Standing In the Middle of the Road: Navigating a Diaspora
September 15, 2020 by Noor Amanullah
Maybe it's failing to keep up with the flow of traffic. For others, it might be the inability to slow down in time for speedbumps. The ability to steer yourself in the right direction, or the only direction you can, without crashing, but while taking note of the world around you is not a simple task. This is how I would describe navigating a diaspora. For a new immigrant or for a third-generation* grandchild of immigrants, there is often a feeling of standing at a crossroads, and not knowing which side of the road to drive down, if green really means go, or being unsure whether taking a left turn will ever be possible. I conceptualize my experiences as a member of diaspora communities with this image of being at a crossroads or an intersection. Not being able to read all of the signs. Feeling “too American,” “too Western,” or “too modern” to stand on one side of the road, but “too ethnic,” “too traditional,” or even “too sensitive” to stand on the other. As if these identifiers mean anything important. What is “too American,” when the very idea of America is to be undefined and changing? What is too modern, when less developed and ex-colonial countries are always measured by the standard of their colonizer? Being at a crossroads is confusing. Even more so because a diaspora community “looks” different in different places and at different times. Because the fear of choosing one side, of going down one road, but being condemned by your chosen passengers and fellow travelers, feels scarier than staying in the middle of the intersection, and watching cars speed around you toward their destination. I find myself at the crossroad of two lives, two worlds that somehow not only coexist but meld, overlapping in some places, fitting like puzzle pieces in some, and joined at others as though a soldering iron let them melt and flow into one another before solidifying into some stronger, single structure. For me, this intersection- marked by stop signs, changing lights, speeding cars, and pedestrian signals with countdown timers- is the greater South Asian diaspora. Being a member of a diaspora, like most other experiences, is entirely individualized. Some fall victim to the diaspora, trapped in its sometimes unforgiving nature and often high standards, while others reap its benefits in the community and comfort it can offer. For many, the experience is a combination of both. The South Asian diaspora divides, but also unites. Each of us lies somewhere between a “motherland” and our physical homes- however different they seem, they are still part of the same world. We miss out on aspects of culture, religion, and family, but we’ve created our own, across the globe. At the end of the day, whether we benefit from being part of the diaspora or suffer because of it, we have no choice but to live in it. We all live at an intersection of some sort. Although clothes, language, and attitudes can be left behind during the transition from one sphere to another (home, work, school, social life), we live in the same skin and soul, two things impossible to leave at the door or in the car, regardless of where we are or who we are with. Ultimately, membership in the diaspora provides for one invaluable ability: being able to cross the road at whichever intersection we approach next, even when it feels like we are standing in the middle of it as the world flies around us in every direction.
*According to the U.S Census Bureau, first-generation refers to those who are foreign-born, second-generation refers to those with at least one foreign-born parent, and third-and-higher generation includes those with two U.S. native parents. Asian immigrant groups count 0 as the immigrants, 1 as the children of the immigrants (the first generation born here).
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