When my fourth grade teacher aggressively erased the circle I colored in for “White” and told me I was Asian, I thought she was wrong.
“But Mrs. Lopez,” My ten year old self began, “I’m not Asian. I’m not from China or Japan. I’m from Pakistan.”
I could feel her impatience increase by her sudden walk to her desk. She just stood there, back turned away from me, and sighed. “Yes Amna, I know you’re from Pakistan. That’s why I erased it.”
“But I’m white, look at my skin!” I argued, flailing both my arms in the air, almost smacking my classmate in the face.
“Hey watch it!”
“Sorry Delaney, but Mrs. Lopez-”
“Amna,” Mrs. Lopez said, in that all too familiar, no-nonsense-or-it’ll-be-a-call-home voice, “please just circle in Asian and finish taking the test.”
I felt my eyes begin to sting out of embarrassment and frustration. I was so fair skinned - I never would allow myself to play outside with all the other kids because my mother told me I’d get too dark. She ingrained in me this idea that if I was to get any darker, so much as tan, I’d become someone ugly. I’d be kali, which isn’t something I want, because being fair meant I was beautiful. This in turn manifested into me constantly begging to go home whenever we went out: at the grocery store, at the mall, even on the walk to school. I hid myself away in my room, slapped on fairness creams, and followed some lightening skin “DIYs” I saw some random auntie give on Youtube just to get that coveted title - White. I worked so hard to preserve my white skin: I sacrificed being a little kid for this white skin, I gave up my biryani lunches and kebab sandwiches to be like the blue eyed blonde, white kids.
So why wasn’t I white?
More importantly, why was I an Asian?
My stinging eyes made my face tear-stained by the time I came home. My father, concerned, sat down next to me and asked what happened. I explained it all to him - the test circling portion, Mrs. Lopez and Delaney, the fairness creams, and the unfairness of it all.
“But, Baba,” I hiccuped through my tears. “Why am I not white? Why am I Asian?” I nearly snarled the last question in disgust. Asian. In comparison to the white I tried so hard to be, it sounded almost vulgar to even think I could be anything like that.
“Amna, beta,” My dad said, wiping the tears from my face and pushing back the hair that clung on to it, “Dear, you’re Asian because that’s where I am from.”
“You were born in China?” I sniffled, even more confused now.
“No Amna, Pakistan is IN Asia. Look, come here.” My father pulled out his phone and typed something into it. Within seconds, a map of a big red blob showed up, with small bullet points listing words of different sections of the place.
“This is the whole continent of Asia,” my dad explained. “Look, China and Japan and those countries are here,” he pointed to them and to the words that spelled out those countries as well as new ones I didn’t know of like “Vietnam”, “North Korea”, and “Taiwan.” “But Amna, we are from here,” my father moved his finger down, to a section that almost looked like the outline of a dinosaur. A powerful animal I knew that was extinct for millions of years.
“That is Pakistan, where I am from. And your mama, and your grandmumma, and grandpapa. Now do you understand? This is Asian, and you are from Asia. South Asia because these are the south countries.”
“But Baba, when people say Asian, why do they always say China then? I’m not Chinese, look I am white!” I still protested, displaying my hands this time, faintly remembering Delaney’s harsh words from earlier in the day.
“No Amna. You have light skin, but look at me. Look at your grandmumma!” my dad exclaims, looking up at the huge framed portrait of my grandmother we had in our living room. “She is a little darker than you, and I am too, but we are still Asian. And you are Asian too. And you know, the skin color does not matter. What matters is that you never forget where you are from. And you have to be happy where you are from. If you are not from Pakistan, south Asia, you wouldn’t get to eat Mumma’s biryani, and I know you do not like the peanut butter jelly sandwiches your friend’s mom makes for your friend.”
“It just is so sticky and yucky.” I tell him, shaking my head in disgust.
My father laughs, and just like that, I’m laughing too. I’m laughing now, because now, after all this time, a roller coaster ride of six years, I’m finally embracing that title. That title of being Asian. And with that title, all the other ones that come with it too - of being South Asian, of being Pakistani, of being brown, of being desi. Not to mention a really important one I think that should always come before it -