“The West for me means ambition, the East contentment. My heart is ever in one, my soul in the other.”
– Ameen Rihani, 1921.
Every morning when I looked out of my bedroom window in Karachi, I would see them. Rows and rows of carefully planted lilies in my grandmother’s garden next door. The lily, pale and delicate, was to be nurtured and protected. Just like me. These trumpet shaped flowers with their long stems and many colors came to represent my sheltered and protected upbringing in the East.
When friends or family or acquaintances would ask my parents why after almost a decade of living abroad as expats, they had returned to their native Pakistan, my mother would answer definitively, “we wanted to make sure our daughters were in touch with their Eastern roots”.
Were my parents afraid that if they continued to bring us up in the West we would lose our Eastern culture, roots and identity? As a child, I used to wonder if culture was something that could be lost so easily. Was it like misplacing a sock, never to find it again and then forgetting to look for it? What was so wrong about a mix of cultures? Growing up I constantly heard gossip about other family and friends who “had lost touch with their Eastern roots” by living and working too long in the West. Their kids in America or Canada “did not know where they came from”, or spoke Urdu “with a British accent”. The parents had anglicized their names (from Jamshed to Jimmy) or “barely visited home” and it was clear that this was something viewed as extremely undesirable in my family.
So, I went from learning the star-spangled banner in elementary school one minute to learning ‘Pak Sar Zameen Shad Bad’, the Pakistani national anthem, the next. Growing up in Pakistan all through my teens, I learned not just about the food, the customs, the language, the holidays and traditions, but also the deeper cultural norms and societal expectations. Our Eastern society places a lot of emphasis on courtesy, manners, respect towards elders and the importance of family. Our concepts of family and roles relating to age, sex and class are complex for a foreigner to understand or fully grasp. Arranged marriages are the norm, divorce still highly taboo. Joint family systems and the proximity of living close to your extended family often meant little expectations of privacy. But it also meant that my parents could rely on the help of my grandparents and numerous aunts and uncles to drop me to school, along with my cousins – I truly was raised by a village. Coming from a “good family” with a sterling “reputation” was highly valued. A thirst for knowledge, education for girls and traveling the world were all highly regarded and encouraged by both my maternal and paternal grandparents.
After a sufficient grounding in the values of the East all through my teenage years, I was eventually allowed to return to the United States at the age of 19 for college by myself. And that’s when the real struggle started. The rules for living my life as an adult suddenly got more complicated.
I could study in the West, but I must marry someone from the East, preferably from my own culture.
I could get a degree in Economics, but I needed to learn how to cook a perfect roti as well.
I could study poetry in English, as long as I kept writing letters to my grandparents in Urdu.
I could wear dresses and pants, but I should not forget how to wear a shalwar kameez or drape a sari modestly.
Today I have spent half my life living in the East (Pakistan, Bahrain, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates) and the other half in the West (the US, UK, Germany and Denmark). I sometimes feel like the perfect chameleon, changing my colors depending on which part of the world I’m in. In the East, I start my mornings with strong chai and breakfast on spicy omelets and parathas. I sit cross-legged on the floor, eat with my hands and instinctively cover my head with a dupatta when I hear the call to prayer ring through the neighborhood mosque. In the West, I am more attuned to my own needs. I start my mornings with a café latte and breakfast on bread and cheese, walk to work and relish my alone time.
In my head, I feel perfectly at home in both, but when I’m in one or the other for extended periods of time, the cracks soon begin to appear on the surface. The questions start again in my head and I wonder: am I belonging in one, while erasing the other?
Since I spent my early twenties in the United States and the United Kingdom, not surprisingly I ended up meeting and marrying someone from the West. My half German, half Italian husband would often surprise me with flowers, but always roses. Red, pink, yellow roses became symbolic of my life in the West – beautiful, diverse and thorny.
Reactions to my East-meets-West marriage in Pakistan were interesting. Somehow marrying someone from the West, made me “less Eastern” in the eyes of some of my countrymen. Some questioned my ties to my Pakistani culture and identity. People back home are still surprised to hear that I’m teaching my kids my mother tongue of Urdu. “Oh, I thought that wouldn’t matter to you”, they say. On the contrary! It matters even more to me. Reactions in the West were equally interesting. In Germany, I was viewed as the exotic import from the East. I added spice to the dinner table discussions (sometimes quite literally, when it was my turn to cook). I proudly wore my traditional Pakistani clothes to weddings in Germany and tried to own my “otherness.”
I was as Eastern as I could be in the West, but clearly perceived as too Western in the East. Home was in both, but complete belonging in neither. The constant defending of one while in the other used to prove exhausting.
It took the arrival of motherhood for me to realize that the internal conflict that had always existed within me, was now bubbling over. I gave birth to my two children, two years and 3000 miles apart; one in Singapore and one in Dubai. As a wife in a multicultural marriage and as a mother to children being raised in a whole mix of cultures thanks to our expat lifestyle, I knew I needed to provide clear and coherent guidance to them about who they were and where they came from.
I realized that I don’t want this division between East and West to exist in their minds. My children are a product of both and in fact they are the perfect bridge to both worlds. It does not mean that the challenges don’t exist; my husband’s way of thinking is very different from mine, what we put social emphasis on is different, and how we define success can often be extremely different. I want to expose my kids to all of it. Because my husband and I don’t come from a monoculture, I feel it is strangely liberating. I don’t want to force culture down their throats. I don’t want culture to be a burden for them, for it to be an antiquated label that they must fit. There will be no litmus test for them: cook perfect al’ dente spaghetti like an Italian or use the correct and respectful terms for your elders like a Pakistani or be straightforward, organized and punctual as a German. They are going to be both the lily and the rose in a bouquet of flowers, that shows diversity is truly beautiful and home is made up of color, nature, life and vibrancy, and it can take root anywhere we desire it.
The East and West both live within me. I need to learn to stop fighting it or feel like I am choosing one over the other. Continually having to see society from differing viewpoints has enabled me to see the richness that has resulted from this mix of East and West. I need to create a way to use this richness and go forward. It does not mean I am losing a culture, it just means I am creating a new one for myself and my family. We are making up our own rules and probably our own unique blend of cultures too.
As Rumi put it best:
“When you let go of who you are, you become who you might be.”