When I was a little girl I idolized Hannah Montana from the Disney TV show starring Miley Cyrus. Hannah experienced “the best of both worlds”, one as a normal high school teenager, the other as a rock star. I could appreciate that more than many of my friends could because I could fully identify with the show’s character, but in a slightly different way.
My mom is American, my dad Pakistani, and I get to celebrate the traditions of both of my cultures. There’s a perception these cultures clash, but I am living proof that they don’t.
I am 14 years old and a freshman at Lake Forest High School. People often wonder what it’s like to grow up as a mixed-race girl in the mostly white, Christian community of Lake Forest. When I tell people I am Muslim, I usually receive an expression of shock. It’s not because they are surprised to learn about my background; my religion and culture have never been secrets. People express shock, I believe, because they had heard negative stereotypes about Muslims and Pakistanis.
I get super excited about Christmas and Easter. This also surprises people — after learning I’m Muslim. I take the religion out of the Christian holidays, even though I attend Christmas and Easter masses with my mom and her family to support them. The religions are very similar, something some of my friends don’t realize. In Islam, we believe in one God and in many prophets, Muhammad being the most important among them because he was the last one Allah (God) sent down to us. Muslims see Jesus as a prophet, and Christians recognize him as the Son of God. Muslims and Christians not only share the belief of one God, but they believe in the same God.
I also am asked if I feel stuck between two worlds; if I feel lonely knowing I don’t truly “belong” in either world; or if I have identity issues, since they believe it must be difficult to balance such vastly different cultures. I actually feel more confused when someone asks me about my two worlds. I have never had a problem with my identity. My cultures continue to enrich me as a person. I celebrate my Pakistani roots and Muslim faith because each makes me special.
I dress more ethnically than most of my friends do, but I surround myself with people who respect and celebrate my differences. And I never see myself as being different from the people in my community. I listen to popular music, watch similar movies, read the same books. Pop culture-wise I have never felt disconnected.
I lived in Chicago before moving to Lake Forest in the third grade. Growing up in Chicago gave me a more vibrant outlet for clothing and sharing opinions. I will choose velvet boots over Sperrys any day, and if you look in my closet you won’t see a single article of Vineyard Vines clothing. I also like to wear edgier pieces of jewelry, and gems from Pakistan. Living in the city gave me the confidence to don them. When I was little I could look out the window of our condo and see people just being themselves and not caring about others’ opinions.
My clothing tastes and independent thinking are a result of my time in Chicago, as are my trips abroad. I visit my grandparents in Pakistan every year. I see poverty there, conditions that give me perspective and motivate me; maybe, one day, I’ll be able to make a difference by donating funds to the country.
Pakistan is stereotyped for being a war-torn place, but it also is beautiful. I look out the window of my grandparents’ dining room and see the most picturesque view. There is a mountain in the background, flowers blossoming everywhere. You see kids in the street playing with just a soccer ball, and their smiles remind me to be thankful for everything I have, and also that I don’t need all the money or items in the world to be happy.
I also get a chance to experience my Pakistani culture in full swing. The last time we were there we went to a wedding, and it was so cool to see the dancing and fashion and all of the customs and details that go into a ceremony in another part of the world. The upbeat music and the pulsating drums, combined with people wearing dazzling colors and heavily detailed outfits — while dancing the “bhangra” — all of it gave me a sense of home. You’d never see such heavily bejeweled ensembles at an American wedding.
When I return to Lake Forest from my visits, I am usually deluged with questions from my friends and others. Kids my age actually have an interest in what goes on outside of our country.
Sometimes I get asked if while I was there I had to wear a hijab, and I tell them that wearing a hijab is a personal choice. They are so surprised — it is like an epiphany. I also get asked about what it is like to go out into the streets. I tell them about the markets, where merchants sell the prettiest pieces of jewelry or the best naan you will ever try. I tell them Pakistani Chinese food is the best Chinese food I have ever tried and about the Christmas brunch we go to every year there. I tell them about the Islamabad Club, where I swim with my cousins, where my siblings go horseback riding, where we dine at a table with white linen.
So to answer the question: What is it like to be a mixed Muslim girl in this society? It is just like every other life. I have never had an identity crisis. I know who I am, what I like to do, who my friends are. I actually think being a mixed child in this society makes life more interesting: I get to live the exciting life of an American teenager — with a bit of a twist. I have learned that I shouldn’t let the few people who don’t like me because of my culture drag me down. I have to live life based on my judgment. I know what is right and wrong, and if I keep living life the way I have, then I will truly be able to tell people what it is like to experience “the best of both worlds.”
Maliha Yousuf is a freshman at Lake Forest High School