by Nancy Uddin
“You’re 20 years old. You don’t have to answer to your parents anymore,” my friend frustratingly declared after I told her that I had to be home. Every part of me wanted to stay out past midnight, but I knew to not push my parents’ limits.
My friend did not understand the reality that she is a white girl and I am a brown girl. Unlike her, I was raised to fear the night and remain obedient to my parents. When explaining my lifestyle to my white friends and to my parents, there is one thing in common from both parties: neither understand my needs and experience. My parents yell at me for disobeying their rules instead of trying to reason with me, inconsiderate of my desires. My non-Desi friends poorly advise me to just rebel or move out, inconsiderate of how impractical that is for me.
That night, I ended up returning home around 3 AM due to NYC weekend train reroutes. I tried to explain to my mom why I was so late, but train delays were something she could not fathom in spite of living in NYC for the past 20 years. She lectured me about the dangers of being a “woman of the night.” According to my mom, these women got themselves in danger for roaming around with “bad” people.
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The cultural expectations imposed by my parents caused me to further rebel against oppressive home rules. At the same time, I developed guilt about my parents’ disappointment in me. At the heart of this conflict is the clash of my multi-layered identity as a queer Muslim Bengali-American woman. So, how could I co-exist in my different worlds?
Desi Realness in America
A combination of growing up in New York City, pursuing activism, and surrounding myself with open-minded people since high school allowed me to cultivate a different set of principles from my traditional parents. My values include self-care and doing me, even if that goes against my parents’ ideas of womanhood. I am a feminist who believes that women, especially women of color, should have the right to self-determination. I believe that I can draw upon insight from my ancestors to deconstruct my identity as well as do other things that young people do to rebel. “Doing me” comes in the form of attending house parties, sleeping over at my best friends’ house, traveling out of the city, and wearing crop tops – all under the disapproval of my Bengali parents.
In my parents’ eyes, I am solely Bengali, not American. To them, this means that I should not spend so much time with American friends who do not share the same lifestyle as me. They remind me it would bring shame upon the family if I did not abide by the norms of being a decent Desi woman, including being wholly committed to family, a science/math career path, and (in my case) the Islamic faith. A social life is deemed a distraction from the “proper” Desi lifestyle.
When I would assert my own agency by coloring my hair or attending late night concerts, my parents would yell at me, denying my right to self-determination. Over time, I stopped letting my parents know my whereabouts and would come home to a worrisome household and late night lectures. Initially, my guilt associated with disobeying my parents’ wishes took a toll on me.
I grew distant from my family and would not share intimate details of my life with them out of convenience, ranging from my passion for social justice and humanities to selectively disclosing who I was hanging out with. Performance became a ritual, where I put up a facade at home to appease the family.
I eventually realized that I was leading a double life. It was more than code-switching; it was identity switching. In order to juggle participating in my social spaces and my family space, I had to learn to negotiate my time and the conditions. This entails choosing which night to come home late and tolerating bickers from my parents. I started considering: Which battles were worth fighting? It was important to me that my expression of feminism was defended, but at what cost?
Boundaries and Love
I started believing the only way to be truly independent was to escape the household permanently. I had the opportunity to spend the past summer in Oakland for two months, so I jumped at the thought of adulting on the West coast, away from my family. Of course, my parents refused to let me go, but I put my foot down. It was the first time I completely challenged their authority over me because I was not going to let them make such drastic decisions for me. Along with gaining budgeting and cooking skills, I appreciated the breathing room I carved out for myself separate from my family.
When I returned back home in the Fall, I knew that my atmosphere needed to change to suit my well-being. After a year-long intentional process with my parents, I have improved my conditions at home. It is certainly not perfect, but the love between me and my parents drives us to work towards a healthy relationship.
I collected advice from mentors who taught me that I needed to create boundaries with my parents. For the sake of my growth, I decided to have a heart to heart with my parents. I know this is not possible for many South Asian youth, so I am fortunate enough to have parents that listened. I told them about my feelings of grief from familial stress and alienation from the cultural expectations.
It also took acknowledging that my parents worry out of love. They worry because they genuinely care about my well-being. I decided that I respect my parents too much to lie to them anymore. It took time to rebuild trust and privacy with my parents, but now I am able to have late nights as long as I inform my parents of my whereabouts. I am able to wear what I want as long as I respect the Islamic community. While I cannot say that our relationship is perfect, our love is unconditional. I am still constantly fighting my parents on violation of our agreed boundaries, but my parents are trying to meet me where I am.
Nancy Uddin is a Muslim South Asian femme from Queens. She organizes with the Youth Activist- Youth Allies Network and identifies as an abolitionist. Her political beliefs are constantly challenged and developed by her resilient community.
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