The Great American Smokescreen
When my father moved to New York City, he barely spoke enough English. As the youngest of eight siblings growing up in Nazimabad, where everyone was allotted an exact portion of food a night, America represented exactly what was sold to him: The Great American Dream. Burdened by the awareness of how unique this opportunity was, this young man eventually earned his place at NYU’s business school, wrapped his tongue around the foreign language, and brought his nineteen-year-old wife over to join him.
My mother was vivacious with limited places to put her energy, loud amongst people who kept trying to silence her, and curious in a world hell-bent on defining women’s boundaries. Freedom to her looked like buying Burger King and sitting at Central Park all alone. Walking to the train station. Inviting a bunch of people without housing who would sit on their stoop, to attend my father’s surprise party because she knew nobody else. As she sashayed through the streets and discovered what all life could be like, they welcomed their first son – an American. The epitome of the American dream.
But like most Desis who move abroad, my parents felt the weight of obligations back home. As the youngest of their own families, they both understood the importance of being around their aging parents and raising their children around a support system. And so they moved back to Karachi, had two more children, built a home, played dodgeball with societal pressure, encouraged each others’ dreams, and spent thirty years creating a beautiful life together.
But living in Pakistan is not easy. From political instability, religious policing, cultural expectations, and the level of crime to name a few, even their privileged lives back home were punctuated with difficulties. The three of us siblings grew up with a lot of love for our country, while simultaneously listening to stories that took place on the free streets of New York. The dreams they held, the experiences they shared, the hopes to return one day.
As I grew older, my lens at viewing these same stories began shifting. My father spoke of an America where the Moharram jaloos bumped into a pride parade and suddenly Hussain’s mourners were shouting their prayers as they weaved through rainbow flags and drag queens. A country where everyone can coexist in peace. But my brother would always return from a different America – where he was strip-searched upon arrival as an eighteen-year-old because how can a brown face hold a blue passport? My mother spoke of the joy of marrying her Pakistani roots to her American lifestyle, sipping brandy while preparing saalan to take over to the neighbors’ for dinner. But the border patrol agents that would stop our car decades later as we crossed state lines, seemed to think my mehndi was a deliberate tool to cover up my fingerprints even though I was eight. My parents saw a country that helped build them up; I couldn’t help but see it as now persistent in tearing us down.
Thirty years later, they eventually decided to move back to America in the hopes of giving their remaining two children more opportunities and rights. At the time of their move, both my parents were at the top of their careers. My father was a well-respected banker in the corporate world with years as a CFO under his belt. My mother was one of the first mental health professionals to emerge from and practice within Pakistan, and worked her way up to become one of the most renowned professionals in her field. They sold our family home that had been built with their retirement in mind, said goodbye to a lifetime’s worth of family and friends, and uprooted everything they built, because they believed America would be worth it.
In the past year and a half of our move, it is devastating watching my parents try to recognize this country as the same one they left decades ago. A country where my father was told at a job interview that, “you’re extremely qualified, you have great references, you would be great for this job but we aren’t sure if it would be the right ‘cultural fit’ for us.” A country where my parents were told to keep standing and waiting for a seat at a restaurant for hours because they were so busy, while all the white people were seated upon arrival. A country that has active, violent, white supremacist groups in the area their youngest son is attending college. A country that believes it makes more sense to harass the victim of a car accident for why she ‘tried to kill herself’ rather than recognize the mistake the white man made when he ran me over. A country where it would have been easier for me to get my hands on a gun than any mental health services at all, had I even been in such a frame of mind. A country that is more concerned about their children wearing masks than their children being murdered in a classroom. A country that insists it’s the best country in the whole world, but the 'whole world' to Americans is just America itself.
Yesterday we watched as the rights of everyone capable of giving birth and their bodily autonomy were smothered and suppressed. My mother sat next to me, twiddling with her phone screen. Unable to face the television entirely but also unable to turn it off. In a small voice, she asked no one in particular, “Where does one go?”
And in that question, I heard all her voices. The nineteen-year-old who was obligated to leave her home for a new life. The twenty-year-old who found that even an alien land can feel like home if given the chance. The twenty-two-year-old who moved back with her infant son because what is home without family? The thirty-year-old who began succumbing under the pressure that life in Pakistan imposes upon you. The forty-year-old who held dreams of returning one day, perhaps for her masters. The fifty-year-old who lost her oldest son and decided life was too short to not take chances for herself and her family. The woman who sits next to me today and realizes that no matter where she nomads about, the world is falling apart.
Last night as the decision finally sunk in, I thought of all the bodies like my own that were going to be policed by this decision. Delete your period tracking app. Save a list of these verified resources. Call up your gynecologist and ask any questions you may have. As the internet was flooded with anger and fear and survival tips, I also thought of my parents and every first-generation immigrant like them. Who remember America as the utopia that introduced them to what life could be like, but will die with the memory of how it was all a smokescreen.