On independence, aliens and the immigrant journey

It’s July – the month of Independence for the United States. July 2014 is also the first month of my life as a US citizen, a milestone 14 years in the making and a journey that’s definitely been about personal independence. It has also been the ultimate mind-fuck (by that I mean a physical, emotional, cultural and spiritual roller coaster worthy of Six Flags).

Home & Independence
These two words don’t have to imply opposing forces, yet in the way I defined them and how my life played out, that’s exactly what they were. To me, home was spatially defined i.e. it was a place. You could Google the instructions to get to it. And my home was Canal Bank, Lahore Pakistan. Tied to these geographic coordinates was a feeling of familiarity, knowing-ness, family, acceptance and love.
Then there was independence, a strong need I’d always aimed to fulfill. It represented the ability to define myself and live my life with zero dependence on anything and anyone. The decision to move to the United States was one of choosing a shot at independence over the warm feeling of home. And for your sake, I hope you never have to make that choice.

Landing at SeaTac airport for the first time, I remember being flooded with observations about the tall, white (and some black), happy and loud alien nation I was surrounded by. I tried to make sense of it with the few reference points I had from movies, music and CNN. They sounded like MacGyver, they looked like the cast of American Pie. I remember meeting the first black person in my life (my immigration officer) and thinking “Sam Jackson would look something like this”. (No, that’s not racist so calm down). Everyone looked rich with their Nike backpacks, Uggs and long boots, airplane pillows and laptop bags. They were familiar and yet very foreign.
As I made my way through immigration, I was asked to stand in a line labelled “Alien Registration” which struck me as odd. I did not identify with that word. But over the next few weeks, months, years, that changed.
That day at the airport, my view of the world came from a Me that was grounded in her identity as a Pakistani girl who functioned in a Pakistani context. So all I experienced was curiosity about the Other, which was the Alien. Living among them on a permanent basis led to the realization that I was now a Pakistani girl who functioned in an American context. That made me the Alien to them, and surprisingly it also made me the Alien to myself because I didn’t know who I was outside of the context I’d grown up in. All that was left was a disorienting sense of being out of place, of being cut off from my own mother-ship, of alienation.

My world, Their world
Not sure about you, but I have yet to come across a step-by-step guide on how to deal with an identity crisis brought on by a deep sense of alienation due to immigration. I have contemplated writing one and maybe someday I will. In the absence of that, I did what most good avoiders do – I pretended like I didn’t live in the United States. I wore a traditional Pakistani shawl to work everyday. Within it’s folds existed my old world, my home. I insisted on wearing my Peshawari chappals because as long as I walked in them, I was reminded of walking on my own soil and not this foreign mulch. I sought out Pakistani restaurants, Pakistani people (regardless of who they were or whether I liked them) and my trips home started to feel like religious pilgrimages.
9/11 changed all that. The afternoon the towers fell, a coworker sent me a mail that started a decade long process of rediscovery. It read “You should apologize for your people and what they’ve done to my people. I hope you feel ashamed and sorry for what’s happened”. In that moment, my carefully built walls came crashing down and in came the world I was hiding from along with every self-doubt and every challenge to my deep held beliefs about my identity as a Pakistani representing Pakistan. Why was I being asked to apologize? Because I was a Pakistani or a Muslim or both? What did that even mean? Did I know or represent an average Pakistani or an average Muslim? Was there even such a thing as an average Pakistani or Muslim? Did I relate with those identifiers? Did I relate with myself as a Pakistani or Muslim? If not, then who the fuck was I? I had many questions and very few answers. This time, instead of making my world small, I decided to make it big.

Exploration – looking for myself and home
What followed was a broad and deep experiential exploration of my identity and the American culture. I HAD to understand America for for what it was (and not just via movies) if there was any chance of it ever becoming Home. This meant saying Yes more often than No, even if it led to awkward and scary experiences. Through these I learnt many things that you may take for granted. For instance, did you know that

  • it’s not immediately obvious to an immigrant that “assisted living” is not just for senior citizens? I wish someone had told me because it would have saved me and the lady at the Sunrise of Bellevue a wasted tour of the facilities and mutual embarrassment and confusion at my application. I do believe there’s a great business idea here though – assisted living for lazy, lost immigrants 🙂
  • showing up as a small brown girl from Pakistan for an NRA-organized weekend workshop freaks out the other attendees? (For what it’s worth, they were gracious and kind, and I learnt a lot about guns and my hidden talent as a marksman)
  • it’s not common knowledge that if you’re shopping at Sears, you’re not exactly following western fashion trends, so it’s best to keep quiet about it. Nor is it known that the novelty of Jerry Springer to an immigrant is not shared by most locals
  • it’s a daunting task to select cereal from an entire aisle of options when you come from a country where there’s only one cereal brand and it comes in one flavor (Fauji Corn Flakes, I still love you!)
  • when you’re coming from a world where R, MA, NC-17 mean nothing, it doesn’t occur to you to check the rating of the movie you invite coworkers of the opposite sex to watch with you (and for that reason I will always remember Original Sin)
  • Swinging is a misleading term because to many of us (who don’t claim to have English as their first language) it means free motion through air, as if on a swing! Good thing I have the word No in my vocabulary and know how to use it in a sentence
  • an immigrant wearing a sweater in 72 degree weather doesn’t make them crazy, even though they look crazy – they just happen to come from a country where it’s 110 degrees right now
  • the idea of a couch potato is not universally known. So when someone asks you what you did over the weekend and you (the immigrant) tell them you watched TV and ate cereal, you don’t even realize that you’ve just been judged harshly for your lazy, sedentary lifestyle. Next time, make shit up! Lie, because it’s better than the truth
  • dating and it’s rules (e.g. what’s acceptable on a 1st, 3rd, 5th date), courtship and expressions of love are highly culture-specific – that’s material for the book so I’m not sharing it here 🙂

Lessons learnt!
On a more serious note, I find this (i.e. exploration) is the pivotal point where most immigrants bow out of the assimilation process. They are so scared of being shamed and found-out to for not knowing the fundamentals of how society works that they never get down and dirty and just give it a try. I empathize and relate. It’s fucking hard! Having a sense of humor helps. And remembering that there’s a reason all of us severed the umbilical from our place of origin and moved here helps. Why not take the few more steps needed to really embrace the change we made the choice to bring to our lives?

Loss & Gain
For a while it felt like the more I explored, the more I lost and the more I lost, the more lost I felt. Detours within detours with no destination in mind. But I’m so glad I stayed with it because loss is just a gain waiting to happen.

  • Losses: The feeling of Home, Islam and the concept of organized religion and the community and sense of belonging it represents, many friends from the past, tolerance for spicy food, indoor focused sedentary life-style, doubts about my ability to succeed in my career relative to all these people that I perceived as having a head start, Peshawari chappals and traditional shawls, and the sense of safety that’s unique to a small and familiar world view
  • Gains: Independence, Spirituality and the One, many friends from here, the concept of self-development and healing, love and understanding of western fashion, yoga, pilates and hitting the gym, a more refined palette, and comfort with not knowing more than I know

Independence & Home – Revisited
Going to back to visit Canal Bank, Lahore Pakistan remind me of home but it is not home. Coming back to Kirkland WA reminds me of comfort and familiarity but it is also not home. I suspect that home will never be defined with the simplicity and certainty that it was before the year 2000. In the absence of that, I have chosen to come up with a poor man’s version of Home, a tofurkey version if you will, and this is a dynamic sense of being at home within myself.
I’ve questioned and recognized that my pursuit of Independence as I had defined it (i.e. negation of dependence) had enslaved me. Dependence on others (people, ideals, organizations, concepts) creates a sense of connection and well-being. It’s the freedom to choose who and what to depend on that I’ve been seeking this entire time. For all the criticism the US gets, I have yet to find a place that provides the space to explore, express and pursue freedom as she does. Perhaps in that sense the land of the free calls to it those that pursue freedom and in some deep way is the home they were always looking for.

3 thoughts on “On independence, aliens and the immigrant journey

  1. I love your writing style.. It’s really honest and this article hit close to home.. I had to take a fruit ninja break after couple paras because I didn’t want it to end too soon 🙂

  2. Nice blogpost, enjoyed it till i reached the end. Is the US really a land of the free? for all the reasons you mention, perhaps the best place to exercise that sense of freedom would be an island nation or perhaps a smaller country with a developed society. Recent events have shown the dark underbelly of US society as deeply racist and Orwellian. Something many have known for a while.

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