There can be a lot said about love, particularly, the love that is born in war, in trauma, in utter destruction.
In America, people say “I love you” rather easily I think. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s dropped easily within conversations, among short farewells. It’s a good thing. Love is a force that stabilizes, that sustains.
On the contrary, it is often said about South Asian peoples that in everyday life “we don’t show enough love”. I have heard a lot of fellow desi immigrant kids say “We never saw open gestures of affection between our parents”. I think for the larger part, it is true.
But I think, somewhere woven in my upbringing is this core belief that love should be done rather than said. It is easy to say three simple words, it is not that easy to actively do them.
So how do you do love?
The simple answer is: I don’t know. But there are a lot of examples around me. My grandfather often tells this story of our grandmother when in their younger days, he’d stress over his files and accounts and would get frustrated when they weren’t computing right. And she’d come around and shut them quietly and would tell him to relax for a bit before he went back to them. And he’d say, always with this smile, that when he’d go back to those files after a relaxing nap, they’d always compute perfectly the first time.
And in that moment, in that story telling moment, they did love to each other. She told him to take a break. He would retell the story, appreactingly, affectionately.
I’m not going to say their love is ever lasting, sustaining. He wasn’t always good to her, and he didn’t realize it. But he tired to make amends at the end. But there are these windows, always these glimpses that I see.
My grandmother is a very hospitable, caring person. I don’t think she’s ever let anyone out of her house without food. She’ll always pack me with extra roti rolls whenever I leave home for college. Always takes care that not only I’m well-fed, but I’m well fed on my favorite foods. She does that with everyone.
It’s a very simple act if you think about it. Making sure that someone is sustained. But it speaks volume. I think the last time she told me actively that she loved me was when I was a bratty child. But even now, even when she shies away from words, from too open shows of affection, she does love.
Immigration, and we’re talking about “voluntary” migration here, is a violent process. It displaces people, tears them apart from families, from their social networks, from their language, their foods, from their everything. Migrant peoples often put on a brave face, try and make a new life. And often, these people are already suffering historic trauma. Burdened by legacies of colonialism, their environments too often perpetuating various elements of other emotional and psychological abuse, many migrants don’t really know how to love.
But they bear love. In broken ways, in scarred ways, glimpses through a window.
Trauma is re-emphasized through generations. And so their children grow, trying to make sense of it all, in an environment already hostile to them, in an environment where social support is already minimal. They act out, they stay, they gather broken pieces and try and put together a mosaic or they get up and escape. Against all odds, against all the taunts, they shore up their sanity-ies, make something out of themselves to move their communities forward.
Migrants and their children bear love, do love, rarely say it enough. rarely celebrated enough. They make me want to tear my hair out, and simultaneously humble me.
Being an immigrant means tearing your psyche apart a little. Displacement from home communities have a lot of effects, and not all of them can be quantitatively dissected. Maybe that’s where my pain of diaspora lies.
My academic work has been solidifying lately into the direction I have wanted to go in. At the same time, I think I have taken an active interest in how my psyche, as an immigrant and a racialized minority in the US develops and grows. I suddenly want to talk again. So here is part 1. And here will be subsequent parts whenever I get to them.
- - - - - - - -
I still remember my first day in America. We had to wait a long time because my uncle couldn’t take time off until the evening to come pick us up from JFK. And I remember feeling underwhelmed. I was expecting Islamophobia right at the airport. I hadn’t slept for the past 28 hours or so, and my guard was high up through the roof. But the feeling I still distinctly remember from the first day and week: underwhelmed. I was so underwhelmed by everything. There were tall buildings in New York? Big deal, we had tall buildings in Myanmar too. And that was a third world country governed by military.
My grandfather had told us JFK was a beautiful airport. You call this beautiful? I thought. It was all glass and ceiling, glaring white light compounding my exhaustion. Gold metallic benches. I thought of the airport I had left in Myanmar. There was a portrait of a dancing celestial fairy on one of the walls. I had wanted to stop and admire it, hadn’t had the time. In Singapore airport, there were little gardens with waterfalls and massaging chairs. Free wifi too. All free for travelers.
JFK was cold metallic benches and self consumed people. I was tired and underwhelmed and wanted to sleep dammit.
- - - - - - - -
It’s hard to capture myself accurately from those days. There was so much energy and at the same time, I was free falling through limbo. School admissions. ESL tests. I encountered my first Islamophobic person within the month that I came into the US. It was covert and overt all at the same time. My sister and I had not known how to react. Heck, we didn’t even believe our own ears when we heard the comments and confirmed it with each other when we came back home. There was so much residual shock. There still is.
And then there were the ESL tests. Everyone was so surprised my English was so good. And that my sister and I were apparently so smart! They didn’t know what to do with us and at the same time, we became new flashy gadgets that everyone wants to play with.
I felt like I was in a whirlwind but at the same time, falling endlessly through limbo. I had goals. Get out of high school. Go to college. Go to medical school Become a doctor. Go back home. It was solid. Focus. So much was starting to fall apart of me months after we arrived. Focus.
- - - - - - - -
This wasn’t the first time I changed school. I wore shalwar kameez. Not to be brave, but because I honestly wasn’t interested in jeans and t-shirts. I didn’t have any and regardless, the shopping wasn’t going well either way.
Perhaps if I hadn’t stood out so much with my hijab and shalwar kameez I would have assimilated within the student body with a bit more ease. Or if I’d had the courage to battle the cafeteria from the beginning. Which came at least half a year after I had been in school. And it wasn’t even me braving the cafeteria line, it was me finding a quiet spot to eat lunch and read that my loving grandmother had packed for me.
Oh. And I read a lot. All the time. If I there were lapses in class time, my book would be out. I’d read through lunch. While waiting for my ride home. It was my escape.
Somewhere where I had friends.
- - - - - - - -
In schools back home, students stayed in one class room all day while teachers came in and left as bells rang for different periods. Lockers would be in the room, you made your friends in the room, the room became an important staging area for everything social. It wasn’t like you didn’t make friends outside the room, but your classroom became your home within the school.
In America, this entire system was on it’s head. Rushing from one room to another. Changing faces. I have always been an introvert, so I didn’t know then how to make friends with people I didn’t have to interact with half a day. And since I wasn’t an ESL kid, alienation became inevitable.
And anyway most of the ESL kids were Israelis we never could agree on anything since we couldn’t agree on the Israeli - Palestinian issue. And the hispanic kid was gay. Or talked about gayness too much. And well, he was a boy. Not welcome on my radar.
But I wasn’t alienated. There was a black girl and a few South Asian girls who would reach out subtly, unconsciously. The first to talk to me, the first to stand up for me when needed. Like an invisible body guard that moved constantly around me, subtly pull my awkward self into their group of friends even though I would stubbornly, silently, passive-aggressively refuse.
It was then that I created my “tough girl” persona. Started the process of recreating myself. If I didn’t want friends and anything to do with this country and leave as soon as possible, well, I was going to do just that. And nobody was going to mess that up for me.
Get on all fours
As they pin my arms behind me, like they do on cops
Transform my resistance into
How about I curve my back, tilt that ass up?
Lets your buying power penetrate deeper
Now he too can live out his
His call of duty, modern warfare, video game, sexual fantasies of conquering
Those dirty, backward 3rabs
Patriotism through sodomizing the enemy
Drone my ass like you do in queerslamastan
Impose sanctions on my pleasure,
For the sake of yours
Because terrorists shouldn’t feel ecstasy when they are pillaged
Repurpose the scope on your sniper
Into those kinky glory holes you worship in porn
Pound me away with your freedom missiles
Until they have fired and my muscles are leveled
Because i am your towel-head bottom,
So go on, squat and shit your liberalism on my burned body
Tie me up BDSM style, like you did in Abu Ghraib
Oh, with the matching blindfolds too!
Then take snapshots and show the world, show my family
Because imperialism never lets me forget
This sex life
Forever obscured by the war on terror
Perhaps a cover for the Gay International?
A movement that creates new identities defined by attraction to pink cock and consumption
It never occurred to me,
that they didn’t stop at taking our lands, co-opting our culture, and erasing our history…
… they would also steal my sexuality
Mind-fuck me so hard that I no longer understand my desires,
And only see them as your conquests
I wait till you lock your target on me, then mark your modernity inside my body
And as you leave behind your western artifacts…
That you suture all between my skin, like your imposed borders
You tell me, a body patched up by whiteness
Is more beautiful than my brown complexion
I am forever your:
Sand fag, towel rag, Arabian nights, sub bottom sex toy, waiting to be chosen from this open air prison you built around my sexuality
I call these crimes against my sexuality
Yet another facet of this war on terror
We were sitting with a group of my friends and the talk turned to us. A friend said I like you because you can talk to me about “India and Muslim stuff”.
I didn’t know how to disclaim her, but now I do.
I didn’t fall in love with you because you are one of the few who can talk to me of post colonialism and diaspora and Muslim theology. Did you note those key words: one of the few. So we can say reasonably that I could have fallen in love with someone else if those were my only criteria. But it wasn’t.
I didn’t fall in love with you for post colonialism and other aspects of knowledge that match and challenge mine. I could have taught you all that. I have offered it to others.
I fell in love with you for all the things I couldn’t teach you.
I fell in love for your open affection and the love you showered on me unconditionally. Did you know I desperately tried to guard myself against that? Told myself nothing would come of it. Told myself I was a fool, I was a fool, I was a goddamn fool, what if I lost a love and a friend in the process just for the sake of my whimsical curious heart?
(I knew then how cruelly selfish I could be. I thought of only myself through and through.)
I fell in love with your kindness, your friendliness, for your genuine concern and affection you try to carefully hide behind shields of arrogance (oh, don’t get me wrong you are arrogant in your intellect and you have a right but really). Perhaps I fell in love with you arrogance. Who knows? (Definitely those green eyes and the way you look when you are seriously contemplating something, even if it’s soccer or rolling a cigarette or Irish diaspora or…). I fell in love with your mind which accepted me unquestioningly, I fell in love with your faith (and your hair, all of it), and I fell in love with the way you kissed me so softly, so affectionately, your understanding, your arms when they held me as I sobbed brokenly into them.
I fell in love with you. Enough said.
I have always been told that people forget God when they are happy, but only remember Him in their misery.
I have nothing against preachers, against pious advice given in good intentions, but I wonder if they realized their words were (and still are) one of the biggest reason I hesitate spreading my prayer mat when I am in dire of God.
Thanks for making me feel like a hypocrite.
But this post isn’t about bitterness. I am happy right now, alhumdulillah, mashallah, and in all this bountiful happiness, I have been thinking of God, I have remembered to be thankful, ask for help to be able to stay humble, to remember my roots.
(and much at the same time, I want to turn around and toss a mocking laugh at all those who prophesied I would forget my God in my happiness, but that doesn’t sound good, but then again, I am human.)
(Oh I am human, and thank you Lord, for that)
O paalanhaare, nirgun aur nyaare
Tumre bin hamra kaunon naahin [x]
Love is so terrifying.
Love is such a tease.
Why doesn’t ever anybody talk about this aspect of love? No, I mean, really talk about it. Really talk about how much your heart can be terrified and daring all at the same time.
We’ve talked about the future. Tentative steps and words at first, and then more as we got more comfortable, a little less nervous. (Its surprising the conversations that third party drunk people can start sometimes. Well. No regrets though.) The fact that I graduate later than he does, the fact that he wants to go abroad, and that I am stuck in red-tape-bureaucracies!
I found a Masters program the other day for him, in Qatr. It sounds almost too perfect, and I want it to be for him, but I don’t, I don’t. I want him, need him by my side, yes I am being selfish, but I can’t help it, and for once, just once, can’t I be let off the hook? And I caught myself wondering how long does a Masters program take? Four years? Three? Two? The last time was only six months, and we both knew his arrival date back, and I am so, so terrified of committing to this, because I have a history of father being away abroad, and I know what happens, but I want to believe in this, believe in us, is that too much to ask for?
But maybe it won’t happen, and maybe it will, because the last thing I’d want him to be would be unhappy, his wings clipped in a place where he was feeling too…. trapped. I know that feeling, why would I want it for someone I love? And he’d be happier abroad, even if it’s for a short time, or for not-such-a-short-time so I have to be brave, no, it’s not I have to be, it’s I want to be, it’s I will be.
No matter how terrifying, because as much as I am used to running, I don’t want to run from this. This is precious. This I can hold, and dare to trust.
(Let’s not think about what happens if this fragile thing breaks, because I am not that brave, I am not that strong.)
I have learned patience, and I have learned love, and now I must learn patience in love in so many aspects in my life. I have watched roses bloom, so slow, so painstakingly slow, over days and weeks, and so I will keep those images in mind, and it’s scent in mind, and I will be patient.
I have waited for seasons so I could have jasmines in the garden again.
(Lord, have mercy on my soul.)
I have learnt to wait with patience.
And isn’t this the natural progression of things, anyway? I sowed my dreams with tender care, and a lot of apprehension, and it is time I watch it grow.
One day, harvesting season would come too.
Being an immigrant has its many challenges of course, but the essence of it is the whole building up a new life.
And I mean everything. From figuring out how a new place is set up and how it works (that one takes forever) to making friends and creating networks, and then doing simple things like going to a concert or out to eat… . .
I have recently been looking back at my life, and realized, I was never good at making friends. They just…happened. And because of all the moving around that I did, I let them … go. I think overtime, even though I understood the concept of friendships, I still haven’t really understood how to keep those ties. Even though I cater to so many people, I rarely ever know how to demand a little back, how not to be a doormat.
But this isn’t what this post is about.
But then again, I am not sure what this, what anything is about anyway, anymore. No, no, I do. I want to build things up, and I don’t want to feel overwhelmed. I have been feeling so alone, and because of my nature, I kind of threw myself into everything, and everyone. And then I had no time for myself. And that’s where the building things come. I want to build something up for myself. I am happy in my relationship. I am happy at what I am studying (finally!). I am happy with my circle of friends (though they are all random, and rarely intersect), but there seems to be an aching…emptiness? no, that’s not the word….there’s an aching… .something.
I want to have a day to myself, roam around the city quietly, figuring out something within me. What does it feel like to go to a concert? What does it feel like to be normal and go on a shopping spree with your girls? What does it feel like to be secure in your whole self? I wonder. Perhaps I am romanticizing my past, but I wonder what it would be like to again in a city which I knew more intimately than the my current residence and to be free. Not caged within chaperons and polite smiles, just….free.
No strings attached. All my circles still intact. I wonder what that would be like. But I need to stop yearning.
I still don’t know what this post is all about.
How does one deal with being a romantic, immigrant, desi girl at heart?
To his credit, he has asked me often: where would you like to go, what would you want to do? And I am always at a loss for things. I don’t know this country, I have no clue, no idea, all I know is that I don’t want a lot of money spent on me.
I am a romantic, immigrant, desi girl at heart. If I had my way, we’d go eat gola gande on the streets of Karachi, and maybe he will buy me choori, or a gajra. If I had my way, I’d drag him off and we’d have a long walk by the lake under the full moon in Yangon. If I had my way, we’d roam Old Karachi and Sadar and dig through old books, and squeal over them. If I had my way, I’d go to that only restaurant that served halaal Indian food but Burmese cakes somewhere by Kandawgyi in my birth city. If I had my way, we’d go listen to poets late into the night and come back tired and worn out and happy.
But I have my way. I just don’t know what to do with it.
What is a romantic, desi, immigrant girl to do? I don’t know. But the other day he wanted to surprise me by taking me to a desi restaurant and I loved the thought he put into it. It floored me, it didn’t matter that we never made it there, I loved him for that, for the thought and effort, I was so sweetly in love with him in that moment. He found out about famous Indian percussionists that were coming by, and made it a point to come with me and enjoyed himself immensely.
Little things, small moments, they overwhelm me, and I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.
It doesn’t take away the ache of homesickness that persists, doesn’t undo the hate that is hurled our way. Even as I am starting to build up dreams in which I show him my world, my way.
Not through books and second hand accounts. It’s so far away (it’s a dream, nothing but a dream), and I am so apprehensive, but oh, how I’d like to take his hands and show him another world.
Watch him fall in love with things that are inextricably woven into my identity.
And perhaps that’s what romantic, desi, immigrant girls do. They dream, they dream with a soft smile, and they dream with patience as they keep the smell of a gajra in their mind.