Pakistani Teen Caught Between Two Cultures

Reporter Aisha Asif of Brooklyn Ink peeps into the life of Amira Ashfaq, a teenager of Pakistan origin, and highlights her day-to-day struggles to balance American and Pakistani cultures. Amira’s interests sometimes land her in trouble. Like when she invited her father’s ire because she wished to adopt a dog, something considered impure in her family’s culture.

Amira Ashfaq, 15, immigrated to the U.S. in 2006. (Photo by Aisha Asif via The Brooklyn Ink)

“He always says Muslims aren’t supposed to have dogs, but I don’t understand,” said Amira, now 15, of her father. “God made him, so why is he different?”

Amira had gone with her older brother to a shelter for a cat, a pet which is allowed, but ended up with a one-year-old white pit bull when they found out he was being euthanized. Out of pity they snuck the dog into their apartment in Flatbush. When he was discovered by their disapproving parents, the teenagers said he would only be staying for a few days until a friend adopted him. But that never happened, and two years later the dog, Lumiere, has become a member of the family.

“So, my dad he still doesn’t admit that he likes him, but at night we see him sneaking food to him,” Amira said, laughing.

The daughter of a former driver at the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia, Amira immigrated to the U.S. with her parents in 2006. Unlike in Georgia, where they lived briefly after arriving, she has had to confront bullying in Brooklyn.

“Kids would be like, you don’t know how to read; you’re in fourth grade and you read like the level of a first grader,” Amira said. It didn’t help that her mother would dress her in shalwar kameez, traditional Pakistani clothes consisting up a long shirt and loose trousers, she added.

Amira’s is a typical immigrant story. She lives in her community’s cultural enclave (in her case Little Pakistan in Flatbush), attends a school with high Asian enrollment, took ESL classes for five years and improved her English language skills by watching “Dora the Explorer.”

Amira poses near Little Pakistan, in Flatbush, where she lives. (Photo by Aisha Asif via The Brooklyn Ink)

Amira now chuckles at the thought that they had no idea they were learning Spanish at the same time [by watching “Dora”].

As her English improved, her mother and father, who don’t speak English, began to rely on Amira as well to translate for them when they went shopping, to doctor’s appointments, and during parent-teacher conferences.

“If I’m failing in school and [teachers] call or something, they don’t understand nothing and I have to explain,” Amira said. “I could lie to them, you know, say I’m passing but I don’t do that. I let them know because they trust me.”

According to Christina Ali, who heads a youth program at the Council of Peoples Organization in Coney Island Avenue, children usually guide their non-English speaking parents to navigate life in America.

“The kids end up being like the parents and the parents end up being the kids,” she said because they need their children’s help. “So the parents rely on the kids to communicate and they rely on the kids to make the decision so it becomes a total vice versa of parents and children.”

Amira’s parents no longer work as her 21-year-old brother, a construction worker, is taking care of the family in line with their traditions. She is determined to do the same once she “becomes a doctor.”

“My mom always says it’s [my brothers’] job to look after you guys after they pass away,” she said.

Her community expects the best of behavior from her family for being Sayyids – Muslims who trace back their ancestry to the Prophet Muhammad. Ali said immigrant parents don’t allow their children to hang out with their friends everywhere to save them from “negative influences” in certain places. Amira’s parents allow her to do pretty much everything except sleepovers because they don’t know the families of her friends and also find such stays intrusive into other’s homes.

“They feel alienated and because their parents have different expectations for them they also feel they don’t belong with the other kids,” Ali said.

Amira plans to start wearing a hijab once she is in college. She says the headscarf will help her be identified as a Muslim instead of being mistaken for Mexican or Italian.

Hearing the story of a friend who had a bottle thrown at her by a man who told her to “go back to your country you terrorist freak” gave her pause in the past, but not anymore.

“Before I used to be ashamed, but now I’m not. I always used to think, ‘Why can’t I be American?’ and then I realized I don’t want to be fully American. I liked that I’m mixed,” she said with a smile.

One Comment

  1. Sayed A. Hamza says:

    Hi I loved reading this article and it shows a great point on the toughness and success. I was wondering if you have written any pieces of literature on Pakistani kids that were born in America. I feel this would be helping out a lot of people of the youth because I can confidently say that these kids are confused. If you can write about or interview a few people who were born in America and explain how they grew up and ask them were they ever confused about finding jobs or living on their own and just ask a lot of questions about the struggles and the rewards.
    Thank you,
    Sayed Ali Hamza

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