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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.