Riding the Hyphen: My Afghan-American Self-Identity

Being Afghan and American has always been a whirlwind. Both a blessing and a curse (how cliché, I know). I cannot imagine that today, in America, any group could feel as…different. How would you feel, knowing your tax dollars directly contribute to the killing of your people? Sure, Afghan civilians are not targets, but they’re definitely collateral damage, and that pains me enough.

I remember my first day of preschool. I cried for my mother and watched her drive away from the classroom window. A blonde boy with blue eyes tried to befriend me, but I couldn’t understand anything he said. My parents, being fresh refugees, only spoke our native Pashto at home, leaving the burden of learning English from my peers. And I did finally pick it up – but with a Hispanic accent. That accent is gone now, but it was a testament to growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

I went along the first ten years of my life assuming people had no clue where Afghanistan was. I didn’t feel too different or scared…living in the melting pot that is Los Angeles is a true blessing, and the Afghan community of the San Fernando Valley is so close-knit that I had cousins and friends in elementary school. I never felt isolated or discriminated against.

No doubt things have changed. I don’t need to go into the stories, or the looks, or the comments, but post 9/11, my life changed drastically. My perception of the world, of war, of my self-identity, radically shifted. And this metamorphosis didn’t happen overnight…it came in waves, from gung-ho Afghan-Muslim pride, to introverted defensiveness, to humorous acceptance (i.e. making my ethnicity and religion a spectacle for laughter), and now, where I stand.

I think I feel it the most when my American patriotism is questioned. Ignorant comments like, “go back home” or, “leave if you don’t like it here” make me realize where my identity stands. Comments like these repulse me, and my anger and confused response has enlightened me on where I’ve found myself. It’s within the hyphen. Afghan-American. I’m right there, in the middle of those two nationalities, surfing on that dash like a see-saw, trying to balance who I am and what I represent. Never fully Afghan, never fully American.

When guests come over and I am expected to go into Obedient-Chai-Pouring-Afghan-Daughter Mode, I realize how American I am. I can’t seem to get anything right, from placing the pastries on the table, to pouring tea and serving dried fruits. I realize that I can probably never please a conservative Afghan mother-in-law and I def need to brush up my “tarof” skills. When my cousins in Afghanistan video-chat with me, I feel my American-ness seething through my awkward smiles and broken Pashto. All I want to do in those moments is talk to someone who can speak goddamn clear English, and I feel a sense of superiority to these poor-war-torn Afghans (although I’m sure they feel just as bad for me, naive-uncultured-spoiled American). When my parents hint at arranged-marriages I want to grab a picket-sign and protest on my lawn. And when I sit in a room full of Afghan elders, I feel myself sticking out like a sore-thumb.

But when my American friends casually joke with their parents about sex, or their boyfriends, or drinking and parties, I realize how Afghan I am. My cheeks turn red and I want to prostrate to the floor in prayer. It repulsed me that some of my friends parents essentially “kicked them out” at 18. Afghans aren’t expected to leave until marriage, and moving out prior was perceived as unnecessary and almost taboo – why would a young girl want to be without her parents? What was she doing that needed all that privacy? Afghan women who have moved out today for jobs and schools still get some of that heat, although its gotten much better.

One thing I can settle on is how defensive I feel. Like I must hold on so tight to both cultures, juggling them back and forth, promising one I love it while the other sleeps. When I hear the “Go back home!” rhetoric, I want to grab an American flag and hold it to my heart. What do you mean go home? This is my home. I love this place. The hills of Los Angeles and the beaches of South Bay, the smell of the Mexican panaderia in Van Nuys. I love driving into the San Fernando Valley and watching the city’s lights over the hill on the 405 freeway. I love going to Laguna Beach for the Fourth of July fireworks show, a SoCal-Afghan tradition for two decades.

And I love being Afghan. It’s like my special secret gift. I can go out in the world and always have this little gem to come home to. The smell of my father’s cooking, the weddings and birthdays and Nowruz festivals, the Eid celebrations at our mosque, the funny inside-jokes my friends and I exchange in Farsi and Pashto, with a little extra glee because we know no one else can understand.

I have developed my identity by pledging allegiance in the morning and watching drones kill my people at night. I’ve met my brethren through CNN and MSNBC, through reading UNHCR reports on their dire conditions, through movies and books and documentaries. I’ve developed it through xenophobic and racist comments, through the anti-anything-brown rhetoric I hear almost daily. I’ve developed it through the extensive Middle Eastern policy courses I took as an undergrad. Through speaking Pashto to my parents, Farsi to my friends, and English to the world. Through singing “This Land Is My Land”, and “Sar Zameen-e-Man“. Through launching fireworks in July and painting eggs in March. Through feasting on Thanksgiving and fasting during Ramadan. Through shedding tears for those lost on 9/11, and shedding tears still for those who continue to perish because of it. Through wearing bikinis on the beach and the hijab at prayer. Through dancing to hip-hop with friends and prancing in ankle-jewelry to the tabla. My worldview is much different than yours because of all of this.

So please let me be both. Don’t make me denounce one for the other. Don’t make me feel guilty, on either side. And don’t question my allegiance for either place. You have no clue how difficult it is, balancing on the Afghan-American tight-rope. Because for my generation and the ones to come, that hyphen is all we know. I embrace it fully, and I cannot imagine myself to be who I am today without it. And why should I go home? This place could use a little color.

I don’t want to lose America. And I don’t want America to lose me.

Little Fobby-no-English Madinah before preschool

Little Fobby no-English Madinah before preschool

#ClapBackSeason #ByeFelipe

#ClapBackSeason #ByeFelipe


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9 Responses to Riding the Hyphen: My Afghan-American Self-Identity

  1. This is great! I think we gotta embrace the hyphen and stop thinking we need to be either or!

  2. Ramzia

    This great! You so eloquently put into words what I have always felt in my heart. I never fully feel American but when I took a trip back to Afghanistan I knew for sure I wasn’t fully Afghan. I’m riding that hyphen with you!

    • dinajaan@hotmail.com

      Hi Ramzia jaan, I’m glad you feel me! So lucky you’ve visited Afghanistan, I hope to go someday. Sending you love my fellow hyphen-rider!

  3. Elham

    I feel every word you say,for so long I felt the same way
    This struggle is not only yours, don’t feel alone at all.

  4. Like U, I too live various hyphens in daily life, my dear Madinah:

    1. The hyphen between “Konkani”, my mother-tongue, and “Marathi”, the language spoken in Maharashtra, the state where I stayed in since my childhood and have retired in now. The hyphen between Mangalore, my native place, and Pune, where I have been staying since 1983 and where my daughter Pallavi lives today.

    2. The hyphen between “Atheist”, my current belief, and “Roman Catholic”, the religion I was born into but gave up when I was 25.

    3. The hyphen between “Indian”, the nationality on my passport, and “World Citizen”, what I have always wanted to become — since I read Oliver Goldsmith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Rabindranath Tagore, Bhagat Singh and Karl Marx.

    4. The hyphen between “Journalist-Editor”, what I do by profession, and “Teacher-Trainer”, what I do by choice.

    5. The hyphen between “Capitalism”, the rotten ideology of the dying society I am forced to live in, and “Communism”, the ideology of the free & fair society — without borders — that I hope ALL humans can live & love in.

    Thank U, for inviting me to learn about the hyphens in your life and motivating me to share my hyphens on your blog.

    Know that I stand with U, my dear Madinah, hand-in-hand and shoulder-to-shoulder, as U balance on the same hyphen-tightrope, that we have the joy & sorrow to share.

    My respects to your parents. And in solidarity with the Afghan and American and Indian peoples.

    Peace and love,
    – Joe Pinto.

  5. Shah

    A very colorful article and a bold manifestation of the reality and how to embrace it. Well written summary of what many go through everyday life as a second generation in North America. A story like this deserves a book!

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