An overdone trope of contemplating one’s identity — I (Overlooked Diaspora)

Hussain
6 min readOct 30, 2020
Indus Valley Trading Routes, Source: Rao, .S.R. ”Shipping and Maritime Trade of the Indus People” Expedition Magazine 7.3 (1965): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, 1965 Web. 30 Oct 2020

Part I — Overdone trope of contemplating one’s identity; Link to Part II towards the end

South Asians will be familiar with the overdone diaspora-living-in-the-West identity trope: ‘where am I from?’. This internal struggle of identity that diaspora have had, of balancing their Western upbringing with their more ‘cultural’ roots, has spawned enough literature, poetry, tone-deaf NYT pieces, and hour-long podcasts for South Asians to be sick of it. Stories on the one person who spent all of their teens ‘whitewashing’ themselves and then suddenly found a ‘Namesake-style’ cultural awakening from that one visit to the ‘motherland’ during their college summer.

For all the content out there surrounding this seemingly perennial question of ‘where am I from?’ in the diasporic minds, there is an equal amount of backlash for this content from those actually living in the ‘homeland’. In the diaspora-imagined construction, those from the ‘homeland’ who each morning get up from their charpoys, go outside into their Mughal-style charbagh, tear off a mango from the trees, sit under a deeply yellow-tinted sky, scroll through their phones, and cringe and wince at the new diaspora ‘hot-take’. In the internet-age of today where American and British voices often dominate cyberspace, very little exists in exploration and outright challenging of identity from the people who are actually living in the region, in a manner similar to that done by the diaspora. Reason might be limited spaces of expression, or an oversaturation of voices already from those in the West.

When I was five years old I moved to a small island in the Middle East, from Karachi, Pakistan. When my family first moved to the island, we shifted into a small one-bedroom apartment in the capital of the island, a commercial district where mostly lower middle-class/working class families resided. Identity was not something in conflict within me. This is largely to do with the nature of how states in the Middle East are structured, whereby most migrants operate on a work-visa for the entirety of their stay, no matter how long, and limited opportunities exist for naturalization or citizenship.

Our flat was above a commercial complex, surrounded by small migrant families and single workers residing in the complex. The streets below were filled with shops housing anything from saris to jalebis, watch repairmen to shoe-makers, stalls selling DVD copies to bookshops, fruit sellers, vegetable vendors. Even the channels on the TV were the exact same, due to the cable repairman being a South Asian. Because of the shared history of the island under the British empire, there was even a record of the Indian rupee being the main currency until it was disbanded, which is why local shop-owners who were a bit old often used to quote prices according to ‘rupees’.

Due to the proximity of the Middle East to South Asia, there has been a long history spanning centuries of migration back and forth between the two regions. The pre-historic civilizations of the Indus Valley (a region that spanned what is now parts of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan), and Dilmun (an unidentified area in Eastern Arabia), were known for establishing trading links as far back as 2000 BC. Starting from merchants and spice traders setting up short-term stays in mercantile shipping ports like Dubai and Manama, to now a technocratic skilled middle-class and unskilled working-class labour force migrating there in search of better-paid jobs.

The Middle East is a region often overlooked in discussions about diaspora. There are over 16 million South Asians living in the Middle East, with numbers probably being even more than that due to limited census practices in the region. Compare this with a mere 5.4 million South Asians living in the US or 3.2 million in the UK. We have associated the term ‘diaspora’ with the West, when in fact there are vast communities of ‘diaspora’ living in other parts of the world, ranging from Africa, the Middle East, South-east Asia, and the Caribbean. Each of these communities holds with them an even vaster amount of stories that have gone untold, unexpressed due to factors like class and a Western domination of online spaces.

In some cases, identity for South Asians who grew up in the Middle East is more secure than identity for those living in the subcontinent. As I was growing up, we used to visit Karachi. As those trips became regular, I found myself out-of-place at times when visiting. I think it was because I was visiting Karachi at a time when upper middle-class people in the city were going through their own conflict of identity. While I was growing up, my parents spoke to me only in Urdu and me to them in the same. When visiting Karachi, I had to resort to converse with my cousins in English because they could not speak the mother-tongue fluently. My accent during primary and middle school reflected that of my friends, teachers, and parents: who were mostly Indian and Pakistani. But when I went to visit Karachi, at some point my cousins had miraculously traded in their Pakistani accents for distinctly West Coast American ones. This is interesting, because we have attached ‘assimilation through whitewashing’ with the diaspora (who do largely grow up in an environment surrounded by Western accents and practices), but a type of ‘manufactured assimilation’ also exists in spaces where it has been manifested due to class.

When we were growing up, there was no overzealous form of patriotism, but also not a complete detachment of anything to do with national identity. My parents did not suddenly transform into five-time-praying, closely-guarding-culture beings. We were the same as before, comfortable in our identities. I think this is because of the uniqueness of the Middle East in offering a collection of fragmented spaces for each culture to occupy, particularly for those coming from South Asia, but also with varying degrees of ease of occupying those spaces. Migrants do not feel as if their own culture is under ‘threat’, and only hold onto it in a way that comes naturally to them, not forced. There was not really a point at which I felt I had to ask myself: ‘where am I from?’. The answer to me was simple and embedded in the only passport I held: Pakistani (a very inefficient one). Born in Karachi, moved to the Middle East.

As I grew up, my identity transcended just ‘Pakistani’ in a way that I think it does not transcend nation-state identities for those living in South Asia, or even those living in the West. It was uniquely ‘South Asian’, an amalgamation of the different countries in the region in a way that preserved the nuances but did not make the differences prominent. My classes throughout school were filled with an overwhelming number of South Asians. Pakistanis, but also Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans; Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jains. During my middle school, I was taught entirely by Indian teachers, particularly from the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. These interactions were always devoid of any nation-state ideologies. We were vaguely aware as ten, twelve, and thirteen-year-olds of the distinctions of nationality, but these distinctions were a meaningless denomination, one often just uttered at the start of the year when you had to stand up, say your name, and where you were from. After that point on, Pakistani, Indian, South Asian, melted into one big pot.

It was also not like we were going about our days, purposely pursuing solely South Asian friends because of some codified sense of ‘brown solidarity’, or contemplating identity and what it means on a regular basis. I have had friends who were both South Asian and not while at school, and there were some South Asians who I wasn’t friends with and others with whom I was. Yes, there were a larger number of South Asians in my social circle, but that was not some conscious decision. It was a naturally-driven one, one that I felt most comfortable with. And, I think that shouldn’t really be a surprise. We spoke the same language, had similar cultures, understood the same references; these foundational commonalities were just a starting point, and from then on friendships functioned like any other friendship, whether South Asian or not: based on interests and nuance, not superficialities like identity or culture.

Continued in Part II

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent that of any third-party or employer.

--

--