I am the proctor for the TOEFL test; my parents are the test takers. My father is still mad that he had to take the TOEFL even though he was educated in one of Lahore’s most prestigious British colleges.
1972: My father’s the one bagging groceries for $1.60 an hour and sending the money back home to put his three younger brothers through school. 1982: My mother receives a UN scholarship to get her Masters in America. 2005: Their American-born daughter gets funding to go to college…in francophone Canada.
My parents and their college buddies still reminisce about escapades to avoid run-ins with immigration authorities on the unfortunate day an officer decided to knock on their apartment door. They used a $25 Chevy with wooden planks providing a makeshift floor as their getaway car.
Two car garage, two story house, no picket fence. The American dream, nonetheless.
After decades of scrimping and saving, my father still hoards items he finds on sale or for free. Freezer stuffed with boxes of pistachio ice cream – buy one, get one free. Drawers overflowing with free packets of Splenda, Sweet & Lo, salt, pepper, and ketchup. We also refrigerate our batteries because they last longer.
Yup, we’re that family.
Urdu with my mom, English with my dad – same conversation. My father can’t spend more than ten days a year in Pakistan without wanting to come home. I’ve spent three months a year there almost all of my life.
Three generations of women in my family have seen the birth of new countries, have been the afterbirth. My grandmother, born in Jalandhar in Indian Punjab, knows the slippery slide of bloody tissue from India to Pakistan. Her neighbors – Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims – killed their daughters for fear that they would be raped by the “enemy” during the great hijra east or west, depending on who you were. My mother, born in Chittagong, was traversing the streets of Peshawar covered in a chador, when the place of her birth became the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. And then there’s me, born in Atlanta, who sat in Khartoum, acidic tears burning a path down my face, as the Sudanese flag was lowered and the South Sudanese flag raised on July 9, 2011 in Juba. I don’t know who I cried for.
April 18, 2012: SPLA now controls Heglig while SAF antonovs have bombed near Bentiu. Dear God, please don’t let them go to war.
All of us unwillingly molded by the hyperbole of political rhetoric fabricating histories and identities out of religions, tribes, ethnicities, languages, and political aspirations. Muslim vs. Hindu. Punjabi vs. Sindhi. Bengali vs. Urdu. Arabic vs. English. African vs. Arab. North vs. South. Shari’a vs. secular. Men vs. women. Resisting to protect our sense of self, or submitting to create the definition of self. Verbal clashes at the dinner table.
My family never understood why I chose to go east, when they struggled so hard to come west.
They learned English, but I struggle to get by in Arabic.
East or west, the limits of politeness have long expired. “No, really, I am American.” Anyone can look American. That’s the motley beauty of Amreeka.
We don’t spend too much time thinking about migration, because we spend too much time migrating. Aunts in East Africa, UK, New Jersey, and uncles in Dallas.
We are the undeniable linking of East and West. A rootless, visceral knowledge of geographies and peoples embraced in the kindnesses and betrayals of individuals.
We are not mere political chess pieces, nor passive puppets in the playful ploys of others.
We are the actors in our own stories indiscriminately intertwined in the everyday performances of our vulnerability. In humanity’s theater, we are all the other and the other is a distorted, evolving reflection of ourselves.