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Meral Barlas Headshot

Of Racism, Ignorance and Food

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A little more than two years ago as I stepped into the school bus, I heard someone call out to me, "Hey, did you know they found and killed Osama bin Laden? I bet you're sad that he's dead. He was probably your cousin or something."

I glared. Who the hell did he think he was?

"No," I responded, in a hard-to keep-steady voice. "But I wouldn't be too sad if you were dead."

With that, I turned away. Should I, a mere 13-year old at that time, have responded like that? Was I too rude? Should I have just ignored the ignorant comments of an ignoramus?

Being a Pakistani-born in America, comments like this are not incredibly rare. The earliest snide remark (that I can recall) was said to me in fifth grade, when someone called me a terrorist. I disregarded the comment and told him to "Shut up." Scandalous phrase to use in fifth grade, I know. But eventually, when you are not blonde haired and blue-eyed and are of Pakistani descent, you learn to respond to these slurs that are sent along your way in schools where these kids are supposed to get "educated." Yes, I am a Muslim. No, I do not hate Jews or Christians. Yes, I am from Pakistan. No, I do not believe in killing innocent people. Yes, I am a Pakistani -- Muslim and yes, I am quite like you.

There have been times when I would rather be playing Candy Crush than correcting people about their misconceptions about Islam. I have been in plenty of conversations in which people degrade Islam as being sexist towards women, and I have to correct them with my 'shocking' information and let them know that nowhere in the Quran does it say that woman cannot have an education or that Muslims should go around killing people who are not [Muslims] and that these so called 'Islamic' extremists misinterpret do not deserve to call themselves Muslims. The reactions can range from a shrug and "whatever" to a slightly interested look to a full-fledged conversation. At times, the latter is almost as fulfilling as passing another level on Candy Crush!

From the racism to the stereotyping, being a Pakistani American definitely has its disadvantages. But I have to profess that it's great as well. I love this country. I came here when I was not even a year old and so this has been as much a home for me as it has been for any teenager. From the food to the movies to the books, I love it all! And hey, I probably know more about (and have respect for) the U.S. Constitution (thanks to my AP U.S. Government class) than most of the people out there. I feel the same pride/joy/dismay and sorrow as a naturalized citizen that any U.S.-born citizen would feel in the moments of national impact. Sure, I might look different -- but is that all that people can see?

Despite the occasional belittling and ignorant comments that I come across, there is no way I would change my heritage. The perks largely outnumber all of the other factors. First of all, there is the food. Oh yes, the food! It is amazing! From daal chawul (lentils and rice) to delicious kabobs to mouthwatering sawaiyan (dessert that is basically Vermicelli cooked in milk) you can't get enough. Being desi ("desi" is a generic term of being of South Asian descent) also increases your spice tolerance by a landslide! You get to laugh at people who think the fire sauce from Taco Bell is actually spicy.

Reason number two: you get to know a completely different language. There are innumerable benefits to knowing more than one language, but in general, it's just fun. You can talk about things in public that nobody has to know (like your own Muggle language). And then of course, there are those cheesy Bollywood movies. Yes, we Pakistanis love Indian movies. To the average American, the extravagant musical numbers and melodramatic scenes probably seem bizarre. But these very elements (no matter how closely they may resemble a soap opera) are what makes them great! The experience of watching a Hollywood movie in the theatre cannot even come close to watching a Bollywood movie. It is only while watching the latter that you see the audience hooting loudly, the women openly screaming out at the screen when the Indian heartthrob, Shahrukh Khan appears, the kids dancing along to songs in the aisles, the 15-minute intermissions when everyone runs out to grab an oil-laden samosa (fried potato pastry) and some very milky tea. It is not just a movie, it's a community event!

Apart from the culture, you of course get to meet a bunch of great people through your family -- you have a whole group, or as I call it, the "desi-group." Your fellow aunties and uncles and friends become your second family. A place where you can talk about anything from how attractive Hrithik Roshan (Bollywood actor) to comparing mehendi (henna tattoos that we put on at times) to even just complaining about school. It's also interesting (and not rare) to note that so many members of the desi-group try to be gora (Caucasian). I see desi people everywhere try to act like they're not desi at all -- pretending not to know the language and pronouncing "desi" words with an American twang -- and it's not because they don't know how to say it.

For the people who are ashamed of their culture and for people who try to make me feel ashamed of mine, I will not apologize for who I am. I am myself, as Oscar Wilde said, as everybody else is taken and my culture and my heritage is a part of me. The stereotypes that go with being a Pakistani probably won't go away for decades. But maybe the ignorance and negativity towards us might fade if people really attempt to understand -- if I, a pizza-steak-pasta-biryani-sushi-eater, try to show you, will it help?