by Jamal Mehmood

Yesterday I showed my mother the recitation of a poem written in praise of Urdu and its majesty. I understood much of it, but missed enough to make us both laugh. For example, I thought that when the orator was referring to the Sufi poet Amir Khusro, he was referring to the transgender community (my fellow Pakistanis will understand). We both laughed so much. It was a lovely few minutes; learning poetry from her or her mother is one of my favourite pastimes. It is never regimented, but occurs as and when it pleases – it is poetry after all. What this episode reminded me of was not only the beauty of the language, but just how much I miss of its treasures. As children our parents taught us Urdu by only responding in it, asking us to speak it or expect no response. Though it was seemingly harsh at the time, causing us to stop in our linguistic tracks, reverse, translate and proceed once more, it is something for which I am eternally grateful.

Jamal MehmoodMy Urdu is not perfect, but better than many of my second generation peers. It means I can communicate with family more easily, both elders here and everyone abroad, and feel closer to them. It is my foundation for understanding Punjabi and appreciating much of the tradition of Qawwali. In fact the ease I have developed in speaking our peculiar dialect of Punjabi at home has had detrimental effects on my Urdu. Woe is me! Imperfection notwithstanding, my parents have succeeded. Their children now speak their Mother tongue, and don’t employ translators when visiting Pakistan. I hope that this accomplishment, when it makes itself evident, gives them a silent eruption of pride in public places that for a few fleeting moments makes the upheaval worth it. Holding on to our languages is of course not all our parents had dreamed for us before leaving, or being made to leave. I wonder if at her tender age my mother even envisaged the fate of any future children at all.

She was raised in Kemari, a coastal town in Karachi home to several ethnic groups, which might explain what her Kashmiri family was doing there and not elsewhere in the city of lights. It also explains why as well as being able to speak most dialects of Punjabi, she, her mother and sister can also speak Kutchi, which is rather useful when wanting to keep something secret. Many years ago, I visited the neighbourhood she came from. Narrow alleyways and small homes hidden in the dark is all I remember, but from conversations with family I know it is not the most prosperous part of the second city. I have been reminded by my grandfather who worked at the port that I or my uncle would have ended up as a clerk at best – if it were not for the move to England. The ‘move’ makes it sound like he contacted the local removal company and gave an address in Slough and jumped on a boat holding hands with his wife and children. The reality is far more complicated, and as I’ve mentioned before, deserves its own piece which I will write one day.

Throughout our childhood we imbibed the ‘study hard now and have all you want later’ mantra which finds itself in the mouths of so many immigrant parents, and it is a mantra not to be dismissed. It is partly what I want to explore. The logic of it, from the perspective of our parents, is undeniable – it makes perfect sense that we exploit state education here for material gain, as an opportunity not afforded to many of those who flew and swam here. Recently I have been thinking about this material gain as a form of reparation in the absence of reparations from the state, however that is most definitely for another essay, and probably for someone far more informed than I. This mantra almost definitely fits well into modern capitalism, and sounds eerily similar to notions of the American dream we’ve learnt about through pop culture. However my parents were not simply disciples of Adam Smith and Uncle Sam, ignorant of its pitfalls as a one-size-fits-all theory. Throughout my childhood, I was often told about the handicap we faced in the system, regardless of it being better than the homeland (it is only now I understand why it was better – again another story altogether). I’m sure we all remember lessons such as ‘you have to work harder than them’ and ‘they don’t want us to succeed’ — it seems our parents were aware of ‘they’ well before DJ Khaled. So this mantra taught to us had urgency, an importance that was about survival as well as relief from a pain only our parents had seen. The reason I say all this is to say: we should understand. We should understand, literally and figuratively, where our parents are coming from. The lack of opportunity that they have seen, the poverty, the sacrifice and culture they have lived before us, all affects our relationship with them. The distance that sometimes arises between us has its roots elsewhere, and can only be tackled after both parties understand that. Our parents need to appreciate that we have no hand in creating this ‘liberalised’, ‘modern’ land we were born in and cannot escape its moulding clutches. This note is not to say there are universal and uniform fissures between our generations on every issue. There are some who understand more and some who understand less, but there are shared experiences of confusion and a lack of communication that need to be addressed. I recently answered some research questions on mental health issues within the Muslim community, and it reminds me that this is one of the problems that we might not have the terminology to discuss, in English or in Urdu. This does not mean all immigrant parents are dismissive of mental health, not at all. My own mother supported me like no other person could through my own years of trouble. It was a love and support that is inimitable, and beautiful. However it is just one of the key areas in which we seem to have a disconnect.

We have all been there, in conversations on modernity, gender issues, politics, race, career aspirations and all else under our shared sun with those who brought us to live under it. It is the lattermost I want to focus on. We are all familiar with diasporic jibes on medicine and engineering (law too, for the bourgeois amongst us) that seem to be common to most immigrant communities. It seems our penchant for hard academic work and these traditional career paths has not gone unnoticed. I remember speaking with a teacher of mine about my parents pushing me to work hard in my younger years, and the way she nodded told me she’d heard it before – and probably seen its results.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about the need to balance our aspirations with ensuring the happiness of our parents and the dilemmas that this raises. I think it must seem somewhat alien to current (read white) popular culture with its slogans of ‘chase your dreams no matter what’, ‘f**k what anyone thinks’ and so on. The reality is far more convoluted and difficult than that, for us at least. It is far more difficult for us to pursue certain paths because we do partly understand where our parents come from – but our understanding has to grow, so that our communities do not split at the fault line of a new generation. We do understand the respectability, the security of those jobs — you’d be a fool not to. However we are also understanding more and more beyond the paradigms of our parents. The sacrifices that our parents have made have not only granted us access to traditional education but the freedom to think beyond it, to envisage a path for ourselves beyond their imagination. It may be a path that involves the kind of risk they wanted us to avoid, but recognising the possibility of it is a blessing in and of itself.

We are living in strange times. Even those seemingly secure career paths are now being laced with uncertainty. Recent events regarding junior doctor contract changes mean that many medical students are reconsidering this noble profession. Noble it may be, but our parents will understand economic security may have to come first for some. So now we come to this economy of ours that decides so much for us. The opportunities and choices that we gained through the migration of our parents do not exist in a vacuum – we also inherited the hyper-capitalism (through no fault of our parents, I might add) which now ironically whittles down options for so many. Our economy, especially to those who go through the higher education system, is now producing vague, corporate-sounding job titles for so many who had no idea what they wanted to do in the first place; it seems there is no time for exploration of that ‘something else’ that so many now want to do. This isn’t confined to us as children of immigrants but applies to all young people. It is not a poetic stretch to suggest we are somewhat lost. It’s just that for those of us with parents who dreamed that we would do things a certain way, there is yet another layer of confusion. I think the truth is we’re all confused; after all, none of us have done this before.

What must never be confused is love. It is love that I want to end on.

Dear parents, we understand your wishes are only out of love. A deep love that wants us never to toil, because you know far better than us what that means. It is a love that stems from a wish that we never have to deal with those narrow streets and narrow lives again. You have broadened our outlooks and we are forever grateful. At times we seem to be looking too broadly for you to fathom; it is as if you’ve sent us so far beyond the mountain that there are things we can see that you can’t, and we are so far that we can’t see what we left behind with the naked eye. We need to sit and talk sometimes. Although we have it far easier than you did, we also face a special difficulty. The difficulty of pressure to ensure your travel was not in vain, that your upheaval was worth it, that the fruits of your labour are enjoyed all while we make you proud. We want to succeed, as everyone does, but in our own way that at times may seem foreign to you (pun intended), and we’re trying to work it out as we go. So whether we become journalists, humanitarians, artists or nothing of note, if we struggle with a malady of the mind that renders us powerless, with no time to be employed, we still love you and need you with us along the way. You are the reason we’re here.

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Jamal Mehmood is a writer, poet and committed people watcher living in Kent and working in London.  As well as poems and essays he is currently writing his debut film script which you can follow online. Jamal also works in arts and cultural affairs for Restless Beings – a human rights organisation focusing on marginalised communities. He loves Yasiin Bey, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Nina Simone. You can find him tweeting @_jamalbhai and find his work at

This article was edited by Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj.

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2 thoughts on “Language, Life and Love: Our Immigrant Parents

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