Yesterday, we went to this wedding shindig thing about 90 minutes away. Although I’d been to fourteen weddings in the course of the eighteen months I lived in Pakistan, this was the first Pakistani wedding in the U.S. that I can remember attending. ‘Twas fun, even though we didn’t know most of the people. Actually, my sister and I did a great job of just walking up to people and introducing ourselves. We met lots of new cool people in the process. And whenever I got bored, I amused myself by playing peek-a-boo with all the little kids, or grabbing my sister’s arm and exclaiming, “Aww, look at that cute baby!” Lots of cute babies in attendance. My kinda event. But good Lord! – Pakistani women really need to get out of this immensely unattractive habit of staring, and soon. That I do not find amusing at all.
In hindsight, the most entertaining part of the evening was when I unsuspectingly got waylaid by a group of single-minded aunties. See, here’s how it happened: I walked down to the end of the room to hug a family friend and ask how she was doing. After she had moved on, I was about to take another step when I found my arm firmly grasped by some old lady at the table I was standing next to. Without slackening the grip on my arm, she jerked her chin towards the empty seat next to her, almost physically hauling me into it. Shocked and surprised, I was about to open my mouth to speak, but she beat me to it. As I jerked my arm out of her grip, she directed rapid-fire Urdu questions my way: “Where are you from? Some Muslim country? Do you speak Urdu?”
Oh, great, I thought. And as she and the three other women across from us stared at me expectantly, what came out of my mouth was, “Nahin, maala sirf ligga ligga Urdu raazi,” which, of course means, “No, I only know a little bit of Urdu” – in a mixture of both Urdu AND Pukhtu. Oh yeah, I’m amazingly slick, what can I say.
Thankfully, my sister wandered by just then and was put on the spot as well. The old lady stared at us, looking puzzled. “Where are you from?” she repeated. “Are you from a Muslim country?”
I almost laughed. “I’m from Pakistan,” I said, this time in real Urdu.
“Pakistan?” She peered closely at me. So did the three ladies across from us. “You don’t look Pakistani,” they said doubtfully.
“Really?” I said. “Where did you think I was from?”
“No, I’m Pakistani.”
The old lady looked me up and down. “You’re from Karachi, aren’t you?”
“No,” I said, “I’m from _______.”
“_______,” I repeated loudly, with as much patience as I had left. “It’s the name of a village in district Attock.”
“Ohh, Attock!” said the ladies across from us. “We’re from Behboodi [a nearby village]! What’s your father’s name?”
We told them. “Ohh!” they said again, now smiling widely all of a sudden. Everyone knows our father. I’m so glad we have some connections, otherwise I can see how this conversation could have degenerated into misunderstandings and lip-curled vicious remarks as soon as our backs were turned. Or maybe I’m just generalizing. Unfortunately, I do know far too many people like that, though.
“So if you’re from _______, why don’t you at least know how to speak Hindku?” demanded one of the women. The sudden shift from agreeableness to disdain and condescension was too much for me. “I do speak Hindku,” I said with obvious annoyance, gladly reverting to fluent Hindku. “Perhaps if you had started off this conversation with Hindku, we wouldn’t have been having so much trouble.”
The old lady next to me, being a fluent Urdu speaker and a non-villager, was feeling left out of the loop of things by this time. She grabbed my arm again to direct attention her way, moving her hand in a circular gesture to signify my headwrap and scarf. “Why do you wear those so tightly?” she asked. “Doesn’t that cause you any takleef [trouble/annoyance/inconvenience]?”
I resisted an impulse to roll my eyes. “No, it doesn’t cause me any takleef,” I said impatiently, stuttering through my limited Urdu once more. I was trying to explain the concept of hijab to her, and my reasons for wearing it, but my limited Urdu was getting in the way. Not only that, I was distracted by the ladies across the table loudly asking each other, as if we weren’t even there - “Are they single? Or married?”
My sister retorted loudly, “No, we’re not married. We’re in college.”
A few seconds later, we finally managed to escape.
Yes, that was an interesting exchange. As we walked away, my sister laughed, “They probably think we’re so stuck-up – we were trying to speak Urdu with the village women, and talking about how we go to college.”
“Good!” I said irritably. “Serves them right for putting me on the spot like that.”
Usually, I’m known as the queen of sarcastic rejoinders and cold comebacks that result in flustered, embarrassed silence, but it’s awfully difficult to tell someone off if you don’t even speak the same language.
Later in the evening, a girl asked me, “Where are you from?”
“Oh, I came up from the Bay Area,” I replied, my standard response all day, since the majority of the wedding guests were from local towns.
“No, no,” she said, “I mean, what country?”
‘Really?” she said in surprise. “I thought maybe you were Kashmiri. Or Palestinian.”
Hi, my name is Yasmine, and I think I’m starting to have an identity crisis already.
Oh, and the evening only served to confirm that I still need to learn now to gracefully accept compliments. I’ll get it right one of these years, don’t worry.
I’ll put that on my to-do list. Right up there with speaking Urdu without making a fool of myself.