A breath of a word, a sigh of relief from a heart yearning to be reunited with an absent-minded comfort. Effortless in speech, yet so vital to many — this one syllable word that defines a great part of our human existence and preoccupation has been, for me, an existential struggle as the lost kid of immigration, and the product of expected assimilation.
My family was uprooted from Afghanistan as a result of the disease known as war, and immigrated to the United States, a foreign land that they considered, during that period, a temporary situation — a quarantine of sorts. Biding whatever time needed to discover a lasting cure that would put an end to their forced exile. Unfortunately for them, the war never ended, the plague spread, and the concept of “home” for my parents was lost in the nostalgia of their carefree youth in the Neverland of a pre-war Afghanistan that no longer exists.
In school, I understood the textbook definition of home to be multi-dimensional, multi-sensational, with meanings different yet convergent: a place of residence, a family living together, a familiar setting, a place where you belong, one’s own country, a place providing security, happiness, where you have people who care for you.
Whether my parent’s loss of home is fully represented in each of these interpretations is uncertain: but whatever they did lose, they mourn it until this very day. Much like mourning the loss of a limb, with a violent and strenuous reeducation process. I watched as they struggled to adapt their identity to a new foreign land that lacked the comforts of their families, friends, and the simple ease of maneuvering in a society built around their natal culture and language. I witnessed first-hand their agony as they received bad news from the front, their fight for economic survival, and — at a later stage — their realization, as they eventually accepted that the Afghanistan of their youth was lost. And during this whole time, I felt like a voyeur, observing my parents without really understanding them; envying them, while sometimes resenting them. Coping with the idea that their home was an elsewhere that I — their daughter — was not a part of was a hard reality to swallow.
So came the inevitable question once I reached an age of self-awareness: where is my home? How do I get to Neverland?
The various definitions of home did not provide me the answer I was seeking. So many connotations, which one applied to me? Is home a consolidation of all these connotations? Or, can we cherry pick based on our life experiences? And moving beyond the textbook definition, how does it feel to truly have a home?
Longing for their life in Afghanistan, it was clear to me that my mother and father were well acquainted with the feeling of home, of being home. I too wanted to own that feeling as proudly as they did. The idea seemed so fulfilling. It must have been, if their suffering was so profound. I wanted to share in their pain, to show them my solidarity. But I couldn’t. Their home was a land that I never knew. I only knew of their suffering which lingered under the surface of every smile they ever bestowed upon me as a child. A constant reminder that the dust of their bombarded homeland had not yet settled; and — unbeknownst to them — never really would.
I personally know immigration to be beautifully promising; but I also understand today that it is a hard and unrepentant journey, especially when engendered by war or economic precarity. Its more unpleasant brunt is felt by immigrants and their children. Separated from their homes, immigrants arrive in a foreign society with the heavy expectation of rapid assimilation. An act that requires not only education, but also the luxury of time, to gain hindsight and awareness. But time proves scarce. In most cases, immigrants land into their new societies running, or — more appropriate to say — working, long and hard. Those expecting their assimilation are disappointed: not realizing that the priority for survival takes over the priority for full integration, as they also simultaneously cope with the loss of what was left behind. And what happens to the children of these immigrants? They inherit society’s expectation to assimilate: a hefty responsibility put before them at a young age with very little guidance or moral support.
On one hand, parents are meant to provide their children with the stability of a home with all its comforts. Through tears and sweat, my parents did so, beautifully. Yet, I didn’t know how to cope with the idea that my physical home was not the home for which they longed. On the other hand, parents are also mandated to educate, support and guide their children in society. My parents were struggling to understand their identity in an unfamiliar Western society — guiding me and my siblings in this new environment was just not conceivable. So with no clear idea of home and identity, and no guidance to maneuver in a society where I looked and felt different, I did the only thing a disoriented child could do — I learned to adapt, a far cry from assimilation.
In theory, assimilation is meant to be a two-way street. It refers to the act of absorbing and integrating people, ideas, or culture into the wider society or culture. For that to succeed, the person being absorbed needs to accept the wider society; and likewise, the wider society needs to accept the person being absorbed. The Romans, as a means to keep their empire unified, would integrate the gods and customs of the people they conquered. What I discovered growing up is that assimilation becomes an uneven playing field in most cases. Society expects integration into wider society or culture, but without fully appreciating the differences — both qualities and shortcomings — of the first generations expected to integrate; and as a consequence, not fully understanding how little equipped they are to assimilate into a culture different from their parents.
I grew up utterly lost. Double-dodging between cultural lines. Not feeling like I belonged anywhere. Not being fully versed in Afghan or American culture. I learned what I could from my parents about being Afghan, without ever residing in the country; and I learned what I could from the society I lived in, without having American parents to guide me. I adapted. I was afraid of being the odd one out in society, while at the same time not wanting to disappoint my parents. I was an American when I needed to be and the devoted Afghan daughter when I needed to reassure my parents that their heritage was not completely lost.
My attempt to meet society’s expectation of assimilation was just a show: smoke and mirrors. I didn’t realize until much later in my life how destructive this was for me, how damaging it was to my self-esteem, and how lonely it was to never feel like I could fully assume who I was, with all my culturally diverse qualities and shortcomings. Adapting to the established identities of others was a hollow solution for me; and a source of great frustration because every decision — including some tragic mistakes — I made in my life was driven by my unconscious need to “belong”, to find home, and my identity. It is really the foundation for everything.
The foundation I grew up upon was unhinged and wobbly. The number of times I fell through that unsound structure was countless, falling on my head, stomach, ass, and — the few times I was lucky — feet. But in retrospect, nothing was really spared.
Today, some people might look at me and see a miraculous success story, assimilation done right — whatever that means. The “model immigrant” as one of my bosses once referred to me when discussing Muslim immigrants in the west. Sure, I’ll be the “model immigrant”. But are they aware of the cost? Do they see my broken bones, bruises, and open wounds? Not really. Did I really do assimilation right? Bof… as the French would say. Is my situation miraculous? No, it is not. I am not an exception or a minority in my success story. Many have gone through the same struggle. An endless and brutal effort to catch up with a society that is not always aware. And they do eventually catch up, sometimes even surpassing society’s expectations. But, do we ever ask ourselves if they manage to catch up with themselves? Some do, at an early stage. Others, at a later stage. And some never manage, forever lost in a state of limbo.
Did I ever manage to catch up with myself? I once read somewhere that if you travel far enough, you might meet yourself somewhere. I guess I met myself in a Parisian taxi, in the commotion of early evening rush-hour traffic.
On a summer evening, coming back from a work meeting in Berlin — tired, cranky, and looking for the relief of a refreshing cold shower — I stand in line like an experienced Parisian for a cab. After a twenty minute wait in a humid and claustrophobic heat, a silver-haired, olive-skinned man in his mid-fifties pulls up. He greets me with a somewhat jovial smile, similar to my father’s smile when he has a mischievous joke to tell me. At that moment, I am just so tired that even his smile — however childlike — aggravates my already annoyed state. I thought to myself ‘great… he is going to chat the whole ride home.’ I get into the taxi, grateful for the silence as he drove a few meters. My gratitude came too soon. The silence was broken with “So where are you from?” Ah, the million dollar question. I give him an annoyed look and limit my response hoping to cut the conversation short. “The US.” ‘Now let me be’, I think to myself. I see him looking at me from the rear-view mirror, slanting his head with an inquisitive expression on his face. I knew what was coming next. “Oui, mais… Yes, but…”
Ever since moving to France, I have been asked this question more times than I can count. Normally, I respond with a good sense of humor, even if I always find it annoying that my answer is not taken at face value, and that further inquiries are based on my looks and/or name.
On this particular summer day, my humor decided to go on hiatus. “Yes but what?” I growl back. He is taken aback by the violence in my response, and dumbfounded by my anger. I expected the “you don’t look American” response that I systematically receive. But I didn’t. He didn’t say anything for at least thirty seconds. Then finally, in a small voice with a tired yet earnest smile he responds with, “I’m so sorry… You just seem like someone who has extra pages to your book. I thought we might have a few things in common.” Looking down a bit, I mutter a silent “oh…” and with it my anger dissolves, replaced by shame. Not only did I feel ridiculously childish for my reaction, I was equally disappointed with myself for judging his innocent curiosity.
I don’t know if I had reached a turning point in my life, or perhaps I was finally ready to embrace a truth that has always resided in me. Whatever it was, something resonated that day in the words of this Armenian taxi driver who immigrated to France twenty three years ago.
“… like someone who has extra pages to your book.”
My mind played with that statement as if I was trying to solve a riddle; breaking down one thought, and reshuffling it to see an all-encompassing truth. ‘My pages. My book.’ Okay… But why would I have more pages than anyone else? And in any case, those pages are just additional information, shuffled neatly in the appendix. Why would he want to read the appendix without reading the book first? That’s when it then dawned on me — in that moment stuck in traffic, with Stromae’s “Alors on dance” playing on the radio. He does not want to read the appendix. No. He wants to read the book. I am the one underrating my own story. I am the one confusing the main text for the appendix. And I am the one tragically writing for others.
On the ride home, I discover that Tavi is right. We do have a lot in common.
Whatever my age, or wherever I might find myself in this great big world, I will always be that lost kid of immigration. The only difference today is that I am aware of it and I am okay with it; and if that implies the discomfort of others, then so be it. I still have my whole life ahead of me, a mapless journey that will continually change me as an individual. But however far I go, I will never underestimate the hard and, at times, costly lessons learned on the roads already traveled. They are telling of my final destination and have taught me something valuable, something necessary for the journey that still lies ahead: that in the end there is no single truth when it comes to home, only interpretations with its own legitimate right to the truth. My interpretation, my truth after three decades of navigating between the expectations of some and the projection of others? Like a wandering dervish discovering god from within, I discovered the “me” in home.
I found Neverland within myself.