“How do you speak English so well if you’re from Pakistan?” I was asked this very question by my Harvard interviewer, which I found amusing because I’d never expected such ignorance from someone so smart. She was from China and had a thick accent like mine; she didn’t grow up speaking or learning English and probably expected me to be in a similar situation. It’s valid. I guess I could give the same benefit of the doubt to the several other individuals who have asked me this question upon my arrival in the United States. I know I shouldn’t be offended by such questions—a lot of other countries don’t use English in their day-to-day lives. Yet every time I hear those words, I somehow lose all empathy. Why is it that they don’t know that I speak English in Pakistan?
Not everyone in Pakistan can speak English. It’s a controversial matter of privilege. Unfortunately, without English, it’s hard to become somebody. English and literacy accommodate one another; it’s the language of success. It’s more than just a language. We were colonized by the same people who colonized you—why wouldn’t we speak English? But really, it’s offensive when you ask us this question because we assume you’re calling us illiterate. We didn’t neglect our own language of Urdu just to be asked this question. Maybe it’s our accent that throws you off—the accent you make fun of because it’s so different. But I guess it isn’t your fault for not knowing the value we put on this language; it’s our fault for expecting you to know. This is America, after all; isn’t ignorance bliss here?
Really, we want to be like you. We want to advance. We want to be able to speak English. We want to live lavishly. We want to be white. It’s all we’ve ever wanted. Fair & Lovely, a skin-lightening cream, was devilishly popular when I was growing up. I vividly remember the commercial: a darker-skinned female gradually turning white after applying the cream consistently. The idea behind the marketing was shrewd at the time: all we wanted was to have fair skin like the Americans. The product was a hit. Does white supremacy exist because they think they’re better than us, or because we think they’re better than us?
Even prior to the era of social media, the news channels on television focused more on the U.S. than Pakistan itself—even though American media has played a huge role in degrading our country. Nonetheless, America has a booming economy, a comparably progressive democratic system, and one of the best educational systems in the world. Why wouldn’t we want to be you? That’s why we can speak English: because America is powerful, and America speaks English.
Television not only led us into the era of political influence, but it also provided us with one of our most prized possessions: Hollywood movies. Movies like The Godfather, Heat, Indecent Proposal, and James Bond gave us insight into a world that was almost illusory. We were exposed to nudity, romance, violence, action, luxury, and predominantly, English. It’s surprising to reflect on how popular Pretty Woman was at the time. Topics like prostitution and sex were controversial to the conservative society, yet these movies were widely watched all over Pakistan because they brought a certain unconventional thrill. It was almost like enlightenment. It soon brought about Lollywood, our very own brown version of Hollywood. The language has been around since imperialism, but the movies had to be where the fixation with speaking English arose from—though I can’t truly point to a specific time. All I know is that movies like The Lion King and Toy Story dominated my childhood because everyone wanted their kids to grow accustomed to English since it was too late for them to master the language themselves.
As a 2001 baby, I saw the rise of platforms like Facebook and Instagram and watched them impact my culture as a whole. What I remember of my childhood—my life, my family, my community, my city—differs greatly from what it is now. The close-minded family I was accustomed opened up a bit more each day. The parties became more and more akin to Hollywood movies, with alcohol and skintight clothes. Birkin bags and Louboutin heels started popping up on every rich lady’s arms and feet. The children of the privileged spoke only one language: English. The social gap continued to increase.
I only wish that Pakistan had promoted their own language, their own culture—maybe then we would have an economy and reputation akin to this role model of ours. It’s remarkable how much some of us idolize America, given that they know almost nothing about us. The questions we get asked after we come to the superior U.S. never fail to amuse us. I’ve been asked if I’ve ever been shot, or if people are constantly praying on the streets. Little do they know we’re like America 2.0 over here—but you believe what the media shows you, and we don’t get the same representation you do. In fact, only the negative aspects of Pakistan are highlighted in American news. We’re to be feared, not admired.
When you see us, you see Osama Bin Laden; you see the Taliban; you see terror. We’ve been victims of terrorism just as much as Americans, if not more. But nobody seems to think about that. Since we belong to an Islamic country, since we identify as Muslims, we must be terrorists. But in actuality, the 9/11 attack came as just as much of a surprise to us as it did to you. We despise that man more than you do, and we aren’t responsible for the actions of the Muslims who have misunderstood their own religion. We don’t associate with their beliefs, and we don’t promote violence; we follow a religion of peace, harmony, unity, and love. Listen—if each of us took a moment to look outside ourselves, to acknowledge the surroundings, the people, the cultures beyond us, to accept the differences, to realize the problems, maybe this world wouldn’t be a total crapshoot. With power and privilege comes the ability to give. In this digital age, you should still be able to look up what’s happening beyond you. Stop being ignorant.
By Zoya Hasan
Photo by Salma Haidrani for Vice