I come from a family from immigrants, each generation desperately trying to forget where it came from even as it struggles to keep memories alive. Everywhere I go people stare at my brown skin, my hijab, my accent, and immediately, insensitively inquire: “Where are you from?”
Honestly, I don’t know. I could trace a finger on the map and show you all the places I’ve lived in, but are any of them really home? Before Texas there was Tennessee, and before that it was Florida, and before that Ohio. We could talk about the cities, quote you all my addresses – I think there are twenty at least – but am I really from any of those places? I was born in Pakistan, which is probably what everyone means when they ask that loaded question, “Where are you from?” But the story of migration doesn’t end there, not by a long shot.
Pakistan is a nation of migrants. My father’s parents lived first in India under colonial rule, then traveled in haste to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) when the British tore apart that subcontinent in a terrible wound that has still not healed. Then another war, and they fled to Pakistan, where my father grew into a young man and I was born. We called Karachi home, but Karachi is like a third world New York, with all sorts of cultures and languages and ideologies meshed together, trying to forget their pasts.
My mother’s family followed similar migration paths, not the same cities or countries, but with similar stories of pain and abandonment and a sense of loss each time they found a new home. I know what it’s like: nothing feels right, everything is different and harder and somehow disappointing. The process of migration is fraught with despair, a final understanding that people who are uprooted from their homes for any reason can never find enough peace to lay down roots again.
So when my daughter asks me why her skin is darker than her friends, or my son wants to know why nobody can pronounce his name correctly, they are actually asking me why we are so rootless. Why did I not do my duty as a good mother and provide them with that one gift we all yearn for: a sense of belonging? They are born in the United States, in the state of Texas which will soon become a minority-majority state, surrounded by immigrants as lost as themselves. They don’t want to come from somewhere, they want to be of this place, already, now.
But we are all from somewhere else, and that absence of a real home is felt like a poisoned dart trickling into our bloodstreams at glacial speed. If I invite you into my garage, you will understand what I mean: in the corner there is a pile of boxes from every electronic I own. I only need those boxes when I move, and so they lie there, waiting, just in case.
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American freelance writer with bylines in the Huffington Post, NBC Asian America, Catapult, Sojourners and more. She is the author of the short story collection Brick Walls: Tales of Hope & Courage from Pakistan, founder of Have Faith, Will Parent, and editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a literary magazine.