When people ask who I am, I’m quick to say that I’m a queer Pakistani woman who believes that you can’t be what you can’t see. I navigated predominantly white institutions where I often felt like I had to represent the communities I represented. I’ve been in conversations where others have challenged my identity, asserting that I should refer to myself as “American” since I was born and raised in Washington state. Even in these moments, I stand strong in who I am—until I don’t.
These moments make me question if I’m Pakistani enough, especially because I can’t speak my family’s first language, Urdu. I’ve picked up bits and pieces by osmosis, often live-translating in my mind when my family members are in deep conversation, ping-ponging stories and analogies with ease. I do my best to follow the words I understand but often lose myself in the nuance and humor of these stories. This can be even more challenging when family members poke fun at my American accent or give me a hard time for not laughing along to the punch line of a joke.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve felt guilty that I didn’t learn Urdu as a kid. When I ask my parents why they didn’t encourage me to speak Urdu as a child, they tell me that I’m the one who resisted their language and culture. I don’t remember this, but I wish I could go back and change it, especially to more easily converse with my grandma and get around in Pakistan on my own.
“Process the guilt you may be feeling with people you trust, like a therapist, friend, or a community where you feel supported,” says Israa Nasir, founder of digital mental health brand Well.Guide and therapist, when asked about how to manage the guilt of not being able to speak your parents’ first language. “If you feel motivated, you can alleviate feelings of guilt by taking action and talking through it with your family.”
My desire to learn Urdu as an adult was reinvigorated during my relationship with my fiancée, who is Filipino and has largely learned about Pakistani culture and Islam through our conversations. These days, I teach her words and phrases that we use on an everyday basis, like “I love you” or “How are you?” I imagine a world where we could trade Tagalog and Urdu phrases without me having to look them up every time she asks, but until then, there’s always Google Translate.
I’ve also found comfort in learning that there was a term for this experience of understanding your family’s first language without being able to speak it fluently: receptive multilingualism. Although this term is rarely used in conversations outside of linguistic departments, Nasir says that receptive multilingualism is a familiar concept for children of immigrants (COI), something often experienced without naming it.
“It’s a common struggle when it comes to bridging that generational gap with parents and family members, especially in multi-generational families,” Nasir says.
When it comes to connecting with my family, I don’t rely on language alone, and I don’t have to. Sometimes, I’ll rely on written notes to my grandma so she can read them at her own pace or charades over dinner. Turns out I’m not alone in this—Nasir says that many multi-generational families connect in ways beyond speaking the same language. It could be through watching movies or shows in their first language with subtitles on or doing activities together like Parents are Human, a bilingual card game created by Joseph Lam and Candace Wu as a tool to deepen the relationship with their own parents as second-generation Asian Americans.
“Language is one tool to connect with family, but it isn’t the only one,” Nasir says. “All of these experiences can create shared memories that you’ll cherish. Plus, body expression, tone, and physicality can all be used to communicate emotion.”
I’ve been learning one Urdu phrase at a time and sharing it with my fiancée and teaching my grandma some of my favorite English words that perfectly describe the nuance of what I’m thinking and feeling.
When managing feelings of guilt, it helps to know that it’s never too late to learn the first language of your parents. I’ve been learning one Urdu phrase at a time and sharing it with my fiancée and teaching my grandma some of my favorite English words that perfectly describe the nuance of what I’m thinking and feeling. I’ve also found comfort in knowing that there are many ways that I feel loved and understood, which usually exists in the form of friends and family validating my feelings and experiences and spending time with me.
“Is it important for your family to verbally affirm you, or just acknowledge your experience?” Nasir says. “Maybe you feel understood through acts of service, like when someone buys something that reminds them or you, or when a family member cooks your favorite meal for you.”
I still feel rooted in my identity as a queer Pakistani woman, and I know that Urdu is always something I can become more fluent in. Until then, I’ll continue to foster a connection with my culture and loved ones in ways that feel authentic to me, shared first language or not.
Published on February 27, 2023
Words by Aleenah Ansari
Aleenah Ansari (she/her) is equal parts storyteller, creative problem solver, and journalist at heart who's rooted in the stories of people behind products, companies, and initiatives. She’s written about travel, entrepreneurship, mental health and wellness, and representation in media for Insider, CNBC, The Seattle Times, Kulfi, and more. You can usually find her searching for murals in Seattle and beyond, reading a book by a BIPOC author, and planning her next trip to New York. Learn more at www.aleenahansari.com.