Just trying to figure out what the first line of this piece should be. I typed “From a New Yorker” and hit the backspace key quickly to delete it off my screen. Am I a “New Yorker?” I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. Moved to Ithaca, New York, during my childhood, and then moved to New York City just a few short hours after my graduation from SUNY Binghamton. Throughout my youth, I was around every race except my own.
My parents did a pretty great job of building my confidence up in every way, except one: I’m a girl. To them, this meant there were certain topics, or certain things, that were just prohibited. But when it came to my background, I never felt different from my community.
So do I call myself an American? Do I call myself a New Yorker? Do I call myself desi, Pakistani, or should I stick with my genetic description: half Pakistani, a quarter Burmese, a quarter Scottish. I don’t know. Then comes the priceless question “Are you a Muslim?”
Well, I was born Muslim. I don’t practice it. I married a Dominican. I’ve eaten a bacon cheeseburger from Five Guys (and loved it!). My kids go to Catholic school because it’s conveniently located down the block from their Abuela’s (Spanish for Grandmother) home. I work for one of the richest Jewish families on this side of the globe. Am I supposed to mind any of this? I don’t.
Am I going to hell because every Christmas my plate includes a heavy dollop of pernil (Spanish-style roasted pork)? My husband and I like to get away from reality every now and then as we enjoy a glass of jack and coke. Every time my mother comes to visit I make sure to clean every single corner of my kitchen. There can be no trace of the bacon we use in our bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches. I have to explain to my husband if we order pizza — he cannot, I repeat, he CANNOT order pepperoni.
“What if it’s on half?”
Dear God, here we go. No, you cannot do that.
“What if I order my own?”
NO YOU CANNOT DO THAT. Act like you don’t like anything pig related. Try not to say the P-word either.
Funny thing is, my mother probably wouldn’t mind at all if he chose to order anything P-word related. Even though I know this, for some reason, I try to behave as angelic as humanly possible in her presence to prove to her I’m not a fuck up.
Hopefully, my mom can look into the eyes of my most powerful creations, my son and daughter, and realize I am anything but a fuck up. Julius is extremely organized and well-behaved. He follows directions; he tries to do the best he can at any task he is given. He’s a straight A student and has big hopes and dreams of going to MIT. Farrah doesn’t like to color in the lines. She too gets straight A’s, but I can tell she gets them because of her competitive nature. She is the strongest girl I have ever met in my life. I tell her this every day, and I make sure she understands what it means to be such a strong girl.
Julius is 7, Farrah is 6. People are already asking them if they are “more Pakistani” or “more Dominican.” My in-laws go crazy over Farrah’s unruly curly hair and can’t stop touching the silky straight “nice” hair that Julius has. Anytime we go to an important event my mother-in-law warns my husband over the phone to make sure I do Farrah’s hair nicely. Sure, I’ll throw it up in a bun. I know the moment I put it up she can’t wait to come home and take her hair down so she can be free.
She’d rather play with her cousin’s Ninja Turtles or go rollerblading in our hallway. It amazes me how my children are already being categorized, asked questions about their ethnicity, or because Farrah is a girl she’s going to love princesses. Ask her about it, she’ll tell you princesses are just plain boring. This is her opinion, not mine. I was a princess junky growing up!
Before I teach my children about what part of the globe I happened to be born in, as a parent I have the responsibility of making sure my two children are in line with the basic good human qualities. These are the qualities that disregard your gender, your gender preference, your sexual preference, your religion, race, ethnicity, profession, etc. We need to teach our children to be the absolute best versions of themselves without the overbearing pressure that most old-fashioned Asian households bestow upon the kids.
[Read More: Open Your Eyes to a Diverse World]
It sounds so typical, but give as much as you can. Try to be the bigger person, always. Work hard and try to be as productive in society as possible, choose your battles wisely, do not judge others when it can seem so easy to sum up their life situation without living for even one moment in their shoes. We might make mistakes here and there, we might not always win, but we’ll never fail as long as we learn.
There’s no rulebook that can sum up what a good human is, or define what a “deserving” human is. I learned this at a very young age since I was pretty much the only Muslim-born child in Ithaca, New York at that time. I noticed my non-Muslim friends were allowed to do things I was forbidden to do. The only reason I was not permitted to do many things was simply because I am a girl. But my friends who did what I couldn’t do turned out to be amazing women.
So after all this, I’m still confused. I guess I am a Pakistani-American-New Yorker born but not practicing Muslim-mom of two. Or maybe that’s too much of a mouthful. My name is Jehan. It means the world in Arabic. I find it pointless to classify myself into a box to make it easier for people to understand who I am.
Pages in holy books cannot define me. Rules in a culture cannot bind me. Society cannot shame me. Borders cannot hold me. Gender cannot separate me. I am Jehan. I made my decisions. I’m keeping them. My family may have gotten upset, confused, or hurt by my actions. I’m not sorry, I did nothing wrong. I’ve been happily married to the greatest, most patient man on earth – my tall, dark and handsome Dominican. I am happier without following outdated rules. I can only hope my children never allow society to pressure them into making dumb decisions, but I’ll be right by their side when reality steps in. Oh, and I am happier with a piece of bacon on my Five Guys burger (just don’t tell my mom)!
Jehan Suleman resides in New York City and is a proud mother of two. When she isn’t in her office she finds time for her passion of cooking traditional Sindhi, Burmese, and Spanish foods while blasting Guns and Roses, Elvis, and some classic Bollywood hits until the neighbors come up to complain.