At Here Magazine, we embrace the obvious connection between immigration and travel. In this new series, we’re highlighting the stories of people who remain connected to their home countries—either those with immigrant parents or those who are immigrants themselves. With “We Are All Immigrants: Stories About the Places We’re From,” you’ll hear from those most acutely affected by changing policies and a shifting reality, those who exist as part of multiple cultures at once. Kicking it all off, we have Umber Ahmad, the financier-turned-baker and owner of Mah-Ze-Dahr bakery in New York City. Raised in Michigan by Pakistani parents, Ahmad credits multicultural influences from Sweden, the U.S., and Pakistan for her unique appreciation for the world.
A sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
That has been my life for as long as I can remember. As a child, that can be isolating. As an adult, it is rife with possibilities. Growing up as a Pakistani family in Northern Michigan, I fell in love with the ideas of a Scandinavian life. We spent time in the sauna, learned to make nisu and sought out the best place to view the Northern Lights. And then, every summer we would travel to Pakistan.
My community consisted of some Pakistani things and some American things.
There, our lives would be filled with family, history, mangos, and those who looked like us but didn’t always think like us. So began the question of where we belonged. After all, human nature craves the comfort of tribe and familiarity. My community consisted of some Pakistani things and some American things, both of which contributed meaningfully to me becoming me. So I began to imagine a borderless world, one where it mattered less about where and why and mattered more about what and how. It wasn’t about being in one place or the other, but instead about the journey connecting the two.
I approached our annual treks to Pakistan as adventures to soak up the things I craved when I was in Michigan. My sister and I would sit on the floor next to my grandmother’s chair as she would sift through mounds of beans and tell us stories of the land on which they were grown. We would venture out to the bazaars with our mom, watching in awe as she bartered her way to new bangles and sandals for us. The hollering of the subzi walla (vegetable seller) would echo through the small street behind our family compound, pausing just long enough to receive my grandmother’s reply call asking if he had fresh eggplant or okra or whatever it is she decided we were to eat that day. I learned the power of the soil, the meaning of hard work, and the value of loyalty. The very nature of life in Pakistan created a foundation for us on which we could build a global existence.
I didn’t actually live between borders, just between adventures.
Spending time in Pakistan cemented in me the values and ideals I could apply to my life in the States. My American mentality shed a light on the most precious moments of Pakistani culture and history that would shape how I lived my life everyday. I felt really lucky, as though I had a secret that others did not. By spending time in both places, I started to see the world without borders that I had always imagined. Those borders, they weren’t about geography, they were about mentality. I didn’t actually live between borders, just between adventures. It is with the knowledge of both places, the traditions of both cultures, and the opportunities of both people that I get to live my life. Neither American nor Pakistani, just purely me. —Umber Ahmad