Can I just say I am fascinated with America’s version of pomp and circumstance? At today’s Naturalization ceremony, where fifty new citizens took their oaths (I was the fiftieth to receive my certificate), our judge took the opportunity to cheerily induct us into American informality – “darn well,” “we want you to enjoy the moment,” “relax.” As someone who has walked woodenly during British convocations and sat with head bent for ages during high school assembly in Pakistan, this laid-back joke-studded ‘ceremony’ truly sums up everything that I find lovable and hilarious about America.
It’s significant that I spent much of my time in sympathetic whispered conversation with a younger Pakistani woman whose marriage, it seemed, was on the rocks. And as we placed our hands on our hearts, this woman’s predicament reminded me of some of the factors that prompted my immigration – my own struggles with my gendered status, and my sister’s awful breakup and divorce and struggle for custody of her children. Back in the early 1990s, in Rawalpindi, after her husband beat her, I took my sister to see a lawyer one afternoon. We returned to her (husband’s) house to find her in-laws arrayed against us, demanding to know why we had dared to leave the house. We were their women and their “responsibility” and we were completely helpless. That day I decided that I would never be in a state of such disempowerment and victimhood.
There’s no doubt about it: I could not find a man I could respect who could respect me in turn. Of course this is not to say that there were no men who could respect me. The problem was that I couldn’t find these men; I was (along with my diminutive stature and my very middle-class, frugal family background) being vetted by prospective mothers-in-law with powerful eugenicist motives and class aspirations. I was too studious to be a pretty, stylish, and sugghad (domestic and industrious) daughter-in-law and wife. My family was not wealthy enough, and was definitely not showy enough for fervently upwardly mobile suitors. My father’s eccentric temper drove people away unless they were willing to look beyond his beetle-browed and pugilistic appearance. And as for suitors who showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, well, they couldn’t understand me and how my dreams went beyond marriage, children, and keeping a tidy home. After some years of futile rishta-hopping, and a couple of kinda-engagements, my parents knew that I was a commodity whose value was not current in the marriage market. So when I applied for scholarships and study abroad, they sadly and pensively agreed to support me.
The woman I met at the ceremony was surprised when I told her I had arrived in the US as an unmarried student. It was quite unusual in the 90s, she said, for unmarried women to travel to the US to study. “My parents are very conservative,” she said. “Oh, mine are too,” I assured her, “but I was even more conservative than them, so they thought I’d be safe. Of course, a few years later, I brought a white guy to Lahore to them, so that didn’t quite work out, did it?”
She told me about how her husband told her she should dress, how he was jealous of men who looked at her, and how he resented her work and her achievements. And even as I am fiercely loyal to the land of my childhood, and the home of my culture, I find myself sadly relieved that I am today a citizen here in this low-context individualistic culture, where – at least in theory – I, despite my relative lack of wealth, can enjoy many of the fruits of freedom and equality.
We held up our right hands and said something about foreign princes and potentates, sang something about bombs and flags. My neighbor told me she’d told her interviewer that she was not willing to bear arms but she’d be happy to serve in a civilian capacity. “Because I don’t want to bear arms, you know,” she said, and I chuckled because anyone I bear arms for is in a lot of trouble, owing to my lack of fine physical coordination.
The judge told us that today, it was like we were planting trees. Maybe we ourselves would not get to enjoy our trees so very much, but our grandchildren some day would say, “Gee [I hope they say ai-hai] I’m glad grandma decided to immigrate to the United States.” And, softie that I am, tears welled up in my eyes at the idea of how being an American shapes Raihana’s life chances and opportunities, and the lives of her children, and their children – and how some day, they will look at a picture of great-nanijan who, once upon a time got on a plane in her abayah and hijab, nervous at the thought of sitting next to a white man, and flew off, leaving tears in her aging parents’ eyes. I glanced over immigrants from twenty-six nations, including Albania, Bosnia, Cameroon, China, the Congo, Ghana, and Jordan, thinking of the travails that these immigrants had all gone through to become part of this collective, and cried some more. You can’t have a naturalization ceremony without a little crying. Some crying for the girl I used to be and for the woman I thought I’d be. Some tears for the dreams I learned to dream as a girl, and for the dreams that became nightmares. Some tears for the new dreams that I learned to dream in America, and the struggles to realize those dreams. Some crying for what you’re letting go of, and some crying for what you’ve gained.