Learning my ABCDs

Cal in Color

For most people, ABCD is the beginning of the English alphabet. But for American-Born, Confused Desis like me, it’s an acronym, an insult, a joke and an identity, all wrapped up in four letters. Calling me an ABCD invalidates my experience of being Desi, or a person of South Asian descent. The experience of being born and raised in this country makes my experience different than that of a Desi born and raised in the motherland. Being an ABCD is a way of saying that I am not “cultural” enough. It can be hurtful hearing that I don’t fit well into my culture, but I have taken ownership of the term, often referring to it jokingly.

I’m the only ABCD in my immediate family. My mother was born and raised in India, and my father in Pakistan. My three older sisters were all born and raised in Pakistan. Being the first ABCD in my family creates a layer of intergenerational conflict between me and the rest of my family. As immigrants, my parents often have trouble seeing eye to eye with me — their American daughter.

And yet, I struggle to connect with my sisters as well. Their childhoods back home were defined by the Pakistani standard of child rearing, while their post-immigration teenage years brought on a barrage of new American values. Somehow they learned to adapt to the American way while maintaining their memorable roots to the motherland.

My experience was entirely different. I was born and raised in Southern California, and although the diversity of my hometown allowed me to love and appreciate differences, I never had the community my sisters did. They told me about their childhood Eid ul-Fitr celebrations, when the neighborhoods would erupt with laughter and love. I was heartbroken that I would never experience that. I didn’t live in an all-Muslim neighborhood where that could happen, and I never had enough Muslim friends for us to all celebrate together.

I could never fully embrace white American culture either. Our family didn’t watch football, drink beer or have barbecues. We watched cricket while drinking tea and eating samosas. As a child, this made me feel different from others. I felt like I would never fit into American society. While my friends were enjoying their “American” way of life, I felt like I was suppressing my patriotism by watching Pakistan versus India cricket matches.

Growing up in a post-9/11 era amplified my feeling of otherness. In third grade, my class called me a terrorist after I told them I was Muslim. I felt ashamed of who I was and of where my family had come from. On top of that, I felt ostracized from my peers.

I realized that even though I was not as Desi as my older sisters, I would never be “American” enough to fully integrate into my white friend groups either. Sometimes I felt inadequate for not fitting into either side and confused about where I belong on the cultural spectrum.

But being more Americanized also gave me a certain level of privilege that my parents and sisters were not afforded. Because of my American dialect and understanding of American culture, even though I looked just like them, my personality was “more American” than theirs, and I was henceforth treated with more respect from outsiders. This became clear to me when I stood up to an Islamophobic customer at my parents’ store.

My mother and father’s managerial name tags did not stop this man from insulting their store, intelligence, religion and cultural background. But the second I opened my mouth and told this man to speak to my parents with respect, he settled down. I realize now that my parents’ accents add another barrier to being perceived as “Americans.” My English-speaking ability allowed me to use more embellished vocabulary and be seen as more “American” simply because I did not have an accent.

Of course, my American accent doesn’t make me immune to racism. In an English class, my professor asked me if I spoke any languages besides English. When I proudly declared that my parents were from the Indian subcontinent and that I could speak Urdu and Hindi, she asked in a concerned voice if I was sure that I wouldn’t have trouble with the English in her class, given my background. I realized then that no matter how white I sound, it won’t change the color of my skin or my roots.

I will never have the same experiences as my sisters and parents. But my American identity does not cancel out my brownness, and vice versa. I love my culture and feel connected to it. I’m glad that I have maintained aspects of my Muslim and South Asian culture, even if they are modified, ABCD versions of my family’s traditions.

My experience with being American has meant adopting white mannerisms and traditions. I feel disconnected from my family because they heavily associate being American with being white. To them, my patriotism can often be mistaken for an abandonment of my culture. And I will never fit into white society because of the color of my skin. I cannot fully exist on either side.

But I’ve learned an important lesson: I don’t need to package my identity into a binary. There are so many questions about my identity I might never find the answer to, but for now, I find comfort in knowing that although I might be an ABCD, it just means I have the power to be a samosa-loving, brown American girl.

Farheen Jamshed is a sophomore at UC Berkeley majoring in integrative biology and ethnic studies.