Due to popular demand, and because I really want to update but can't since I have highly annoying papers to write, I'm instead posting my article that was published in the South Asian magazine on campus. Long-time readers may be interested to know it's an edited and slightly more formalized version of this post from April 2003. The "infamous poem" is having issues being uploaded properly, so I guess I'll have to resort to other measures. It's 2 pages (with 2 columns per page) on a Word document, so that's a lot of scrolling if I just simply post it here. Let me know if you're up for it.
[M is for Multiculturalism]
As an undergraduate student, I currently hold an internship with the campus Multicultural Immersion Program. A subdivision of the university’s Counseling Center, the Multicultural Immersion Program is an intensive internship geared towards educating and training selected student leaders in workshop development and implementation in the areas of race relations, intercultural communication, and related diversity issues. As campus diversity facilitators, we’re required to put together workshops and presentations designed to foster understanding of multicultural issues.
People constantly, curiously ask me why I'm a part of this program. My way of looking at it is that people need to be educated. About me, about you, about themselves.
My story: I was born and raised in the United States, and spent eighteen months living in Pakistan, my parents' homeland, when I was 13-14 years old. In the process, I learned to accept the inevitable truth that Pakistan was also my own homeland, even though I hadn't been born there. Before living in Pakistan, I had considered myself neither wholly American nor wholly Pakistani. This predicament placed me in an uncomfortable state of limbo, although, as a child, I think I tended to lean toward the Western culture I grew up surrounded by. My ambivalent attitude, however, changed after living in Pakistan. Through first-hand experience, I absorbed details about Pakistan and its religion, culture, and customs, as well as about the people and their way of life—also my way of life during the time I was there. Hard work and a complete immersion in the Pakistani culture were the starting points towards the discovery of my roots. Life in Pakistan taught me to appreciate the best of both East and West, and to consequently reconcile the two.
But I'll be fair and admit that life in Pakistan wasn't always perfect. For eighteen months, I missed "real" chocolate, had cravings for Bakers Square cream pies, cursed the fact that the electricity went out a dozen times a day, cringed at the lizards on the walls and the cockroaches in the bathrooms, prayed that I wouldn't fall into the well during my amateur attempts at drawing up water, and put up with the stereotypical "desi aunties" who visited us in a nonstop stream for eighteen months (ostensibly to welcome us to the village, but their bluntly-put ulterior motives were more along the lines of obtaining American visas for their sons/nephews/grandsons/brothers/etc.).
It really wasn’t until after I returned to the U.S. that I appreciated how much the time I spent in Pakistan increased my depth of world knowledge. I’m exceedingly grateful not only to have had the opportunity to broaden my horizons, but also to have been blessed with the ability to integrate aspects of two very different cultures into my life. My pride in my Pakistani heritage has given me a self-confidence and sense of self-worth that I cannot but believe I would have lacked otherwise. While the process of reconciling my two identities was a long and difficult one for me, I feel that I have finally reached a point in my life where I am fully comfortable with my ethnicity and heritage, to the extent that I have lost the defensive feeling that initially characterized my responses to peoples' questions about my ethnicity or religion. Now that I am secure in my own racial identity, I am able to interact with people of other ethnicities and educate them about my race and religion without feeling defensive or suspicious of their motives in expressing interest in these topics.
As individuals, we all fashion our own sense of identity, and the process often takes years, even a lifetime. Each of you probably already know this from your own experiences. But in the end, though, it's difficult to find peace and contentment in one's personally chosen identity if the rest of the world doesn't understand it at all. What good does that sense of personal content do for you then? Living in a self-enclosed bubble doesn't prepare one for real life. Even in our modern, forward-thinking world today, people stereotype each other's identities, or scorn and mock them, or deliberately refuse to further understand them, and in the process they belittle something that is inherently precious to each individual, no matter how widely each person's sense of identity differs from another's. It therefore remains to each individual to educate the rest of the world about his identity, so that others can understand it does matter.
I personally feel that educating the people I come across throughout my daily life is an important step towards enhancing intercultural relations in our society. In one of my sociology courses, I once watched a video called The Way Home, in which dozens of women were separated by racial identity and then left to talk among themselves about their experiences within the definitions of that category. One of the things that struck me the most was hearing an Arab woman, tired of the association of Arabs with terrorists and oppressed women, say in exasperation, "We accuse people of not understanding us, but at the same time we refuse to speak out about who we really are." Exactly.
Last year, I enrolled in Sociology 30A, the first in a two-part series entitled "Intercultural Relations in Multicultural Societies." One of the topics that hit closest to home for me was that of incorporating immigrants into the society of their adopted homeland. As my professor explained, there are three methods of incorporation: exclusion (immigrants are viewed as second-class citizens or temporary guests in their adopted country, and are "segregated" from the natives), assimilation (immigrants learn a new language and culture, completely giving up their old ones), and multiculturism (immigrants are bilingual and bicultural).
When the professor asked the class at large to express their opinions regarding immigrant assimilation, many students raised their hands and brought up a point on which I agreed: that immigrants should most definitely make an attempt to learn the language of their adopted country, because only then will they be able to interact with their neighbors and colleagues. The same students also added that while language skills are essential, immigrants should be allowed to retain their ethnic identities as well. While I was nodding my head in agreement over the previous students' responses, the professor called on another student in the back of the class.
Listening to the next student speak, I found myself taking offense at what I perceived as his lack of respect for cultures and heritages beyond those of America. I disliked his condescending tone when pronouncing, "In order to survive in America, you have to walk the American walk and play the American game, and in order to play the game you have to speak the language and wear the same clothing as the American people wear." Continuing further, he held forth his personal view that it was perfectly fine for immigrants to speak their native languages and wear their ethnic dress while in the privacy of their own homes, but when venturing out into public, the same immigrants should be required to wear American clothing and speak English.
I believe my disbelief and irritation were fully apparent from the look on my face, and I saw others sitting around me glance nervously towards me during the student’s discourse. While I sat staring at him with my eyebrow raised in utter exasperation, those around me were busy taking in my headscarf and semi-ethnic form of dress (jeans and a Pakistani kameez). Before the student in the back raised his hand and shared his views, I hadn't been planning on putting forth my own opinion of immigrant assimilation, because I felt that the students who spoke prior to him had already emphasized most of what I also thought about the situation. However, this particular student's patronizing view towards assimilation, and his firm belief that all immigrants should be required to hide any vestiges or signs of their ethnic backgrounds while in public annoyed me enough that I raised my own hand and stated my own views on the matter. Although I now somewhat regret the sarcastic and combative way in which I began my "obviously I speak fluent English and wear my ethnic clothing at the same time" approach to addressing the other student's views, I am glad that I had the courage to speak up when I disagreed with what he said. While I firmly agree that immigrants should make every attempt to learn the language of their adopted country, I just as firmly believe that no immigrant should be required to compromise his ethnicity and heritage just to fit into the cookie-cutter patterns dictated by society.
Although I was born and raised in the U.S., my parents and relatives did a commendable job of ensuring that I never lost my sense of identity in terms of being a Pakistani Muslim. As a result, I consider myself to be bicultural and multilingual. While strangers may take one look at me wearing my native dress in public and instantly judge me as a "fresh off the boat" immigrant who most likely does not speak a word of English, I am completely comfortable in my identity as a woman who has learned to integrate both the East and the West into her life.
I’ve learned that it’s all about compromise. And it’s about "optional identities" too, in which people take the best of all their cultures and make that their identity, picking and choosing from their various identities that which they specifically wish to incorporate into their lives. Balancing or juggling identities is often a circus act, and eventually one becomes proficient at the pick-and-choose aspect of optional identities. In the end, I think, it’s all about choosing the most appealing from everything that one is handed, and making that our own personal way of life.
UPDATE: Check out Annie's May 11, 2004 post for an interesting perspective.