Increasingly, I find myself missing the Netherlands.
If you talked to me at any point over the last year, you would have heard some variation of the following: “I don’t really like traveling or going out of my comfort zone but…” and I know the part about not liking travel sounds weird but give this blog post a read and you’ll figure out why soon enough. Or hell, if you’ve been following this blog since before I came to college, you’ll know why. One of the central questions of my formative years was how long I’d have to wait until I truly felt at home somewhere. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make Lahore home again, and my trip back after five years of separation during the summer of 2016 proved me right (I made my peace with that pretty much instantly!). But in the interim, I had actively pinpointed Boston as home, and wasn’t disappointed. Boston will always be home.
And so, when I moved to the Netherlands, I was excited but I also went in with the mindset of impermanence. This was a temporary stopover so even if I ended up being extremely homesick or straight-up unhappy, there was an end-date I could rely on. And certainly, my last month in the Netherlands was one where I couldn’t wait for the end-date. Why not? I would see my family again, my brother was going to get married, I would soon be preparing for my last semester of college – there was so much to look forward to that I couldn’t help but be antsy.
But God, was it bittersweet. I didn’t expect the Netherlands to be so welcoming. Rather, I didn’t expect my heart – with its specific idea of “home” – to be so open to leaving a piece of itself with the Netherlands. Six months was not a long time, and I know there is so much I didn’t get to experience about the Netherlands; but I had my routine, and I had cultivated my comforts, my pet peeves, so fully. Every now and then, I’ll be hit with such a dense pang of longing for aspects of those six months. But it doesn’t make me sad or miserable with my current situation. I couldn’t be happier being in Boston (though my current workload could definitely stand to chill out for a hot second). The nostalgia doesn’t hurt, it just reminds me of the fullness of my time in yet another country I say I’ve lived and loved. What’s strange about my time there, though, is the privacy of it. I mentioned in a previous blog post from when I was in the Netherlands that the isolation I felt was really bizarre. Not too long after that, I realized it was because there weren’t many people with whom I was actively, physically sharing that moment in time-space with. For once, this experience was mine and mine along. But the consequence of that is now that I’m back to a familiar old lifestyle, I feel like my experiences in the Netherlands are private and secret. It’s a world only I know, that only I have experienced in its fullness. I had a few friends visit at a couple of points in those six months, but none of them really know of my time in the Netherlands in the way I did and do. My friends there are mine. My workplace there was mine. My time there was mine. My grocery trips there were mine. My meal-prep were mine. The cafe I used to go to to research was mine.
In fact, I hadn’t realized how much of my normal life wasn’t mine. That’s not a bad thing at all. It speaks to another kind of fullness, the fullness of companionship that I am so lucky to have. More than anything else though the Netherlands taught me that I can be happy experiencing something on my own. I don’t really want to go out of my way to emulate the experience again, so you definitely won’t be getting a travel blog out of me any time soon (or ever), but I feel so much more confident in and with myself. I got to travel to Berlin on my own – without access to internet or cellular communication beyond public WiFi – and it was a really good experience. I can succeed on my own!
I can’t explain how badly I needed to know that.
The Netherlands – especially the Hague and Rotterdam – will always hold a wonderful place in my heart. It also feels good knowing that if my career goes the way I hope it does and I end up back in the Netherlands, I’ll be back to a beloved familiar. So, yes, I’ve been missing the Netherlands a lot: the chocolate, the straightforward people, my co-workers and friends that I got to know, my Sundays dedicated almost entirely to hours of meal-prep, visits to the grocery store, CHEAP PRODUCE, Albert Heijn and pepernoten, the view from the beach clubs at Scheveningen, getting lost in Rotterdam, the way the Hague glories as it is bathed in sun, punctual public transportation, the fries… but at the end of the day, I don’t miss the Netherlands as if it’s something gone missing. I revel in having tried something new and falling in love in the process.
But I’ll be damned if you see me post a picture of the Hague on Instagram with the caption Take me back!
I hate calling myself a poet, in the way I always struggled with calling myself an artist (I still don’t like calling myself an artist). To be a “poet” or an “artist” means you have received a degree of instruction, or self-taught prowess, of a calibre that it can be disseminated. I don’t think I have that distinction at all. I can barely call myself a writer. It’s easier to create some space between myself and the act: I write poetry, I make art, both are more palatable in that they aren’t claims, they aren’t identities, but they are easily identifyable actions.
At some point, I had forgone this cautionary practice and – kind of arrogantly – started calling myself a poet. For what reason? I got a handful of likes on some poetry I threw onto my Instagram feed, and it fed my ego. I wrote more stuff, and threw it on my Insta feed, and got more affirmation. Don’t get me wrong – I cared about the poetry I wrote, and I took care in the writing process. I sat on poems until I was happy with them, for weeks and months at times. But at the back of my mind, I knew the medium I was writing for. I had a formula – no more lines than can fit the length of my phone, linebreaks so that there were no run-on sentences past the width of my phone, and squat enough that the poem could be easily squared and put up on Instagram. I was immediately limited to short bursts of prettily strung together sentences that, sure enough, were poems but by no means the best poems I could write. At some point, I had accrued enough poems that I could dedicate a separate poetrygram to my work, and I did. I felt wonderful about that – maybe I could find a poetry community for myself on Instagram. I could cultivate followers, get feedback, learn from the feedback. It would be a form of workshopping that I didn’t have access to.
A few months passed. Feeling somewhat dissatisfied still, after a few months of playing around with the poetrygram, I created a poetry WordPress blog. I felt wonderful about that again, but in a slightly wiser way. That was my first inkling of understanding. Once I started writing poetry specifically for the WordPress blog, I found that I became more experimental. I started playing with formats and styles, wrote longer poems, I created room for myself to expand into. All the little lessons I had stored away in the back of my mind in my miserliness after years of reading diverse poetry finally had a space to come out in. I was Silas Marner, and this endless space for growth and writing was my Eppie. I was a surprised at how different my poetry had become, within days – I wasn’t writing for a specific medium anymore, and, honestly, I wasn’t writing for the easy validation either. I hate admitting that the influx of likes made me feel better, more talented, but it did. But I never got the poetry community, the access to the world that I wanted.
But the WordPress blog brought to light a whole other issue. With the advent of the WordPress blog, I found the courage to submit poetry to various publications and reviews, and – well – I was knocked back onto my butt with an important realization: the poetry world rewards privacy. That is to say, you can’t publish stuff that has appeared online before in any form.
I reeled. I should have known this. Somehow, I thought a blog – an Instagram feed – I thought they didn’t really count as having appeared online before. What a weird combination of arrogance and self-deprecation. In the process of years of writing dozens and dozens of poems and subsequently uploading all of them to Instagram and WordPress, I had completely nullified 80% of the opportunities available to me; I had stunted my own ability to access a poetry community. (I say 80% here because there are definitely publications out there that take work that has previously appeared online.) All this in pursuit of the instant affirmation I got from one-click uploads and Instagram-savvy/SEO-friendly (hash)tagging. All because of my inability to appreciate poetry as a private pursuit.
I felt like crap. But it was a moment of much needed clarity. I’m overwhelmingly grateful for being humbled like that. The poetry I’ve written to this point matters to me. I parsed away little pieces of myself in everything I’ve written thus far, and I’m grateful that people got to see what they did – but I need to start from scratch now. I need to keep my work close to my chest, learn to actively workshop, learn to actually utilize the lessons I take away from the poets and poetry I read, to not cater to easy validation anymore. More generally, I need to care for my privacy. I’ve received a few harsh lessons in the part regarding privacy, and I don’t seem to have learnt anything. If not for my own safety, I should at least learn from the blow my ego – my ambition – has been dealt because of my own lack of diligance and easy susceptibility to memetically engineered cultures of art.
I’ve already taken down my poetry blog. I won’t be taking down my poetrygram. I think it’s important to face the physical manifestation of my arrogance head-on and learn from it. Removing the poems I’ve written so far from the face of the internet won’t help me much anyway. It’s also way too easy to pretend I never made a mistake. But, so help me God, I won’t be putting more content on there that hasn’t already been published elsewhere. I’m also going to stop making excuses and actually go to poetry workshops from now on.
I feel wonderful.
PS: I have…more feelings about Instapoetry than I’ve let myself disclose/discuss in this blogpost. There is a whole discussion about accessibility and democratizing poetry that I haven’t really touched on. This is not a commentary on making poetry accessible, just my experience with Instapoetry culture and the adverse impact it had on me as someone trying to be better at poetry.
This guide was requested by a friend but in all honesty, this is something I’ve been thinking about writing for a while. This is no replacement for actual honest to god therapy, so please do seek a counselor if you struggle with some of the issues I vaguely allude to! Also, naturally, content warning for discussions of mental health and vague references self-harm and such.
To relatives who might be reading this – I promise, I’m good and well-adjusted and happy, and I’m okay weathering awkward questions if it means someone might find some use in this guide!
When I started bullet journaling last December, I didn’t realize how much it would help my anxiety and generally facilitate a more organized existence. While I was never a mess, I wasn’t necessarily organized either. Bullet journaling helped me keep track of all my deadlines, my daily tasks, weekly tasks, monthly tasks – whatever I needed from it – in a space that was as accessible as it was a creative outlet for me. Moreover, I found that it was incredibly helpful in tracking my mental health concerns; primarily my anxiety and complex PTSD.
Initially, I used it to log things I wanted to discuss with my therapist. I could only afford therapy every other week and didn’t want to forget anything important/catastrophic that happened during the days betwixt. I also started making a point of writing down important takeaways FROM therapy. I explained to my therapist what I was doing and why, and she encouraged me to write notes, doodle, scribble during our sessions. Keeping notes also helped my mindfulness and concentration. My mind tended to wander a lot – still does – but bullet journaling and my journal itself served as a focal point to remain present and not dissociate wildly.
The most destructive manifestation of my complex PTSD has been a tendency to self-harm. Proximity to a therapist was an easy way to work through what led to self-harm and how to avoid it, but upon moving to the Netherlands for a few months, I needed to find an alternative way of coping. After a few disastrous near-brushes with self-harm and anxiety attacks, I tried to look at ways I could “weaponize” my bullet journal against my mental health issues. Understanding the enemy is part of the fight, so I Googled ways that people used their bullet journal to track mental illnesses.
This was a huge preamble, I know, but I wanted to make a convincing argument! Here are the strategies I use to aid my mental health (also this guide assumes you know the basics of bullet journaling):
Mood tracking: Granted, I’m not great at this and I often fall asleep without filling in my mood tracker – but for the two months that I did religiously, it was really interesting to see my mood throughout a given month at a glance. With my monthly calendar filled in, and by referencing the daily tasks associated with any day I was curious about, I began to make associations e.g., dealing with finances was an immediate downgrade to my mood, as a general rule of thumb I was a distinctly happy person but days that started off as being coded “mixed” would often be coded “anxiety” during the latter part of the day – and days that started anxious ended up turning into angry days. The codes I used were: anxious, happy, sad, hyped, angry, mixed, and meh. You can use whatever codes you’d like. I fully intend to get back to mood tracking starting November and I’m considering switching to mood tracking as part of checking off my tasks at the end of the day instead of flipping back through to the mood tracking page.
Master-list of symptoms and manifestations of anxiety: Another really frustrating manifestation of my complex PTSD is a reduced capacity for memory. While this is annoying on a day-to-day level, let alone as a tie-in to dissociative amnesia, it’s really hard to learn anything about your mental illness when you can’t remember you learnt anything. This is a bit vague, so I’ll give an example: in the first few weeks of realizing what CPTSD was, I read pretty widely about it and the symptoms associated with it. In the months after, I would often forget that something I was doing persistently was a symptom of my CPTSD and would get really afraid and concerned, only to rediscover or be told by a friend that I had already identified action x as a symptom of CPTSD. Cue feeling really stupid and being upset that my memory had gotten so bad – which, incidentally, has triggered self-harm before. You see the utility of this. So in order to alleviate this feeling, I’ve identified all the symptoms of CPTSD that I’ve experienced before in order to have a single point of reference (eg., emotional flashbacks, hypervigilance, concentration issues, trouble breathing). Everything is a bit more palatable, once written down.
Master-list of tried and true self-care or preventative strategies: This is pretty self-explanatory. I tend to forget everything in my rush of panic, including what strategies calm me down. Listed self-care techniques include: watching make-up tutorials, taking a shower, drawing something beautiful and then destroying it (very therapeutic), working out (nothing like burpees to distract you!), grounding strategies including meditation, deep breathing, being mindful of my body, counting off sensory triggers, etc. Preventative strategies include: covering my arms and legs as soon as possible, getting fresh air, drinking or feeling something cold, turning off my phone, calling someone.
Self-harm tracking: This is a two-part tracker. The first part of the tracker is tracking days without any self-harm. For every two weeks I go without self-harming, I make a conscious effort to treat myself – whether to a smoothie or something decadent I wouldn’t normally let myself get, or a new piece of make up, whatever you want. It’s something to look back at and be proud of accomplishing. I’m a bit prideful, so seeing the tally end suddenly because I’ve self-harmed bruises my ego. This works in my favor; often, right at the cusp of self-harming, I’ll think to myself but you were doing so well! You had just a few days to go before the next two-week bench mark! and it honest to god works (for me). I’ve also written right at the top of my tracker “no shame, just move on” for if I do self-harm. You can adjust this for panic attacks or whatever you want, and have the benchmark be as long or short of a timespan as you’d like. The second part to this is logging instances of self-harm. I took this template from Lindsay Braman and if I do self-harm, I list events that transpired before the breakdown and identified symptoms/emotions leading up to it as well. Hopefully you won’t have to fill this out, but if you do, it’s a good way to foster awareness of yourself. Eventually, I would like to create a similar log for emotional flashbacks. I will say, I don’t create a monthly log for self-harm tracking, mostly because I (on average) self-harm once a month so I don’t personally find utility in that.
I hope all of that makes sense and that you can see some value in tracking your mental health. Some other points to note – please make time TO update your bullet journal! Whether it’s five minutes a night or in one big chunk at the end of the week, you get out of your bullet journal what you put into it. You don’t have to make it look excessively creative or pretty. The aesthetics of my bullet journal have deteriorated significantly since I started it (I’m on my second bullet journal now) but I absolutely love it still, and I’m not lying when I say it helps keep me sane. Also, your bullet journal doesn’t just have to be geared towards mental health! I use it as a commonplace notebook for literally everything, including books I want to read, research interests, goals for the year, plans for the future (grad school, etc), assignments for the semester my measurements/sizes because I always forget – whatever you want! The most important thing is to not make your bullet journal a burden on yourself. Don’t overtax your bullet journal, and don’t overtax yourself. Good luck!
My best friends, my mother, and my therapist have all heard me say some variation of the above sentence. This tends to be in response to some kind of bad news, and no matter how much physical distance is between the epicenter of the bad news and myself, I always find some way take responsibility for the ensuing tremors. Lip-biting, hand-wringing, that sentence is both an admission of guilt and a desperate need for reassurance. Usually, the response is “Oh my god Neiha, stop!” or “Shut up. Stupid chit. (angry cat emoji)” or “Now what could make you think that?” from my best friends, mother, and therapist respectively.
The former two usually nip it in the bud. Can’t blame them. But my therapist’s open-ended question gives me – stammering, probably shaking – pause.
What could make me think that?
I’ve alluded, previously, to my superstitious inclinations, but I have never fully explored how my superstitions came to be and what role they play in my life. As with most things, I can attribute a lot of my beliefs to my Pakistani upbringing. My parents never reinforced this, being scientists, but it’s hard not to internalize what society tells you.
South Asians, in general, are an unfathomably superstitious lot. To ghair folk, that may seem absurd and yes, it totally is, but it is also as much a part of our culture as our food or clothing. Our superstitions seem to inform societal hierarchies, biases, behaviors, upbringing, schooling, even where we live. Our superstitions serve as the lens through which we perceive the world. We are morbidly fascinated with what we are, in theory, supposed to be afraid of. A lot of our superstitions stem from religion – such as reciting verses from the Quran to protect oneself, though Islam is most certainly not the only religion that guides superstition – but largely, our superstitions stem from time immemorial and have been distorted depending on the family that the superstition has circulated in and throughout generations. Even the most highly-educated members of the gentry are wont to follow some neighborhood spiritual healer. However, it is difficult to properly research the roots of South Asian – let alone Pakistani superstition – due to said distortion and lack of academic research into the topic. So for the purposes of this exploration, I will be relying largely on my memory and the iteration of superstitions that I was exposed to.
I grew up with a taweez around my little neck. Fairly innocuous, a taweez is a small leather pouch worn like a locket, with the pouch containing a verse from the Quran that is said to protect you against the evil eye. Almost every kid my age had a taweez, sometimes even older kids – but while the taweez soon disappeared from around my neck, the phenomenon it was trying to keep at bay was a ubiquitous power in my life and in that of so many others. The evil eye – nazar, in Urdu, which literally just means sight but as a noun and duly capitalized in English transliteration takes on a much more sinister meaning – has become a well-known concept by now in mainstream culture, having been attributed to a variety of cultures even outside Islamic countries. (As a quick aside, I found it funny as a kid that whenever people used to go to Turkey, they would bring back the eerie blue variations on our taweez. If nothing else, I was impressed at the utility of the evil eye: a souvenir, a protective totem, and very on-trend for the time. Besides, a literal evil eye to ward off the evil eye in addition to our own cultural attempts at warding it off? Beyond extra). For a lot of people, wearing the evil eye or hand of Fatima/hamsa as an accessory might be nothing more than cute, exotic jewelry, but it garners both an eye-roll and genuine approval from me. Hey, intentional or not, you’re protecting yourself I guess.
The evil eye is simply, intentional or otherwise, the result of someone casting a jealous or malevolent gaze on someone. This in turn means something bad happens to you; you get hurt, your finances take a hit, etc. At worst, the evil eye can be attributed to black magic (kala jadoo, a most Pakistani fear). The reason children especially are kitted out with a taweez is that younger children are quick to trust, and don’t necessarily know how to protect themselves from the evil eye; as such, adults must pick up the slack. In fact, pretty much whenever I get hurt, there’s always someone around to say, “Nazarlag gayi Neiha ko” (lit. Neiha got hit by nazar. Also, I’m 22 and this still happens). The process of avoiding the evil eye is a lesson in humility; you ascribe any talent, beauty, accomplishment, etc, to God’s will – “Mashallah, you look beautiful.” God wills it, and thus, can apparently shoulder the burden of malevolence.
Now that I think about it, the lesson is less about humility and more about displacement of responsibility. Lack of humility only attracts malevolent intent, so you make God deal with it? That doesn’t seem completely fair.
There were other superstitions: not stepping on a pillow or you’d give your mother a headache, not stepping over someone who was reclining on the ground or they wouldn’t grow taller, making sure shoes weren’t strewn around with the soles pointing heavenward, getting rid of fallen hair and nails in a way that they couldn’t be collected by evil sorcerers (for real)…in addition to more paranormal fears, for example, that isolated, mountainous – generally veeraan – places are usually breeding grounds for jinn-bhoot (a pretty general term for any big evil phantasmal types), that resting under a tree during the night was a sure-fire way to get yourself possessed by a jinn and subsequently exorcised, or that any number of houses were haunted and that houseguests of the spirit variety could be kept away with a huge, wrought-iron “Mashallah” affixed to the facade of your house.
These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. I remember thinking that I wasn’t completely convinced by these superstitions. I used to pride myself on that. Sure, I was afraid of jinn stories, but what Muslim kid/adult/old person in their right mind isn’t? I had no fears regarding giving my mother a headache by stepping on a pillow, or of stunting someone’s height. Besides, most people my age were tall enough and should have been grateful for what they already had that I didn’t.
It’s only really in retrospect that I realize how many superstitions I actually did internalize. I avoid lingering for too long under trees at night. I think part of my gung-ho desire to live in a city stems from avoiding the aforementioned veeraangi. But I didn’t realize just how much of the more ridiculous stuff I had internalized until, last year, a friend caught me flushing some hair I had pulled out of my hairbrush down the toilet…
That was a very strange cultural quirk to explain.
But apart from the more concrete superstitions, there is a general spirit behind superstitions that is just straight up part of being desi: this greater sense of culpability, that everyone is capable of causing harm even if they don’t necessarily intend to. It is as victim-blaming as it sounds, that people can also just put themselves up for spiritual harm – that’s a pretty toxic mentality, but it’s one that I observed in myself a lot following my burgeoning anxiety. Humility is one thing, but to be actively deserving of malevolence is kind of an alarming concept to internalize.
But as it turns out, superstition is an easy vehicle to transition into when you already have anxiety. So what could make me think that something horrible that happened so far away and is, by all accounts, unrelated to me, is actually my fault?
I expect something bad to happen after things have been going well for some time. Living in a country where people don’t necessarily say “Mashallah” a lot doesn’t help that fear; but even so, if I receive bad news following a spate of good luck, I immediately blame myself for not being humble enough. I caught someone’s nazar, but it’s ultimately my own fault, surely. Something bad happens at home? Well, that’s my fault for not being an upstanding Muslim, or for staying out too late, or for becoming too self-confident.
Okay, but what does this have to do with anxiety?
According to Kierkegaardian philosophy, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Rather than feeling as if you can do whatever you want, anxiety feels much like the way standing at the edge of a particularly long drop does – except near-constantly. The dizziness of freedom also means it’s difficult to ascribe responsibility to anything. Life just is. But life can’t simply just be; life has to have a rhyme or reason. Surely, that’s what religion is too, a desire to make sense of the dizziness of freedom, to organize yourself around something rather than constantly face off against a precipitous drop. But if existentialism is to embrace the drop, then superstition is the exact opposite. To be superstitious is to analyze every drop within an inch of its life and to assess where you stand in relation to it and – well – how that drop could actively make you and everyone around you suffer. Superstition isn’t absolution or relief or even order the way religion can be. Superstition is, as the wonderful Mashed Radish describes, all about excesses, too muches, over-s, supers – so it is excessive, too much, over-, super-absolution. In short, it is a solid crutch for anxiety to lean on and reinforce its grip on your gut and your brain. It is self-imposed punishment, it is responsibility where no responsibility needs to be taken, it is guilt in the guiltness. If anxiety’s evolutionary role is to heighten ones fight-or-flight reflex, superstition’s evolutionary role becomes what makes you stand there, pointing and screaming as something starts gnawing at your leg.
It’s hard enough balancing your identity if you moved from a more communal society to a thoroughly individualistic one. You feel guilty about something at any given point. But to be superstitious on top of that, and to have anxiety on top of that? Might as well have a flip-flop dangling around your neck that you can self-flagellate with. It’d be a quicker job.
For me, superstition reinforces my self-loathing. If nothing is immediately around to be responsible for x terrible thing that has just happened, well, then it’s my fault. If I bear a cross on my back, it is one carved out of a heinous wood comprised of both anxiety and superstition. Add to that cross various socio-cultural expectations (both communal and individualistic), burdens, pressures, etc, and it’s no wonder that I had to go the ER for back problems this past June (for real).
Does this answer my therapist’s question? At least in part, yes it does. And, well, you don’t have to but if you wouldn’t mind, throw in a Mashallah at me every now and then, yeah?
It was your last smoke. You watched the cigarette smoke dissipate into – where? You always wondered that, a toddler on your grandfather’s bed, as you tried to catch the silk of it in your hands. Rafiki-deft, you would swing between the vines of your imagined mental jungle and craft paints and cackle gleefully as you prophesized the return of your king. You must have watched Lion King not long before.
You asked him if clouds were made of cigarette smoke. He laughed, and you asked if Allah was made of clouds too. He said Allah was made of light. You wondered why the two couldn’t be reconciled.
You still thought Allah had a bit of cloud to Him.
Nicotine-lunged, you exhaled. Your grandfather had passed, breathing God with every light. The silk poured forth from your lips like a wayward libation, a thread between today and yesterday.
It was your last smoke. You watched the thread break on its way heavenward and smiled a secret smile. The clouds shifted to show a glimmer of sun, and you heard your grandfather tip his head, and Gold Leaf, toward you.
I have always been hyper-aware of my ambition, to the point that I am constantly appraising myself vis a vis others’ accomplishments. I wish I could say with confidence that it is benign appreciation, and a desire to better myself. I’ve recently started accepting it for what COULD be: envy, a truly exhausting emotion to boot. What worries me now is not knowing whether my ambition comes from a place of sincerity or whether it is spurred purely by envy, a desire to be better-than-x. I am perfectly willing to admit that this could be me jumping to conclusions and selling myself short, but trying to be mindful of how I react to others’ success is a good practice regardless.
That is just the backdrop for what I really want to talk about: isolation. My ambition, whatever it may stem from, has led me to try to pursue original research during my intern ship in the Netherlands. I knew going in that I was overextending myself, but I was ready and willing to put in the work. But putting in the work requires sacrifice, and it’s one thing to overextend yourself in a familiar setting, with familiar comforts, but in a new country? I feel like I’m coming undone. I’ve been here almost two months – wild! – and I’m worried that I’m losing the nascent relationships I had established with people I have met thus far. I have to apologize for my absence at social events. I have to renege on promises I’ve made because a deadline is coming up and there is more work to be done than I expected. I can’t make plans even weeks in advance because – given the nature of my research – I don’t even know if I’ll be in the country then. I don’t fault the people around me for making plans without me. I totally get it. But the feeling of isolation it spurs has me asking whether my plans and ambitions are worth it.
That might be an overreaction; of course it’s worth it, conducting original research is a personal goal I’ve wanted to accomplish since I started college, and my research is on a topic I think is immensely important, that I care about deeply. I have somehow acquired funding for it, so it’s not even a question of if anymore. I literally have to see it through. But the prospect of staring down three more months like this, filled with half-commitments and apologies, is daunting nonetheless. I hope I can strike a balance between abating this isolation and still getting my work done. If not, I hope I have the emotional fortitude to be able to weather it.
I was not excited for this Eid. For all that I was grateful to have relatives nearby in the Netherlands, I really felt the absence of all that was familiar to me. My first Eid in Boston had its bitterness undercut with new friends, an Islamic community to go to the Masjid with, and options of Eid-specific Shalwar Kameez I’d hauled across multiple seas with me. That evening, I dragged some friends to my soon-to-be-minted favorite Pakistani restaurant, and felt the emergence of a new tradition. I didn’t have the time to be homesick, because I had found another home. And that restaurant had found a new loyal patron, not that it stopped Uncle-jii from giving me crap for making him drive all the way from Brighton to Mission Hill on a delivery run…
This year, I felt my mood sour as Eid drew closer and closer. Weight restrictions necessitated leaving my heavy Pakistani clothes at home; not even my favorite kurta could make the cut. And as shallow as it sounds, Eid without clothes rings hollow when you’re already facing Eid without family, friends, food, familiarity.
This morning, after half-heartedly putting on some makeup (yes – half-heartedly putting on make up, me, half-hearted, makeup! Me! Makeup!) and getting on the train to go to work, I resolved to get some treats for my office. Without a lamb (RIP) at hand, I had to figure out some gesture of generosity…so, chocolate and buttery biscuits it was. I said Eid Mubarak to the hijabi cashier and then uncomfortably realized there was nothing in my attire to suggest that saying it back to me was warranted. I trudged off, feeling the Eid spirit slip off me like the dupatta I didn’t have.
At work, I announced that there were chocolates and biscuits to avail. Letting the swarm descend in my wake, I went to my desk and drank my requisite two-shots-of-espresso-black-as-my-sins coffee. The perk was needed. I suddenly recoiled with disgust at my behavior. Sick of feeling sorry for myself, I drew up a list of reasons to be grateful, viz.:
1. You worked your butt off and persisted through a quagmire of bullshit to get to where you are. Yes, you’re away from your family/friends but it’s for a very good reason.
2) On your 3rd try, also after working your butt off, you got an impossible research grant. So now you have to do your over-ambitious original research. Scary? Yep. But that’s huge and you should be proud of yourself.
3) Albeit with some pitfalls, you’re dealing with your anxiety really well. You’re learning how to care for yourself without a therapist. Good job!
4) [redacted; you didn’t think I would share all of my reasons for gratitude, did you?]
5) *points to parents* You’re going to feel guilty about this for the rest of your life but look how MUCH they love you that you are here.
6) *POINTS AGGRESSIVELY TO THE PEACE PALACE* YOU COULD GO THERE EVERY DAY IF YOU WANTED TO AND EAT ITALIAN ICE CREAM.
7) You actually have family nearby. You could have been so much more lonely. Count your blessings.
8) The McElroys exist and so does Carly Rae Jepsen.
9) [also redacted]
10) Pakistani/new clothes aren’t the be all, end all of Eid. Steel yourself: you can always celebrate another way.
11) [which I added later] You can do proper push-ups now. Upper-body strength is just around the corner!
Point number 10 gave me pause. I could always celebrate another way. If clothes were a staple of Eid in the past, what else was? Even in Dubai, cut away from the majority of our family, we found a way to celebrate; how did we do it?
It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that the common denominator throughout my life had been music. Surely it couldn’t be as easy as all that. But it was: whether it was the infamous Lasharie family concerts that every evening would give way to, or music in the background while we waited for guests to arrive (even if the artist in question was Sting, the Patron Saint of my father), or me carefully singing around my eyeliner or over whatever food I was making for my friends that day, music was the ultimate staple of Eid. It couldn’t be that easy…
…but it was. I found a random playlist on Patari and I felt my heart immediately swell. And look, I know nostalgia for the past is usually extremely contrived and only serves to create a false impression of something that only barely was, but music is practically a family heirloom. Even my non-virtuoso self has been known to hold a tune. I could extol the virtues of Pakistani music ad infinitum, but it was what I needed, and that’s that. For all that I’ve been binge-listening to Carly Rae Jepsen lately, I needed the familiarity of a musical tradition I grew up on, that comforts me when I’m miserable, that reminds me of family in a way that not even food can.
Tomorrow, I’ll get to spend the day with my uncle and aunt in Utrecht. I’ll have little cousins to talk to and play with and whom I will promise that one day maybe they’ll get Eid money out of me. They’ll probably be in traditional clothes. I’ll probably be in jeans. But at least my makeup won’t be as half-hearted; I still have to catch up on this season of Coke Studio Pakistan, after all.
A short note spurred by some mixed emotions over the 70th year of my country’s independence and the tumult in Charlottesville this past weekend, as well as the rather political music of The Cranberries.
I’ve often struggled with my not-quite diasporic identity and have written about it ad nauseum in the past 7 years of this blog’s existence. As a non-resident Pakistani, I find myself often at a loss for whether or not I have the right to certain opinions and feelings; and yet, as an aspiring political scientist and maybe-one-day arbitrator, the foundation of my education and career has been holding those opinions. I didn’t realize just how long I had lived away from Pakistan until I went back last year for my brother’s nikkah. The Pakistan I had missed desperately was different – and I realized, no one has a claim on a place. The places you love do not stagnate in your absence. You can exist disparately from what you love. And I have grown away from Pakistan; Pakistan has grown away from me. It wasn’t a sad realization, but it was an important one. I’ll always be Pakistani, but that doesn’t mean Pakistan will remain mine. That’s okay. If I do decide to come back, there will always be a place for me, should I choose to reckon with those changes.
But this isn’t about Pakistan, not exactly. This is about my adopted country. I love America so very much, and will always consider Boston home, but I could not even pretend to call it mine. America is never truly yours until you have that hallowed blue passport and even then, the caveats are immense and dangerous. Just look at Charlottesville this past weekend; that’s just the latest iteration of the United (with caveats) States of America and its tradition of picking and choosing what Americanism is. The fine-print has never been set in stone, and certainly, my non-resident alien behind does not beget many rights. Yet I miss America whenever I’m away from it, and I truly feel more myself there than I do anywhere else in the world…but I am reminded in ways – sometimes small, sometimes larger – that I don’t fully belong. Whether in the exorbitant tuition I pay, whether through the loopholes I need to jump when it comes to dealing with any bureaucracy, in the white nationalist movements that have become normalized, in the way that my friends talk about foreign policy that makes my stomach churn, in the way I feel myself rapidly reformulating my opinions in sudden paranoia, in the way that a certain elected official I met once joking asked me to tell him Pakistan’s nuclear secrets (even if I did know any, hell no, people like you, Mr. Senator, bring out the angry realist in me), in the way I don’t know whether I’ll be able to qualify for an H1B visa to stay after I graduate…
And despite this seemingly endless list, I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else for a prolonged period of time. Under the dense, black boot of an ugly, resurgent past, I thrive despite myself, and my anger and hurt only serves to reinforce my desire to live in the United States.
Maybe that’s what it is; my contrary heart, this Pakistaniat that has chiseled my stubborn nose and my set jaw, has primed me so fully to embrace that American boot and not let go. Either you crush me good, or the boot comes off – and under the mother’s foot lies paradise, so one way or another, it’s on my own terms. My upbringing and nationality under igneous conditions have made me a match for America, and so it has any victim of oppression; your caveats pile up but there is brilliance and resilience unlike any other to be found in volcanic conditions. Pakistanis, we’re a self-destructive lot, but we carve beauty out of destruction like any old Sylvia Plath poem. And I suppose that is true for any people that survive doomsday over and over and over again; the next boot is always around the corner, and despite our discomfit hearts, we’re ready to climb through the fine-print and into the world proper.
I’ve written pretty extensively about my horror, anger, and fear at the American attempts at a Muslim ban and its various iterations. But aside from the practical shortcomings and moral depravity of such an attempt, there was always another layer of outrage towards it:
How the hell can they make the visa process any harder and nerve-wracking than it already is?
Growing up brown and especially Muslim, there has always been a degree of solemnity attached to traveling. To be able to hop on a plane, with little to no paperwork required beforehand, is a distinct privilege that those of us with Certain Passports will never experience – and similar to how in some cultures learning to drive a car is a rite of passage, where I grew up? Your first visit to the consular services of a foreign country was about as important as learning how to make doodh patti chai right. Being granted a visa was something to celebrate. Commiseration over a more-likely-than-not visa denial was a week-long affair. Angry declarations of “I have a case, I’ll appeal their decision!” were, although well-intentioned, usually not pursued – and if pursued, doomed. No word of a lie, all the stages of grief were present in the aftermath of a visa denial.
I wish I could make light of this reality. But the fact of the matter is, realizing how little other countries want you is scarring. I have friends who have traveled all over the world, and it’s something I could never dream of doing simply because the process to get there is harrowing and exhausting. You need to steel yourself for a trip to the embassy. Every relative and family friend that has experienced the process even once will inundate you with tips: make sure you smile a lot, be as deferential as possible, try not to stutter or betray your anxiety, do NOT raise your voice, memorize the address for every location you’ll be staying at, have bank statements ready…on and on and on, until your brain is cacophonous with mantras. My A levels were nowhere near as stressful as the lead-up to my appointment with the American consulate in Dubai for my student visa.
I consider myself lucky. I’m a tiny woman, I look harmless. Others? Men? They don’t get the sympathetic looks and reassuring smiles I may sometimes (sometimes) receive. The first time I traveled to American with my family, my brother was detained by virtue of being a 20-something Muslim, Pakistani man, even though he had a freshly shorn face. Yes, you have to look the part too. Sufficiently western, your face hairless as the day you hopped out the womb. Hopefully, your parents had the foresight to give you a name that isn’t threatening or that – given the ubiquity of names that have Islamic connotations – doesn’t have Islamic connotations. My grandfather and grandmother, despite having a son who is an American citizen (a son they visit annually and stay with for basically half the year), get routinely pulled aside because my grandfather’s name is Aziz.
Look upon the cosmic injustice of a system wherein your name is looked at with suspicion because you share it with some shitty terrorist, ye mighty, and despair.
I thought I was a veteran when it came to foreign bureaucracies. Since I study in the United States, I’ve had to deal with all kinds of bureaucracy, and I’ve learnt to take the anxiety in stride. I thought this meant that I was set – talk less, smile more, laugh at their jokes, get waved through without a fuss. But my passport does weigh heavy in my hand, and I expect the worst no matter where I am. At least that way the cacophony of advice given to me throughout the years is quick to return to my head – like a rolodex, arrogantly waiting for me to flip through it.
So imagine my horror when I wake up to get registered at the city municipality where I live in the Netherlands and I find that I am quivering with a bureacracy-anticipating anxiety I thought I’d outgrown. I check, double-check that I have the right documents. I realize that I don’t know where to print the documents I only have digital copies of. I’m so anxious that instead of refunding the 1 euro credit I still have in the coffee machine at the City Spar downstairs, I just buy myself another coffee and walk around lamely with two burning, sleeveless coffee cups in my hands. I tell my mother I’m going to take the 30 minute commute to work, print my documents at the office, and then travel the 30 minutes back home – this is at 9:30am. My appointment was at 11am. I very quickly realized the stupidity of my plan, and also threw away the second cup of coffee.
While waiting for a floormate to print out my documents, I thought I was going to vomit. I felt dizzy. I was genuinely afraid that I was going to be sent back to Dubai, or Boston, or wherever, and my kindly co-op advisor would use my story as a warning to other students: “Don’t be like that girl. Bring an actual copy of your birth certificate when you go abroad. Jeez.”
So much for the hallowed professionalism of Northeastern students.
More than that, I was afraid to become a cautionary tale told to other young Pakistanis looking forward to traveling. I have had the opportunity to do so much more than is expected from my little green book – to be relegated to “Look, opportunities don’t pan out sometimes”? I couldn’t. I can’t.
I speedwalked the 10-minute route to the municipality in 5 minutes. I was there 40 minutes early. So I started writing this blog, to process this residual trauma from one-too-many cautionary tales. And I started thinking about Max Weber, one of my favorite sociologists. He was wary of modernity and the automation inherent in it; not in the sense of robots or artificial intelligence, but in the sense of humans not being able to realize their natural autonomy. In political science, we are taught the three Weberian features of modern states in the post-industrial era: territoriality, violence, and legitimacy. All these elements feed and reinforce one another. From these elements come further factors such as a monopoly on the use of force, and, for our purposes, bureaucracy. It is essential for a modern state to use its legitimacy to create a central government efficient enough to maintain things like censuses, be able to levy taxes, and, well, make the lives of Pakistanis & Co. really rather miserable. The United States of God’s Good America is (are? I’ve been staring at the plural too long) uniquely talented in this regard. And I recognize the need for it, truly I do. I study international security and from an objective standpoint, I get it, you have to be careful – but there are now entire populations terrified of the act of traveling, or have otherwise relegated themselves to not traveling. Dignity is the cornerstone of human rights; it is the central, foundational component in every treaty, statute, convention, etc, that comprises the human rights regime of our (post)modern reality. And one of the main push factors towards radicalisation of every sort is indignation: shame, degradation, isolation, all go against this foundational understanding of dignity. Being detained because your name happens to be Osama, named after one of the original Muslim Caliphs? That does not security make.
The proto-existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard (one of my favorite philosophers) characterizes anxiety as being the natural state of mankind in the face of possibilities. There is So Much in the world, therefore I am anxious. The world is composed of plurals, therefore I am anxious. We are multitudinous, therefore I am anxious. Bureaucracy, that central component of statehood, is itself sprawling and full of indefinites and unknowables. Therefore, I am anxious.
All the opportunities I have before me, in their glory and their hope, are overwhelming, and a good 60% of those opportunities require navigating the indefinites of bureaucracies.
I got lucky today. The bureaucrat I dealt with was a lovely man, and I was registered with the municipality before my appointment time even technically came around. But this anxiety will live with me for as long as my passport (the loaded entity that it is) bears potentialities…and I will carry the indignity in my heart forever, and unwittingly pass it on to my children. Iyad El-Baghdadi, an Arab Spring activist-turned-asylum seeker, talks about how his “[his] statelessness makes [him] fall between the cracks of this world order.” I can’t relate to that – but what I know is that, conversely, my statefulness (state-fullness), this Pakistaniat and all that is perceived as being packaged with this country of 180 million and counting, has me wedged in the cracks of a world order I have dedicated my life to understanding. What a truly postmodern heritage.
UPDATE: A few weeks after this post, I did, in fact, get ten inches shorn off my hair and donated to a good cause. I cried a significant amount of tears and went through a brief, frantic existential crisis, but it’s been a few months and my hair is steadily growing back.
One of my earliest memories is spurred by a sense of disdain towards my own hair. In kindergarten, I experienced my first crush on another person. To my clumsy sensibilities, he was perfect. I’m not sure what goes on in the head of a four-year old vis a vis attraction, and I definitely don’t want to go that far back down memory lane, but I still remember his name, and I remember being wracked with equal parts guilt and thrill when, in response to what was likely an innocuous comment, he said that my hair was stupid.
I was doomed from that moment on.
I have always had a lot of hair. My parents used to joke – or maybe it wasn’t a joke – that any wretched fly within a certain radius would be snapped up and trapped in my tight curls. As far as I’ve been small, my hair has been large. For many people, my hair was who I was.
So, of course, when my young beloved told me that my hair was dumb, I set out to destroy it. I’ll spare you the gory details, but after my poor mother woke up from her nap to see a bin full of perfect ringlets, she cried for a really, really long time. Apparently, my uncle, laughing as his wife tried to salvage my hair, said I looked like Ava Gardner. My mother cried harder.
I started drawing not long after that incident. Despite the fact that my burning love for a fellow kindergartener dwindled without ceremony, I retained my hair-anxiety. In every picture I drew of myelf, I made my hair straight. And that’s not to say that my hair was defined by rakish lines consistent with poor motor functions – it was a conscious effort to make my hair “silky-straight” like so many of the other girls around me. I began seeing my curls as a masculine feature. Pretty girls had straight hair. Any compliments I ever received were condescending in nature; pretty girls never got condescended. (As you can tell, I hadn’t quite had my intersectional feminist awakening yet.)
As funny as this seems in retrospect, it was also the beginning of a long, difficult battle with self-loathing. The longer I observed my hair, the more I began to notice my face, my blemishes, my thick eyebrows that were not yet en vogue, the slightly crooked bridge of my nose, the baby fat that seemed so much worse than everyone around me – another point of condescending adoration. I started listening to the sound of my own voice and I hated what I heard. But through it all, I begrudged my hair the most. I didn’t necessarily hate it; I could make pigtails that looked, more or less, like Bubbles’ from the Powerpuff Girls, how could you hate that? But it annoyed me because it was silly, it was cute. It was never pretty. I was never pretty.
I grew older. After chopping all my hair off, my curls never grew back quite the same way. The corkscrew ringlets were gone. Now, as if to rub it in, my hair grew in coarse, thick, twisted coils that – and I can’t stress this enough – grew up and out. While, internally, it was pretty empowering to realize my hair was akin to a mythical she-beast that was able to turn men into stone, outwardly, that was a pretty embarrassing image to convey. So, I did my best to turn that embarassment into a thick skin. I cultivated a self-deprecating sense of humor that I convinced myself was sincere until it actually became so. (Occasionally, that sense of humor has backfired on me in the form of some pretty heinous, one-sided relationships, but for the most part, I’ve learnt to own it.)
Things were worse when my family moved to Dubai. It was a different landscape, and more diversity meant more ways you could be pretty: I wasn’t pretty any of those ways. As a kid going through puberty, I got two things: my period and breasts. Like, larger breasts than a girl my height should have had. What I didn’t get was a more graceful face, or an opportunity to shed some of the baby fat. So I was pudgy. And, as someone would eventually put it, I had “gigantic jugs” at 13. My hair was still massive. The side-fringe trend swept my high school, and deciding that this could be a fix for my hair woes, I decided to steal my mother’s flat iron and began straightening just one, thick lock of my hair. It flopped disappointingly down the side of my face, but I was proud of it (I had no right to be).
At some point in high school, I decided that the solution to all my hair problems was to chop it off. So, I had my shoulder-length hair shorn up to my chin, and was pleased with the stylish bob I was given (I had no right to be). Unfortunately, the blow-dry wore off, and my hair blossomed into a majestic mushroom cloud that, you guessed it, went upwards. Luckily, the one solid my hair has always done me is that it grows extremely quickly – which means body hair is a misery – and when my hair got a bit longer-
Well, I’m not sure what happened here. Maybe God took pity on me and decided that I could use some help. Maybe it was the estrogen in my birth control pills*. But I turned 16, and the hallowed period of my life that I have christened Second Puberty took place.
Slowly, but steadily, the baby fat finally started dropping. My body suddenly evened out and while I became increasingly more top-heavy than my frame could necessarily handle, I was an actual shape. As problematic as that body-shaming mentality is, I stopped hating myself as much. I thought I was actually kind of pretty. And, most importantly, the sheer weight of my hair started weighing it down. It grew outwards, still, but not upwards.
I felt a renaissance dawning.
Suddenly, I could talk to pretty people and feel like I was holding my own. I patted my hair to make sure it was still in place. I would adorn my hair with barettes, hats (so many freaking hats), even fascinators. All I was missing was a dress just below the knees and an ascot, and I could have been off to the races!
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. I still spent an unfortunate amount of nights wracked with horror at my face. The shape of my body lent itself to an anxiety of its own, one that culminated in me flinging clothes across the fitting moon at Forever 21 or whatever unfortunate store I shopped at. Few clothes could accommodate petite with a side of curvy. I felt, still, despite the renaissance, not as pretty as the status quo. But at least my hair was the least of my problems.
Weirdly enough, that was the best thing that could have happened to me. My ambivalence towards my hair was an opportunity to let it do what it wanted to do. My hair grew longer with each passing year, and the only real dramatic change it went through was two instances of pink ombre – a childhood and, well, adulthood wish that I wanted to fulfill, and I loved it so much that I did it a second time. The only real difference in my routine was that I started caring for my hair a little more. No heat, no dying after that second time, and occasionally, a bit of argan oil. My hair appreciated this, evidently.
Here’s the thing. At some point, I realized how long my hair had gotten, and I freaked out a little. I let my hair grow out since that misguided bob, but I always just assumed my hair was short no matter what length it had gotten to. Eventually after the first couple of nights that I spent accidentally pulling my hair so hard while asleep that I woke up, I had to contend with this new reality: my hair was actually, truly, fashionably long.
And it was curly. It was curlier, truly curlier, than it had been since I lopped off my ringlets in the name of love. I was awed by this new power – power? – that I held upon my head. I could braid it, I could put it up, I could even leave it down and it wouldn’t go everywhere! And if it did, well, apparently that’s stylish! People started asking to play with my hair – not with a fever-pitch, as if frenzied by the thought of taming the beast with a flat-iron and some mousse, but because they wanted to admire it. Like an art installation, it held people in its thrall, and not even in a literal sense like with those poor flies when I was a baby! It was, and still is, an awesome feeling.
So, of course, being the superstitious South Asian that I am, I grew afraid of my hair.
If there’s one thing I’m never going to deny about my heritage, it’s that the fear of the evil eye is a valid one. Too much praise, especially masking envy, is a huge no-no. Say Mashallah, I often think at people, locking my jaw and straining to project fear-of-God unto my unassuming companion. I try to humble myself every time I have too much of a good hair day. Okay, but you forgot to go to the gym, and you said you were going to, so really, what gives you the right? One well-placed, strategic barb later, and I feel safe from the evil eye.
Anytime my hair sheds, and it sheds quite a lot, a fleeting panic makes its way through my bones. The beginning of female pattern baldness! Or hell, male-pattern baldness, what does it matter! I have to be careful about how I bind my hair at night or I’ll wake up from the sharp pain and shame of having had my hair try to commit seppuku under my elbow. At this point, I’m a little afraid that I’ll wake up with my braid coiled tight around my neck, like a particularly fuzzy, tresEMME-scented boa constrictor.
If Second Puberty was a renaissance, this is, like, baroque. Extravagant, filled with religious paranoia, and distinctly impractical. But damn it if baroque isn’t my second favorite period of art. For all that I’m afraid of it and guard it kind of jealously against the ill-wishes of the ill-intentioned, and against my own pride, I love my hair because it’s an indication of how far I’ve come . I’ve come from having cut my hair at the behest of my first love to proudly, and then apologetically, whipping it against the faces of people I love.
A huge part of me wants to donate my hair before I move to the Netherlands for my last co-op. It feels right, to pay forward the lessons I have learnt and amassed in each lock of my hair. Besides, I’m kind of curious to see how my head feels 10-inches lighter.
And, well, if my hair starts growing up and out again, I can wrangle it into place with hair smoothies and argan oil. Plus, that’s 10 fewer inches to be paranoid about. It’s a win-win.
*don’t even start with me, I needed to stop missing school because my periods were that bad