Lessons in identity for my elementary school self

Stories from The Book

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When I first set off to preschool, I very quickly became aware that I was the only person with my skin color, the only Indian in my entire class — my entire preschool, for that matter. This would carry into elementary school, junior high and even high school, where I was almost always one of few Indians in my class. I remember growing up learning to assume that people would butcher my name, even though it was rather phonetic, simply because it was uncommon. I found myself wishing to be named like most everyone around me. Why couldn’t I have been an Emily? Or an Anna? I resented not being the status quo, and this continued past preschool, translating to other aspects of my life.

In my neighborhood, I would tell off kids for making fun of my dad’s appearance, explaining that my dad was wearing a lungi, a garment that was traditional in Indian culture, and that it was more than some weird skirt. Similarly, I was often asked about my own appearance. I wasn’t to sport short shorts in the summer like the other kids, and when it came to tennis lessons, I was certain to wear athletic wear that would abide by the modesty standards that my parents had set out. They quoted Quran, the Muslim holy book, explaining that the body was like a pearl and that its beauty was best masked, sheathed within its shell.

My mom has always been known for cooking great Indian food. Despite how great it was, it was still not what the other kids had. She enjoyed throwing parties, and our neighbors complained about how there was no street parking because of how many people showed up. My packed lunches consisted of her biryani or chole, but I found myself wishing that I just had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then, I wouldn’t be so different.

The dissimilarities did not end at school. As early as I can remember, my parents would ask my teachers for extra homework. When I was younger, I thought this was unfair, as I witnessed firsthand my neighbor’s mother ripping up his homework because she felt that it was too much. Yet my parents would sit and work with me through my class books, ensuring that I grasped any and all of the difficult concepts covered. They have always emphasized the importance of education as a means to better myself and the world around me.

It was also during elementary school that I decided to first share with a few of my friends that I was Muslim. I explained to them the five pillars of Islam (declaration of faith, prayer, charity, fasting, pilgrimage) and told them how much I enjoyed going to my mosque. What I didn’t realize was that such news would not spread well. People started talking behind my back, and before I knew it, it was common knowledge that I was Muslim. Not long after, I got into an altercation with a frenemy, and I snapped at her. While walking away, I heard a classmate console her: “I wouldn’t get Zobia mad. She might decide to drop a bomb on your house.” I continued walking while hearing their laughter ringing from a distance. At the budding age of 7, I had learned that my faith equated me to a terrorist, a lesson no 7-year old should ever have to learn. America prides itself on being a “melting pot,” but how accurate of a statement is that?

I learned from a very young age that representing the various identities and ideals that I had been brought up with — Muslim, dual citizen of the United States and India, daughter of immigrants, first-generation American — would come at a price, but I would also come to learn that the empowerment and clarity that came with being a part of these communities far superseded any negativity.

Religion played a large role in my upbringing. My parents always took me to the mosque and preached of the impact God had on their lives. I spent countless hours learning Arabic and understanding the verses of the Quran. I grew up in a community of Muslims, all of whom were professionals who worked very hard to make a positive impact on their surroundings. I knew what being Muslim meant and what Islam preached, but the world around me didn’t see what I saw. What I saw when I went to mosque was a unity of people empowered by a faith, people who have guided me, many of whom I consider mentors.

Even though I was one of the only Indian Muslim students, these experiences are not just unique to me. I am no longer in grade school anymore, and the feelings of not belonging or wanting to conform to others have subsided. As I grew older, I realized how much my communities meant to me — feeling ashamed for being different paled in comparison to my faith and the communities that empower me. Now, I am stronger and better for them. I’m unapologetic for all that I represent.

Zobia Quraishi writes the Wednesday column on being Muslim and first-generation Indian American.

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  • Man with Axe

    I empathize with the feelings of being different. It’s not easy, especially as a child, to be a member of a minority group who has outwardly different modes of dress and behavior.

    But it’s instructive to put the shoe on the other foot. When I was a young man I spent a year in a foreign country. I made sure I dressed like the natives. I learned their language. I ate their food. I adopted a new name in their language that they could pronounce and understand, although some preferred to call me by my American name. Making these changes was not only helpful, but made my experience living there much more authentic.

    There used to be a trope of the “ugly American,” that is the American who went overseas and insisted that everyone bend to his culture, to speak English, to provide American food, and so on. If it’s wrong for Americans to live overseas and insist that others adapt to American ways, isn’t the converse also true?

  • What is this tripe?