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s coconuts go, I’m fairly thin-skinned. In fact, I’d always thought that my skin was translucent enough to let my “whiteness” shine through.

Though I was born in Maryland, I spent most of my life in Indiana and Ohio, those bastions of the milky Midwest, where brown people are as few and far between as the specks of vanilla bean they add to Breyer’s smooth ice cream for some extra pizzazz. Consequently, I’m the quintessential ABCD. I fit the stereotype of the disdainful desi perfectly: I would have died before wearing a shalwar-kameez to school; I seem to be constitutionally incapable of appreciating any kind of desi music or movies; I know how to speak Urdu—read it, even, because my mother forced me to stutter through Urdu Ki Pehli Kitaab the summer I was 11—but I still speak to my parents exclusively in English (though they, in vain, answer me back exclusively in Urdu).

When my parents hauled us over to Devon Street in Chicago (a three-hour trip from our patch of cornfields in Indiana) to buy dhania and halal ghosht and roghani naan, I didn’t savor the trip—I dreaded the dirty streets and the smelly diners days beforehand. To this day, I can’t walk into an Indian grocery store for more than five minutes without getting itchy, restless and claustrophobic. (Though I hated the grocery, the only thing that I did embrace as my own is the food. I had no problem accepting kofte and paalak ghosht and shaami kabobs as part of my heritage.)

To this day, I can’t walk into an Indian grocery store for more than five minutes without getting itchy, restless and claustrophobic.

It wasn’t just that I had no particular affinity for anything Pakistani or desi. I was vehemently insistent on proclaiming myself as an American. I’ve never had much use for the “America-is-always-right” jingoistic patriot, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t subscribe to my own version of pared down patriotism. When my aunts, uncles and grandparents condescendingly and smugly remarked that I was Pakistani, I’d contradict them in no uncertain terms. “I,” I’d proclaim proudly, “am an American,” with my voice implying that really, I had a much better deal than they did, and didn’t they secretly envy me my Americanness? And when ignorant innocents would ask curiously, “So where are you from?” hoping for an exotic answer like Bombay or Karachi, I would look them straight in the eye and reply, “Baltimore.”

But though my brown skin is paper-thin, it’s still there. And South Asians in America (or at least in my corner of farmland) emit ever-so-subtle and ever-so-silent signals of recognition. It’s like wearing a neon sign over your head that reads “Desi Approaching,” and only other desis with similar neon signs over their heads can see it. Maybe it’s more difficult to catch such signals in New York and Chicago, where the frequency is buzzing with desis. Wherever you are, though, you may smile at other South Asians that cross your path; you may pointedly ignore them. Yet the mutual recognition is there, and it acknowledges that you both share ancestors who knew the pleasures of eating paraathe and the pains of keeping cool in 100-degree plus summers.

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few years ago, I found myself living in Pakistan, teaching American English to 8th-graders and gifted O-level students who kept using “of” when they should have used “for” and who thought that all Americans had cars (which is true) and that when their cars broke down, they would just buy new ones (which is not true). Since I was living in a small town, I’d head off to Lahore and Islamabad on weekends, saving up my meager salary (about a $100 a month) so I could go to Pizza Hut (same pizza, smaller garlic bread) or make the journey to Islamabad to the only Subway in the country (I have an unfortunate, and embarrassing, yen for the foot-long meatball with cheese).

I’ve never had much use for the “America-is-always-right” jingoistic patriot, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t subscribe to my own version of pared down patriotism.

When you spend months at a time speaking Urdu, teaching English and fending off eager parents who want you to spend your spare time giving their wee ones “spoken English” classes, you begin to despair for some conversation with someone who can get through a sentence without omitting the word “the” when it’s needed. So you can imagine how my excitement soared when, amid the crowd of mustachioed men and brightly clothed women, I’d spy a person who looked American or British. Actually, I got worked up if I saw someone who looked remotely European. I’d purposefully offer my fellow expats a bright smile and a look of recognition—the same look of recognition that I might exchange with a fellow desi in South Bend.

It took me some time to realize what was missing in this picture. Because, paper-thin though my brownness may be to me, it was glaringly opaque to everyone else. The glances of the American diplomats browsing through magazines at Jinnah Super and the gazes of the French students hiking the hills of Karimabad simply skipped over me. The subtle secret flash of recognition I’d come to expect from desis in America wasn’t forthcoming among my lighter-skinned counterparts. My skin hid who I was.

A few times, I decided to recourse to some silly machinations (maneuvers that I ordinarily loathe). I would pass near a British or American couple and start talking. Loudly. Using the flattest Midwestern vowels at my disposal. Whoever was with me would eye me a little strangely, since, of course, it is normal to speak Urdu if you’re with Urdu-speaking companions. I would do this even if I knew that the foreigners were actually French or German or Spanish or Russian. I would never have gone to such lengths to get a desi to notice me, and I routinely mocked those Pakistanis who spoke English in public places as though they were addressing an audience, just to show the people around them that they knew English. So this was uncharacteristic behavior.

Despite my best efforts, in my two years in Pakistan, I never did get into a conversation with any of the foreigners I saw in the bookshops and on the streets. And I never earned the recognition I longed for.

You could say it’s natural that I’d be eager to greet a Southern drawl or Midwestern twang met in an unexpected place. But why be eager to be recognized by Italians and Germans, hoping that they will see you for what you actually are, when you don’t share the same language or culture? After all, despite little love for my desi heritage, I had been to Pakistan every year for many years, and I’d spent more than a year living there. I knew the language, the food, the many social niceties; I even knew how to walk in a sari. If anything, I should have been identifying with the people I actually had more in common with—all the other brown folks strolling through Liberty and Jinnah Super.

Paper-thin though my brownness may be to me, it was glaringly opaque to everyone else.

It’s startling to discover that you might have a complex about where you come from, especially when you thought you were free from the complexities of colonization. But it’s also slightly demoralizing to know that, at least for the foreseeable future, I won’t be recognized as the American I’ve always proudly been. My history has been shaped by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, not Allama Iqbal and General Ayub Khan. My interest is in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, not in Jinnah’s Fourteen Points. I grew up in Indiana, not in Punjab, and I’ll always think of myself as an American, not as a Pakistani.

But I don’t look classically “American,” and perhaps I never will. Instead, I look like a guest—perhaps a welcome and permanent one, but a guest nonetheless. And this realization has taught me a little bit about myself—maybe too much—and about the illusion of home. n

Nakasha Ahmad is back in the home of the brave.
Published on March 7, 2005.
Photography: Srinayan Puppala
Comments are closed.
  1. March 23, 2007, 6:35 pm Aditi

    Great article! I know exactly how you feel. My brown skin is opaque to non-desis and even worse, the white shines through too strongly to all the desis, leaving me in no man’s land. Any body else feel that way?

  2. April 15, 2007, 3:37 pm Husna

    Also in no man’s land but because i do not have brown skin. would be interesting to discuss the experiences on both sides…. =)

  3. April 15, 2007, 10:07 pm Hajra

    Why can’t you be both? I guess only very few can successfully embrace both identities.

  4. September 12, 2007, 4:25 pm Jenny

    Well, Hajra, I guess the idea is that we have only one true identity, though we may have many elements combining to make that identity. Some people only get to know one part of that identity; other people only get to know another part of that identity.

    I, too, found this to be a very interesting article. I’m a writer, linguist, and teacher, and this semester, I happen to be teaching a writing class that focuses on issues of language, identity, and power. I appreciate how this article supports and complicates some of the ideas my class will be wrestling with.

    On a more personal level, I have to say that I found myself sympathizing. I’m American, very fair complected, born to parents of (almost completely) European origin. No one looks at me in America thinking I’m a “guest.” But I’m marrying an Indian man, and thus, an Indian family, and I’ve spent the past several years (interestingly, beginning even before we met) studying South Asian languages and cultures. I have a long way to go. But I have learned so much and thrown myself so much into it. It will be the culture of my children, and I feel it is partly my culture now, too. I find myself wanting to be accepted by strangers, people who look like they or their parents come from a South Asian country. I’ll speak in Gujarati or Hindi. I sit near my imagined kinsmen on the bus. But I am white, and they don’t know me on sight.

  5. March 6, 2008, 10:32 pm h

    This was an interesting article – but what I find troubling is that the only two skin colors in the world are white and brown? What about African Americans and Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans? Plus, melanin deficiency is found in other parts of the world as well – so a person of Pakistani descent may as well be very melanin deficient. If they were speaking Urdu would they then go ‘unrecognized’? In any case, I think the real issue isn’t as much who you really are – it’s defining yourself based on who others think you are – and that will never work.

  6. April 1, 2005, 2:31 pm Prashant Gulati

    After reading this, I just had to write to you and tell you what was going through my mind. I really loved the article, very well written.

    I’m a 21-year-old Indian guy. I’ve been an international citizen, country hopping, from the Middle East for 15 years, to four years of high school in India, to university in the United States. I’ve only been in the United States for four years, but my way of life, everything about me, from what I eat, what I talk about, what I sound like, how I dress, the sports I play, etc., are very American. Just through my experiences I identify more with other people who’ve lived around the world and “ABCDs” than with my “FOB” brothers and sisters.

    I ask myself questions about myself, my heritage, and my Americanness or Indianness quite often. It was kind of reassuring to me that Ms. Ahmad has been here all her life and still asks herself questions about her identity. I assumed that 20-something South Asian Americans had a better grip on those things after living here that long. But I guess I was wrong, and it’s good to know other people think the way I do.