Portrait of Fariha Khan

“When something happens in the world involving Muslims, I have to explain. It is exhausting.”

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Photo: Fariha Khan with her mother Saboohi Khan, who talks about her own experiences in another post. Photo by Jennifer Baker

Fariha Khan is a professor and the associate director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

I don’t remember much from when we first arrived in the US. I remember living in New York, our apartment, my Polish babysitter, walking everywhere. My father’s father came to visit, and he would pick me up from kindergarten. I don’t remember before we came at all.

I still feel like an immigrant, forever foreigner. People see me that way; some say, “You don’t have and accent.” People say, “You don’t wear a hijab, you look like us.”

I went to Catholic school, and I was the only brown person. In India and Pakistan, Catholic schools were the best, a leftover from colonization. The concept of the convent school as the best carried over when we came here. My parents liked the structure and discipline, and the uniforms. My father’s side all went to convent schools. When I was in Catholic school, the priest asked if I was interested in having Jesus save me and I said no.

I became more aware as an adult of being an immigrant; it is further heightened by being Muslim. When something happens in the world involving Muslims, I have to explain. It is exhausting. I am aware of being an immigrant, a woman, and a Muslim.

This awareness is both because of my job and also because of things that have happened to me.

There was an incident in my son’s fourth grade classroom. He was being teased and called a Mexican. So he said that his mother was from Pakistan and his father American. He was called a terrorist and told that “his grandparents did 9/11.” The school didn’t do anything, they didn’t seem to think this was important. They said we don’t accept bullying or racism, but they didn’t really do anything at all. There was a similar incident at my other son’s school, and they had the children talk to each other and created an opportunity for the students to learn about each other’s religion and culture.

When one of my sons was in school, the speech therapist told me that my son “had an accent” when in reality he had an attached frenulum, which affected his speech, but because of how he looked, or how I looked, his speech problem was characterized as an accent rather than a lisp. This was another instance of racism or microaggression. People should be better informed.

As a parent I am probably more conservative in my expectations and demands than the average American parent. That is part of my cultural upbringing.

When I was 10 years old, after my father passed away, we went back to Pakistan. The teachers didn’t like me. I could only speak Urdu, but not read or write it. They thought I was a spoiled kid from America. People kept telling my mother what to do. We returned to America after four months. My mother left her family to return to this country, so how her children turned out reflected very much on how she would be perceived as a mother, and being a mother was very much her identity.

My mother objected to my choice of husband. Family members said I was marrying to be white, that it was a denial of who I was. They feared for a loss of community, that he would not be accepted in Pakistan, and that I would not pass down my traditions.

I grew up with two languages, but my children don’t speak Urdu. They understand, but do not speak, although one of my sons would like to learn.

Every summer my mother would take us to Pakistan. We spent the summers living with my grandparents, and I became fluent in Urdu and close to my family in Pakistan. I missed my friends, but it was good to be able to connect with my family.

Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.

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