I’ve spent my entire life with a hyphenated identity. I was born in Germany to a Pakistani mother and a Bangladeshi father. Technically Bangladesh didn’t exist when I was born. But Bengali nationalism in what was then East Pakistan was alive and kicking, strong enough to demand a country of its own until in 1971 it gained independence. And I gained a hyphenated identity. In Germany I was the “Indian”- German, then later in Bangladesh, the half-Pakistani and as an adult I am Indo-Canadian. It’s an interesting experience going through life with labels that others put on you, especially when they mean next to nothing to you. As a child growing up in Germany, I was very much aware that I was the other, simply because in small town Germany back then, ours was the only brown-skinned family. Later we moved to Bangladesh where I lived for the next seventeen years. In all that time I only knew a couple of other children whose parents were like mine, but it was not something that we talked about to each other. And although in Bangladesh my skin color was like everyone else’s, there was something intangible that separated me from them. My mother warned me not to speak Urdu in public, because Bangladesh was still nursing wounds fresh from a horrific war for independence from Pakistan. But as a child, this hatred for Pakistanis that simmered just below the surface was not within my grasp. I heard the taunts and jabs that were made at our expense, but I couldn’t understand the reasons behind them. But the feelings were the same. In Germany I was made to feel dirty because of my brown skin and in Bangladesh it was because of where my mother happened to be from. Either way it determined the way I saw myself. It took years for me to accept that none of this had anything to do with who I was. It had everything to do with the assumptions that people made about me based on my last name, my skin color, my religion. When I did realize it, I felt free. Finally, after years of carrying a burden that wasn’t mine, I was able to shed the responsibility of being acceptable. With this freedom came a brand new perspective. I realized that I didn’t necessarily embody the qualities that are automatically attributed to me.
My experiences in straddling cultures doesn’t end with me. I met and married a Hindu man from South India and as a result my children will forever be hyphenated. They will always be seen by some as half-Hindu and half-Muslim, by others as half-Bengali and half Indian, although the fact that they were born in Texas and I am not a full Bengali messes with the mathematics of their heritage. But the way I see it, the fractions add up to a whole and as long as they feel whole with themselves that’s all that matters. The rest is just semantics.
I was thinking about the stories we all grow up with. No matter where we spend our childhood, when we move to another part of the world we carry these stories with us and consciously or not, they make their way into the stories we write or tell our children. The folktales we listened to as kids or the stories that Grandfather always told at dinner seep into the world of the characters we create and soon we experience a wonderful fusion of cultures in which the bedtime stories a child might have heard in India merge with the stories of the Brothers Grimm. Thus we create new fairy tales for another generation. Almost every culture has some version of the knight in shining armour who saves the princess. Or the brave warrior girl who outwits the evil genius. And then there are all the mythologies. As a child growing up in Germany I devoured the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales. But I also loved the stories that my Bengali father told me and the comic books he bought me from which I learned about Hindu mythology. I grew up in a Muslim home, reading stories about Hindu deities, along with old German folktales. I lost myself in the Arabian Nights and listened to the bedtime stories that my Pakistani mother told me. Fantasy knows no boundaries and stories flow effortlessly across man-made borders. As writers, we are in a unique position. We can create characters and stories which reflect wonderful aspects of different cultures and enrich the literature of our times. And never has this been easier than now, when we can reach such a large audience so quickly and easily. I am grateful for the opportunity to share the stories that created such happy memories of my childhood.
As parents we often have to tread carefully to avoid stepping on the fine line between good parenting and over parenting. How do we know when enough is enough? Is there a magic age when we can say that we have done all that we could for our children and that the time has come to step back?
I thought I was a helicopter parent. I hovered in preschool, in elementary school and would have continued to hover in high school if I had not walked into that invisible wall as my oldest daughter went off to her first day. It wasn’t an actual wall that stopped me…it was a look of sheer horror and embarrassment on my daughter’s face as she realized that I was stepping out of the car and following her. That look stopped me in my tracks. I realized that I had gone as far as I could. I stood outside her school like an abandoned child for a few minutes, before it hit me. This was it. No more greeting the teacher as the kids walked in and hanging around the classroom if they needed parent helpers. Apparently, once your kids hit high school, parent helpers are synonymous with the plague. I realized that I needed to get a life of my own, hence the desire to start a career as a writer. Also, I had some time to transition since I had another child and her teachers to harrass for a few more years.
Which brings me to the article about helicopter parenting. Apparently it is a real affliction. It seems that there are parents out there who haven’t heard of the invisible wall I was talking about. And if they did, they may have just crashed through it anyway. I’m not judging because I know I’m just as guilty of hovering, but I do draw the line at calling my children’s prospective employers or future university profs. But extreme hovering tactics aside, when do we let go? Do we deprive our children the benefit of our experiences and failures and allow them room to make their own mistakes? Is it hyper-parenting to want to spare your child the disappoinments that you have faced and give them an edge? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it is a daily struggle to decide when to step in or back off. After all, it is our children’s future that’s at stake.