by Syeda Hasan – University of Texas
On another scorching summer afternoon in Karachi, I sat in the cool comfort of my uncle’s living room and listened to my relatives conversing around me. Everyone was laughing, sharing stories about school, travels, food, how things have changed since our parents’ early adventures in Pakistan. I soaked it all in eagerly. I wanted so badly to be a part of this exchange, but I could think of nothing else to do but smile politely. I love these people, I thought. They are my family and I love to see them enjoying themselves, but I don’t have the words to express it.
If only I had a rupee for every time I felt that way during my three-month visit to Karachi this summer… It was not quite exclusion, but more of a feeling of unnaturalness when it came to fitting in with people in the motherland, which was punctuated by my lack of Urdu/Hindi speaking skills. I’m sure that most of my fellow first-generation Americans have shared this sentiment at some point in their lives. This summer, one difference between my South Asian and American cultures that struck me in particular was their different styles of humor.
My family is full of jokesters. We have always bonded over making each other laugh. When I would crack a joke at a family gathering and everyone laughed, I felt such joy at my accomplishment. Seeing my family smile filled me with warmth and made me feel like maybe I’d earned a little respect for my moment of cleverness from the older and wiser among us. So during my visit to Pakistan, it was difficult to wrap my head around the fact that no one I met for three months understood my sense of humor.
My little brother has always impressed me with his wit. He is able to find humor in even the dullest situations and make light of things in a satirical way. When he created his first email account, he chose the name “[email protected],” jokingly redundant. During my visit this summer, he told me about how he had to change his email address because the friends he’d made in Pakistan didn’t understand the sarcasm of the joke – they kept thinking his email was simply “[email protected]” What a shame, I thought, a perfectly clever joke gone to waste.
I always felt a little tinge of jealousy at the fact that my older brother, who had been living in Karachi for a couple years, could light up the room so easily with his anecdotes. On a visit to my favorite aunt’s house, everyone roared with laughter as he recounted a time he was taking the bus to school, and a rural man who’d just bought a live goat from the market threw his new purchase onto the bus before boarding himself, much to the surprise of the other passengers.
Why can’t I do that? I thought. I don’t have any jokes about stingy vegetable sellers or corrupt politicians, and nobody here seems to find sarcasm appealing. But I wanted to make people laugh, and not just because I failed miserably at Urdu pronunciation and had no idea how to properly wear a dupatta.
After a while, being misunderstood as humorless really started to get to me because I feel that one of the easiest and most pleasant ways to break the ice with a stranger is by sharing a laugh. During a summer of traveling, attending elaborate four-day wedding celebrations, and meeting several new people, it was really a struggle to be perceived as someone who didn’t understand or appreciate good comedy. I vented my frustrations to my dad. Always the voice of reason, he told me about a time he’d seen a poster in a cafeteria that read “clean up after yourself, your mother doesn’t work here.”
“Imagine if they tried to put something like that up here,” he said with a laugh. “People would be ready to beat you up for saying something about their mother!”
My dad’s ability to see the humor in our cultural differences reminded me that I shouldn’t take my Pakistani family’s misinterpretation of my sense of humor personally. We’ve simply grown up in two different societies with different customs, and I am lucky to be able to identify with both of them, even if it makes things a little confusing at times.
I hope that one day I have a strong enough grasp on my South Asian culture to understand how to be funny to my family in Pakistan. Until then, I will remain a silent observer and continue to smile in the company of authentic South Asians – because I really do love my desi brothers and sisters, even if I don’t know how to say it.
Photo provided by Author