Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 8:53PM
Most of the time, the hyphen is a generally useless symbol of punctuation. A few years ago, though, the hyphen made big news with those of us in the American citizenry who have a decidedly "ethnic" flair. I'm specifically referring to the debate of whether to include a hyphen in the phrases used to describe those of us who were born on U.S. soil, but don't look like we were born here. For example, does one write "Arab American" or "Arab-American"?
The great debate centered on the appropriateness of whether to include this hyphen or not. Some people said that when you write "Arab-American" (hyphen included), you are implying that the status of "Arab," because it is a descriptor, in the term "Arab-American" is somehow secondary or substandard to the "American" status.
Before you file this information in the "I Have No Idea Why This is Important" category of your brain, some feel that both of these identities (in this particular example, "Arab" and "American") are equally important to their individual identity. In other words, one of them is not more important than the other, and the hyphenated expression somehow diminishes that point .
People (and by "people," I mean individuals who read too many books and have too much time on their hands) got tired about making such a fuss over this teeny, tiny little punctuation mark and decided to do away with it all together. As a result, the correct and "modern" way to describe a citizen of the United States with Arab origins is "Arab American." No hyphen.
I, personally, find this all very confusing. Since my parents came here from Pakistan in the 70s, and I was born here, I am a Pakistani American. But, their parents migrated from India almost seven years after the partition of India and Pakistan. So, I guess that makes me Indian Pakistani American. Oh, and I almost forgot, my parents were born before the partition of India and Pakistan, while India was under British rule, and were thus born as British subjects. Does that mean I am actually British Indian Pakistani American? And what about my daughter whose father is Indian? Is she British Indian Pakistani American Indian American?
Truth be told, I've never really accepted this label of "Pakistani American" with any real seriousness. (Oh, by the way, since I just used both "Pakistan" and "Arab" in this blog post, I just want to give a shout out to the Homeland Security intern who got saddled with the fruitless task of monitoring my blog for the next few months.)
Don't get me wrong, when I was living under a fairly strict dress code or threatened with death if I even thought about dating a boy in high school, I was very aware of my status as a "Pakistani American." And when I got married to an Indian, I became even more aware of it. And, I pretty much prefer to dress in Pakistani clothes and eat Pakistani food. Still, if I were about to die in five minutes and someone handed me an indestructible scrap of paper that would thousands of years later reveal the very core of my existence to future generations, I am certain the term "Pakistani American" would not be written on it.
I was forced, though, to examine this status of "Pakistani American" with a more keen eye when a friend, who happens to be an immigrant, turned to me and innocently said, "You know, when most Americans that don't know you look at you, I don't think they think of you as an American."
I still gasp at the utter horror of the implication, given that I have resided every minute of my life in this country. I said the pledge of allegiance every day in elementary school, junior high and until we weren't allowed to say it anymore because it wasn't politically correct. I watch baseball and football (which is a different sport than soccer). Additionally, I vehemently deride the false athleticism of table tennis and badminton as well as the utter stodginess of cricket. I even shop at Wal-Mart from time to time, just to assert my God given right as an American to pay extra low prices for cheap crap I don't need.
The truth is, though, that most Americans might not think I'm an American at first glance, but, then again, most Pakistanis might not think I'm very Pakistani after they get to know me. I figure that I have been asked "Where are you from, originally?" over 2,304 times. I just did the math on a Post-It, so I could be off by couple of hundred. Still, that's a lot of times to have to assert you are an American and a Pakistani.
Let me just say this question does not, in any way, offend me. I'm proud of my heritage. I'm proud that the possibility exists that my difference might actually expand someone's awareness regarding the amazing diversity of this country. I do have to admit, though, that this question and my friend's comment do bring to light a topic that I personally am sick of talking about. Apparently, it still begs clarification, so let me clarify. Here's where I am from, originally.
- I come from the place where my authenticity is always questioned. When I'm with certain Americans, I'm not American enough. When I'm with certain Pakistanis, I'm not Pakistani enough. The truth is, I am more authentic than most people I know because every cultural, political and even linguistic choice I make is both conscious and deliberate. Most of the world just inherits its preferences from their superculture, but I am incredibly lucky because I was offered a variety of choices.
- I come from the place where people call me names like "ABCD" (American Born Confused Desi) when, in reality, I know exactly who I am. Actually, the people who use that term are the ones who are confused by my superhuman ability to fit in and not fit in simultaneously all in a single bound.
- I come from a place where my nationality is something that is written in my passport. This has no bearing on the clothes I choose to wear, whether I choose to eat spicy food or sweet potato casserole, or how and to whom I pray.
- I come from the place where my compatriots are individuals with whom I identify politically and intellectually. I am thankful that I am among the few people blessed with the means to actually make those choices for myself.
In case you haven't figured it out, I'm the new global citizen, originally from the 21st century.
Nationality is paperwork, culture is negotiable, affinities and alliances exist in the mind. Leave your hyphens at the door.