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Composited portrait of Zoha in traditional formal clothing
All Communities Diaspora Diaries

The Realities of Identity Loss

By Zoha Naghar

Growing up is one of the toughest challenges we face in our lives. We go through phases that teach us about who we really are. We learn about our emotions, what makes us happy and sad. We discover hobbies and traditions that we enjoy and dislike. Eventually though, all these things come together to make us who we are. 

Growing up, I always knew who I was and where I came from. Or at least, I thought I did. 

Being born and raised in a Western country like Canada was something I was told to be grateful for. It became normal for me to call myself “Canadian” but whenever I did, I felt like I was living a double life—as if I was disregarding half my identity. One life is who I was at home with my family, practicing my cultural and religious beliefs. The other is the life I lived at school or the workplace—an often more Westernized version of myself that fits into the Canadian ideal.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I never know how to answer. “I’m from Pakistan but I was born and raised here in Canada,” is usually my response. Then I think, “Well no, why do I need to specify I was born and raised here?” While the other voice in my head echoes “Are you really from Pakistan if you weren’t born there?” The constant confusion of who I am has been consistent throughout my life and when I think about why, it’s usually never because of my own self, but rather the society I grew up in. 

Being a child of Pakistani immigrants, I was familiar with my culture from a very young age and grew up following those cultural practices in my house. It wasn’t until I walked through my elementary school doors as a little girl that the world around me changed. All of a sudden, my surroundings went from the five family members I grew up with, to 25 people who looked and sounded nothing like me. They all resembled each other and I became the odd one out. 

I remember going to the grocery store with my parents and as they’d switch back and forth from conversing in English to Urdu about which fruits they should purchase. I’d be embarrassed, feeling as if every person in the store had their eyes on me, making fun of my family. Every time my parents spoke to me, I’d answer in English since my Urdu wasn’t that good due to barely speaking it outside of the house. My answer was loud so that anyone who heard my parents speak  Urdu knew that we spoke English as well, fluently even. I hoped that it would somehow convey the message that I was born here, my mom came here at a very young age and my dad immigrated here when he was in his early 20s—we belong here. I felt the need to justify everything and I did this to prove that I was one of them and although a child, I knew that even the words we spoke made us stand out from Western norms.

In fifth grade, my school hosted a multicultural fashion show and I remember being excited but slightly nervous to wear my traditional Pakistani dress, also known as Salwar Kameez.

As I draped the dupatta (traditional shawl/scarf) over my shoulder to complete my look for the show, I heard my teacher from down the hall saying “Oh my goodness that outfit is beautiful, it’s so intricate.” Although that made me smile, I saw some of the other students who had never seen the traditional clothing looking and giggling amongst themselves, so I immediately replied to the teacher saying, “Thanks, but I don’t really like these dresses I just have to wear them for special occasions.”

I then joined that group of students and began to make fun of my own culture, my own people. When they laughed with me instead of at me I felt better about looking different because at least I acted the same way as them.

It was tough growing up.

I never resonated with Western culture and their ideas of “fun” or ways of living, but I also never fully resonated with the Pakistani ways of living either. 

So where did I belong?

I was too “whitewashed” to hang out with the other South Asian students who had a strong connection to their home country but I also wasn’t “Westernized” enough to fit in with Canadian culture.

It got to a point where I felt lost. I didn’t know who I was and I was done faking my personality. 

Registered social worker and psychotherapist, Paris Manavipour says people don’t need to pick one specific culture they identify more with. “I think sometimes people forget that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can see the beauty in both things and choose what you want,” she says.

Manavipour expressed how to find a balance between your culture and Western society. “[Take] what beautiful things you love from your own culture…and what beautiful things you see from Western culture that you’d like to also put into your own life and practice on a daily basis. And that can be [how] you find that balance.” 

Now that I’m older, I realize that I was too young to understand that it was my paranoia of being seen as an outcast with the added pressures to adapt and function under the Canadian norm that drove me away from my cultural identity. 

The reality is, I actually wasn’t too “whitewashed.” I was lucky enough to be raised in a household where there was a good balance of my culture and Western culture. Even though at home I practiced more Pakistani traditions than Western habits, I used to hide it from people because I was scared to reveal that side of myself out of fear that the Western society would treat me how they treat my people in Western media.

Third-year TMU social work major, Hadiyah Khalil, says she faced a similar experience growing up. Hadiyah is Pakistani, like myself.  “I was a little bit more embarrassed of my culture and my identity, even just being a Muslim woman, because there were so many stereotypes in the media,” she says. “Growing up, I’ve  always run away from that part of me being a Muslim woman, being a Pakistani woman, because I didn’t really understand these things on a deeper level.” 

Khalil continued on how she’s experienced this within others as well. “I’ve worked with a lot of young immigrant and refugee girls and the biggest thing I’ve noticed is that when they come here, they feel really embarrassed of speaking their language…their accent or wearing their cultural clothing or wearing more modest clothing.” She added that if these young girls keep adjusting to society, they’ll never feel fulfilled. 

Similar to Khalil, the truth is, my culture is my favourite thing about me. 

I love to hear my language fill the halls of my home. When my mother calls me down for dinner, she calls me “jaanu”— which means “my love” or “my dear”— in Urdu. To me, it sounds like any other word in English but in my mother language, it feels like a hug. 

When I’m sick, I crave my mom’s homemade food which is often a traditional Pakistani dish. My usual go to is hot curry and rice that holds the perfect balance of sweet and spicy, always managing to put a smile on my face. “The most wonderful time of the year” for me isn’t winter break and Christmas, it’s Ramadan and Eid. It’s putting on henna and wearing traditional dresses with jewelry that’s been passed down for generations. 

I’ll no longer wait for Western society to create a fad of wanting the very tan that fills my skin, my food, music, style and language. Instead, I’ve learned to embrace this uniqueness,being proud when I stand out. 

Although it was a long journey of the course of many years, I can say that I truly know who I am and am proud of each cultural element that has brought me to this point. It didn’t come without it’s own personal struggles though and honestly, I think those struggles make me more grateful for the place that I come from.

This journey of rediscovering your identity differs for everyone and although I’ve rediscovered my own, someone can still be searching for theirs in this sometimes difficult-to-navigate Western society. 

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