January 8, 2014
When I was born, my grandfather looked at me and warned my mother that this country would have an effect on me. Essentially, that I wouldn’t know my culture, history, and traditions. The irony is that in terms of history, I know more than many of my siblings and cousins who were born overseas. Culture and traditions I have learned rather quickly. I know about South Asian fashion trends, films, and music. Yes, I am an American, but I never forgot where the core of me comes from.
I can see why my grandfather made this statement at that time. Many people assume I know next to nothing about my culture and can be condescending about it. I understand where the assumption comes from. (Of course, I don’t understand the condescension, but I learned to ignore that long ago). My family was the first family of Indian background in my town. Where would I learn culture, history, and traditions? If I did learn these things, where would I use them? In the 80’s, in my little stereotypically American town, the only other Indians we knew within a twenty-mile radius were family. Blood relatives aren’t exactly society.
Consequently, whatever I learned came from my parents. Music and clothes are easy to learn. Just watch a movie and order it online. Or go to a shop or visit an online boutique. Easy. In the digital age, there is unprecedented access. The values, the true values that are worth holding onto; the ones that are hardest to hold onto when your world has changed around you. Those are what my parents taught me.
One of the true values that I’ve always held onto is respect. As the youngest child, it was ingrained in me to respect elders or anyone who is older. So for me, virtually everybody had to be respected, even an elder I didn’t like or someone who irritated me to no end.
Now, let me inform you that I don’t see respectful and obsequious as synonymous. To me, flattery and using the formal form of “you” is not respect. I’ve seen younger people practically insult an elder, but because they’re smiling and speaking Urdu, they get a pass. It’s rather brilliant. I wish I would have figured out sooner that my culturally risqué rantings would have been more palatable if I said them in Urdu instead of English. I should have learned Urdu just for that.
Even if you’ve learned Urdu, wear salwar kameez, and can make roti, if you don’t treat human beings like human beings, it really doesn’t matter. I’m talking about saying hello to someone when you see them and not looking right through them. Making everyone around you feel like their presence is wanted and not just singling people out that you deem worthy of you. Simple things like these give you a bit more breathing room in life.
The importance of family should never undervalued, either. Truthfully, some you only share a genetic code with, but others you share actual bonds with. And those you share the bonds with will be there for you through thick and thin, sick and sin, and everything else in between. Whether it is the family you were born into, the family you marry into, or the family you ingratiate yourself into, it is something you revere and keep with you.
These are the values I have retained even while I have worn blue jeans and spoken English as my first language. I speak haltingly conversational Punjabi, have a basic understanding of Urdu and Hindi, and only wear salwar kameez on special occasions or when I feel like it. Despite all of these things, I have kept the best ideals of my Indo-Pakistani colonial East African-American cultural potpourri.
The irony of this cultural snobbery is that whether we have been brought up within or without the culture, we all pick and choose what we want from the heritage buffet. While I’ve kept the values of respect and human kindness, some people who were surrounded by our culture could care less about these things and would rather focus on the style of their salwar kameez and if someone noticed it. I selected from one part of the buffet, and they chose from the other.
So, while I navigate my way through the cultural maze, I realize that in one way my grandfather was right. This country did have an effect on me in that I will open my mouth and say what I need to say no matter what. At the same time, however, I did let my other countries have an effect on me, too, no matter what language I’m speaking or what clothes I’m wearing.
Until next time… look behind and beyond the veil…
Sameena K. Mughal, Author, Freelance Writer