The Unknown Blessing of Tenth Grade Biology
by Mannal Sadiq
Being a Pakistani born in America, it has been tricky to find a balance between both cultures. It used to be hard to relate to the kids and the cultural norms here because they are so different from the ones in Pakistani culture. But that does not mean it was easy for me to relate to Pakistanis either. Growing up in America, I only met my extended family once every year or two. I never had a close connection and felt that I did not belong with them either. When I got into my tenth-grade biology, however, my thought processes changed. My culture became something I embraced, both Pakistani and American.
My elementary years were fun, doing art projects, and meeting new friends. My favorite days were the holiday parties where parents would bring in delicious frosted cookies with snowflake sprinkles and would watch Christmas movies like The Polar Express, or during Halloween, eat so much candy that our stomachs felt queasy. One Christmas party, my friends asked, “Hey Mannal, what’s on your Christmas list?” With a toothy smile on my face, I explained to them I was Muslim and did not celebrate those things. Proud to tell them that I celebrate my favorite holiday, Eid, and participate in Ramadan, the month that Muslims fast. Standing tall, I waited for my classmates’ curiosity to spark so I could answer their questions. I wanted to tell them all about the vibrant sapphire glittering clothes I wore that Eid, and the delightfully rich almond pudding my mom made. The questions never came. All I got was, “That sucks” or “That’s weird.” Frustrated, a lingering sadness followed me the rest of that day. It baffled me that I knew so much about everyone else’s religion and culture, but no one knew of mine.
We usually go back to Pakistan during the summers when the blazing heat is so intense that it is like the sun is only a mile away from the earth. My eyes always roam around, trying to guess which province the citizens are from. There is an array of skin colors, from people as pale as the moon and warm sun-kissed skin to dark chocolatey complexions. I especially like to glimpse into their eyes, seeing pools of honey, oceans of blue, and jewels of green. The streets are always filled with crowds of people buzzing everywhere to reach their desired destination. The best room in my Grandparents’ house is one filled with mangoes. Crates and crates piled up with deliciously sweet yellow fruit from the farms. I get addicted to them, start with one and end up on my fifth without even realizing it. Outside of that is the family living room, where deep conversations arise. My family members all speak in Urdu, a euphonious poetic language heavily influenced by Persian, Arabic, Hindi, and Turkish. Though I can understand all of it, speaking it is embarrassing for me because of my American accent. I start stuttering and shifting side to side whenever I attempt to, so I often don’t. Many of my family members have a hard time speaking English, so it has created a barrier between them and me. They would be lost in a conversation, and even though I could understand it, I would never be a part of it.
Biology in tenth grade was by far my favorite subject. I especially loved learning about genetics and how traits passed onto offspring. It got me thinking of my genetics, and if I was anything other than Pakistani, so I decided to take a DNA test. The results took a while, so during those weeks, I did some of my own research. I learned that Alexander the Great had come to Pakistan, and the people in the northern regions were some of his descendants. People from western Pakistan were descendants from Afghanistan and Iran, which fascinated me. Their features were so unique with tan, freckled bronzed skin, and emerald green eyes. I always knew the country was diverse, but never how specific. I found out that there were a vast number of languages. I watched countless videos about these languages because the words sounded so mesmerizing I loved how they rolled off the tongue. In Urdu, the vocabulary was so poetic and charming, words that couldn’t compete with any other language. My favorites were, and still are, Rashk-e-Qamar, w hich means “Envy of the moon” and Jaan-e-Adaa, which means “Soul of charm.” My cheeks would turn red, and my voice would start cracking whenever I attempted to speak Urdu, but learning how beautiful the language was the first step in making me feel confident in my ability to talk in it.
Every day before recess in fifth grade, my teacher would put on CNN student news. I hated watching it because almost every episode would include a segment about terrorism, and Pakistan would always be in it. My heart would start racing, and my hands would get clammy whenever those clips appeared. I was self-conscious and very anxious during those five minutes. I would scan the room back and forth to check if anyone looked at me while the video was playing. I was always proud of telling people about my background, but instances like made me more conscious.
Most of my relatives live in Pakistan, which is why going there is enjoyable. Because we only visit there once every year or two, my siblings and I get treated like royalty. Whether we want to eat spicy, mouth-watering delicious meals or sickly sweet desserts, it is always our choice. Still, I feel that I am not as close to my grandparents, aunts, and uncles as the rest of my family is. The language barrier for one, and the fact that they’ve all lived together for years and have a tight relationship. I know they love me, but sometimes I wish that I could have grown up with them so our relationships could have been close.
A few long agonizing weeks after I sent in my DNA kit, the results finally came back. I was drowning in anticipation, filled with eagerness, and dying to know if I had any cool ethnicity in me. Even though the results came out to be mostly Pakistani and a little Central Asian (they couldn’t pinpoint the exact country), I was still intrigued. I continued to find the most poetic words in Urdu to expand my vocabulary, and would always ask my parents for books in Urdu so I could practice speaking. Slowly, as time went by, I got more comfortable speaking the language, and it was a huge accomplishment for me. Whenever I talked with my mom in Urdu, I loved it when people played guessing games, trying to figure out the language we were speaking. It reminded me of when I was younger, how I was uncomfortable whenever my parents or I spoke it out loud. I now realize how blessed I am to be able to speak such sweet, polite language without having the difficulty of learning it from scratch.
Some days at school, we would play bingo. My teacher would give us categories, and we would write down all of our favorites for each category on the board. For food, I wrote down biryani, a spicy, savory rice dish that I still love today. As we were playing the game, I started to get tense because what if the teacher pronounces it wrong? What if the rest of the kids start laughing at me? Fortunately for me, the teacher never picked out my answer. When I got to high school, I started getting comfortable, actually took pleasure in teaching my friends about my culture. When I explained to them that the things they saw on the media were not true about Pakistan, our relationships grew closer. They enjoyed learning about Pakistan and encouraged me to create a presentation about my culture. My heart warms, and a soft smile appears on my face whenever I think of that encounter.
Growing up with two different backgrounds is difficult, especially for a young kid. I always wanted to fit in with the kids at school, most of the time I did, but there were a few instances that made me feel alienated from the rest. I also wanted to be close to my family members that lived in Pakistan, but it was hard because I lived so far away. Getting to know my culture helped me become confident, and I adore it now. Going back to Pakistan is exciting because I can speak to all my family members in my favorite language. I finally feel as though I belong. Thinking back to elementary school, it was me who separated myself from others. Most of the time people were kind, and it was me who was overthinking other people’s reactions or words. When my classmates thought it was weird that I didn’t celebrate Christmas or Halloween, I realized that it shouldn’t have bothered me that much. Kids don’t have a filter when they speak and are very blunt with their words. I probably said something about people different than me when I was young too. I also became proud to be American. America is diverse, and people can connect to help each other going through similar struggles. There are many people with different cultures that probably struggled the same as I once did. This obstacle in my life has taught me to be proud of who I am and never be ashamed. When we learn of others’ backgrounds, it is how we grow and rid our ignorance and judgment of people who are different from us.