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.