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Of Places and Passports

I am told that I was born in the summer heat of Lahore, Pakistan, and to this day, I claim this accident of birth to be the real reason why I love sweltering hot weather. Apparently, the thick head of hair I was born with made me sweat so much that my maternal grandmother, Nano, shaved my head unbeknownst to my mother. As a result, I, unlike most Pakistani babies, had my head shaved twice instead of once simply to keep me cool. I once saw a black-and-white photo of myself at age one, with a shaven head under a hat in the arms of my mother, and asked her who she was holding. She couldn’t believe that I didn’t recognize myself. But how could I when I hadn’t seen any photos of myself from that first year in Pakistan until I was in my 30s? People recognize themselves in pictures only when there is something familiar there to remember. I know the stories of my birth and babyhood but without photographs I can visualize nothing. I still look at that baby and wonder who it is. This sense of self in the multiple has been a feature of my entire life. The word me encompasses many (sometimes unfamiliar) selves.

For some reason, the images of our time in Australia have always been available to me, black and white photographs of two-year-old me crying next to a stream, playing with a stick in a park, standing next to a wallaby, chasing a flock of birds, dumping a bowl of yogurt on my head, lying next to a doll with curly blonde hair. My parents took a lot of photos of picnics in parks, birthday parties, and multi-ethnic friends. There were photos of buildings and trees and water and us with people I have never met since. None of us have ever gone back. I can still visualize my dad’s home movies and see the little girl that I was there, jumping up and down for joy with the teddy bear that was my constant companion. Although this small child is visually recognizable, she is foreign to me too because of what I’ve heard about the way she spoke and sang. At the Australian National University, my father had a postdoctoral fellowship and my mother worked at the library. Since they both worked full-time in Canberra, I went to the university daycare from ages 1-3. This meant that my first language was Australian English that even my mother had a hard time understanding. She says that I would continually sing a song that she simply couldn’t recognize until she heard it on the radio: the hit song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” by B.J. Thomas. Of course I sang it. But with the usual baby talk, there must have been an Australian accent. That person that I was must have embraced what it is to be Australian through language. 

And how could I not have also embraced Australia through love? My mother tells me that when we first moved (back) to Pakistan, I really missed Barbara, one of my Australian caregivers at daycare. My father painted a portrait of a white woman and put it up on our living room wall but I used to point to it and insist that it was Barbara. I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been for three-year-old me to leave behind that place and those people. Apparently, I used to ask for Barbara all the time after we moved to Pakistan. Who can tell a small, homesick, weeping child, “You will never see Barbara again”? Even though I remember nothing of Australia, there is no doubt in my mind that I must have missed her because I loved her. 

I may not remember Barbara or even the painting but I know that I must have thought of myself as Australian because my first memory at approximately age four in Lahore, Pakistan was at a preschool with my mother. Someone, possibly another child, recognized that I was different and asked me where I was from. I answered that I was from Australia. My mother, mortified, immediately corrected me. I was not from Australia. I merely lived there for two years, merely spoke Australian as my first language, merely loved Barbara. My mother was adamant that I was actually Pakistani, insisted on the importance of it. We should all know who we are and she did not want there to be any doubt about who I was. And, of course, I am Pakistani. To this day, I am. All anyone has to do to know that I am Pakistani, and therefore of Indian descent, not Australian, is to look at me. 

My point is not to deny my Pakistaniness—only to insist that this identity alone does not account for all that I am. My experiences have taught me that nations alone cannot give us our sense of who we are because we are all bundles of layered contradictions. For instance, I haven’t returned to Australia since I left when I was three. So why then do I get these waves of nostalgia, this great desire to go back? I can still remember but can’t find the book about finger plays that my daycare teacher wrote. Could it have been Barbara? I don’t even know. I know that this teacher signed it for me and I treasured it. The last time I saw it, it was filled with my scribbles and coloured in with crayons. I have my parents’ stories of that time. Even without any of my own memories, I want to visit Canberra, Australia just once before I die. How can this desire to return be explained by the simple fact that I am Pakistani?

We lived in Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan while I attended preschool, kindergarten and the first grade. In Lahore, my father taught at both Punjab University and the Goethe-Institut. He was fluent in German because he got his Ph.D. in Munich before I was born. I remember taking an art class at the Goethe-Institut where I used to paint on an easel and my teacher was German. According to my mother, the other parents who dropped off their children there kept asking her which preschool I attended because everyone noticed that I only spoke English. Everyone wanted children who only spoke English, children for whom doors would open automatically in Pakistan. They assumed that my preschool was teaching me to forget Urdu and wanted this for their own children. To this day, people who don’t sound Pakistani are offered better jobs in Pakistan. It is a tragedy. 

But I must have stopped telling people I was really from Australia. I must have settled in well to being Pakistani eventually. However, we moved to Canada when I was six years old because my father got a position as a research assistant at the University of Alberta. The second and third grade in a Catholic school in Edmonton was not pleasant. While my report cards from Pakistan complain that I simply won’t stop talking, the report cards from Edmonton complain that I am silent. My teachers told my mother not to speak to me in Urdu. I was sent to English as a Second Language classes. No one believed that English was my first language, so I was forced to miss class while I was supposedly learning English with other new immigrants. My school in Edmonton seemed to be filled with rude children who followed me yelling obscenities and teachers who wanted to tell me that Christ was my savior. I was devastated when I wasn’t chosen to be Cinderella in the play. I was still too young to know that what I experienced was structural racism—the racist ways in which institutions and other structures work to privilege whiteness. No one could see or even name the culture shock I was going through. In the 1970s in Canada, Cinderella could never look like me on that stage. The structures of racism were such that everyone expected Cinderella to look like the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Lisa Leopard. Only she could be chosen to be Cinderella and she was.

And what can I possibly make of my dream now, the one where I give birth to a blue-eyed, blonde-haired baby? Why on earth would I, at age eight, have such a dream? Why would such a dream make me happy? Structural racism was inside my head, too. Looking back, there is something sad, to me, in my desire to dream of whiteness for the next generation. Clearly, even at age eight, I believed that nothing could be done about the way I looked. I didn’t dream that I took a shower and came out white. I dreamt that I gave birth to a white baby. I had hopes of privilege for my child, not myself.    

Everyone was so surprised when my (English) reading skills were tested in a Toronto public school and determined to be at the highest reading level in the class. My father had gotten a job in Algeria and my mother, baby sister, and I spent some time with my cousin in Toronto waiting for our travel documents. In Toronto, there was no question about my language skills, and I was never sent to ESL. The racism continued as passersby yelled “Paki” from their cars as they saw me walking to school. I couldn’t escape how I looked even if I wanted to. But at least the teachers were kind and not interested in religious conversion. I learned how to ride a bike in Toronto and felt more than ever that I could do anything. I listened to the Beach Boys a lot. I was nine and happy.

But then I found myself stuck at my aunt’s house in London, England for about two months because the papers still hadn’t arrived and we couldn’t join my father in Algeria until they did. My mother felt guilty for keeping me out of school for so long and decided I should follow my cousin to school and just sit in her class. She was two years older than I. I couldn’t keep up. The fact that no one expected me to do well at that academic level didn’t keep me from feeling like a failure. Everyone spoke so differently. I didn’t understand the social cues. It wasn’t just the academics I was failing in; it was also the ability to socialize. I was mostly ignored at school, which actually wasn’t that bad but that sense of complete alienation from my surroundings still haunts me. At home, my cousins were kind to me, but I rapidly lost the self-esteem I had gained in the short time in Toronto. 

In Algeria, I attended the 4th and 5th grade at the American School of Algiers. This was my first experience with the children of the wealthy. It was awful. They knew from my clothes and my lack of confidence that I was not one of them. I learned that wealth trumps race because here the wealthy Saudi girl was not an object of contempt even though she looked like me. There were Swedes in my class, a British boy named Andrew, freckled French Canadian twins, Marc and Natalie, an Indian named Nitin, a mean Afghan girl named Walina, a kind Palestinian Rula, and an American from Texas named Margot. And while their faces were multi-ethnic, in general, their disdain was reserved for people like me, neither white nor wealthy. Unable to fit in, I befriended another new student, Kungi from Namibia. I sat with her as much as I could, ate lunch with her too. She spoke English hesitantly and smiled with such joy that she made my day. I can still remember the sunshine that was her smile. We were happy together. I recognized that people were even more awful to her than they were to me. Even then I knew that we were in Africa and she was African and this treatment of Kungi was just wrong.  

But there was so much more to my life in Algeria than school. We lived on the Mediterranean with others of our social class and ethnicity in a “colony” of manufactured homes all with the same exact floor plan. This housing was built for employees of Sonatrach, the oil company my father worked for. And this world with its workers’ children and houses that all looked exactly the same was completely separate from my school, an hour away. There was no elitism here, none that I recognized. And there were no white people here. We rode our bikes and I started my great love affair with the landscape and the sea. I would climb down into what we called the valley and hike back up. I did this over and over again. I would use bamboo growing there for swordplay and bows and arrows. I would suck the nectar out of hibiscus flowers and yellow wildflowers that I saw everywhere, and I fell in love with lantana flowers. My father told me that civilization was born here, that the great philosophers of the world breathed this sea air that I was breathing in, and it fired my imagination. From our neighborhood, we could see the valley and beyond it the sea with a lighthouse, farther down the seashore. My father painted that scene and I still have it. His watercolour is mostly sky, sea, and beach. But you can make out the houses and lighthouse in the distance with grasses in the foreground and mountains in the background. That painting in my house reminds me every day of how much I loved Algeria. I loved all the Algerian university students I would see making out and hanging out by the sea. I loved my friends, many of whom were from India and Pakistan, and even though we were in different grades going to different schools, at home we were all one. I loved the wonderful French bread and cheese that was a staple of my life there, the Japanese cartoons dubbed into French, the many different languages I heard just outside my door. 

Since then I have visited all the countries of North Africa and many places in Europe. I lived for a year in Malta, an island in the Mediterranean, attending boarding school because my father was working in Libya. I spent fifteen summers and many winters in Libya, going to the beach, visiting Greek and Roman ruins, smelling that same sea air. Even now, for whatever reason, the closer I am to the Mediterranean, the closer I feel to a certain sense of home because my parents and sister lived in Benghazi and Tripoli. When I went home for the holidays, I travelled to Libya for fifteen years. This, too, is part of my identity, the more of me. 

And what of Canada? How can I not be Canadian? After Algeria, I attended school there from 6th to 11th grade in Calgary, Alberta where my father worked in the oil industry. Eventually, I graduated with undergraduate and graduate degrees from two Canadian universities: The University of Toronto and The University of Alberta. The Rocky Mountains feel like home to me every time I visit Alberta. My passport is Canadian and it seems right to me because I came of age there, became who I am there. I may be Pakistani but I am also Canadian and I have a deep love for North Africa and the Mediterranean and an aching nostalgia for Australia. I am bilingual, speaking both English and Urdu, but Punjabi stirs great emotion in me when I hear it, and the sound of French has always been soothing to me even though I am far from fluent in both of these languages.

Lastly, there is no point in denying that the places where I have lived in the U.S. are also dear to me: Miami, Seattle, and now Macomb in the middle of the rural Midwest. I wish I could have a passport that would somehow reflect my actual identity, the fact that it is global with special relationships with certain places that do not always correspond to nations, like seas and mountains and cities. The Mediterranean Sea and Miami, the Atlantic Ocean and Macomb, the Margalla Hills and Edmonton, the Pacific Ocean and Toronto, the Rockies and Canberra, the Indian Ocean and Calgary, Lake Ontario and Islamabad. Barring a passport with my own private list of places that I feel I belong to, I wish I could pledge allegiance to the planet, its human and nonhuman life, its rocks and mountains and oceans. I really wish I could because then my border-crossings wouldn’t be so filled with angst and apprehension. 

But we live in a world of nationalisms and national self-interest, boundaries and borders, customs and immigration officers and border police. We live in a world where people actually wonder and worry about traitors. What does that even mean? What does it mean that Edward Snowden is a traitor and can’t see his parents? I am baffled that the good of the public is not more important than the good of one country. Why can’t we put the planet first?

The questions that hound me are based on the assumption that nation-states come first before people, before planet. I was recently entering the U.S. and was faced with an African-American official who looked carefully at my Canadian passport and green card. After checking a few more things on his computer, he said, “You know, when Germans and the British and the French move to the U.S., they often stay for many years without getting an American passport. But they are white. Why haven’t you applied for U.S. citizenship?” My non-whiteness was clearly an issue. I said the only thing I felt I could say, “Canada is really great!” He wasn’t convinced. I was suspect. I should be grateful. I should embrace everything about the U.S., unconditionally. That is, after all, what first-generation immigrants do. My father was eternally grateful to Canada in ways that I wasn’t. I am told that because we immigrated when I was a child, I am not considered first generation and because I wasn’t born in Canada, I am not second generation either. Apparently, I am part of another generation entirely: generation 1.5.

“You became Canadian. Why can’t you become American?” the annoyed American agent asked again. I told him that I was only a child when my parents immigrated to Canada. They became Canadian and I became Canadian. It is what children do so I did it. “Well, if you are a Canadian, then why don’t you just go back to Canada?” he asked. I told him that I have a job in the U.S. and that while I have applied for jobs in Canada, I haven’t been able to get as good a job there. He looked very skeptical. I tried to help him understand my job situation and said, “English professors are a dime a dozen.” “No, they’re not,” he retorted, and I wondered how he could possibly know anything about my field. 

Throughout my ordeal, all I could think was that this man stood between me and my spouse, me and my son. This man who was sometimes friendly, sometimes irritable, and at one point outright aggressive, this man had to somehow be convinced that I was not a threat. He asked about Pakistan. Would I be able to get a job there? “Yes,” I said, “I probably could but I haven’t lived there much at all in my life. It is a place I love to visit, but I don’t think I could move my family there to live.” He repeated the same questions over and over again. Why am I not a U.S. citizen? Why don’t I leave? Why don’t I get a job somewhere else and leave? Why don’t I want to vote? 

How could I tell him that I do want to vote but the U.S. won’t let me vote even though I pay taxes? The problem is with the law, not with me. Of course, I should have a say in how my tax money is spent. Of course I want to vote. In the last election, on Election Day, I spent four hours walking door-to-door encouraging people to vote. I couldn’t tell him all this because I was afraid of how he would react to my assertion that the law was wrong. Not only do I not want to become a U.S. citizen but I also dare to criticize U.S. law. Surely, this would only give him more reason not to let me see my son. I couldn’t tell him this. I also couldn’t tell him that I don’t feel the requisite allegiance to the flag. This means that I don’t value American lives more than the lives of others. After hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico are in need of help and deserve help, not because they are American citizens but because they are our fellow humans. 

I wanted to see my son again, not become more suspect as a traitor who doesn’t value the laws of the land or the flag and what it stands for. So we went back and forth. I talked but never stated any of the real reasons why I had chosen against U.S. citizenship. We talked, generally, about healthcare in Canada and my father’s death and my mother and sister who currently live in Canada. He told me I should vote. I stared at him foolishly. It was awkward.

He must have figured out eventually that I really am not a threat even though I am not a citizen. It had finally dawned on him that non-citizens could also be non-threatening. Suddenly, he announced the reason why he was going to let me go. Apparently, he had just realized that I was thirty when I moved to the U.S. At thirty, he told me, I was already who I am and who I am is Canadian. “Sure,” I said. He let me go. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking about how I was still in Abu Dhabi and not even physically in the U.S. yet going through customs and immigration, nonetheless. Who else does this? Is there any other country in the world that does this, puts travelers through immigration before they actually reach its shores? I don’t know of any with the same sense of superiority. I cross the border into the U.S. while I am still, physically, in Canada, in Dubai, in Abu Dhabi. Why? It’s not right. And this is yet another reason why the flag doesn’t inspire the requisite allegiance in me.

Border agents are not the only ones asking me prying questions, though. I get them from friends, too, and from people I meet at parties. Everyone wants to know why I am not a U.S. citizen. Why am I not waiting anxiously for the day when I can finally be an American just like them and my spouse and my son? These questions have become like a knife that stabs me again and again. Is it a crime to live somewhere as an expatriate? Why is it fine when white people do it (for centuries) but not fine for me? Yes, as a matter of fact, I am talking about European colonialism. The British resided in India for hundreds of years and never considered themselves Indian even though all of India’s previous conquerors eventually became Indian. What was the difference between the British and everyone else? Whiteness. Even the agent at the border gave the example of Europeans who live in the U.S. for many years without becoming American citizens. Even he, an African American, wouldn’t and couldn’t understand why a non-European, like me, would behave like a German and just hold on to my passport for years and years. Could it be my father’s German past? I don’t think so. Maybe the structural racism that affected me when I was a child and motivated my interlocutor when I was an adult, maybe that structural racism is the problem, not me. People are people and I am a person. Maybe all of us people should be treated the way white people are.

Let me pledge allegiance to the planet. Let me list all the places I love on a passport that actually represents my sense of belonging and identity. And if the world doesn’t work that way, if I am being too idealistic, then let me keep my Canadian passport stating that I was born in Pakistan. These are still two of the important parts of me that I don’t want to lose. An American passport would mention my place of birth but cut Canada out completely. Is the place I was born more important than the place I was raised? And what about the places I love, the places that speak to me, and call me across oceans to return? Why not let me keep my Canadian passport if it isn’t a crime to do so? Why not allow and embrace the more of me?

Assoc. Prof. of English @ Univ. of Dayton. Author of 'Place and Postcolonial Ecofeminism'. Explores Pakistani women's narratives.