Neither here nor there

Mahnoor Sheikh and her family.

I spent the first four years of my life in Lahore, Pakistan. The only memories I have of any schooling is at a preschool that charged your parents if you were late, and where teachers made you stand up every time you answered a question in class. I don’t remember anything I learned or anyone who taught me .

What I do remember from that time is leaving my extended family and my birth country behind.  

Though English is my second language, I was never enrolled into any ESL courses and I’ve never had to be tested for my language proficiency like my elder siblings were.  

As a child, I thought taking ESL courses, for some reason, was something to be embarrassed about. I know my thought process was ridiculous as we should be proud to know more than one language. But at the time, I didn’t see it that way.

During my schooling in Canada, ESL was for students who were having difficulty picking up some English words. ESL students were always taken to separate classrooms and sometimes even had different teachers. They were isolated from the rest of us, and were always seen as different. When you’re growing up, different is perceived as a bad thing.

Truth be told, I was happy I knew English more fluently than my mother tongue — Urdu. I made friends easily and reading passages from books in class was never a daunting task. I was always an outgoing student who volunteered to speak in class.

Mahnoor Sheikh and her mother.

 

My parents have always been strong believers in teaching us our culture, our religion and our language. My mother would speak to us in Urdu and we would reply in English; this way, her English would improve as well as our Urdu. Win-win.

My mother took English classes when we moved here in 1999. Now, anyone who’s tried to learn a new language knows how difficult it actually is. She would take my little sister (who was one year old at the time) with her and they would both sit and learn.

I am well aware of the fact that the Pakistani and Indian accents aren’t the most flattering to the ears, but when I hear one, I can’t help but think of the struggles that person faced while learning a second language.

Their accent is a representation of those challenges and their need to assimilate into this culture, yet we mock them. We mock them for repeating their questions because they aren’t sure if you understood. We mock them if they pronounce a word incorrectly, as if English isn’t one of the most peculiar languages. We mock them for leaving their home country behind and trying to find success in another.

The idea that English pronunciation is linked with intelligence is a result of colonialism. Come on now; we have all argued about the correct way to say tomato and envelope. I don’t have a Pakistani accent when I speak English, but some Pakistani people I know have told me that I sound “whitewashed” when I speak Urdu and that I shouldn’t bother trying to speak it.

Mahnoor Sheikh and her family at Niagara Falls.

Growing up, my parents never pointed out the fact that I put a “western touch” to the Urdu words I speak, so I had no idea I was pronouncing words incorrectly.

The first time we visited Pakistan was seven years after we came to Canada; I was 11 years old. I remember engaging in conversations with my cousins and them laughing at my pronunciation of words and my intolerance to super spicy foods.

No one let me forget how I pronounced a word wrong, but they would all come to me when they needed help with editing their English homework. I felt like I didn’t belong there anymore; I felt like an outsider.

Flash forward to today and nothing has really changed.

I like to believe I’m fluent in Urdu, but this belief never sticks with me for long. At my job, I work in an environment with people of predominantly Indian and Pakistani descent. They’re all fluent in Hindi and Urdu and because I’m so self-conscious of my accent, I only reply in English.

It seems as if people are never satisfied. They aren’t satisfied if you try to learn your mother tongue and they aren’t satisfied if you choose to forget it. In both ways, you’re seen as ignorant.

My family has lived in Canada for over 18 years, but to this day I’m not sure how to identify myself. Am I Canadian? Am I Pakistani? Which country do I resonate with most? This has always been a difficult question for me;  I’m neither here nor there.  

 

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