Few in number, Pakistani American students deal with common misunderstandings

January 10, 2022 — by Kavya Patel and Ariel Zhou
Photo by Noor Khan
Noor and her friend model traditional Pakistani dresses before attending a wedding.

When junior Noor Khan walks around campus, she sees dozens of Vietnamese, Chinese, Caucasian and Indian students. However, she can count on her fingers the number of students who share her Pakistani ethnicity — about four or five students, Khan thinks.

Her parents were born and raised in Pakistan and later moved to the U.S. for college. They first moved to Santa Clara, and later moved to Cupertino. From there, they settled in Saratoga, and Khan started attending the schools here.

The small number of Pakistani American students at the school matches national trends — according to the Pew Research Center, the population of Pakistani Americans in the U.S. was 554,000 in 2019, just 0.169% of the U.S. population.

 Nevertheless, the culture and religion plays a large part in the lives of Pakistani families at the school, even if it’s hard for them to find and connect with students of their same ethnicity.

 

Religious traditions and holidays dominate culture

Another Pakistani American, junior Wasil Khan, said much of Pakistani culture revolves around Islamic religious practices.

An important holiday celebrated by Pakistani Muslims is Ramadan, which will begin on April 2 and on end May 1 this year. The month consists of fasting during daytime hours, prayer and community; Muslims usually fast for around 17 hours a day during Ramadan. 

Students who celebrate Ramamdan abstain from eating during lunchtime, which Wasil said often leads to a lot of confusion among his peers.

“All my friends always ask me how long I have to fast, and when I say for a month, they assume I have to fast constantly the whole month, which is the funniest part,” Wasil said. 

Following Ramadan is Eid, which marks the end of fasting from dawn to sunset. During the three day period of Eid, Wasil said families gather with friends and relatives to eat special meals, give gifts and play games. Popular dishes eaten during this celebration include baklava, kebabs and biryani. 

Pakistan’s Independence Day, Aug. 14, is another major holiday in which people celebrate Pakistan’s freedom and liberation from British rule by lighting fireworks and displaying the Pakistan flag.

 

Mistaken identity

Because most South Asian American students at the school are Indian American, many people tend to see South Asian American students as Indian American. Noor said she is often mistaken as Indian, which she said can be frustrating.

“It’s unfortunate that people don’t recognize that they are two separate countries, but it’s common,” she said. “It’s not really offensive, it’s just something that you have to remind them of.”

Despite some similarities between Pakistani and Indian cultures, differences are significant and sometimes bitter. One prime contrast is that the dominant religion in India is Hinduism.

In addition to these ideological differences rooted in religion, the two countries have a history of intense conflict over the disputed area of Kashmir, Noor said. 

Kashmir is a diverse Himalayan region that has historically been a source of territorial conflict between Pakistan and India — the two countries went to war over the region in 1947. To this day, there is still conflict between the two countries over this territory, so this topic is sensitive for both Indian and Pakistani Americans.

“Someone could be talking about Kashmir with someone who is Indian and, while that’s not necessarily feeling left out, there could be a difference of thought process,” Noor said. 

 

Effects of Kashmir

When it comes to the older generation of Indian and Pakistani people, many have strong opinions that can be harmful and confusing to younger generations. 

Noor has many experiences where she’s heard many passive aggressive comments about the divide between India and Pakistan. 

“People might have something to say about Pakistan or the Partition [of India], or just passive aggressive comments about it,” Khan said.

Though Noor tries her best to brush off the comments, she still feels that the snide mentions of Kashmir and the Partition of India are hurtful.

 

Discrimination after 911 

Following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, many Pakistani people said they faced acts of racism due to their appearance and Pakistan’s connection to Osama bin Laden.

Sophomore Zineerah Ahmed said this led to her being discriminated against in fourth grade.

”Some kids next to me saw me and laughed and asked, ‘Aren’t all Pakistanis terrorists?’” Ahmed said. “I was confused since I’ve never experienced someone saying that, so I stayed silent pretending not to hear anything.” 

Ahmed said Pakistani Americans are often discriminated against, and they are subjected to many terrorist stereotypes. She has faced the occasional bomb and terrorist jokes, but she chooses to ignore them and let them pass, but “sometimes it does get frustrating.”

Ahmed loves finding similar students on campus and how she can open up to other students about these situations and they’ll understand.

“Finding someone who is Pakistani at Saratoga High feels so nice because you can connect with them and relate about your shared experiences,” Ahmed said.

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