I don’t remember being told I did anything, “like a girl”, and if I did, I took it as a compliment, because I was the granddaughter of two very strong, intelligent matriarchs. In my home, doing something “like a girl”, meant I did something like my grandmothers or my mother – and that was always a good thing. We are three sisters and we were lucky, in a sense, that we didn’t have any brothers. We ran like girls, we ate like girls, we talked like girls, and that meant being and doing our best – there were no comparisons with the opposite sex. We were just simply, the Saadat Girls. And we did everything, “like a Saadat Girl”.
My issue, growing up in a predominantly white suburban neighbourhood of Washington, DC, was the “colour of my skin”. I did things “like a foreigner”’ or “like a Pakistani”. In other words, I did things which were “unlike an American”. Race issues aren’t only about how dark or white or green your skin is. It is about who you are, what you represent and how you are pigeon-holed into a slot you don’t necessarily want to be in. I looked visibly “white” – and to this day, people often ask me how can I be Pakistani. When I lived in Italy, some people would say, “Come mai dici di essere dal Pakistano se tu non ai la pelle oscura?” – How can you be from Pakistan, your skin isn’t dark? I didn’t take offense to this; I realised that many people are unaware that Pakistan is a country of 180 million people – so I responded, “We have blonde hair and green eyes; black hair and black eyes; dark skin and dark eyes and fair skin and brown eyes.”.
I may have looked “white”, but as a child, I didn’t spend my summer at the community pool in our suburban DC neighbourhood. I didn’t go to Easter Egg Hunts in lace-embellished white dresses and I didn’t eat chicken casseroles made with Uncle Ben’s rice at home. We celebrated Eid wearing silk tunics and glass bangles adorning our wrists; we ate basmati rice with spicy, clove-scented curries. I remember when I was in second grade, my mother made a sweet milk dumpling dish known as gulab jamun, for our school pot luck. Not one child touched this dish. I couldn’t understand why Ami didn’t make a simple vanilla bean pound cake, which she made for us at home all the time, instead of bringing this Pakistani dish of bronze-coloured “balls” to my school gathering. Kids in the class made fun of me. I was embarrassed of the food, even though I loved this dessert my mother made. I felt so sorry for her, because she had made the dish with so much love and excitement. Yet, I was not embarrassed to be Pakistani. I didn’t play on my Ouija board at night and ask the spirits why I hadn’t been born with an “American name” and American parents. I just wished that my classmates didn’t see me as being so alien; so different.
My father, who came to the United States with my mother and I from Pakistan, after getting into the World Bank’s prestigious Young Professional’s programme, always told us, “We are expats, we are not here to stay. We are not Americans.” Looking back, my father and I agree that it would not have hurt to have assimilated a little bit into what was at the time deemed as “American culture”. The minute school was out in May, we flew off to Europe for a holiday and then onwards, to Pakistan, where our “real home” was, where the driveway was lined with hot-coloured zinnias in terracotta planters, where English, Urdu and Dari was spoken interchangeably and hot days were spent sipping on cooling, mango milkshakes made with bounty from a family friend’s farm on the outskirts of Lahore.
In Washington, DC, as a child, I always remained an outsider, and the children in my school made it very clear that I did everything, “like a Pakistani”. I wonder, do any of them remember those lunch periods when they humiliated me for eating kebab (“shit”) sandwiches or when they asked me if my mother, was my “driver or maid”? Nothing wrong with being in either profession (I wouldn’t use the word “maid”), but this was said to hurt me.
Those were painful days. But as my husband, Zain, always reminds me: the beautiful and ironic thing about this is that the very things I was shunned for as a child are the things which I am so proud of today – my food, my ancestry and doing things “like a Pakistani”.
Today, I am friends again with some of the very same children who bullied me and made fun of my heritage and my food. They have never brought it up. I would like to think that us being friends today is their silent way of saying they are sorry. That’s what I would like to think. As the famous poet Ghalib said, “Dil ko khush rakhne ko, Ghalib, yeh khayaal achcha hai”.
I have thousands of more stories to tell you about my experiences growing up in Washington, DC and slowly, one by, one, I will share them. All I can say is that I am proud that my parents raised me the way that they did – and I hope to inculcate some of the same values in my son. I will do some things differently with my son. When he says that he wants to stay in Toronto the whole summer at the pool with his friends – that will be fine, because he can visit his grandparents in Pakistan and Washington, DC for a few weeks of the year. I will always tell him this is his home, because it is where his parents have made a new home for themselves. His mother and father’s roots may be in Pakistan, but Canada is where he was born.
I hope when I am long gone, he will continue to roast these Ontario peaches the way I did last night – which have that hint of Pakistani-spiced flavours in them – to always remind him of his mother’s – and his – heritage. I would love for him to do things a little bit, if not entirely, “like a Pakistani”.
You will need a pastry brush.
*3 ripe peaches
*3 tbsps ghee, which is clarified butter. If you cannot find this, use unsalted butter
*3 tbsps brown sugar
*2 cardamom pods
*100g wild blueberries (or normal blueberries)
*Sour cream, crème fraîche or strained yoghurt, to serve
*Pre-heat your oven to 210C (410F)
*Remove cardamom seeds from their pods. Discard pods. Crush seeds in a pestle and mortar. If you don’t have a pestle and mortar, wrap the seeds in a newspaper and crush with a rolling pin (or the base of your frying pan). Combine the cardamom seed dust with brown sugar. Set aside
*Slice peaches in half and remove the stone
*Place peaches on a baking tray (skin side down) lined with parchment paper or you can grease a baking dish and place the peaches in it
*Fill each individual depression of the peach with 1/2 tsp of ghee and then add 1/2 tsp of the brown sugar and cardamom mixture. Carefully place blueberries on top, gently nudging them into the depression
*Place in the middle rack of the oven and at the ten minute mark, lightly brush the melted ghee (from the depression) over the naked surface of the peaches and place back into the oven. Cook for another 15 minutes
*Enjoy with a dollop of sour cream, crème fraîche or strained yoghurt – or even some vanilla ice cream. Your call