Making mistakes is a luxury many immigrant children feel they can’t afford. But how do you practice intimacy without the messy imperfection of being vulnerable?
There is always a before and after. An epoch. A moment to mark the rupture.
My mother, aunts, and older cousins all speak of the before. They speak of desire as languid contentment. Of Mogadishu breeze, Italian-dubbed cinema outings, and moustachioed men who held their hands in local parks. The men who’d asked for these hands, who’d pined for them from afar despite differences in tribe, language, and wealth. Desire was the smoke of jazz and the crackle of oil lamps. It was living in the lap of safety and enjoying the pre-war social scene of a growing middle class. A youth I now envy and cannot imagine at the same time.
After, came the stories of how it all ended. Hushed at first, I grew older and wasn’t spared the graphic details. Stories of women who’d married warlords to save their families, girls barely out of their teens who sought older men to take them away from the collapsing country. Women who’d staked their entire futures on visa applications and the promise of escape. Whatever happened beyond the airport gates would be anyone’s guess. From Cairo to Helsinki to Toronto and Minnesota, where they would even land was a mystery. Desire, sentimentality, all belonged to the era before, to girlhood dreams. All placed on hold. For the meantime.
I grew up and around these stories of duty and obligation where intimacy was a byword for survival. It was shared in small moments, whenever you could catch a breath. Anyone who’d risked the law, poverty, and social degradation for you didn’t need to buy you flowers or plan a Valentine’s surprise, too. They’d already proved this in their sacrifices, hadn’t they? And then there were those who’d come or become alone. As refugees and exiles, their countries had already broken their hearts. To give up that part of themselves again would have been too reckless.
Against such a backdrop, how do we practice intimacy? I am child of dating profiles and text etiquette, whether I like it or not. I don’t know what it means to be told a college sweetheart is now disabled in a cold metropolis somewhere. Or that a man who’d once proposed to me escaped to a camp with his family and found asylum halfway across the world. To be informed via the immigrant grapevine that my first love had been unable to access medical treatment and died as a result during the war. Yet daily, I live out the symptoms of this inheritance, of the witnessing before me. Some of us have never seen parents kiss, have always been the vault where family secrets are kept. We have mistaken violence for protection. Mourning for community. Our generation was born into estrangement and we’ve been trying to make our way back ever since.
With this comes new ways of being together, even when we are apart. We know intimacy doesn’t always require presence and that separation is a natural and unavoidable fact of life. From AOL Instant Messenger and WhatsApp to international calling cards, we have carved out a rootless intimacy. As in, I’m kinda chill with waiting on you to call me back since that’s a routine I’ve already perfected with absent fathers. As in, I understand a portion of your salary is reserved for remittances so we probably won’t go out to eat as much. We re-imagine the possibilities, always desiring something static. Something solid.
I perpetually anticipate loss. It’s been embedded into me and I’m learning to be OK with that. Loss of land, peoples, memory, innocence, and social standing. Desirability, too. Something we once had amongst ourselves. We who are no longer read as wanted, not here at least. In the stunning words of Warsan Shire, our beauty isn’t beauty here. Us one-and-a-half and second generation young adults have to learn to desire what the world doesn’t, in environments and ways that are drastically different to those of our parents. I think of the young women my mother and her friends were, the evidence of less complicated times now a stack of memories lining old photo albums. Somewhere where the pin-ups looked and laughed like them. Where life was an open-ended question in a language they understood.
One particular immigrant kid angst is a feeling of being denied the luxury of making mistakes. To my younger self hell-bent on educational success and eventually providing for family, mistakes often took the shape of men who I could never take to meet my father. They represented distractions to aspirational broke immigrant girls like me. I knew I carried the weight of everything those before had given up for me to be on this side of the waters. If intimacy meant a carefree headlong rush into the world and all my desires, then that wasn’t for me. Couldn’t be me.
I used to think my fear of commitment came from having watched too many Nora Ephron movies, romantic comedies where the mismatched navel-gaze their way out of compatibility. I understand now that my fears are rooted in the knowledge that I may never be able to protect those I love. From geopolitics to family photo albums to community gossip; everything reminds me that wanting something (or someone) badly means I will one day lose them. I weigh the risks of heartbreak and failure against everyone who financially and emotionally depends on me. Those who come from disintegrated communities cannot afford to disintegrate. It’s hard to even begin to move against that but it’s harder still to deny yourself what you want.
I’m learning that maybe I don’t have to be terrified at the prospect of intimacies grounded in the domestic and the safe. That pleasure can be for pleasure’s sake. To claim and own desire in and of itself. To not see it as a dangerous and self-involved path not meant for immigrant elder daughters. This may come in the form of both platonic and romantic ties that aren’t held together by our mutual unbelonging. I won’t write off intimacies that don’t come in a form I don’t immediately recognize. I’ll open myself up to all kinds of delicious mistakes. These days, I’m trying to live and love for myself. That may look different to desire and courtship as seen through Western economies of romance. My journey won’t take after rom-com tropes or be necessarily translatable to anyone else. It won’t be modelled after anyone who doesn’t look or love like me. It will have its own thick soundtrack, its own awkwardness and painful complications. I’ll keep at it.
I’ll imagine that girl with her toes in the Indian Ocean, sliding her sandals from under her and deviously plotting on the fumbling boy next to her. I’ll know she is me. She can be me, too.