The Lost Generation: What values do we leave our children?
By Dr. Muniza Shah
I grew up in the city of Rawalpindi in Punjab, Pakistan. My first memories were of green beautiful fields of Punjab, hot tea in mud cups, friendly neighbors and eating a hot breakfast off the stove. One thing was different: everyone spoke “Punjabi” and in my home we spoke pure “Urdu.” My grandmother was still wearing “Ghararas” (a traditional grab of Indian Muslims), as she thought wearing Shalwar Qameez (national dress for Pakistan) was uncultured and against her Indian traditions; she would eat Paan (a leaf that is eaten as mouth freshener after meals) and all she ever talked about was Badan-pur and Uttar Pradesh. She talked at length, everyday, about her village, her father “Nawab Mubin Khan,” her palaces and her golden days in India. “Nawab” is another title for Rajas, traditionally given to Muslim rulers by Mughal dynasty. Her eyes would sparkle when she would tell stories about her journey from Badan-pur to Mathura (two towns in India). Nothing in Pakistan could match that. Nothing was as good as India. Food tasted bad, people were not as cultured and atmosphere was not as great. We were reprimanded for speaking “Punjabi” or even speaking “Urdu” with a Punjabi accent. My grandmother and my aunt would talk very often about how worried they were that all the children were going to forget “pure Indian culture” and become like rest of the Pakistanis or that they would not know how to speak proper “Urdu.”
This was happening at my house. Outside the home, in school, I was called “that Indian girl.” It was 1970 and the time when India and Pakistan were at war. It was very confusing for me why people would be calling me “Indian” when we were at war with India. Kids in school would not interact with me very often because I was from a “different culture.” I remember so vividly how one day I invited a friend home, a nice Punjabi girl. After she left, my mother talked about how ill-mannered she was and that she could not speak proper Urdu. I was told not be friends with her anymore, and that I should become friends only with people from my own culture. Very strange, as we were all in Pakistan, most of us were form the same religion and we spoke the same language, only with a slightly different accent.
Now, 30 years have passed, and I examine the choice I made to move to America. It was a similar choice that was made by my parents and their families, 60 years ago. I moved to America just like many others in my generation, people of Indian origin who became a part of “Desi Community” (Desi is an Urdu word for native or locals and used to identify people from the Indo-Pak subcontinent), much like the “Indian Community” back in Pakistan. All the so-called “Indians” in Pakistan were from “different cultures” like Gujarati, Hyderabadi or Bihari, but they all became one community only to alienate themselves more from the “land of opportunities” for that is what the Indian Muslims of that time called “Pakistan.”
I wonder how my daughter, our children, the “Desi Kids,” feel about being brought up in America. They are Americans, as they were born in America, just as I was Pakistani as I was born in Pakistan. They are called Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi or “Desi,” as I was called “Indiani.” They want to be Americans because that is who they are, but they face so much confusion because after being called all of the above plus some more derogatory names at school, they go home where their families further emphasize that they should never forget who they are and they should not try to become Americans. I believe it is because we are really afraid that our kids are going to lose their identity. It’s an identity that our ancestors have already broken in too many pieces.
I was born in Pakistan, but I did not become Pakistani, and similarly our kids are born in America, yet they have not become Americans. They could not be more Americanized than they already are by birth. Yet something is missing.
I still dream about India, a place I have never seen, and I can imagine small streets of Mathura or wide green fields of my grandmother’s village, as I have envisioned these places before and I know that I cannot go back. To my grandparents’ horror, I have become every bit of the Pakistani they did not want me to be. I wear “Awami Suits” (A type of Shalwar Qameez that Zulfiqar Ali Bhuto introduced as Pakistan’s national dress); my favorite dish is “Murgh Chholay”(chicken curry with chickpeas, a very authentic Punjabi Dish form Pakistan); I love dancing to the beat of Bhangra; I believe Punjabi is the sweetest language on the earth and I love running on the beaches of Karachi, with Makrani kids eating “Chalee” (in traditional Punjab, corn ears that are boiled then smoked in warm sand are called Chalee). But in my mind I feel guilty from time to time, as I feel I am doing something against my grandparents’ wishes.
I wonder if our anxiety about our kids assimilating too much into American culture will lead them into being torn souls. Will they dream about places they have never seen? Will they go out and be a part of 98 percent of their peer group or would they only hang out with two percent of their “own kind”? Will they always be looking for someone from their race or religion, or will they have fun running on the beach with other American kids, eating corn dogs. I wonder if they do that if they will suddenly stop and think, “Stop having fun, as you do not belong here.”
However, there are cultural issues such as drugs, sex, violence, and respect. Then there are family values that need to be addressed. As parents we can choose to give every bit of extra time we have left after working two jobs, cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking and mowing the lawn, to spend with our children. Embrace them for who they are and what they aspire to be. But no matter what we do, those cultural divides are always present. Have we not learned after dividing and re-dividing the country many times and losing millions of lives that the petty differences within the “Desi community” and the “global community” do not bring anything but loss and hurt? So what values should we leave to our children? Should we let them be who they will be? After all, we will be gone and they will be left behind to answer the question.