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!
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?
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
Of the many good qualities imbued in me by my father, one of my favorite ones is the love for fashion he inspired in me. I loved fashion even before my appearance reflected it, to the point that I seriously considered studying Political Science at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, because, “Can you imagine how perfect studying politics surrounding by fashion designers would be?!”
It behooves me to mention here that at this aforementioned point in my life, I also dreamt of being married and pregnant by grad school. 1) I was so, so wrong, and 2) if any one tells my paternal grandmother this, I’m not above committing an imprisonable offense. She’s already waiting for me to get married as is, and I refuse to add fuel to the fire (read: her co-opting of my brother’s marriage in order to orchestrate mine).
Anyway. My father has always been an impeccably well-dressed man, for as long as I can remember. Most profoundly for me, my father dressed well even when circumstances allowed him – or at least excused him – to dress down. His father’s death, family problems, personal health: he was immaculate in every carefully ironed pleat. And this is not to say my mother isn’t beautiful herself. Each day begins with carefully choosing lipstick and applying the eyeliner-kajal combo that always rims her eyes. She too is immaculate in her signature sunglasses and every perfect wave of her hair.
We are not wealthy. The stereotype associated with how my family presents itself begets the image of a privileged international student from a privileged international family with no conception of financial troubles or the weight of loans. I beg your suspension of disbelief, and remind you that this is part and parcel of my love of and appreciation for my parents’ image.
I think I was in a crappy mood one day, sulking in that uniquely teenage way, when my mother told me to get up, take a shower, and put on my favorite clothes. She said it’s what she does when she wants to feel better than she is. So I tried it. I never stopped.
Puberty took me for a wild ride and I hid it all under absurd ponchos I re-wore way too much. Needless to say, it took me a few years to figure out my style, but I did, and now unless I’m really, really, horrendously late for something, I need to have a full face of make up on. Sure, there’s a lot there to unpack regarding my own well-documented struggles with self-loathing, but dressing up is my time as much as reading, writing, drawing are.
As long as I’m dressed the part, I can play the part I need to play – I can be the human being I need to be. No matter the internal state of my mind, I know I can at least look put together, and if I can look it, I can feel it. Is it superficial? Well, yes and no. But I put a lot of myself in every outfit I wear. Every day I try to wear something from Pakistan, or an outfit that has a history; maybe I’ll remember that my father told me I looked beautiful in a specific dress; maybe someone will compliment me on my jewelry and I’ll say “It was my mother’s;” maybe I’ll wear bright blues and pinks and know I’m representing Pakistan in every stitch of my koti or kameez.
And, as ever with my blog posts, here’s where the self-critique comes in: am I misrepresenting who I am?
I’m an international student, and that’s reflected most keenly in the 100% tuition I have to pay to stay in college. Thing is, that tuition is carefully and nervously spaced out in a way that doesn’t bankrupt my family. Loans have been taken out – very painful, very large loans I will add – co-ops have been strategically placed, part-time jobs have been taken on, just so I can get a degree. That I’ll have to strengthen with another degree.
It’s hard not to be despondent and wonder if this was all worth it. Retrospect is 20/20: no one could have seen the sudden financial hardship that befell my family, least of all an 18-year-old that was as giddy and excited as I was to go to Boston and (without exaggeration) follow my dreams. My education is as much an opportunity as it is my cross to bear, and I bear it every single day as surely as I have a lick of concealer under my eyes on any given day. And it’s hard to admit this to myself because I feel like I’m breaking a taboo by doing it.
I fidget uncomfortably in my heavy, Pakistani earrings and bright lipstick. What do people think when they see me? More importantly, what do they think when they hear me speak and the soft but evident accept slips out, some days more than others?
Do I look like just another rich international student?
And that bothers me more than it should. It doesn’t matter, it shouldn’t matter, because I know what I am and what I’m not. I’m the sum of my parents’ faith in me and their endless, hard work. I’m the sum of my stubbornness and my own hard work.
But what do I look like? Who do I look like?
I suppose the reason this is bothering me more than it usually does is because I’ve had to deal with a lot of ups and downs on my way to my dream co-op. The first one, unavoidable, was the visa issue – I had every thing in the bag, minus the bit where I couldn’t get a visa in time. So, I took out a loan to stay in school, readjusted my co-op cycle to the Fall instead of the Spring, and took a deep breath. In that order. And then I decided, you know what? I’m going to fund this co-op myself. Yeah, I’ll pay for the flights, the rent, everything! So I got a job on campus (which is not necessarily as reliable as I thought, but at least it’ll take care of grocery money?) and put my heart into applying for a scholarship to fund my co-op. I was guaranteed some money, up to $6000, and I was going to get that! Or at least $4000!
For a little while, I felt good. The whole Trump thing tripped me up quite a bit, and I didn’t (and don’t) know what the future holds regarding the Muslim ban, but at least co-op was certain?
So imagine my feelings when I got my scholarship back and realized I had been awarded a generous $2000 for my pain.
The worst part is, I was so resigned to being tripped up that I didn’t even have it in me to cry all that much. I set about emailing who I could to try and appeal it. It took me 3 weeks to see if I could appeal this, and I hid the fact from my mom for as long as I could. I know my parents, and I know their love for me, and I was assured that it would work out if they had any say in it.
I’m going to fund this co-op myself.
I started looking for another job. I talked to my future co-op employers about worst case scenarios. I started working on research proposals that I could use to supplement my living expenses while in the Netherlands. And I finally, finally got some kind of an answer about why my scholarship was so low despite the fact that I literally begged for enough money to keep me self-sufficient.
Remember that loan I took out? I got enough money so that I could fund this current Spring semester and the subsequent Summer semester, which I needed in order to graduate on time. The Spring loan was disbursed to Northeastern while the latter stayed in my account until it too needed to be disbursed. So, I have a tantalizing amount sitting in my student account that will go untouched until the Summer semester.
The person working on disbursing the loans assumed that very substantial amount was for my own recreation, and that clearly, my request for more money than the 2k I’d gotten was perplexing. Clearly, I could fund my co-op with a sum of money that is literally, cent for cent, the tuition cost for a Summer semester.
I can’t begin to describe my anger.
If I was an American student, that assumption would have never been made. I’m an international student, and therefore, it’s a 9/10 chance that I’m probably really wealthy. At the very least, wealthy enough to have multiple digits in my Northeastern University student account just sitting there for my recreation.
Take a look at my actual bank account and you’ll know that’s very clearly not the case.
My family has given an unjust amount of money to Northeastern, most of the time money that I’m still not sure how they managed to come up with. There were never any questions asked, but this time, I’m adamant about asking questions and I don’t like the kinds of answers I’ve been getting. I also really don’t like that it’s making me double-guess how I present myself. The person allocating scholarship money does not know what I look like, so why do my earrings feel heavier?
I think I’ve been tripped up so much over the past couple of years that I’m double, triple, quadruple-guessing who I am and who I’ve become as a person. It feels melodramatic, and maybe it is. But I’m tired of feeling like I’m constantly short-changed through little to no fault of my own, and I’ll have you know that I am very, very good at admitting when something is actually my fault.
This was hard to write, which means it’s important that I write it for some reason. All I know is, I’m working hard to remedy what seems to be a string of bad luck. I hope that will be enough to make me feel comfortable in my own clothes again.
I realize my last few blog posts have been a little more depressing than I usually put out. I try and imbue optimism in everything I write, because there’s enough sadness going around without me adding to it. And yet, here I am.
I forced myself to take a social media hiatus after some encouragement from friends. There is such a thing as too much engagement, and I had overextended my capacity to that end. That…was a sucky realization to say the least. I always thought of myself – forced the view of myself – as being impervious to emotional exhaustion. I feel, therefore I am, and I am lucky to be around so why ever stop feeling? If I want to give my life to some sort of public service, then I need to be able to power through the fatigue, muster every ounce of energy and positivity in me and somehow add to humanity’s global reserves of drive and perseverance.
Perseverance. Fortitude. Resilience.
Is there such a thing as being too resilient? is a question I’ve asked of Pakistan as a whole many times before. I look at when this debate first began – the night of the APS massacre – and wonder why it took that long for me to begin considering that question. As was at my emotional worst – and also at my angriest. The emotional wreckage felt welcome because of my physical distance from Pakistan. It felt like I was doing something if I was in so much pain – that there was a connection that mattered so much that it bruised no matter how far I was from home. It was comforting and despite the despair that still itched at my heart, it helped me heal.
At some point, we need to break down our shell and allow ourselves to feel the heft of lives lost and lives scattered, of normalcy shattered and routine decimated. We risk losing our humanity and capacity to empathize and mourn if we don’t let our walls down; we risk losing the opportunity to recharge.
I think I have let myself feel too much. I think I pushed myself to take in so much sorrow that I burnt myself out. Sometimes when I’m alone and I let myself be vulnerable, I cry for myself, for my family, for families I do not know, for people who have cried like I have. I cry for my own little microcosmic problems, and I cry at the sheer scale of the chaos I cannot even begin to comprehend.
And when I’m not crying, I try to fight a battle I’m not sure I picked wisely. We are all guilty of that. We pick fights out of self-righteousness in an attempt to feel vindicated, to feel any sort of productivity in the face of helplessness. We try to educate and inform, when we are the ones who want so desperately to be sat down and educated and informed. We project our own confusion, hurt, chaos of mind and heart onto others and I’m not sure if that heals anything.
And what we all need right now is to heal. Whether the wounds are global, local, personal, we need healing and kindness. Taking part in the “right” discourse can only help so much.
I suppose that’s what I’m tired of. I used to think that argument was the basis of all knowledge, and I still do believe that, but an argument requires some desire to find understanding. The dialogue I attempted to engage in was for the wrong reasons. And so I never truly let myself heal. I just held myself together with spit and gum and pretended I had recharged.
None of us really let ourselves recharge. We have forced ourself to always be “on” and ready to engage.
We have outsourced interaction unto words that are cold and impersonal.
I turned the pursuit of kindness into a game of skirmishes that I decided to ascribe intellectual properties unto.
We are – I am – so busy talking that we forget how to really feel, when our guard is down, we are broken and raw. That’s no way to recharge. You do not heal a wound by exposing it to the elements when it needs to be tended to overtime.
I’m tired, and that’s okay, but I need to do something about the fact that I exhausted all of my facilities in self-destructive perseverance.
Being too resilient is a bad thing.
At the time of writing this, I feel smaller and more helpless than I ever have. I don’t think that’s an uncommon sentiment lately, regardless of where you’re from. I find myself turning to art, music, writing but at the time of finishing this draft, an artistic Giant has been assassinated in Pakistan, and rather than taking the time to mourn him, I see my countrymen sharing videos and pictures of his ruined body. There is nothing sacred left about the horrors we as a world are facing. We have monotonized what should be held as unusual and unwelcome, for whatever reason (I have my own theories as to that).
I don’t really have a solution to my own despair, but maybe that’s the point.
Maybe there is no point, but maybe the point is loving fearlessly, whether that’s yourself or others.
When fending off darkness and jadedness is resistance, you walk as if your joints are sandpaper.
There’s a constant ache in a part of your body you can’t quite pinpoint. Every time you smile, you throw the bags under your eyes into relief. You still smile with your eyes, though.
There’s tension in the tangling vines that grow in your core and stand sentry against any creeping despondence whenever you read the news. The knot murmurs nervously and your heart sinks a little, but you always make room for it to sink a little more. So long as there is room for your heart to sink, the fight against cynicism can keep on going. You can keep resisting. So you force your rib-cage to accommodate the shifting real estate. Your sentries hold vigil.
The walk from my workplace to my subway stop is about five minutes. It was raining when I left work; not pouring, not drizzling, just raining in that straightforward way you see in movies. I did not think to bring an umbrella with me.
I tend to forget my umbrella a lot.
For five minutes, I listened to Pure Heroine (two songs filled that journey: Bravado and A World Alone) and walked with my hood down. At some point I decided to unbraid my hair. I tried to imagine what a sight I must be, a small woman in a puffy jacket, dressed ostensibly in work clothes from the hips down, with damp, wild curls everywhere.
I smiled. I smelled the air and I kept walking. I never stopped smiling.
“I feel awake for the first time in days,” I texted. I cried a little on the train from how overwhelmed I was.
When pushing away futility, you try not to question why you feel the way you do. Feeling is enough; feeling is resistance.
I realized a few weeks ago that I never mourn losses or traumatic experiences. I grit my teeth, wipe a few tears that had the audacity to leak, and go straight to autopilot mode as if my productivity is more important than feeling. What this, of course, means is that whenever the emotions do come out they’re never apropos to the given situation.
The only thing worse than not feeling is misguided feeling.
I am scared of the future. I am cautiously optimistic in my generation. I am angry at the generations that have come before me. I am nervous about my place in the world, but I am sure about my purpose. I cry freely when I read news of death and destruction, I seethe in the face of injustice.
I’m afraid to say I’m sad, but I think I’m just tired.
I am fighting the impulse to numb myself as a person because I fear death; not the death of a mortal vessel, but the death of my personhood.
It seems like an exaggeration to say being jaded against the darker aspects of the world is the same as death, but I spent years in the shoes of my Pakistaniat, knowing people die because the world is cultivated by the jaded.
Stuck inside on this snowy, snowy day, I find myself mulling over my future and accepting, unwillingly, what I have been denying for quite a few years:
Knowing what field I want to be in does not, in fact, amount to knowing what I want to do with my life; moreover, knowing I have plenty of options does not amount to knowing what I want to do with my life; and, quite frankly (say it now, say it loudly so you can get this through your head):
Talking about how many things you want to do in your life definitely does not mean you know what you’re doing with your life.
Why do I call myself a fraud? Self-perception. Despite my lifelong issues with, uh, being who I am, the one thing I’ve always been proud of is the fact that I realized very young that I wanted to go into politics of some sort. And then I got complacent. Actually knowing what realm of politics I wanted to go into has changed a lot since I was 12, and even now I find myself two years away from a Bachelor’s Degree, contemplating my graduate career, slowly realizing what it actually means to be an adult, and staring down (at least) two distinct career paths.
Why do I call myself a fraud? I guess because I (think I) come across as someone who is self-assured and assertive. What would it mean to the people for whom I’ve asserted myself as a mentor if they realize I’m not as confident in my future as I seem to be.
Why do I call myself a fraud? Because, likely, the above is me tooting my own horn.
Why do I call myself a fraud? That doesn’t make much sense. Being lost is something everybody goes through. Is it part of a bigger delusion of grandeur that I think I am unique in the “implications” of my own confusion? (Actually, that does make me a bit of a fraud but in a different way.)
Why do I call myself a fraud? One day I’ll tell people (including my family, other Pakistanis) that I want to come back home as a foreign service officer like a good patriot, devastated as I am about the lost potential of a country born of trauma. Some other day I’ll be enamored with critical theory and the macro of international diplomacy and wax poetic (hah) about how beautiful the world is and what my place in it is. Is this a career crisis or a personality crisis? Who knows. Fraud.
…but why do I call myself a fraud if what I want to do with my life is be kind?
Everybody is a little bit of a fraud, but that’s only because we’re all constantly going through changes, internal or external, whether in sparks or cascades. Change is beautiful, change is human, and I suppose so long as your change does not lash out and become ugly and cause you or others pain, what’s wrong with being a fraud?
Why should I have to know what I’m doing with my life when my life is in constant flux and my decisions meld and flow to fit around a shifting framework? What you’re doing with your life doesn’t begin and end with your degree or your career choices, and if there’s anything I’ve learnt from my limited working experience, eight hours of your day are just that: eight hours of your day.
The rest of your life does not play like a gameshow where your decisions are locked in and cannot be changed or impacted by anything else. Certainly, commitment is necessary and important and I have talked extensively about the benefits of routine inthatoneTEDxTalkitrynottoremember, but considering myself a fraud because I am still growing as an individual is unfair.
Being a fraud is not an identifier. Fraudulence is an aspect of human experience fraught with flux. But you are not a fraud.
I don’t like keeping resolutions, because I know I’m going to break them. If you’re one of those people that thrives off resolutions, I envy you.
Ever since I watched Ze Frank’s Invocation for Beginnings, I’ve found myself ingratiated to the idea of a manifesto or invocation whenever I start something; whether it’s a notebook for school, a new semester, a new journal I’m hoping to actually fill up all the way. It forces me to think about what I’m going to write, and writing something down – for me – injects a certain permanence into the manifesto. It gets burnt into my memory, and especially the bit of my brain that’s behind my determination (and overambition of course). It becomes an ego thing.
I don’t like admitting I have an ego, but I totally do. And at least in this case the ego serves me well.
So here is my invocation: Towards Kindness.
I will charge forward into this blank slate with confidence in my steps and caution thrown to the wind. I will be ready with a smile and an open heart to welcome opportunity and friendship into my life; I will remember that I have trusted and been broken for that trust but that it has never stopped me from trusting before, so why should it have any effect now? I will remember that the best nights are those where I had no intention of staying up late and do anyway; I will remember that that is how I made my best friends and met those who I love. I will not be cranky if I only get 7 hours of sleep as opposed to 8, and I will (try to) not regret being bleary-eyed and exhausted the following day.
I will remember that life is about art and the written word and music. I will remember that I have learnt about the meaning of art from engineers, about the nuances of the written word from computer scientists, and about music from beauty gurus on Youtube. I will remember that life is all around me and that it is the grandest Work in Progress; and I will remember that the best art I have created is that whose final manifestation I had no inkling of when I started drawing.
I will not compare myself to other people. That’s not fair to anyone involved. And I will not tell myself I hate myself even when I do; I will not say those words again.
I will remember on my darkest days that I can create. I will remember when I am angry how it feels to love and be loved. I will remember when I fail that I have succeeded. I won’t remember my mediocre IGCSE grades because that is how irrelevant they have become to my present; and that is how it should remain and how it will be when I am an adult, whether cum laude or not, magna or summa notwithstanding.
I will remember that laughter is only a breath away. I will remember that my loved ones are only a phone call, text message, walk, or some number of train stops away. I will remember that love sneaks up on you in beautiful ways. I will learn that friendship is a matter of retrospect; so reflect. I will remember that people I used to dislike are now my close friends. I will remember that adulthood is a sharp learning curve, and that’s okay.
I will remember that some music hurts to listen to because it meant so much.
I will remember that there is no greater feeling than that of being held.
I will remember that I have as much to teach as I have to learn – and I love teaching.
I will remember that there is nothing like losing yourself in a book – so read as much as you did when you were younger.
I will remember that if I can’t sleep it’s probably because I have a poem I need to write – so write it.
I will remember that if I still can’t sleep properly, it’s because I’m fantasizing instead of drifting off – so, I don’t know, is it a really good fantasy? Because if it is that’s okay.
I will remember that I have been shown kindness in ways that have and will shape my life. I will remember that my life’s goal is to change the world; and if the world is made of 7 billion individual lives, and if change starts from your immediate circle, I cannot be unkind even if it is unintentional.
I must be the light in the darkness that I seek in my darkest moments. I must be the open arms I myself rush into when I hurt.
I will invoke kindness and beauty and grace in everything I do. I will feel rage but I will turn it into creativity and not destruction. I will ease my anger into sweetness. I will be honey and the honeybee.
According to WordPress, this blog turned five years old on Sunday. I don’t really know how much I believe that, but then I refuse to believe five years ago was 2010. Seriously, don’t correct me on that, five years ago was 2005.
Regardless of whether or not this is entirely accurate, five years is still one hell of a milestone and I’m honestly surprised I kept up a blog that received its baptismal blessing in the form of a Year 11 English teacher (it was an assignment for my IGCSE First Language English class). I don’t like going back through this blog all that much – I have enough of retrospect as is without having to parse through my own words – but it’s reassuring to know it’s out there. Far more reassuring than the existence of 75% of my other social media platforms.
I’ve been reading a lot of Kierkegaard lately in the form of a little anthology comprising his journals and essays and seminal works; I love reading journals and letters written by my favorite thinkers because I’m that pompous ass and because it explores what is a distinct beauty in their very musing, a grace in the core of their self. Allow me to indulge my fantasy: in an ideal future, I’d love to be the kind of person whose “journal” and correspondence inspires and is widely circulated because it’s believed that I have something of value to say, and that there’s merit to my first draft thoughts so to speak. Now I doubt that that would be the case. And there’s very little romance to sharing links. And I think I’m the only idiot who still writes letters out of sentimental value on occasion.
(To my future publisher: I do have a journal. It’s not worth it except for scribbled down poems and maybe a proper entry here and there. And a few of half-decent drawings. Ask for it at your own discretion. I’ll probably have thrown it away though. Also, my handwriting isn’t all that pretty so it’s not even worth it for the aesthetic value.)