by HAFSA ARAIN
If you asked my parents about me, they would probably assume I got all of my personality traits from the Roald Dahl books I read as a child. Every American part of me is foreign to them. My siblings and I are Americans and they are not, and so assumed many things about us. My mother said that when we landed in Chicago, she thought that maybe one day we would speak English so fast that she would never understand us. “Your cousins were that way,” she remembers now, almost fondly, “I could just never understand them.”
My parents could never have predicted what moving across the globe would do to their relationships with their children. They could never really have guessed that we would have to strain to speak Urdu with our grandmother, that we would have wanted to go to a senior prom, that we would want to move out of the house after high school. For as long as we had pre-planned the way to approach them with these asks, it would all come as a complete shock to them.
These issues are common with young South Asians, desis, with parents like mine. There was a small group of us at my high school. We all had to test the limits of our parents at a young age – to see how far the fishing line would take us into American waters. There would be a collective applause when someone’s parents had allowed them to do this or that; on my part the response was usually barely masked envy. For the others, they could go back to their own families insisting that Priya’s mother is letting her go, so why I can’t I? And neither my sister nor I were allowed to attend our senior proms, no matter how many Priyas or Sonyas there would be in attendance. But this strict nature did not last long: my parents unwillingly let my sister move out of the house her sophomore year of college to live in an apartment on Loomis with a bunch of Asian international students. And after they had agreed to that, we knew that all of their restrictions on us had completely dissolved. We were free, as it were, to live our own lives.
When people meet me, they want to know instantly where I am from. They want to know which country specifically – when I tell them Chicago they are unsatisfied. They want to know if I live with my parents. They want to know how I learned to speak with this accent. These are the very same people who want me to tell them about arranged marriages, about month-long wedding receptions, about the elaborate outfits and dance sequences in some Bollywood films.
I am a young brown woman who lives 2,000 miles away from her family. This is a conundrum that many cannot comprehend. I have come to realize that I barely understand it myself.
The question I most often receive from other young South Asian immigrants like me is, “What do your parents think of you living so far away?” These desis were surely placing themselves in my shoes. Would their own parents not be amusingly disappointed if they had a daughter like me? A daughter who would study theology over finance, a daughter who would turn down the opportunity to attend law school.
I never knew how to answer that question simply because I was too annoyed at the assumptions it placed on me. It assumed that parents were involved in every decision I made, or that they somehow had a value system on the education I was receiving. They expected parental dissatisfaction with my life. Med school or engineering, sometimes Internet technology: these fields are stereotypical of us. In our model minority-hood, our stereotype has become our own measure of success.
There certainly was a time when my mother expected me to apply to law school. I was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and religious studies, and I had applied for and received a fellowship that would take me to northern California for a year. My mother said jokingly, “You are a good debater, because you debate with Mama all the time. You should go to law school.” When I responded in the negative, she became serious. “Why not? You meet some nice boy in law school, you settle down. You will have a good life.” I told her no one more time, and she stopped asking me about it.
Some part of me thought for a fleeting moment that she wanted me to go law school so she could achieve the trifecta of the desi standard of excellence: business (my sister), medicine (my younger brother), and law (me). But I think it was more that she recognized a quality in me that she wanted me to consider for a moment. She wanted me to see that I could do it if I wanted to, that I should not set aside a field because I assumed myself incapable.
I usually speak to my mother on the telephone once a week. I have begun to reserve my Sunday afternoons for it. The conversation follows a predictable pattern: she asks me what I ate that week and subsequently spends time regretting that she never taught me how to cook properly. I ask her what she and my father have watched on television, how political situations in Pakistan are progressing, and how each member of my very large extended family are doing. We have the same conversation when we see each other in person; we have had this same conversation my entire life.
Before I hung up the phone with her on a particularly stressful Sunday during finals last semester, my mother said in a softer voice than usual, “You know, Hafsa, we believe in you.” It was the first time she had said that. My father was sitting next to her on the sofa at the time.
It was somehow easier for her to say this to me over the phone while I was on the other side of the country. I didn’t have to see the pain in her face as she said it this way. I didn’t have to see from her expression how much she sincerely missed my presence at home. She didn’t see me tear up over the phone, though she might have heard the lump in my throat.
My parents cannot know how to be proud of their children in the vocal way that other Americans are proud of their children. They were not taught to be American parents. They never had to say they believed in me, but I always knew it. Not just because they let me move 2,000 miles away, for there was no more allowing me to do things. I would have done them with or without their permission.
The fact that she had said it, then, made all the difference. It meant that she had buried her past in order for me to build my future. The things they had wanted me to accomplish had all been washed away. And even the dreams they had when they were my age - with a young family and a set of airplane tickets – were impossibly set aside. They had given us everything. My own dream of being a theologian was only questioned once. My parents asked me after I had shown them my acceptance letter for graduate school, “Do you think this will make you happy?” After I responded yes, my mother said, “Then you will do good things.”
The most recent time someone asked me what my parents thought of my being on my own in a religious studies program halfway across the country, I responded with, “They love it.”
The conversations my sister and I had with one another as teenagers often centered on the idea that the desi generation after us, the generation where we would be the parents, would be so infinitely lucky. They would have parents that were raised in the United States like us, parents who would let their children go out on dates and wear whatever they wanted to wear, and be friends with whomever they liked. They would have parents who understood – parents who got it. But this is not true. The world that we live in is different from the world our parents lived in. This is the case for each and every one of us. My mother will often tell us nonchalantly that we will see when we are older. We will see then just how much the world can change.
Hafsa Arain is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in California. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the margins.
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