Face This Face.

The other day in Atlanta the waitress talks to me in Spanish.
I don’t speak your language, I say.
The same happens with Mexicans.
I’ve been confused for Italian once. Also Greek.
In Baltimore a Native American woman asks, “Are you Cherokee Indian?”
“No.”
She’s supposed to read my palm; instead she touches my face.

I touch this face at home, this face that seems to belong to others too:
Native-America, Spain, Iran. Mexico, Italy, Greece;
my face in these places, in these races, surprises me.
It’s India I’m used to.
Year one: Are you from India?
I smile. From a country next to it actually, Pakistan.
Year two: You Indian?
I shake my head. Pakistan.
Year three: Indian? Delhi, right?
No. I’m from Pakistan. Lahore.
Year after year after year until I’m at home with being mistaken for India.

After fourteen years of living in America, one Iranian gentleman gets it right
(or wrong?)
You are Pakistani? he asks.
How did you guess?
It’s in your face, he says adding, As salaam a laikum.
I reply: wa lai kum as salaam
Naam-us-tay. The middle aged Baba behind the counter at Starbucks says every time I get my tall coffee in a grande cup because my milk needs the extra space.
Naam-us-tay, he says bringing his palms together.
Uhhh…I’m from Pakistan.
Well, sul-laam then, young lady, he says.
Just once. Then he forgets or does not remember.
I’ve given up. Namaste to you too, Uncle Starbucks.

Chances are it’s not important to Uncle Starbucks to remember there is a
difference. Chances are he forgets that these two countries are not one and the same.
pakistan-naam-us-taay-india-sul-laam

I long to ask Uncle Starbucks: ‘You from Canada?’
Just to hear him say ‘Nope, America.’
(he won’t need to specify North or Central or South—he won’t need to because he’s white and because he’s got an American accent.)

So do I: sometimes. That’s what the Pakistanis say. Though Amy from little town Maryland says I’ve got such an un-American accent.
It’s more British, she says.
More sophisticated.
(History shares us, Amy, history spares neither your tongue nor mine because no matter how our accents differ Pakistan and America still have in common the ‘Brit is classier’ colonial hang up)

***

Had 1947 not happened, this face—my face—would be Indian.
This fact of Partition my passport clearly embodies.
My face is another story.
My face is having a hard time breaking apart into
yehan say yah wahan say yah kahan say
from here or from there or from where
The other day a Bangladeshi woman asked me in an e-mail where I was from originally.
Originally Daddy belongs to a village called Plaknah outside of Aligarh in India and
Mummy is from Srinagar, Kashmir located in India too.
One day
Mummy-Daddy migrated to Pakistan,
therefore we’re Pakistani,
I’m Pakistani.

In the return e-mail I’m an ‘exotic combo.’ Hindustani + Kashmiri is equal to me being a real beauty.
I am asked to e-mail my photos, pronto.

But I have yet to. Because I’m scared the combo will fail her,
fail me,
my face will fail my race
this face will bypass my origins; I might be fake.
Something about me is fake—the space inside my mouth, the shape between my un-plucked brows, the flagpoles in my eyes. Neither Hindustani, nor Kashmiri, nor Pakistani, nor Englistani and neither, I’m learning, can I qualify for
Americanistani.

***

I’m a new breed like a designer dog: part beagle, part poodle.
A poogle that looks like both parents but looks like neither one.

Looks like No One.

***
Pakistan. Lahore. Gulberg. Mid-afternoon. Sunshine lazing in a sleepy ‘A’ level English literature classroom. Chaucer. Canterbury Tales. Prologue. A strange hard voice on the tape player recites in Middle English: whan that aprill with his shoures soote
Fucking hell. It does not sound like English at all.
Kamil from Karachi leans over a wooden desk and hisses to me under his breath ‘Hindooo-stani.’
My hand rises and gives him a nice big shock of a slap.

You bitch, he says.
But only I will get in trouble.

Ms. Kamal! shrieks Mrs. Wilson, a Midwestern American who is more Pakistani than Pakistanis can be. She’s quite put out. She runs gold ringed ivory fingers through hair hennaed a fiery orange
(the choice of orange hair dye bridges, in my mind, any divide between the literates of America and the illiterates of Pakistan).
Ms. Kamal, Good girls keep their hands to themselves. Good girls simply do not slap boys. Off to the Principal’s office with you.
“But Kamil called me Hindustani,” I tell my parents later that day.
“Tho kya hua? So what?” My father explains to this daughter of his recently returned to Pakistan from England and Saudi Arabia. “In Pakistan, Hindustani is what Pakistanis call Urdu speaking people who’ve migrated from India.”
“But I speak only English,” I say.

I think: Would I have slapped Kamil if he’d called me
Englistani?

***

When mistakes about my face are made
I think back to that sunny classroom
my hand striking Kamil’s cheek in response to his
verbal slap and always I hunger after
Why?
Hindu that made ‘Hindoo-stani’ a slappable offence?
Kamil’s hiss that made it a dirty word?
The shock of having the hymen of identity pierced in such an unceremonious way?

I never slapped anyone else
no matter what
face they saw in this face
my face

***
What matters— the face I see in the mirror or the
place people say they see in this face: India, Pakistan, Hindustan, Englistan, Native-America, Spain, Iran. Mexico, Italy, Greece.

Never just American though.
America cannot yet see Just-American in my colored face.

But show me anyone, from anywhere, who really can.

Including me.