Chij recently mentioned that she wanted her nose pierced and wondered aloud (on her blog) about whether it hurt much. I wouldn’t know, my mother wouldn’t let me get my nose pierced.
“It doesn’t matter what Pakistani women do, you can’t get your nose pierced.”
“But it’s traditional! It’s classy! It looks great! Why not?”
“Because you don’t look Pakistani, and on you, it would just look white-trash.”
I distinctly remember how shocked I was hearing my mother tell me I would look like white trash, not because I was offended by the possibility (in that era, I was wearing ripped jeans, Smashing Pumpkins T-shirts and two wallet chains) but because I wasn’t Pakistani enough to pull off a nose ring. People who know me will laugh at the idea of me thinking I look Pakistani. In fact, in my house we have a term for someone thinking they’re more Asian than they actually are. We call it Delusions of Browndeur.
I maintain though, that brownness is relative. Case in point: By Pakistani standards my Urdu is passable on a good day and laughable on all the others, but back in the States, I had friends who used to show me off to their parents because my Urdu was just so darn good. And it was good, darn good by white-washed coconut standards that my friends held. After all, many of them know only enough Urdu to say, ‘Jee Ammi?’
In the US I wore kurtas with my pants years before it was fashionable because I was just so brown and didn’t care about what other people thought. But here, when I wear pants with my kurtas, it’s because I’m just so white.
When Owlie and I went to the Lahore Museum with Hemmie, the guard at the entrance tried to stop us from entering with local admissions (yes, there are different admission rates for local and foreigners) because he thought we were foreign. “Wait!” he said to Hemmie, “Are these foreigners?”
“Yes, and um, no,” Hemmie said, not knowing why he had asked. He reached out and took our tickets.
“They have to go buy tickets for foreigners.”
“No wait!” Hemmie said, “They’re not foreigners! They’re from here!”
“Oh yeah?” the guard said, turning to us and asking in Urdu, “Kahan say?” (where from?)
I grinned uncertainly and said, “Islamabad say?” (from Islamabad!)
He gave our tickets back and we got to go into the Museum.
There was one time at a wedding when Owlie and I were sitting around a table with a whole slew of light-skinned cousins (our family is Pathan) when some aunty wandered up to the table and just pulled up a chair in our midst. She made no move to introduce herself, just sat there and observed all of us from the not-so-distant distance. After a few minutes of what looked like confusion on her part, she turned to my favorite niece (thirteen at the time and way too clever for her own good) and pointing to us, whispered, “Are these girls from somewhere else?”
“Yes,” my niece whispered back conspiratorially.
“Where?” the aunty demanded.
My niece (and this is why she’s my favorite) said “All the way from Islamabad!”
“Oh,” the aunty said with disappointment, “Then where are the girls from America? Someone told me they were sitting at this table.”
It’s true that I may not be as brown as I would like (I would like to be something other than pasty) but there is a plus side to being a mutt. I’m almost all the same color. I have friends who complain about hijab-tan, the tan-faced, white-foreheaded phenomenon that affects hijab-wearers of different races, but I seem to be almost immune. For whatever reason, I missed out on my dad’s great brown skin, but I got in on his inability to be sun burnt or tanned. On the down side, at summer camp they call me The Vampire.
Being half-white I get to be ‘Ambiguous Multi-National Man,’ my super-spy alter-ego, one who fits in with non-brown races everywhere. I could be Russian, I could be Spanish, I could be Bosnian, I could be Arab, I could be Irish (I got freckles!), I could even be Chinese. Ok, maybe not Chinese, but once, when we were living in Pakistan as lil’ kids and speaking rapid-fire American in a shop (American: a language wholly separate from English), the shopkeeper asked my father what nationality those little kids at the counter were, and since he couldn’t figure out what language we were speaking, he asked if we might be Chinese.
So theoretically, if I learned Spanish I could just blend into the locals and disappear forever. Or, if my Russian was a little better I could move to any former Soviet Bloc-istan. Or, if, maybe if, my nose was pierced, I could infiltrate goth-loving, punk-rock listening hordes of white trash back in Chicago. There’s a plan. Now all I need is a mullet.
(disclaimer: I know no one in the Bon Jovi pic has a true mullet, but that picture was just too great.)