A Punjabi in New York: Juggling multiple identities

Published January 10, 2015
'Every time a stranger asked me where I was from, I would start feeling uncomfortable.' —Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro
'Every time a stranger asked me where I was from, I would start feeling uncomfortable.' —Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro

For the past seven years, during my stay in the United States, my identity has undergone many transformations.

The journey started with feeling like a foreigner in the USA; the new, nervous kid-on-the-block to a more confident being – one who is proud of his strong connection with Punjabi culture and tradition and, at the same time, ready to be assimilated into a very vibrant and welcoming New York.

In the spirit of the recent holiday season, I wore a knitted green and red sweater with designs of snowmen, Christmas trees, and Santas. I also wore a Santa hat to amuse the children I was working with that day.

Quite casually, I posted a picture of mine with Merry Christmas greetings on my Facebook; and very soon I started getting messages lecturing me about how un-Islamic and pro-American I had become.

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The upshot of these unsolicited messages was that it was somehow un-Islamic to participate in Christmas celebrations. I was reminded of the similarly judgmental messages from friends and acquaintances in Pakistan when I posted a picture of the 9/11 Memorial on September 11, 2014 on my Facebook page.

This leaves me a little disconcerted. Why do we have to bring religion in everything and not accept that there are societies where multi-culturalism exists and is preferred?

When I arrived in USA, I was wearing a short kurta over a pair of jeans. I believe my subconscious was making a statement – that the kurta represented an effort to retain my Pakistani identity. I was breaking away from my culture but a part of me wanted to hold on to it.

At the same time, I was more cautious about divulging my Pakistani heritage whenever a stranger or an acquaintance asked me where I was from. It made me uncomfortable and I resented the question.

At times I gave a clear answer, “Pakistan.” On other occasions, I was evasive.

One reason was that each time I would mention Pakistan, people wanted to share everything they had heard on the evening news or read in a newspaper about Pakistani failings.

Then, the conversation would almost always lead to questions such as:

Is your family safe?
Are you going back there?
There is a war going on there.

... and so on.

I tried to avoid such discussions, but often found myself in the awkward position of apologising for and at the same time defending Pakistan and Muslims.

See: Changing times: Ijtihad and other questions Muslims must revisit

The more engaging friends, after sharing all their knowledge about the war on terrorism, would ask my opinion as an ‘expert’. To simply avoid all these questions, many times I would say I was from India.

It was usually followed by the question, “What part of India are you from?” I responded, “North Punjab!” I was not lying.

My parents immigrated from the Indian Punjab. I am a Punjabi, my mother is from Amritsar and my father’s family was connected to Jalandhar.

This became a little more complex when the subject of religion and culture would come up. Over the years, I have worked with many Jewish, Hindu and Christian doctors. Religion, faith and racial background were not problems I encountered in working with professional colleagues. The work environment in the US helped me understand other religions and ethnic perspectives. I believe in the professional world where I worked, I did not feel any prejudice.

At work, I am very comfortable with my racial identity and do not feel intimidated in a professional, overwhelmingly Caucasian world. Once I started my residency, I thought that I had to work harder and do better than other residents to earn respect. I was not so confident about my education in Pakistan even though I did really well on my United States Medical Licensing examination.

Racial profiling is a reality in the United States

People tell me that many who attend mosques in NYC are screened. I believe it is even worse at the airports. I have been pulled out of the lines, interrogated with additional bag checks and my luggage subjected to trained sniffing dogs. I don’t like it but accept it as part of life in this country.

Only twice in my career in the USA was I confronted by a situation where I had to give up the case when my religion and my Pakistani connection came in the way of the therapeutic relationship.

One case involved an older Jewish gentleman who was suffering from psychosis and believed that Muslims were out to kill him. Another patient with delusional disorders said that he was a sniper for the military and had a definite plan to kill Pakistani Muslim guys because they were planning to attack America.

I had to end the diagnostic assessment quickly for my own safety. But these are too few to define a trend.

Explore: Being a Pakistani abroad

Once, I was at a stand-up comedy show with a friend when a comedian decided to pick on me because of my race. What he said gives the stereotype of a 30-something South Asian guy in New York.

He said, “Let me guess who you are. Your father was an engineer when he immigrated here from India, he now drives a cab. You have a stay-at-home mom, who cooks all day long and your house smells like curry. Your parents never took you to Disney for vacations but you are a medical doctor?”

I simply laughed. He said this humorously but what he said holds true for so many immigrants from South Asia – they are hardworking and ambitious.

But, multiple identities work

In the last few years, I have participated in several marathons where I have worn a Pakistani cricket-team jersey to make the statement that Pakistanis are just regular people like anybody else. I am very proud of my Pakistani identity. I want to convey to an average American that we are not too different from them. A part of me also wants to stand up to Islamophobic people.

When I go to Pakistani theatre performances, art exhibitions or other such events, I proudly wear shalwar qameez to the show. I dated Caucasians exclusively, until recently when I met a South Asian, and that was a rewarding experience because we shared the same socio-cultural background. Living in the US and being in a cosmopolitan place like New York, I have realised that multiple identities work.

I have become more comfortable with my hybrid international identity.

I accept the shortcoming of the policies of Pakistani and American governments.

The freedoms here allow me to express my views without being labeled and I am comfortably immersed in Pakistani and American cultures together. There is little or no conflict inside me.

I wanted to tell my friends back home that being part of a plural society allows me to celebrate holidays, multi-faith festival and cultural events.

Look through: Being Pakistani in New York: Outside 'Shitzad', it ain't all bad

In Pakistan, instead of creating a more harmonious and tolerant society, we are breeding prejudice and denying our citizens the opportunity to live a fuller life.

When Shia processions get attacked or the Eid Miladun Nabi gatherings become an issue, it means we have gone wrong somewhere. It is time to recognise this. The burning of churches and Ahmadi places of worship belies the sad fact that we are not creating a pluralistic society.

People need to understand that celebrating Christmas or such other festivals is not always a religious experience. It is part of a larger human experience, and the gift of much broader human identities.

And it is time to embrace these identities.

—Photos by author



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