Unpacking Acceptability

RahimonNasaBy Rahima Nasa

It’s freshman year and I’m unpacking my belongings into 406 DellPlain, my new home. I brought too much stuff with me so I’m concerned about how I’m going to fit it in all my minuscule split-double. I guess it’s symbolic too since I want to be upfront with my roommate: I’m coming with a lot of baggage.

It’s the first time leaving New York City, where I was raised for most of my life. Although I was born in Bangladesh but my family moved to the U.S. when I was about four years old. I had always been jealous of my little sister for being born in America. I hated being considered an immigrant.

I resented being placed in ESL classes in elementary school solely because I wasn’t born here. This made me work a lot harder at making sure my English was perfect. I refused to speak Bengali, my mother tongue, when I could avoid it. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I finally stopped dreaming in Bengali.

Growing up, I don’t remember ever seeing anyone on TV who shared any of my identity markers being depicted in a positive or nuanced way. I began to internalize many of the stereotypes made about Muslims in popular media. I didn’t want to be Muslim. I didn’t want to be the “Other.” I didn’t want to wear Bengali clothes and eat Bengali food. I wanted to be like everyone else, I would tell my mom.

I start unpacking my things but I start to feel overwhelmed. I’m the only South Asian student on my floor. For the first time ever I felt like I was apart of the minority, alone. New York City has a way of making you forget that, especially when living in one of the city’s many tight-knit ethnic enclaves like I did.

I step out of my room for a moment to decompress. A girl on my floor looks at me excitedly. She asks me if I can help her with her introduction to Hinduism class. I can’t help her, I apologetically tell her.

I’m still excited for college. I’m not an immigrant here, simply a student. I’m on the same playing field as everyone else. I made it. After all college is supposed to be the great equalizer, right? I’m just four years shy and $200,000+ away from the American Dream, give or take a few microaggressions along the way.

***

In two weeks I’m going to graduate college. I’ve come a long way these past couple of years, the other night I had a dream in Bengali.

Somehow being isolated from my family, traditions, and language made me hold onto them tighter than ever before, much to the surprise of my family. During college I became interested in learning about South Asian history, culture, and politics so I took many classes about these topics. I will be culminating my degree with a project about the Bangladesh Liberation War in an effort to bring more visibility to the trauma this conflict invoked for Bangladeshi women.

This degree is a privilege my parents didn’t have and they sacrificed everything so I could. When I think about their sacrifices I feel a little guilty about how envious I was of my classmates who didn’t have to figure out how to fill out a FAFSA form on their own, who could ask their parents for help on papers, whose parents could look over their résumés, and who could have long discussions with their parents about the things they were learning in school. I don’t feel envious anymore because my parents have already given me everything they could and more.

I’ve always kept my parents in mind to motivate me to work as hard as could so that their sacrifices wouldn’t be in vain, even if I knew wasn’t going to live up to their expectations about the American Dream or being a “model minority.” I can’t give them the American Dream, when it was never meant for people like us. I also can’t be the model minority they want me to be.

After the grand jury failed to indict the NYPD officer who was videotaped putting Eric Garner in the chokehold that subsequently led to his death, I went to a rally in Union Square with countless other New Yorkers to express my frustration with our justice system.

When I came home that night my dad sat me down and told me he was worried for me. He told me that I shouldn’t be advocating for justice for Eric Garner, Mike Brown, or Trayvon Martin, that I shouldn’t be so outspoken about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, that being brown and Muslim in America meant constant surveillance, and that I couldn’t afford to be perceived as a troublemaker. As he spoke, I could see the drops of water forming in his eyes with genuine concern. His pride refused to let the water inch past his eyelashes to form tears.

My dad was doing what he knew best. Surviving. I wasn’t I upset that he wanted me to filter myself. I understood where he was coming from, assimilation meant not challenging the status quo, but I’m still disappointed he thought it would be enough for us to be “acceptable.” In Vivek Bald’s essay, American Orientalism, he challenges this notion of acceptability which South Asian Americans have been pursuing since they were admitted to this country. He writes that such approaches only strengthen racial ideas that have only limited us as a group and that we must value justice more than assimilation.

A few weeks ago three Muslim students were shot to death near UNC Chapel Hill. I remember feeling sick when I heard the news. Each of these students had bright futures, worked hard, and did everything that was considered acceptable. When I think of Deah, Yusor, and Razan I think of my dad, my family, and my friends. It could have been someone I knew or it could have been me. Being acceptable will never be enough to end the type of violence that is incited against people of color in this country. I’m more interested in redefining acceptability on my own terms.

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