Mother Tongue

We are
wildflowers
with roots
still growing
in our
motherland.
-Women of Colour
by Mehrin Poetry

 

As I grow  older, the importance of my mother tongue comes more clearly into focus – although at times it feels like I have a lot to learn yet. As someone who was born and grew up in England, I have always considered English as my ‘mother tongue’ simultaneously and alongside with Punjabi, which is were I feel my roots also are. During my childhood and my teen years, I spent so much time exploring the wonders of English, the literature, and studying the words that I felt a little like I lost some of the the words of Punjabi. I have always had a passion for English, whether it was the literature, or just the pure study of words, and it’s a little embarrassing to me now that Punjabi doesn’t always come as naturally as English does.

It puts me to mind a poem I studied as a teen – Search for My Tongue by Sujata Bhatt – which I didn’t fully understand at the time, but which makes so much more sense to me now. The poem symbolises the author’s fear of losing her cultural identity and her ‘mother tongue’, and of the idea that assimilating in a ‘foreign’ country comes at the cost of losing your roots. While I can understand the fear, I think it is a little different for me as well as I didn’t emigrate to the country like the author did, but was born here.

Growing up, I was one of the only Asian girls in my school and often felt a little left out – being among mostly white children made me feel like I had to strive more to fit in, from dress, tastes, clothes and culture, and I remember at the time that I divorced myself from my culture a little – my home life and my school life were always kept separately. Don’t get me wrong – I still had chicken curries at home cooked by my mum, still spoke in half-English-half-Punjabi to my parents and relatives, and made the most of Eid celebrations and glitzy salwar kameezes sewn by my mum. But I have always felt that the culture I was educated in did not understand Pakistani culture or language in a way that I could embrace it.

One of my earliest memories is my mum taking me to nursery on my half day, holding my hand and slowly teaching me words in English – colours, numbers and letters as we swung our hands and stopped at Sainsbury’s for our weekly shopping. My dad taught us Urdu as best as he could alongside our Quran lessons after school – although I’ll admit I wasn’t very interested in learning at all (and couldn’t wait til we could run off and watch TV!) It’s always felt a little ironic to me that these days I meet so many immigrants who are slowly learning English, while I am on the other side of the coin and trying to learn Urdu and Punjabi a little better.

As I entered my late teens, my school environment changed – suddenly there was an influx of Indian, Bengali and Pakistani students at the school who had transferred in, while a lot of the white students in my class left, preferring to stop their classes and go into work. I felt incredibly out of place – here were Asian kids who were comfortable in their skins, knew in jokes in Urdu and made it normal to talk about the things we had at home. Fast-forwarding into university this was even more the case – I found myself surrounded by mostly Asians, and would sometimes self-deprecatingly describe myself as the ‘coconut’ – looks brown on the outside but white on the inside. While my friends were into British-Asian music, Bollywood and Indian restaurants, I was a self-described goth; into soft rock music, heavy black eyeliner and desserts at The Cheesecake Factory.

Over the next few years, my friends, my family and my husband have all played a part in making me comfortable with my words – I can be English and Pakistani and speak both languages without one being more important than the other. I’ve learned a lot more Urdu over the years – mostly from Bollywood films, online websites, and even an Urdu course I went to once (it was terrible, we spend six classes going over the same basic phrases because everyone kept forgetting the previous lessons). These days, whenever I need to know a word, or the meaning of a word, I’ll ask my sister or mum, and my husband is a walking dictionary for this too. I also get a lot more practice – I work with a lot of clients whose first language isn’t English and often have to translate – we all acknowledge my Urdu and Punjabi are terrible but passable, and I’m a lot less embarassed than I used to be.

This isn’t a sad story – as much as I wish my Urdu and Punjabi were more fluent than it is now, I feel like I’ll get there. I have found my own way to embrace my roots, language and culture, and I’m happy with that. I know that I’m not the only one with this issue – I’ve come across a lot of British Asians who can barely understand their parent’s language, and don’t speak a word of it, preferring to stick to English. I can also see this in second-and-third generation parents when speaking to their children in English. When I think of myself, I would love to teach my future children my mother tongue. Urdu is a beautiful language and it is my husband’s language, but Punjabi is where I feel my home and my roots are, so would always want to pass this on too. Having said that, I don’t think there is anything wrong in being fluent in, and choose to speak in English. I grew up devouring books, studying English (and blogging in English), and I think it really is an amazing language with so much depth.

My advice to others who are struggling with re-learning their mother tongue is don’t give up, and don’t feel embarrassed. When I first started learning Urdu properly, I was told by a lot of people that I was terrible at it, and that I was barely understandable. I used to feel embarassed and immediately stop trying to speak it in front of them, and feel a little unsure of myself. These days I laugh and agree with them, but I don’t stop learning. Language, culture and words will always evolve over time (which is why ‘fleek’ is now an acceptable world, when a few years ago it was a non-existent one), and there are so many opportunities to learn with the internet, media and courses.

Who knows, maybe I’ll learn to speak French properly next?

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Harlequin Oddities Found About Town: Frozen Zombie Food

It’s silly I know. But I still giggled. I’ve NEVER heard of a “family favourite” by a company called Mr Brains (I bet he got a lot of jokes and nicknames at school), and the fact that the actual food is a meaty one only makes it more giggly.

Introducing meaty delights, or ‘Mr Brains’s Pork Faggots’, zombies no longer have to tire themselves out by chasing down their food, no more clumsy and bloody mess on their rags and it’s all been nicely cut up in manageable portions. AND it’s frozen. What’s not to love?
There’s a whole range of potential products here, and it doesn’t have to be restricted to zombies. You could have Bloody Slush Puppies for vampires, werewolf treats and Sherbert Potions for wizards. Okay I’m getting ahead of myself here, but watch this space, there could be something for Lord Alan Sugar’s latest venture yet!

Plus it gives a whole new perspective on the Asian phrase to ‘eat someones brains out’ (i.e. do their head in), which sounds a lot more zombie-fied in English than it does in Urdu/Punjabi!

Fairy Tales and Long Tails: Middle Eastern & Arab Romances #1

We’ve all heard the classic, archetypal story of Romeo and Juliet (and it’s various versions) and how their romance ends in legendary tragedy. I thought it would be appropriate to write about similar legends which have been carried down through the centuries, but from different cultures, and which are still spoken about today. Some of these stories are pretty passionate (compare Edward and Belle’s pangs of the heart-strings to this lot, for example), and most of them are quite tragic stories, which is probably one reason they have resounded over the years. Here are a couple which are probably the most well known stories in the Middle East, being sung today in stories, being portrayed in paintings and being slipped into popular references and films.

Heer Ranjha
Firstly is the most famous Punjabi romanctic legend which comes to mind, and one that is still depicted in story-telling and pictures today. Heer is a beautiful young woman of the prestigious Jat caste, and from a wealthy family, while Ranjha is the youngest of the four brothers (also from the same caste), who spends his time playing the flute and basically skiving away from working the lands. After an argument with his brothers (presumably about him being a lazy sod), he storms away from his village and travels around until he reaches the village where Heer resides. Offering to look after her father’s cattle, Heer becomes mesmerised by his flute-playing (a olden day Justin Beiber fan, perhaps), and they begin to meet secretly for years. Eventually they are caught by Heer’s uncle, and she is married off to another man (which was always the best answer in those days). A heartbroken Ranjha wanders the Punjabi hills as a jogi until he again finds the place where Heer is living, and manages to convince her parents to let them get married. Mr Meddling-Uncle again interferes, however, and poisons Heer on the wedding day, leaving a heartbroken Ranjha to follow suit and poison himself too.

Layla and Majnun
This is a similar love story, this time of Arab/Middle Eastern descent, and has several (often embellished) versions. The version more familiar to me is one in which the lovers meet as young children in school, where ‘Majnun’ (which means mad-man, his real name was actually Qais) used to get beated by the schoolmaster for not paying attention to schoolwork. Yet wherever he was beaten, Layla would be the one who bled his wounds. Sounds Stigmata-type creepy, but it’s meant to be romantic. This led to a lot of uproar about devilry and a whole lot of scaremongering, and the children were seperated until they met in their youth (so they were teenagers really) and carried on their love affair. Along came another meddling relative, this time in the form of Layla’s brother Tabrez, who refused to let them get married, leading to a fight in which Tabrez is murdered by the crazed-with-love Majnun. The standard punishment is, of course, a good stoning or two, which Majnun is subjected to until Layla agrees to marry another man to save him. See a pattern here? Layla is married off (cattle again) while the boyfriend is exiled to the deserts. Layla’s hubby, however, got fed up of Layla pining after Majnun like an emo, and, with his men, went to hunt him down and kill him. The climax of this story is that when Hubby kills Majnun, at the exact same miment, Layla also dies.
The less dramatic version of this story is pretty much the same except for the mystic bleedings and the lovers both dying after writing a lot of poetry.

There’s a few more stories (to come soon!) which follow a similar theme of unreconciled, noble love and a lot of wandering around/soul-searching/tending sheep which is often the results in tragic endings.

Can any of you think of any more popular romances from non-Western cultures?

Weekly Punjabi Mum Links

Weekend time! I’ll be catching up on weekly gossip (i.e. watching Desperate Housewives. Don’t you judge me), and catching up on my growing stack o’ books. Here’s some cute and cuddly links for you:

Apparently, sometime last year Barbie and Ken finally got married. So all those ‘dream’ weddings I gave for Barbie and her ‘sisters’ (yes I’m suspicious, how come they never showed their parents, and there was a new one being popped out every 5 years?) weren’t valid and were in fact about as useless as one hand clapping.

Here’s a cute video showing 10 reasons why we don’t like Facebook. Bit like Elmo from Sesame Street but on speed.

Thought asian weddings were bad enough? Here’s 25 weird wedding traditions from around the world to make you feel better. Might make you less wary of those shoe-stealing harpies who blackmail the grooms.

Here’s somthing cute, what kids think about love. Lots of aww-age.

This is one of the wackiest looking home I’ve seen yet. Future home ideas…in the scrap book it goes.

Hands up if you’re Punjabi? Then this video will encapulate your childhood. If not then just have a chuckle at a punjabi mum threatening to beat her kids.

I’m off to research the joys of exercise (does bungee jumping count?) and feel miserable over my bank account balance. Enjoy the rest, all!