As an unpaid intern, most of my time spent at the office is routine: I document e-mails, answer and make phone calls, draft newsletters, and generally try to make myself as available as possible. Every once in a while, since I intern at the office of a State Representative, I’m lucky enough to be invited to local gatherings, conferences, and workshops. On one such occasion, I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon organized by my town’s Chamber of Commerce. The attendees were of two sorts: local business owners and Legislators. The Legislators, three State Senators and three State Representatives, were invited to the luncheon to build rapport with the attendees, but also to answer “tough questions on the state’s staggering economy.”
The luncheon started at 11:30, I arrived around 11:50. After twenty minutes of driving around in circles, in frustration, I finally located the conference room. I was pleasantly surprised that the ladies at the registration table recognized my name and even knew I was attending on behalf of one of the Representative’s. Unfortunately, most of the tables had already been filled, which meant I had to choose from a few awkwardly placed seats scattered around the room. I was ushered to one of the tables with a few empty seats and was introduced as an intern of one of the Representatives. I sat down, quickly said hello, and excused myself to grab lunch before the program began. I picked at my food as I tried to engage the others at my table in conversation, but still flustered from arriving late, all I could do was nod and smile as the people sitting around me talked to each other.
The business owners at my table were friendly, one or two handed me business cards, and were as welcoming as I could expect – nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice that they were a little hesitant to look my way. Ever since I put on a hijab, it’s something I’ve gotten used to, and it’s something I’ve decided to be okay with. In most of my interactions, I find that people don’t really know how to react to me. In this case, it was probably odd for the business owners seated at my table to see that a hijab-wearing American-Muslim-Pakistani was interning for one of their Representatives.
Although it may seem strange, I welcome their discomfort. I believe all sorts of people should be comfortable with my presence, and showing up where I’m not expected is one of the best ways to accomplish my goal; or at the very least, it’s the start to an interesting, if not awkward, discussion.
A few minutes into my arrival, the host introduced us to Sam, who would be sitting in the last empty seat at our table. Everyone, including me, immediately adored Sam. He was a cheery, older gentleman, with a sweet accent and friendly voice. Sam quickly engaged everyone in conversation as if he had known us for years. Once he had spoken with all eight of us seated at the table, Sam excused himself to make rounds and say hello to nearly everyone else at the luncheon.
The host announced the commencement of the program, so we respectfully ended our conversations and settled into our seats as we awaited introductions by each of the Legislators. Their introductions were followed by a Q&A session. The questions, and so the answers, were as expected – the attendees drilled the Legislators on topics like gun control, balancing the budget, property taxes and the fact that businesses are leaving the state in large numbers. As a recent college graduate new to the realm of state, and even more so, local, politics, I found the entire morning spectacular. And of course, it was entertaining to see the subtle but still hostile back-and-forth between the two Republican and four Democrat Legislators present.
All the while, I could sense that every few minutes (or maybe seconds—I was trying not to notice) Sam would look my way. I wasn’t sure if he was looking at me or not, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and decided he must be looking past me. And even if he was looking at me, he was probably just trying to make sense of my navy blue hijab and how it fit into the luncheon we were both guests at.
About halfway into the Q&A, Sam leaned in towards me and asked, “Which representative did you say you were here with?” He really was trying to situate me.
“Have you been with him long?”
“Oh no, I actually just started this July.”
“Ahh, I see. I knew I didn’t recognize you, I haven’t seen you at any of these events before.”
I grinned. Hurray for making my presence known.
“What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“I grew up here, but my family’s from Pakistan.”
“Oh, okay.” He paused. “I am from Iran.” He hesitated. “Assalamualaikum.”
Caught off-guard, I replied, “Walaykum Assalam.” I could tell Sam was an immigrant from his accent, but I couldn’t tie him to any ethnicity – granted, I hadn’t tried all that hard.
“Zainab, that’s a nice name. I have an aunt named Zainab. But why don’t you change it?” I was taken aback. “See my name?” He pointed to his nametag, “What does it say?”
“Sam?” I replied.
“See, my name is Samir, but when I came here I shortened it to Sam.” He bent his hands into the shape of parentheses, demonstrating that he quite literally shortened his name. “It’s easier for them to pronounce. You know, they’re prejudiced against names they can’t pronounce.” His advice was sincere. I could tell from his expression that he really was thinking about my future at heart.
“I have six grandchildren.” He continued, “When my daughters asked me to enroll their children in public schools, I said on one condition: we have to change their names. I meet tons of Pakistanis, Indians; they never get elected because they don’t change their names. I say to them, change your name but they refuse and they don’t get anywhere.”
I smiled, “But I don’t plan on ever running or getting elected anywhere.” I was joking, but I must have hurt his feelings. He gave me a weak smile, nodded and turned away, shifting his focus back to the panel discussion.
In many ways, Sam is right. I thought back to how each of us was welcomed by the other guests at our table. When I arrived, I could feel the tension and literally saw as those sitting closest to me shifted in their seats to point their bodies away from me. The people around me were nice, but they didn’t know how to approach me, so they didn’t bother. On the other hand, when Sam joined our table they were quick to welcome him as one of their own.
He was accepted in their circle, I sat somewhere on the edge.
Sam’s narrative is one I’ve been exposed to countless times since I’ve returned home from college. Time and time again, I’m led to believe, and asked to understand, that acceptance in this country is about the erasure of identity. Countless immigrants have shared with me that they know they have made it because when people speak to them, they don’t see color, background, ethnicity or religion. Perhaps it’s because of my liberal arts education or my experiences as a second-generation American-Muslim-Pakistani, but I disagree.
To me, acceptance isn’t about, and shouldn’t be about, changing myself to make others around me more comfortable. Acceptance is about asking others to work through their discomfort so that they learn to accept my presence.
I am American and I’m not going to apologize about that. I’m also Pakistani (and Afghani and Burmese) and Muslim, and I’m not going to apologize about that either. I wear a hijab and sometimes I wear ankle-length skirts. Maybe I’m a strange sight to see in the States, but I’m a sight that does have a place in this country, and it’s not my responsibility to shed pieces of my identity to appease others.
Then again, I am privileged in ways Sam isn’t. I don’t have an immigrant accent – many times I’m told that it’s hilariously Midwestern (I take that as a compliment). I grew up in the public school system, I watched the same shows, I follow the same sports, and I have the same cultural references. I can demonstrate my American-ness in ways Sam can’t.
Sam, an immigrant, had to prove his American-ness in ways I’ve never had to. He didn’t grow up in the public school system; it took him time to learn the cultural references, to learn the right sports. And to gain acceptance, — to claim his America-ness— he had to shorten his name.
This country has a long history of shortening (and Anglicizing) names, but as someone who was raised with the “salad bowl” rather than the “melting pot” metaphor, I’m inclined to believe that acceptance is a process of understanding rather than assimilating.
My preference for the process of understanding can be time-consuming, alienating, and in some cases, downright frightening, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. Ever since I started wearing a headscarf, I’ve seen how people’s reactions towards me change with every interaction. At first, they (those unfamiliar with someone who looks like me) are a little uncomfortable. But after a while, I usually get a comment that even though I look so “traditional” and not “Western,” I act “normal” and so “American.” Unfortunately, these terms and their juxtaposition are problematic in their own right.
In my experience, acceptance comes in two forms: I like to call the first type of acceptance “into the fold” acceptance, where privileged group members pull previously subjugated individuals or groups into the fold of their membership. This is the acceptance we’ve seen historically in the U.S. as what it means to be American shifts (e.g. the eventual acceptance of Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans). Sam was accepted into the fold once he shortened (and Americanized) his name and I’m accepted into the fold once others realize that I talk “Midwestern” and think “American.”
The second type of acceptance occurs when we learn to be comfortable around our (sometimes irreconcilable) differences. I favor this type of acceptance over the first because it allows individuals and groups to celebrate unique lived experiences. This type of acceptance has less to do with bargaining and more to do with learning, pushing boundaries, and understanding perspective. With this attitude, we learn how to pronounce “Samir” instead of waiting for “Samir” to become “Sam.” And we’re comfortable around Zainab without her having to prove that she’s pretty similar to us, despite her headscarf.