“So, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.”
– Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Diaspora Blues
Diaspora Blues, a poem by Ijeoma Umebinyuo, was written in response to her feelings of displacement when returning to Nigeria after being away for many years. Such few words send a powerful message, speaking to the basest of human desires, the need to belong, the need to fit in, whether it is fitting in to a family, religion, community, or even a country.
Physically, home is and has always been the United States, where I was born and raised, but home isn’t always a physical place. Home is many things to many people: a place to sleep, a place to forget work, a place of prayer, or just a sense of community and belonging. It can be where family lives, where childhood memories are, where someone had their first love, where they went to high school, and usually – it’s a place where one is most comfortable. Even though it’s been years since I lived in Georgia and don’t really intend to move back there anytime soon, I always say I’m going “home” when I go to Georgia. That’s where my family is, and that’s where the people I love and cherish are. So, when I read this poem, I always think about “home” as my family and their values, and “here” as the culture I am surrounded by and have accepted as my own, some amalgam of Indian and American.
Too foreign for my parents, and too foreign for my friends…
Though I am so thankful to my parents for moving to the United States, to afford their children the opportunities, experiences, and comforts that they didn’t have growing up, when I was younger, I often felt that it was difficult being a first generation child of immigrant parents. Though of Indian descent, I was born and raised in the United States, so I would go between identifying with my friends and peers who were also born and raised here and the culture that’s been ingrained in me through my parents, family, and religious community. My parents are Muslims, born and raised in India. As such, often what is a cultural norm to me usually blows their mind. For example, my parents didn’t initially buy into the concept of taking time off between college and graduate school. When I told them of my plans, they assumed I was disinterested in law school or lazy.
Why don’t you go straight to law school?
Why do need this time off?
I’d try to explain that this is just an odd thing people here do. Or, my parents’ views on dating (in complete contrast to mine): the first person you date, you make it work and marry them. (Thankfully, they don’t say that to me anymore. Phew.) Similarly, what felt normal to them, I often didn’t always feel comfortable with. Though I loved Indian food, I was always so embarrassed when my mom packed me an Indian lunch in grade school. I never wanted the other kids to make fun of me for my smelly food. When I put henna on my hands, I was always self-conscious of all the (what then seemed like) super-probing questions.
It was such times that I often felt that I was “never enough for both”. I felt like a deformed puzzle piece, not really neatly fitting into any space. My parents were raised in a completely different culture, with their views often clashing with mine on major lifestyle choices, including marriage, parties, boys, traveling, school, and the list goes on. On the other hand, I still often felt different and “foreign” around my non-Indian or non-Muslim friends. I looked different, had different religious practices and different dietary restrictions, knew how to speak a different language, and I often felt uncomfortable explaining my conservative parents or why I wasn’t allowed to do whatever it was that my friends were doing. Too foreign for my parents, and too foreign for my friends, peers, and significant others “here”. I always went back and forth between trying to please my parents and trying to live up to their expectations, but also wanting to find my own happiness in ways they often didn’t approve. Never Indian enough, never American enough, I guess.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that “here” and “home” don’t need to be mutually exclusive. I don’t think there was any monumental, life-changing event that made me feel “enough for both” or more comfortable with who I was (if only my life were a movie). I think self-acceptance comes with age and life experience (or so I tell myself). I’ve learned that my parents are happy when I’m happy. I’ve learned that I don’t need to feel self-conscious about being different from my peers around me. I’ve learned that I don’t need to be exactly like everyone else to belong. I’ve learned to appreciate and pull from both worlds that I’ve grown up in, and as cliché as it sounds, find the version of myself that embraces and loves being a part of both. I know I’m surrounded by those that love and care for me, wherever they’re from. Such love, tolerance, and open-mindedness have only made me appreciate the worlds I’ve grown up in.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still sometimes conflicted, especially given the current political climate, and what feels like constantly growing racial and religious tensions, which make me question exactly how foreign I am for “here”. Discussion of race and religion are pervasive, and hard to avoid, even during award shows or “The Bachelor” (which is otherwise completely removed from reality). Thankfully, though, such discussions create awareness of such issues and are a call for acceptance. While it’s often disheartening to think that we still, in this day and age, need to have such discussions, it’s still comforting to be surrounded by such love and support. It’s what we need to all feel belonged.