Self Identities

Kamal Khan on Life As a First Generation Pakistani-American

By Minhal Motiwala

Kamal Khan describes himself as part Desi and part American. Desi, which means indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, holds a larger value within brown families. To be Desi is to meet certain familial and cultural expectations. It’s a way to identify yourself while taking pride in your culture and heritage. But can a first-generation immigrant call themselves Desi? Where is the line between identifying as American and identifying as Pakistani? How does one avoid being the outcast of American society while still trying to preserve their roots and ethnic background? In an interview with The BCC Voice, Khan weighs in on this topic as it pertains to him, a first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim.

First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself.

My name is Kamal Khan. I go to Berkeley City College, I’m a sociology major, and I’m hoping to go into law enforcement once I transfer and graduate from college. I’m a first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim. My parents are from Pakistan, but I was born in N.J. Then my family moved back to Pakistan for a year, then we moved to Texas and then Calif, and we’ve been living here ever since. I’ve actually spent most of my life in Calif.

Do you consider being a first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim a big part of who you are as a person. In other words, is it something that’s affected your life in a significant way?

Well, it kind of is my life, but I feel like I have two different personas. There’s the person I am when I’m at home, versus the person I am when I’m with my friends, which is the more Americanized version of me.

What do you mean by Americanized? And how are the two personas different?

I’m very Desi at home, you know? Like when I’m at home, I speak in Pukhto, which is my native language, and I’m a lot more involved in my religion. Actually, when I’m at home is when I really indulge in my religion because I’m around my parents and I’m just more involved in it because of them. I’m also pretty argumentative with my parents at home, but when I’m with my friends and my sisters I’m more American. We don’t really talk about religion. I pretty much only speak English with them and I think I’m a bit louder with them around too. I think I just act more like a typical American teenager overall when I’m not at home.

You said that you practice religion more when you’re at home. Do you think you will still practice once you move out?

I don’t think so. I know I’ll always have my faith, but it’s kind of like the opposite of most people when they’re born into a religion. I feel like most people, when they’ve been practicing a religion all their life, they’ll continue to practice out of habit. I feel like I don’t need to do that because whether I’m practicing or not, I’ll always have my faith and I think that’s what matters. I try not to blur the lines between the two personas, but my faith is the solid ground that’s kind of involved in both parts of my personality.

Do you think having two different sides of who you are as a person has affected your social life at all?

It’s definitely affected my socialization I would say, even my sense of self a little bit, actually.

How do you mean?

Well, there’s such a contrast between what I’m expected to act like at home and what my friends expect me to act like, and I’m never really sure where I fit in. When I’m with my American friends, I’m always “The Muslim Friend” but when I’m at home or when I’m with my other Pakistani friends, I’m “The American One.” There’s really no group of people that’s just “People Who Are Kind of Pakistani and also Kind of American.” I drift between friend groups and just kind of adapt to be the kind of person I’m expected to be with whatever group of people I’m around. So when I’m with my Pakistani-Muslim friends, I act more Desi, whereas, when I’m with my American friends, I act more American. It’s just little microscopic behaviors like switching up my vernacular a little bit or staying quiet during certain conversations, so I’m not the outcast of the group.

Do you feel like the outcast anyway?

A little bit. Once, I was at an Easter dinner at a friend’s house and they were serving pork. As a Muslim, I don’t eat pork, but my friend was insisting I eat it anyway and his reasoning was something like, “Oh but you do all this other stuff you’re not supposed to do anyway, so why not just do this one other thing too?” It was pretty uncomfortable for me. On the other hand, when I’m at home I always get something like “You go out too much,” or “Oh, you’re becoming too American,” and I just don’t really fit perfectly in one place or the other. It’s also annoying to have to deal with Islamophobia and racial slurs on one hand, and then also have to deal with being “too American” on the other hand.

As a Pakistani-American Muslim, do you think there are certain preconceived notions about you, or misconceptions that people have that you have to deal with?

Definitely. It happens pretty often when I’m at a party, there’s always one person who says something like, “I can’t believe you can do all of this stuff even though you’re a Muslim!” And it’s such a weird misconception– that just because I’m Muslim means I can’t go out and have any fun. I can though, more than some other people. When you say “more than some other people” do you mean as compared to your sisters, or other Pakistani guys that are less “Americanized,” or someone else? Both, I would say. Not that my sisters can’t do whatever they want — they can — but I think my parents are a little more lenient with me. I feel like when I go out they check in with me a little less than they do with my sisters. I think I have the advantage there. When it comes to other Pakistani guys, I don’t know if I go out more because I can, or just because I like to. I don’t want to assume anything.

Is there any media representation or any artist out there that you can relate to?

There’s this song called “The Art of Peer Pressure” by Kendrick Lamar about how he acts a certain way around his friends even though he might not agree with or want to do everything they’re doing, but he does it anyway because he feels like he has to. That really resonates with me. It’s one of my favorite songs.

Do you think you prefer being Pakistani-American Muslim, or would you rather just be one or the other?

I can’t say I would prefer being one or the other because I really don’t know what it’s like to be anybody but myself. I was on a flight back from Pakistan once — I must’ve been around four or five years old at the time — and I remember feeling like I didn’t fit into Pakistani society at all. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I fit perfectly into American society either. I think I’ve always felt that way and it’s always affected what I thought of myself too, but I will say that it’s also given me an interesting perspective on life, and I don’t think I would trade that for anything.

At the top: Kamal Khan contemplates the future. Photo Credit: Gina Wright

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