The special journey of how a first generation immigrant found her lost language and identity

My kindergarten teacher looked at me in confusion when I held up a pair of scissors and called them kainchi.

Soon after, I learned about flashcards. A lady would pull me out of class and take me to another room, where she would hold up cards with objects on them. Underneath each object was an English word.

At first I feared I was in trouble, but I soon realized that they were trying to teach me.

My parents immigrated to Calgary in 1984 from Pakistan.

They had their first child in 1987, my eldest sister Sophie. In 1989, they had another child, my brother Fazal.

I was born in 1993; I am the youngest of the three.

When I was at school, it became a routine. The lady would pull me out of the class and take me into the same room. I would sit alone with her and she would show me the flash cards. As I got better at it, she would show me different pictures.

In grade one, everyone in my class knew the alphabet, except me. Now a different lady would come to my class and pull me out.

We would recite the alphabet. Each letter was represented on a wooden chip. She would tell me the letters and I would repeat after her. I started to memorize all the letters. But, I always got stuck at the letters ‘G’ and ‘J’ because they sounded similar. ‘I’ and ‘E’ were confusing too.

By grade three, they decided that my English had improved. I could speak fluently. The flashcards were taken away.

However, somehow I’d forgotten how to speak Urdu — my native language. At home, my mother spoke mostly Urdu. She could understand English, but would reply back to me in Urdu.

Aamara Khan, at the right, with her nieces Waliyya Shahzad in the middle, and Momina Shahzad, on the left. in Houston in the summer of 2001. Photo courtesy of Aamara KhanAlthough I could not speak my native language anymore, I still understood her. I would respond in English. Sometimes my mother didn’t understand. My elder sister was fluent in both languages, so she would translate.

Talking in English was accepted at home, but it was different at my uncle and aunt’s house. –They were concerned that I did not know my own language.

Everyone would sit in the living room and discuss family matters in Urdu. I understood the majority of what they were saying, but some words I couldn’t understand, so I would miss the context of their conversations. I couldn’t relate anymore.

But then, my elder sister married a man from back home, a man from Pakistan. My new brother-in-law didn’t speak English so I had to speak to him in Urdu.

He was a new immigrant at the time and I wanted him to feel comfortable in Calgary so I spoke in Urdu because the native language was the only he had left from back home.

It was the only thing he could familiarize himself with in this new country. I also wanted to improve my Urdu and go back to my roots and he encouraged me to do so.

I mispronounced words and made a lot of grammar mistakes, but he corrected me. He was patient with my mistakes; sometimes I sounded funny because of my mispronunciation of words and he would laugh.

He enjoys Bollywood movies, which reminded him of home, so I’d watch them too because we were all in the living room and that’s how we used to share quality, family time together. The old generation Bollywood movies he watched had interesting story lines and the generation that was portrayed in these movies was a lot different than what it is now

At first, I needed to watch them with subtitles, but one day I realized I could understand the dialogues without subtitles.

Soon, I could go to my uncle’s house and join in the conversation. I didn’t feel like an outcast in the family anymore. I had found the language, and the identity, I had lost.

Thumbnail courtesy of Aamara Khan

akhan@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Daniel Leon Rodriguez, drodriguez@cjournal.ca