A Letter To My Aunties
by Fariha Roísín
I heard some of you tried to Google me.
My mother tells me this sitting on the edge of my childhood bed. I’ve been gone from the home I grew up in for five years. I left to start my life. I’m back now to show my gratitude — like a spiritual praxis; there’s a cord that ties me to my family and their needs; I am a healer at my best.
As a kid I didn’t understand why my life had restrictions. Unlike so many of my friends, I had a list of terms and conditions governing my free spirit; a body of rules that determined my morality.
I am reminded of my responsibilities as I sit on my bed, facing my ink-stained whiteboard lined with posters of Nick Drake and The Strokes; a magnet from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul; a pale and blistered Egon Schiele sketch. My mother is facing my wardrobe, where a silk print of a Bijin-ga (a beautiful person) hangs from my cupboard.
“Where did you get this?” she asks, all accusations.
“I got it for my sixth birthday from Thomas and his dad,” I tell her. Thomas’s dad was cool. He was the first person to tell me about this “rad new show called South Park.” I was seven years old. She doesn’t remember who Thomas is. I haven’t talked to Thomas in years.
Familial piety is a tenuous relationship in Asian households frequented by the constancy of malady and tension. I left my home for a myriad of unsexy reasons — mainly, I wanted to live a life for myself, one of my own design, removed from limitations, uninhibited by the glaring heat of my mother’s co-dependency — but also to get away from you, the aunties, the entity that wanted to Ziploc me into a tiny digestible package, removed from my peculiar ilk. According to all of you, and vicariously through my mother, I am not allowed to live my life in a way that is emotionally better for myself. The decisions I make are wrong; unfit for a woman, culturally deplorable.
I’ve been home for a month. Home is Australia, Sydney. My mom lives in a European style duplex, profuse with flowers: orchids; delilahs; succulents dripping over ivory-colored macramé holders and thrifted Mayan indigenous clay pots.
My upbringing was in an incongruent wasteland; my parents were cultured humans who, after emigrating from their respective homes, were suddenly caught in a diasporic world of gossip, faux refinement, and social cruelty. I was taught by my father; a political science professor; my hero — the man who introduced me to Noam Chomsky and Jared Diamond — that judgment was vile and energetically taxing. My mother, a painter; forever misunderstood, socially anxious, mentally ill — fell into the practice of internalizing meanness, vying for the attention of women she considered to be her like-minded sorority.
Immigrants often stick together like kids on a playground, rarely venturing outside of the confines in which society keeps them. Through desperation my mother sought your council, aunties. From my youth I was stuck oscillating between my father and his teachings — and my mother and her need to fit in.
Since I came home to Australia, I’ve been reminded that, as a woman, there’s something wrong with me because I left my family to go live in America. America represents capitalism; greed; illicit sex — I can’t be contained while I’m living in America, I can’t be watched or reprimanded. I can keep my actions to myself without a reckoning.
My parents care about my wellbeing, but they’re afraid, even my father, of all the things you tell them about me — as in my freedom to do whatever I want will forever affect my chances of being a good daughter, and inevitably a good wife. My mother tells me all this, shaking her shoulders, shivering for an eternity, endlessly crying for my sins. How will she absolve them, she asks. How will she go on?
You, my mother’s ostensible friends — bullies can’t be friends, aunties — ask her about me. This is, of course, is not new. You’ve always been concerned about my strangeness, but now your questioning is more hostile, more accusatory. You ask if I have a boyfriend; if I dropped out of law school to inevitably fail as a person — and if I’m not studying law, then what is it that I am studying? These unsated and consistent barrage of questions are, I presume, from what you’ve learned through our mutual friends on Facebook, your children. I didn’t hide from them because I thought they’d respect a person’s choices. Apparently they do not. You use the information you’ve learned about me against my mother — like it’s an interrogation.
It seems innocuous. You’re just inquiring — something you feel entitled to do, as a person who has known me for years; or, at least, known me through my mother. You always ask my mother concerned questions, but you don’t want an actual answer. If you did, your indignance wouldn’t be so glaringly obvious.
My frustrations are with your duplicitousness; you speak of my sins as if you know them; you want to act as a force of guidance and goodwill, and yet you never decide in favor of humanity, or kindness, or sincerity. Instead, you choose to berate my weak mother, concealing your discrimination with concern.
My mother’s life was filled with madness, depression, unfulfilled aspirations; emotional flat lines — she is easily persuaded that her life is, in fact, horrendous. When you belittle me in front of other aunties, you only add salt to her bitter wounds. You hide behind your savior-complex veneer; but I think you’re a leech.
I never wanted the same life as everyone else. I had this great force inside of me, a force for creativity and power — but as a woman, I knew I couldn’t pursue certain things. I couldn’t explore as far as I wanted. I was always side-eyed by you because you all thought I dreamed too much, or acted too brazenly. A woman, I was taught, was quiet, soft-tempered — my mother would watch Audrey Hepburn films and sigh at her grace, demanding my sister and I mimic her idiosyncrasies so we could be the same. I assumed that if I tried hard enough, if I really, really wanted it, I could morph myself into that Fariha, for my parents and for you, my aunties.
My desire to deny myself came from always being compared. From my own mother I have to hear about your daughters; buying houses, getting married to good Bengali boys, actually finishing law school. She fixates on them and your invasive prying of my life only escalates her concern of me. She can’t accept me if you won’t.
Because of you, I’ve developed a narrative where I am a distorted being, undeserving of love, because I was taught that I was wrong. I was outspoken, laughed too loudly, and hung around with boys too much. These things weren’t right for a girl. I grew in fear, knowing deep down that I didn’t want to change, but was frightened of being called a fraud. I continued to deny who I was even to myself. My misguided self-preservation became a way to protect myself. Only recently have I started accepting that everyone has weaknesses, and that mine are not too grotesque for life.
Fast forward to now: my mother is still embarrassed by me because she’s yet to pull herself out of this seething, dangerous hole of your company. I assume she thinks that if she continued to hide me, I would miraculously change. I didn’t and I won’t.
And that’s why I’m here. When I sat on that bed, after being away for so long, after cultivating myself in a place where I thought I could be free from judgment, I came back home only to I realize I still wasn’t free. I was still running. With anxiety, I listened to my mother cry — with probity I decided I didn’t want to run anymore.
In Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin wrote: “It takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget…” I am now in the stages of forgetting, of turning over and transforming. Awoken, I’m suddenly questioning the reality of social structures, and the toxicity of being called wrong when you’re different. Thick skin can only get you so far. Certain standards were carved into me — us — anyone unfit — so we could be paragons of perfection. When you’re pushed to become something you’re not, all that’s left is unhappiness — a deep-seeded void of complaints and hatred of oneself. I am not bad because you think I am. I just am a person; flawed, but with purpose.
Aunties, I need to emphasize this next point to you — your gossip about me dismisses the years of praying that I wasn’t myself in a community where I felt exiled; your gossip dismisses my constant, fluctuating fate of hating, then accepting, who I was. I know that my mother has wanted to try and understand me. But the bullying she receives from you — the questioning, the challenging — has created rifts in her conception of me. I can see how she feels pressured by her community to be a person of your design, and how I am an inevitable extension of that. My mother knows what it feels like to be a pariah. She has constantly felt as if she wasn’t enough, either. I know her push for me to change is more about her wanting a better life for me. She thinks that if I succumb to the norm, I’ll be happier.
Two and a half years ago, I asked a doctor: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, why was I put into this family?” I wanted to know why I was where I was when I so clearly didn’t fit in. His answer was simple — “Maybe you’re in their lives for a reason.” The reason, I believe, is learning to appreciate and respect others for the choices they make. This letter, my aunties, has a clear message: my life is not for you.
On top of being a person of color, I am a woman. The struggle to fight against oppression, to fight to be taken seriously, not be discriminated against is constant — especially when you are also discriminated against in your own communities. You left your families to provide your children with a better life; appreciate that they will make their lives their own. Instead of isolating your daughters, embrace them for who they are. You will do them a world of good — and you may even save their lives. I want to move forward with my life instead of catering to you, and living in fear.
Last night, I heard Janet Mock say it succinctly — “I don’t want to die before truly being myself.” That’s it. It’s just so simple.
Fariha Roísín is a writer extraordinaire. Follow her rambunctious tweeting @fariharoisin.
Maegan Fidelino is a graphic designer living and working in Toronto