By Juveria M.
There are words that define me.
Pakistani. Muslim. American. Female. Financial analyst. Sci-fi geek. Math nerd. Anglophile. Sports fan. Hip-hop fan. Daughter. Sister. Aunt. Cousin.
However, these only define parts of who I am.
The words that define me completely are the ones spoken in Urdu. Everything else is just labels, but what the language of Urdu means to me essentially encapsulates who I am at my core. For me, Urdu is a beautiful, respectful language with a rich heritage and one that celebrates unique relationships, primarily within the family structure.
On an immediate personal level, Urdu was my first language. My first words were a mishmash of my understanding of the language. The same language my parents spoke to me and their parents spoke to them. My history, my heritage is inherently tied to the language. And sometimes, the only way to understand my heritage is to understand the language.
I am someone who appreciates the wisdom and insight our elders have gained from their experiences. I respect them and what they have to teach me. Urdu, with its formal and informal structure, allows for me to express my respect in the mere words I choose to address them with. Instead of saying “tum” (you), I use the more formal “aap” when referring to them directly. My agreement with the word “ji” (yes) indicates a more formal and respectful acceptance than the more informal “haan”. As someone who celebrates the hierarchy of a family, I love that the language we share has an inherent concept of respect.
The other thing about Urdu, albeit a little complicated, is the different names each member of a family can have. There are separate names for your maternal and paternal relatives, and whether or not you’re related through marriage…it’s somewhat of an exhaustive list. But you are never confused about who you are talking to or what your relation is to them. And for me, family is the most important thing in the world and provides me the most unique of relationships.
Being an aunt myself to my brother’s and sister’s kids, I love that I have a title that is specific to my relationship with each set of children. No one in the world, other than these adorable kids that I love so much, will ever call me by that title. And it makes me feel incredibly special. That wouldn’t be possible with a language like English that has only one word for my relationship with them.
There’s also a sense of closeness that the language creates. In Urdu, the word for cousin includes the word bhai (brother) or bhehen (sister). It’s as if you have that many more siblings, just removed by one degree. Who doesn’t want more siblings to hang out with and get in trouble with? The way that I refer to them let me accept how close these individuals really should be in my life, and the joys I feel to having such a bigger “immediate” family are all due to the language itself.
Now, I’m not a student of languages. And many would argue that my ability to speak Urdu or English might be slightly limited. Admittedly, my most comfortable form of conversation is when I can switch back and forth between the two. But I never feel more at ease than when I speak in Urdu.
As a third culture kid, you struggle to find a word that truly defines who you are. Like everyone else, I couldn’t find just one. I found an entire language.