Away From Home: Backdrops and Battle Scars

How do you navigate identities when they are fluid and constantly shape-shifting? What happens when the backdrop against which you’ve developed is replaced by a foreign one?

Geography is essential to my narrative. It is one of the biggest impediments to my construction of an encompassing self-image. My exploration has led me to many strange lands far away and often I try to remember where I started.

“You feel the need to put people into boxes. Perhaps this is because of the schizophrenia of your identities,” he says as we fight.

I try not to let those words sting. I fail.

“I think you’re assuming a dissonance in my self-image that doesn’t exist. It is all a continuous experience.”

Is it a lie? A half-truth? Against no backdrop but a Facebook chat window, it is hard to say.

“The city is garbage,” he claims emphatically, “but it does not really matter here.” He brandishes his pinched fingers in the air for added impact. His words remind me of simpler times. Of the taste of milk at home that comes from buffaloes, not cows, pasteurized and preserved in cardboard boxes and not the U.S. bottles. I can almost feel the silkiness against my tongue. I wonder if I have ever described that difference to my peers and if they would ever understand its significance. Is that feeling not the very thing my friend had been talking about?

He refuses to remain in contact with his college friends over the summers. Home for him is thousands of kilometers from campus—just like me. He says we do not have the frame of reference—the familiarity with the city, his surroundings, and the realities of that specific context—to appreciate his particular experiences there and stripped of nuance, that narrative does not deserve recounting. I am surprised by how he does not feel the need or pressure to give us a backdrop, albeit incomplete, to project our interpretation of his anecdotes on and to make sense of him across the geographical and cultural landscapes he navigates. To him the reason is simple: It would create a false sense of intimacy and understanding. He wants none of it.

I am hurt by this admission. Excluded from part of his life. But I can also to see why. After all, have I not given up in exasperation in my effort to capture the robust vitality of my hometown in conversations with Claremont friends? Had I not attempted and failed to find English synonyms for Urdu words that seem to encapsulate entire aspects of existence?

The Guardian recently published an essay by British actor Rez Ahmed of the HBO original series, The Night Of. It is taken from The Good Immigrant, a collection of pieces about race and immigration in the UK. He talks about the three stages of character development in acting and how they tie into his experiences as a brown-bodied male artist.

“Stage one is the two-dimensional stereotype—the minicab driver/terrorist/cornershop owner. It tightens the necklace. Stage two is the subversive portrayal, taking place on “ethnic” terrain but aiming to challenge existing stereotypes. It loosens the necklace. And stage three is the Promised Land, where you play a character whose story is not intrinsically linked to his race. There, I am not a terror suspect, nor a victim of forced marriage. There, my name might even be Dave. In this place, there is no necklace.”

I wear that necklace every day and wonder when I will remove it—especially in my own eyes. Who prevents me from doing so? Why do I always feel like I am “performing identities” across latitudinal divides? The answers churn in my stomach with my Tuesday tacos from Frank.

As a politics major, I look at power: its origins, distribution and manifestation. In international relations, I look at how nation-states exert power. I attempt to decipher diplomatic discourse and how to bypass it through opportunities for track-two diplomacy.

I turn on the news. I see nameless refugees. Victims. Threats. Free-wheelers. Skittles. I think of the ones I got to know in Germany and how their first questions were about language classes and employment. I read about a Muslim cleric gunned down on his way from the mosque in Queens. A bomb planted in a dumpster by a Muslim man. I think of my five-year-old nephew in the city who loves running through the rows of people praying on Friday afternoons, and the weight of identity and ethnicity he will soon carry.

“How do you feel about it?” the brand new Muslim Chaplain asks.

“Not again,” I type furiously. “Not another brown man, Muslim man, Arab man, South-Asian man. Not another act of violence. Not another round of vitriol. Not anything, not anymore. Please.”

On Eid-ul-Adha my first year of college, I went to prayers with a Muslim professor at 6 a.m. He and his daughter drove the entire Muslim population on campus—10—to a congregation the town over. I skipped breakfast and rushed back to attend my 10 a.m. class.

My second year, I visited my aunt in Texas for Eid. My wardrobe—a shoulder-baring red dress—was a major point of contention. The following week, there was a college-sponsored celebration in Claremont that I attended with my mother and where I ate Middle-Eastern food.

I was abroad in Freiburg for Eid my junior year. I skipped class to make mutton korma with Halal meat. I purchased it at an Oriental store the same name as my niece, from an Afghan refugee-turned-butcher who offered to give it to me for free. Later that day, my flat-mate Lovisa and I ate baklava and licked the sticky sugar syrup from our hands.

This year for Eid, I ate a Zilhij feast with a group of Muslim students at an Indian restaurant and celebrated Chaand Raat—literally “the night of the moon” —with henna and kheer.

Not many people know what Hajj or Zilhij or Eid is. I don’t care if they don’t.

“What are you thinking of doing after graduation?” my academic adviser asks expectantly.

“Depends on geography,” I tell him.

“Where can you be?”

“Ideally, Lahore. Probably New York. Maybe Berlin.”

“That is so exciting!”

“Exhausting might be more accurate. I am so exhausted,” I admit partly angry and partly sad. “They say globalization has allowed for the world to shrink. But just because you can traverse distances faster doesn’t mean distances have disappeared. Maybe they became a part of me—of us—instead.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe the distance I feel from myself—my authentic self—is the way in which global interconnectedness has negotiated its way into our lives.”

“How is that?”

“Being multilingual, I can communicate with everyone I meet in my different worlds. I can never tell them a linear life story or expect them to understand it fully.”

He smiles and we sit in silence for a while.

Aiman Chaudhary PO '17 is a Politics and International Relations major. 

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