Writer: Misaal Irfan
A story about growing up Pakistani American and explaining how I was inspired to create Millennial Brown after a visit to Pakistan
Nano stands in the hot kitchen, laboriously kneading the paratha dough, her feet clearly aching. Even as my cousins and I dance and sing along to MC Punjabi on the terrace, I watch with fascination. Her aged hands remind me of dried dates.
Our parents call us to the charpai for dinner. My mother’s childhood home in Pakistan is a small two-story cement cube, unlike anything I have ever seen. Though it’s difficult to adjust to the humidity and wildly different surroundings, eating with my whole family for the first time in eight years is a source of joy and gratitude. Slowly, I begin to relax, cracking jokes and making small talk in Urdu.
I turn to my cousin Noor, the epitome of a perfect Pakistani girl—at least, according to my mother, who never fails to mention her whenever I behave in a way that is “too American.” I roll my eyes just thinking about it. “What do you like to do? I love photography.”
“Oh, you have to go take pictures in the bazaar!”
The bazaar is teeming with hijab-wearing women, white-bearded men in shalwar kameez, and barefoot children. The rich smell of chaat masala and something less pleasant permeates the air. Color is everywhere: freshly dyed orange and emerald cloths, gleaming gold bangles, and skins of every shade of brown. For a moment, I’m even more overwhelmed than when I first stepped off the plane into this foreign world.
I hesitantly pull out my camera and focus on a young boy standing in the alleyway. His enormous kajal-lined eyes speak to me of sorrow.
The first click of the shutter causes any remaining reluctance to disappear. I stop overthinking and start shooting. My camera captures men making chai, an elderly man dying fabrics, two women haggling over a straw broom.
With each image, I find myself looking at Pakistani culture with new eyes—and rethinking what it really means to be Pakistani-American. Each press of the shutter button helps me understand why my parents desperately insist on preserving our cultural traditions.
I had thought being Pakistani-American meant wearing Pakistani clothes occasionally, eating Pakistani food, and speaking to my parents in Urdu. It certainly meant feeling embarrassed when I brought weird-smelling food to school, exasperated when someone confused me for an Indian, resentful when my teachers couldn’t pronounce my name, and angry at the world for just not understanding me.
But now I could see that being Pakistani-American means being me. It means embracing the beauty of both cultures while recognizing their flaws and limitations. It means getting over my own preconceived notions and helping my family and friends get over theirs.
I had to go to Pakistan to come to terms with being Pakistani-American, but many people don’t have the same opportunity. Is there some way I can give others a glimpse of what it means to be Pakistani-American? And encourage inclusiveness and multiculturalism?
I decide to create Millennialbrownn, an Instagram account dedicated to current events and my experiences with Islam and Pakistani culture. I am shocked and thrilled at the response. A post about Crazy Rich Asians and the necessity for more representation of all types of Asians in the entertainment industry generates a lively discussion. Promoting a friend’s efforts to sell t-shirts to raise money for Syrian hospitals overwhelmed with refugees increases sales—and garners a direct message from a follower letting me know about the urgent need for hygiene products for immigrants being taken to deportation centers on the Arizona border (I share that link, and report the information to Advocacy Club). A post about Islamic headwear results in messages from friends and strangers telling me, “I didn’t know that!” (I didn’t either, until I did my research.)
It’s become clear that it takes time and effort to understand others—and ourselves. Dialogue seems like a great place to start, and I invite everyone to join the conversation.