Growing up in the UK, I led a double life. As a youth with Pakistani roots, born and raised in Britain, you adapt to survive. The two identities that you belong to are often at odds with each other so you learn to turn them on and off, like a switch. But, from my experience, there comes a point where these two identities have to face each other.
During the day I was, gori girl. A naive Pakistani teen skillfully covering up every aspect of my desi-pun. Gori girl gossipped about last night’s EastEnders episode and would skip lunch when she knew that her ma had packed her bun kebab, just so that her friends wouldn’t comment on the smell. At night, I transformed into desi girl, embracing the Pakistani values her parents had raised her with and holding tradition close to heart. Desi girl was well-versed in Urdu colloquialisms, HUM TV dramas were her staple, and she never shied away from a second helping of halwa poori nashta on Sundays.
For the most part, I juggled my alter-ego skillfully, but for an acne-ridden 13-year-old with little to no life experience, this was a challenge. As gori girl, I was unable to assimilate into gora society. Facing questions like ‘…but where are you really from?’ and ‘do you speak ~Pakistani~?’, I knew I would never be truly accepted as a Brit.
As a second-generation Pakistani immigrant in Britain, I felt the need to prove myself capable of ‘being British’. In front of my goray dost, I found myself renouncing my Pakistani clothes, cuisine, and culture just for a morsel of acceptance. My passport said ‘British’ but my melanin said otherwise.
Similarly, desi girl was stuck. While the local Pakistani community in my town praised me for repping my roots, my trips back to the motherland made sure that I was aware of my otherness.
Teased for mispronouncing some Urdu words (I can’t say my qaafs properly, okay?!) and low mirch tolerance, I was ostracised for not qualifying as a ‘true Pakistani’. I still hear the taunts questioning my allegiance during a Pak v Eng cricket match. In the desi crowd, I was Pakistani, just not Pakistani enough.
Ultimately, I felt like a fraud.
By the tender age of 16, it hit me – which one was my alter-ego and which one was really me? I was floating in a diaspora limbo; neither here nor there; na teen mein, na tera mein.
My identity crisis was defined by four loaded letters – BBCD. ‘British Born Confused Desi’. Whether as a playful crack or a deliberate dig, many of us are branded a BBCD at least once in our lives. But what many people don’t know is that this term holds profound meaning for a subset of British-Pakistanis. As a teen always on the defense, it was the highest form of verbal denigration for me. The discomfort I felt from those four letters stemmed from the truth they revealed. I was confused. And being assigned a label that called me out on this just further perpetuated my ‘confusion’.
‘BBCD’ made me confront my identity crisis, but the term also gave me solace.
‘BBCD’ brought with it the recognition that this crisis was not just localized in my mind. British-Pakistanis across the island were feeling the same. I was not alone. While this did not solve my problems, it helped. They say misery loves company and that could not have been truer.
The mid-2010s started to change the game. The collective identity of the British-Pakistani began to evolve, and I with it. The representation of Pakistanis in non-Pakistani media and politics blossomed, signifying the collision of British and Pakistani culture. With icons such as Riz Ahmed, Mayor Sadiq Khan, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, my main (fictitious) girl, Kamala Khan a.k.a Ms. Marvel (not British but a personal hero) and so many more, it is easier to identify with the people we read about in literature, watch on TV, and listen to on the radio.
Pakistani diasporans in Britain are getting comfortable with what previously made us uncomfortable – our identity. These figures have forged a new identity – the British-Pakistani. Mixing DNA with domicile; heritage with home; genetics with ghar is the new normal.
Despite this evolution, the struggles of desi girl and gori girl do not just vanish. The trick is to find that balance and blend that reflects your comfort level. Embracing your roots and repping your turf do not have to be mutually exclusive. As a result of this new identity, it’s okay to be both brown and Brit.
Having reached the enlightened age of 23, being accepted as a British or a Pakistani no longer keeps me up at night. This new era for the British-Pakistani brings with it the confidence to take ownership of our two often-opposing identities and the pride to show it off. While ‘identity’ spans across much more than just nationality, it’s a comfort to know that on that long list of things fuelling my quarter-life crisis, I can cross off my national identity. British-Pakistanis no longer have to be stuck between two cultures. Because ours is a world of acceptance, fluidity, and duality. Ours is a world of fish and chips on a Monday and nihari on a Tuesday with no inner hungama.
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Cover image via @rizahmed / Instagram