationship was that this white guy accepted Jess and her family and her culture, and because of this she could truly fit in. I grew up seeking approval from white boys, filling the holes left by my insecurities with their affection. Tell me you find me attractive. Tell me I’m desirable to someone like you. Tell me I belong.

This thirst for approval from white peers led me to identify myself as a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside). I now realize how mistaken I was in thinking that the absence of identification with Pakistani culture is akin to whiteness.

In a roundtable discussion for BuzzFeed, Ayesha Siddiqi, Heben Nigatu, and Durga Chew-Bose discuss this notion that liking the same things many white people like does not mean that these things are inherently “white” tastes. My enjoyment of Starbucks and This American Life does not define my cultural identity, and Nigatu adds that labeling such things as “white” only diminishes the rich and textured experiences of many people of colour who enjoy these things. In her podcast Pushing Hoops with Sticks, Siddiqi points out that a common insult for white girls is calling them “basic”, yet this insult operates on the assumption that basic is a default, void of additional characteristics. This is not so much an insult as an affirmation of white dominance in our society, positing that to be white is to be the default.

I thought that separating myself from my Pakistani roots and learning to belong in this new environment meant identifying with “whiteness”, not realizing the distinction between having certain tastes and assuming a new cultural identity. My desire to assume a Canadian cultural identity steeped in “whiteness” was not a response to a direct rejection of the culture I left behind in Pakistan. I simply did not remember or relate to those Pakistani experiences by the time I reached the age at which one begins to consider and form their identity. I still find myself grasping at faint wisps of home, as if by holding onto enough fragments they will remain a part of me. I remember the smell of jasmine flowers in the thick humid air, drinking icy lemonade and watching my dad play cricket with his friends on the lawn. I remember pretending to be asleep in the backseat of my parents’ car on the way home from catching butterflies in jars up in the mountains. I remember having backyard birthday parties with Pakola and Fanta (the good stuff in the frosty glass bottles), and running barefoot with my cousins, trying to avoid the little frogs in the grass and squealing when one croaked and brushed against my toes.

As comforting as these glimpses of my past may be, an identity created from distant memories is not a solid foundation on which to stand. When the time came in my life to define my values and my sense of self, these faint snippets from my childhood had little bearing on my present. The words of my mother and father fell on deaf ears, as I was more concerned with nabbing the lead in the school play or getting the class clown to fall in love with me than I was with stories of a place which we chose to abandon. By the time I hit puberty, I had the added burden of starting to realize that my skin made me especially uncomfortable. No longer did I simply feel like that “weird girl” who came to school with mehndi on her hands during Eid and who definitely sprouted a mustache before most boys in my grade. I started to feel ugly. I was called names like “dirt girl”, and brown became a dirty word I wished to distance myself from.

In my teen years, I realized I could use humour to deflect attacks on my being. I took the qualities that made me insecure and different and I made jokes about them. I did funny accents and made “brown jokes” to fit in with my peers. These silly jokes I made with my friends evolved and were incorporated into the comedy I performed on stage as an adult.

It is only recently that I have realized how much of myself I was sacrificing in order to make those around me more comfortable. In thinking that people were laughing with me rather than at me, I was really laughing at myself. Tearing down parts of myself in order to feel like I belonged only made me spurn the parts of myself I associated with my family and my roots. I grew up restless and missing a crucial part of myself, a part I had abandoned in seeking white approval.

Now, in my twenties, I have been making a conscious effort to learn about where my family came from. I entertain my mother’s suggestion that I settle down with a nice Pakistani boy, but my boisterous laughter and silver nose ring deter the aunties who would set me up with their sons. When my mother says I won’t attract a husband if I’m not fair and lovely, I furiously suntan, ironically darkening my skin in opposition to these cultural expectations. I’m not quite Pakistani enough to fit in with the young South Asian community to whose functions I receive various invitations. Still, I’m not quite white enough for the white dudes I’ve met on Tinder, who are too busy seeing me as a novelty to consider me as a person. Being told by a white man that I should “be proud that I’m the first brown girl [he’s] ever fucked,” unsurprisingly, does not make me proud. Yet the dating pool of men my mother would consider an “appropriate choice” for the family is so limited due to the social circles I am in that I end up commodifying their ethnicity in a similar way. I have caught myself overlooking the personalities of Pakistani guys in favour of cultural similarities, reducing them to their background in the same way I have been reduced myself. As someone who feels that her race has been seen as a sexual fetish, this commodification of ethnicity is something I am trying to unlearn. Unlearning is a process, along with accepting the fact that I will never conform to a singular cultural identity.

I used to feel guilt for not connecting with my roots as I “should”, and because of this I used to say that I don’t see myself as Pakistani. I am Pakistani just as much as I am Canadian. It’s just that I no longer feel like I have to assume an identity dictated by a certain nationality. I don’t like curry, but I love tandoori. I don’t like egg salad, but I am all about chicken nuggets. I don’t eat pork due to my Muslim upbringing, but I can provide you with a comprehensive list of my favourite bars in the city. It took a long time for me to realize that there is nothing wrong with feeling like a hybrid, feeling caught between two worlds, picking and choosing the elements of each that resonate with me. I’m formed as much by the classical Qaawali singers my grandmother would ask to perform in our living room as I am by Shakespeare and Sondheim and Saturday Night Live.

Hybridity is a common theme in the literature of the displaced. In his work Discontent and its Civilizations, Mohsin Hamid argues for a move away from a monolithic perception of civilization in favour of pluralism. Pluralism and hybridity are integral to finding peace and acceptance, whether it is within a civilization or an individual. We must allow room for the multitudes we surely contain.

I yearned for connection with my peers and lost a part of myself in the process, and only recently have I realized how many others have done the same. Reading the work of writers like Hamid, Siddiqi, and Chew-Bose, I find comfort in recognizing a shared experience of being displaced. Our first-generation experience is not that of our parents, and caught in the space between here and there is a new home. There is a sense of belonging in reading Chew-Bose affirm that she will no longer erase herself to make white peers more comfortable. There is a sense of belonging in reading Siddiqi’s rallying cry for women of colour to recognize that their voices matter and must not be undervalued. There is a sense of belonging in the knowing head nod shared between you and the only other brown kid at the Death Cab for Cutie concert.

For so long I have tried to fit myself within a box determined by the expectations forced upon me by myself and others, but I have these jagged protruding edges which refuse to cooperate and yield. Now they reach out and cling desperately to the other jagged protruding edges of my peers, all sharp yet fitting together to create a new shape: a puzzle in which, together, we find a semblance of symmetry in our misshapenness. It is within this zone of shared displacement and diversity that I finally begin to feel like I am home.

Masooma Hussain has her roots in Karachi and her branches in Toronto. She spends her time writing and performing comedy, analyzing pop culture, and crafting her aesthetic. Follow her on Twitter @soomahuss.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again