Culture Family Gender & Identity Life

This is my open letter of appreciation to my mother

When I was growing up in Dubai, I often butted heads with my mother – she was stubborn, and so was I. From curfews to outfits, we had our fair share of fights and disagreements. My childhood was a mix of entertainment and challenges. With so many family members and a thriving religious community, it felt like I was watched almost constantly, and that kind of monitoring felt stifling. I longed to break free, but my mom would admonish me – ‘what would the others think?’ Part of me wanted to tell off these “others”, let them know I didn’t care what they thought. I always tried to be my own person, while still trying to succeed in the real world. 

My mother’s own childhood was rich but stifling. My grandfather was a successful businessman and religious leader, meaning. she had similar situations of constant monitoring by her community in Kerala, India, where she grew up. Consequently, my mother internalized a lot of religious and community ideals. Married at 20, my mom was forced to drop out of college and accompanied my dad, a doctor, to Dubai – a then empty, sandy desert town with almost nothing to offer, with two kids in tow.

She spent the next 10-11 years as a housewife to two children who constantly argued, and taking care of a home, with a husband who spent most of his waking hours at a clinic. When I turned 8, my mother started working as a saleswoman to try and bring in some extra money.

My mother would often come home after work to a crying little girl, an angry little boy, and loads of housework. Despite not having a bachelor’s degree, her head for numbers led her past sales and into real estate. She got her real estate license and began climbing up, eventually becoming the manager of a real estate company in Dubai.

My dad let her manage the family’s finances – which meant that suddenly, we started doing well! She invested in property, in stocks, created portfolios, all while continually making real estate transfers and growing to become a popular real estate agent. By the time I turned 15, my mom became a successful manager and real estate owner. 

Having spent time in college, away from the family, helped me get a new perspective.

My mother wasn’t the controlling, bossy woman I made her out to be, but rather a self-starter. She was someone who had almost nothing and made enough money to buy houses in an expensive city. The best part? She’s more open-minded than I give her credit for. Her concern over the community was because she was raised in a small town and had a popular, ever-looming father. When we travel, she lets me be free – even when I went to college, she didn’t hover or ask what I wore or when I came home – in fact, she only would call about once a month, to check up on me.

She’s accepted my irreligious nature. She’s proud of my talents despite them not being STEM-related. She hasn’t forced or coerced me to get married, despite her own history. She’s happy and successful.

My mom went from being a housewife with a high school degree to being a popular real estate owner. She’s the one who encourages me to learn about money, about investments. She’s the one who taught me how to save when I freelanced in college. She’s the best example I’ve seen of ‘if you work hard, you can make it’. 

Of course, we still have our fights, but I remember where she came from, how she managed to shed so many preconceived notions. I remember how she let me be my own person and have my own life, while still continually supporting me. This is for you, mom. Even though I may not act like it sometimes, I’m really proud to be your daughter. 

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Sexuality Love + Sex Love

I rushed my first time because I thought I was late to the game

Content Warning: Some parts of this article may depict assault or unclear consent, you can scroll past the section, marked at the start and end with double asterisks**

It’s simple, really: much like Drew Barrymore’s character in the excellent millennium celebrated film, I was (almost) 25 and had never been kissed. Except, unlike Barrymore’s character, I had really, really never been kissed. And until the moment I had been, I couldn’t even decide whether or not I wanted it. Unfortunately, this is not some magical love story: my first kiss—my whole first time, was a massive disaster. 

I’d had crushes, but I’d rarely seen them through: chickening out rather disastrously when I was 19, determined to preserve a friendship I could rely on, rather than a relationship I was doomed to destroy. I’d otherwise been dumped when I was 22 for having a “difficult family history” and mental health issues that left my partner convinced they’d always receive less from me than someone else (it helps for context, to add that right in the middle of this relationship I’d been diagnosed with severe depression and probably wasn’t in the right place for a serious relationship). Needless to say, three years on, I was not looking for love, but I was looking for something.

I had really, really never been kissed.

I’d felt late to the game with my 25th birthday looming in 2020 and seemingly nothing to show for it. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about it before, but suddenly in those last few months of being 24, my lack of experience felt like the last milestone of adolescence I finally wanted to cross.

The second eldest of mostly sisters, I was the last of us and the only one to remain single for so long. While they never made a big deal out of it, it certainly felt like one. I worried they considered me prudish, shuttering more explicit talk when I neared, not wanting to make me feel uncomfortable, I assumed, in my inexperience. They’d later clarify it was in fact because of my indifference.

“Well you can’t know if you’re asexual if you’ve never had sex.”

This too, is true: I’d never understood, in the way it felt like my youngest sister always did, what made this actor or that person hot.

What did that mean?

What did that feel like?

How did I know if I was interested in someone if all I felt when I saw a simple picture was nothing?

My college experiences were borne of deep friendships: I’d cultivated an intimacy that made me feel safe enough to be vulnerable. It wasn’t how they looked, it wasn’t because they were both male.

When I toyed with the idea of finding a label, a well-meaning friend said, “Well you can’t know if you’re asexual if you’ve never had sex.” A few months after that conversation, I could confidently say that having sex absolutely did not make understanding sexuality any easier. 

In fact, if anything, perhaps backed by this sense of feeling broken and behind pushed me to make a decision I probably wasn’t ready for. Now it bears mentioning that I am a planner—I keep shoes in my online cart for months debating whether or not they’re the right ones, or whether I need, need them before executing a purchase. So it’s rather telling that from the time I thought of it (mid-February), to the actual execution of what occurred on the first Monday night in March that I was breaking my own rules by rushing into what I hoped would make me feel better. Rather, I was rushing toward someone I hoped would make me feel less confused. Someone, who, unfortunately, had no idea what was going on.

I wanted to get over this feeling of being “too old” to be a virgin.

A classmate of mine who I considered more than an acquaintance, if not friends, was where I landed. True to my nature, and probably my antidepressants, there wasn’t an immediate frisson. We were both writers, and perhaps through sharing our writing, I thought, in the smallest of ways, knew each other better than random strangers.

So after thinking about it and deciding against it, after a particularly rough week I woke up on Monday, March 2nd and by that evening showed up at his place and asked him to turn me down. 

While he expressed genuine surprise in seeing me there and insisted that he couldn’t enter a relationship with me, he asked me if I wanted to go up. Bundle of anxiety that I was, I did. And I overshared—a lot. Probably too much. I wanted to get over this feeling of being “too old” to be a virgin. I wanted him to understand that I was nervous, but that I could be brave. The only thing I miscalculated was that he didn’t care. 

Sure, he listened patiently as he tried to sober up from the blunt he’d smoked before I arrived. He was quiet, introspective—listened to my anxieties about graduating, about my family life, about my failed relationships. Finally, he asked me why I was there. I didn’t know—to feel seen, I guess. For him to know that I’d been thinking about this—about him for a few weeks. I wanted to know if he could ever—would ever, be interested in me. He paused, then, before asking, did I want him to kiss me now? Only if he wanted to, I said. And he did, so we did. And while I was sure I’d be terrible at it, he said it didn’t matter. So I decided not to worry about it and follow his lead.


There’s a reason we talk so much about consent — because everyone, myself included, will go back to a moment and try to understand what happened. What changed? How did it go from a (somewhat) positive encounter to murky gray so fast? Was it when I joked that if he liked my breasts in my dress he’d like them in my bra even more? Or was it when he shucked the dress, mouth going straight to the cups that I was surprised, but still went with it?

By the time he said he needed to come, and even though I couldn’t because of my meds, it wasn’t fair to lead him this far, it was still only gray territory. Because, it was “of course, only if I wanted to.” I said no exactly twice that night, first when he said he didn’t have a condom (he didn’t prefer them because it was less fun with them).

And yet somehow, after a very enticing, and repeated “come on, let’s just stick it in” that no, turned into an okay. Fine. Sure. Thankfully, the second no stuck—despite his repeated requests that I put my mouth on him, I told him I wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t ready, maybe next time.

He had no interest putting his mouth on me, first claiming reciprocity. But he did—just once to help me along. It wasn’t enough to get me ready, but he’d given up trying. Or didn’t notice. So what happened next was pretty painful. So. Extremely. Painful. I’d be bleeding for the next day.

There was an exact moment I swear I was watching my body from the corner of the room, in pain, trying to be into it. Watching him tell me about a girl he’d been sleeping with who also liked how he’d smelled so much she asked what it was so she could get it for her boyfriend. That definitely didn’t help things along. Finally, he gave up.

He didn’t come, I wasn’t into it, and now he needed to read for class. I should probably go. I asked him if he would hold me, but apparently, that was relationship-only privileges, which this was not. I felt like I was slowly returning to my body, but not in those cliched ways. It felt stranger now, that he had seen me naked. That he had put himself inside me, knowing it was my first time, with so little care. I dressed mechanically, saving my scarf for last, feeling his eyes on me as I recovered my hair. 

He wouldn’t ask how I was doing until two days later, the evening after I showed up to work looking “distressed”. He’d get drunk at a concert with a friend that night and tell her he thought he’d fucked up. That I had come on to him. That I’d been obsessed with him, insisting we have sex without a condom. He’d start gaslighting me, reminding me I’d initiated it whereas he’d been clear on the relationship point. So what else did I expect? This was how it was done, didn’t I know? He didn’t like condoms, couldn’t be bothered with them—I was being silly. 

I’d wonder for months during the long hours of quarantine if he was right. If I had pushed aggressively for this. If I had insisted he sleep with me. If, in accordance with his version, I was a villain. Leaving him no quarter, showing up at his place unannounced and insistent. I’d agonize over why he hadn’t been nicer, gentler, rejecting that he’d said that’s how it was supposed to be. 


In my journey for answers, for catching up with the crowd, I suddenly felt all alone (in the middle of a global pandemic), discarded, and unlovable. I didn’t want him to love me, but how could he renounce any responsibility?

Several months later, he wouldn’t have any better answers. He’d start sleeping with a friend in whom I’d confided about what happened. A friend who had at the time claimed to be stunned and so angry with him on my behalf. But suddenly she’d disappeared from my life, choosing him, and as he said it, “his side of the story.”

To be very clear, consent isn’t “tricky”. There’s yes and there’s no.

In the end, I could care less about my virginity—I had no answers and even more questions. My body no longer felt like my own. Every day, it felt like he’d told yet another person about what had happened—exposing me and my body before everyone. It felt like despite my scarf, my semblance of control over who could see my body was gone.

I felt like hiding from the world, anxiously messaging friends trying to feel out if they too were laughing at me, or if they meant it when they said they loved me.

To be very clear, consent isn’t “tricky”. There’s yes and there’s no. Yes is enthusiastic and genuine and if it’s not then it’s not consent. Especially if it’s given after repeated questioning, or is the easier option to get out of a situation.

Women don’t often come forth with encounters that they regret because there’s a misconception that we only cry assault because we regret it ever happening.

I do not regret my choice to want sex.

But wanting it, even approaching someone who knows you want it, does not replace agreeing to it. My only regret is approaching someone who cared so little for me and my comfort that I agreed to something I said no to after feeling pressure to change my answer. For my mental health, I’m not ready to label this assault, but if this has happened to you, you are entirely within your rights to call it such. Your body and choice are always deserving of respect. 

There doesn’t have to be a lesson here. But the only thing that goes without saying always, is that there is no deadline.

There’s no shame in not being interested in sex, in being interested, in pursuing someone, in waiting, in going for it. I was gaslighted and taken advantage of by someone who had no intention of taking care of me.

But I’m not terrified about what’s next. In fact, I’m hoping that he’s the worst I’ll ever have.

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The Pandemic Feel-Good Love + Sex Love Music

I’ve loved music more than any of my exes

Let me set the scene: I’m 16, realizing that I think very differently than my family. The typical Asian narrative of the duties of the daughters doesn’t sit right in my mouth but I’m not old enough or independent enough to question it.

But the thing is, is I’m not subtle, it’s not in my nature, which leads to arguments, screaming, and words that have remained etched in me for the past six years.

Alone is a five-letter word that creates an expanse of nothingness and that is all I had.

My friends, albeit were great but they were white, they couldn’t understand it on the level that I needed them to. I did have staff members that I could trust but they couldn’t be with me all of the time.

One of my friends introduced me to All Time Low and from then on, the expanse began to shrink. The loud riffs and lyrics made me feel full, I didn’t feel alone anymore it felt that someone was there and listening.

So, I became obsessed with music, there wasn’t a day I wasn’t wearing headphones, or humming to myself. It gave me an out that allowed me, for the first time, to just stop and think. The louder the music, the more I could think.

Growing up in Manchester, I always knew the importance of music. I spent most of my time in record shops. This meant that I was introduced to all types of music from people who took the scared Muslim girl in.

Even now, when I came back home after University, my music family was still there. Music has always given me the comfort I struggled to find in my relationships.

So, when I started dating, that’s what I was looking for. That level of peace and belonging I’d only ever really found in my headphones or at a very sweaty gig!

I haven’t found it. I’ve been with people I’ve deeply cared about but I’ve never felt like I completely belonged. There was always something I felt like I had to change about myself; be less of who I am and that isn’t wholly healthy.

That vulnerability, that ‘take me as I am’ is difficult to find, but I’d always found it in music.

Honestly, I struggle to put into words why I love music, even thinking about it puts tears in my eyes. Pure and simple, it saved a very lost person and gave her the strength to take on the world.

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Travel Life

I have yet to fully embrace traveling alone and that’s okay

I grew up with an intense desire to be independent when I was young. I frequently fantasized about the day I would get my driver’s license, and dreamt of moving away from my small town and going to college. My life was never quiet. I grew up with three other siblings and a bustling household and became comfortable with constant noise. Every family gathering drowned in energy and chaos and, while I now long for the clatter of my childhood, as a child I wanted to escape. 

I pretended to be traveling alone, high off my potentially perceived maturity. 

Family trips and vacations incited the most pandemonium. Long car rides to the airport, frantic layovers, and exhausting journeys to different fast-food restaurants were loud and hectic. Traveling was somewhat anxiety-inducing in my eyes. My family was always running late, sprinting between gates, forgetting certain items at home and losing luggage. I would jump on opportunities to take a trip to the restroom or the airport convenience store alone, clinging to my small doses of freedom. I pretended to be traveling alone, high off my potentially perceived maturity. 

Despite the stress, I miss the thrill and comfort of my family adventures. I never felt alone while my siblings attempted to crawl on the moving baggage claims, or while we all ate McDonald’s chicken nuggets. I always had an airplane buddy, someone to watch movies, and share snacks with. There would always be a familiar face to return to after using the airplane bathroom.

 The first time I traveled alone was on my way back from summer camp in high school. A bit anxious, yet thrilled to experience the adventure of navigating an airport on my own. Things did not go quite as planned. I missed my first flight and spent hours waiting alone in the customer service line. I frantically ran through the airport, put my name on standby lists for new flights, and hid my tears behind sunglasses while sitting alone in a crowded gate. 

Constantly torn between the different people and places I loved around the world, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.

My views on traveling changed completely when I left my family and moved across the country for college. Gone were the rushed missions to find the tastiest yet quickest restaurant in the terminal. Gone were the road trips where my parents and I would play music from their childhood and belt out our favorite tunes. There was no one to grip my hand when turbulence hit the plan. I found myself awkwardly asking for tables for one at airport restaurants and dreaded riding the subway back to campus myself, having no one to return home to. Traveling became an act of solitude, a chore to get me from place A to place B. 

I began to look at traveling alone like this: you’re always leaving something or someone you love. When I would fly to and from college, I was either leaving my friends or my family. Taking the subway or a bus usually meant I was leaving my boyfriend after a weekend visit. I felt constantly stretched between almost-homes, and never felt at ease in my current location. I began to hate going anywhere alone, fearing the anonymity of traveling solo would become a life sentence. It felt like my non-consented vulnerability was on display for all the strangers around me.

What I hated most about traveling alone, and just being alone in general, was the forced sense of reflection. Without distraction, my brain focused on thoughts and memories I attempted to repress. I was scared of who I turned into when I was alone and felt lost and homesick for a home I couldn’t identify. Constantly torn between the different people and places I loved around the world, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.

While I still don’t enjoy being alone, the current pandemic and enforced isolation period forced me to grow comfortable with myself. Introspection is sometimes a brutal but necessary process in life. By allowing time to grieve and reflect, I’m growing more accepting and familiar with myself. As at turns out, you’re never truly alone if you know and are comfortable with yourself. Maybe next time I’m on an airplane, I’ll be able to hold my own hand when turbulence strikes.

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Culture Family Life

A love letter to libraries

I know that I am not alone when I say that we, as humans, find a lot of solace in libraries. They are temples of knowledge, housing collections of stories and dreams alike on their shelves. Libraries are as much a part of our culture as anything else. People have relied on these spaces for warmth, insight, and marvel for centuries. In a way, they hold the key to all of our stories,

I love libraries, and I am terrified to see their eventual demise, especially as our world becomes almost entirely digital. They are gems from the past that have maintained vitality no matter the circumstances or happening outside of their walls. Not to mention they are the cornerstones of entire communities, maybe even countries, granting light and stability to people when nothing, or no one, else seemed able to. They offer more than just books; they offer entry into a space that seems more like a sanctuary run by people grounded in compassion, commitment, creativity, and resilience.

People have relied on these spaces for warmth, insight, and marvel for centuries.

I used to go to the library near my grandparents’ house every other Friday. For the most part, my mom took my brothers and me there to get a new book for school or to see what DVDs we could bring home to watch that evening. But I remember roaming around, starstruck, in between the tall shelves, wondering about the people who wrote each and every single one of those books and how long it might have taken to get them all here.

Most weeks, my mother let me get two books instead of one. I could spend hours there if it was permitted. I always liked watching my mom pick her books for the week, too. She seemed so sophisticated and gentle while scanning the shelves, yet she never knew exactly what she was looking for. If it was winter, afterward we would all pile back into the car with our hardcover books and grab a slice of pizza. If it was summer, we would walk to the Italian Ice shop down the street for some cream ice – those were the best days. 

I fear that libraries have been taken for granted, even in my own life, and am always spellbound to find them chock full of unexpected people, doing unexpected things, with unexpected passions. There is absolutely nothing that compares to the feeling, the pure excitement in my stomach, that erupts every time I am searching in a library for the perfect tale to dig into. A trip to the library seems, to me, to be enchanted. I become whimsical, enveloped by the completeness and simplicity of the entire journey.

Even the smell of a library is impossible to replicate because of its specificity and poignance. I am reminded of sandalwood, dusk, and a particular, antiquated, dampness. Its familiarity is beyond comforting. The air itself seems to be saturated in possibility and imagination. 

I feel at home while pattering around and tracing my fingers between the shelves of books. I fall in love while blowing the dust off of the covers, revealing bright colors and exquisite lines. I spend hours crinkling through the aged, already yellowing, pages of novels wondering which I will pick this time. It is never an easy decision, and I always leave with dozens underneath my arms wondering if the others will still be there when I return the next week. But, that’s the beauty of libraries, isn’t it? Every visit is entirely different from the last and there is no telling what you might stumble upon. Yet each visit is also starkly familiar. 

The air itself seems to be saturated in possibility and imagination.

Books have changed so much of my life, with plotlines, characters, and lessons that have been woven into nearly everything I do – that is every decision, every consideration, and everything that I have grown to appreciate or even pay a little bit more attention to. Books are there to remind me of what’s important, and when I’m not so sure, they’re there for me to lean on. Without libraries, though, I might have never been allowed membership into such a world of splendor. 

Family Life

The COVID-19 pandemic gave me a newfound appreciation for my mom

I haven’t seen my mom in six months – its the longest I’ve ever gone without visiting her. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, I was given three days to move out of my dorm room, find a new place to live, and get a plane ticket. My family recently moved to the Netherlands, and with the European travel ban in place, I couldn’t go home. Luckily, my parents hadn’t sold their old house in the United States, so my boyfriend and I packed up our entire lives and moved to my childhood home in Missouri. 

While I missed my family, I was excited to live on my own for the first time. After years of eating in college dining halls and having roommates, I felt ready to cook my own meals, buy whatever groceries I wanted, and have my own space. 

The day after I arrived, I ambitiously started planning the meals I wanted to cook and headed off to the grocery store. Later, when unpacking my purchases, I realized that I had forgotten nearly half of the items on my mental list. Frustrated, I tried to tackle a complex recipe – sweet potato enchiladas. I spent hours peeling the sweet potatoes (I used a measly peeler, not realizing a sharp knife would be more efficient), and I didn’t have enough ingredients for the sauce. By the time I finished dinner, it was 10 p.m.; the enchiladas were dry, and I’d used too much garlic.  I went to bed, defeated, and ordered takeout for the next three days. 

Worn down and exhausted, I called my mom, sobbing. 

Dishes began to stack up in the sink. I forgot to bring the trash to the curb on trash day. I tried baking cookies and spilled flour all over the floor. My car tire blew out while driving. I was spending too much money on groceries. The WiFi stopped working while I was trying to finish my finals for the semester. I became overwhelmed in my quest to be what I considered an “independent adult.” While my boyfriend was patient with me and helpful with chores around the house, I put intense and gendered pressure on myself to be a domestic goddess. Worn down and exhausted, I called my mom, sobbing. 

My household struggles allowed me to understand the silent hardships my mom has faced throughout her life, furthering my appreciation for her. I took my mom for granted when I was younger. I rarely helped her with chores around the house. She cooked all my meals and drove me to music lessons every day after school, all while working full time as a pediatrician. She was always there to listen to me while I cried on the phone during my first year of college. I forgot to call her on Mother’s Day sophomore year. I became upset with her whenever she tried to make me something I didn’t want to do. Despite my lack of gratefulness, she has always been there for me. 

I also discovered a deep and profound respect for my mom and everything that she has done for her family.

Living alone has gotten easier for me. Despite the rough start, I realized that I loved cooking and creating meals, just like my mother. Once I removed the pressure of perfection, I learned from my mistakes and slowly enjoyed my journey into independence. I also discovered a deep and profound respect for my mom and everything that she has done for her family. I ordered her flowers on Mother’s Day this year. We fight less and talk on the phone more frequently.

I thought that simply doing laundry and grocery shopping would make me more independent. However, my struggles and mishaps without her resulted in a newfound appreciation for my mom, causing our relationship to flourish. I never realized that the distance between us would only bring us together. 

Family Life

The men in my family taught me how to love and be loved properly

I have spent nearly every day of my life actively trying to keep up with the men around me. They are spontaneous, excited, proud, and empathetic. They’re damn hysterical too. 

Take my father, for example, the first and only man that I trusted to treat me right and to love me all the same. I get my goofiness, and of course my obsession with The Beatles, from him. He doesn’t take anything too seriously, even though sometimes I wish that he did. Nothing seems to bother him, meanwhile, everything bothers me. I don’t know if I wish that he reacted more or that I reacted less. Regardless, I want to be able to let things roll over me, un-phased, like he is able to. I’m still working on that.  

My father is incredibly kind and generous, and he cares tremendously about any person he comes in contact with. One day, he spent hours showing me how to do the time warp dance from Rocky Horror Picture Showwe did the combination repeatedly until I got it down. That’s when I learned that he and my mom met on a blind date at a live viewing of the show. I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. My dad never fails to make me smile, too, even when it’s the last thing I want to do. Seriously, I could be bursting into tears and all he has to do is make a silly face or say something bizarre, and I’d feel like a million bucks again. That’s my dad for you. Always the pleaser. So, although he never taught me how to ride a bike, I am willing to replace that life skill with another one that he did teach me. That is, the keen ability to conduct an entire performance in the car to practically every song from the ’80s.

He was my first friend, and even my first date given all of those daddy and daughter dances that I spent cradled by his side. He is the gentlest man that I’ve ever met, but because of him I like to think that I am much tougher, more resilient, and a hell of a lot funnier. I found confidence in our moments of bliss together, knowing that this is all I’d ever need to lead a complete and fulfilling life. 

I have four older brothers too, with whom I have spent days upon days fighting for things like the last pancake at breakfast, and, eventually, for the car keys. It has certainly never been easy, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. They are all different in their own right and if I were to tell you about the uniqueness of my relationship with each of them, I might as well write a book. But I will tell you this: these men are my forever and a day’s. 

They are my history holders, sharing with me all of the turbulence and tribulations that we have ever and will ever endure. Because of them, I’ve learned to be quick, but not sloppy. They taught me how to tie my shoes, swing a bat, draw a car, and build a make-believe fort in the middle of the living room. We’d trade candy every Halloween, spend hours with a deck of cards playing go-fish, and watch movies on the DVR. For every holiday or birthday I’d make a personalized, handmade, card for each of them and now, years later, they are quick to show me these sentiments of mine, which they have all kept and deemed precious. 

So, maybe it took a while for me to realize, but I can tell you with certainty what it feels like to be loved, respected, protected, and appreciated because of my brothers. They never treated me differently just because I am a girlexcept when we played football in the basement with my dad. I was the lucky one who got to wear the only helmet we had. 

Sure, to this day I am always the one sitting in the middle seat during car rides since it’s the smallest spot, and I am always the first one to cry. But, I’ve also always admired each and every single one of my brothers since the day I was born. They seem infinitely cool and I am desperate to emulate them, even just a little bit.

Growing up, I remember that I’d do anything, and I mean anything, to be like them. So, I’d sit and watch and do everything I could to imitate their actions and behaviors. The catch here is that they believed in me, the real me, all along.  I was the one who had a hard time believing, until now. 

My family is my backbone; they are constant and reliable. I have learned a lot from them, but one of the most important things that they have taught me is how to love and be loved properly. Because of them I am stronger, wiser, and more independent. I can stand on my own, even though I would prefer not to, all because of the lessons that they have enriched in me.

Family Life

An ode to my grandparents – people straight out of a storybook

When I was little I would start fights with my sister, and when she started to fight back I’d immediately run to the landline and dial my grandparent’s number. That was one of the only phone numbers I knew, and they’d always pick up. At the time I thought they also always took my side. In hindsight, they probably just listened to me babble for as long as I wanted to.

As you get older, you start to formulate a sense of who your family members are as individuals, not just in their roles in your life. When I think of my grandparents, there are two stories that perfectly encapsulate the people I witnessed them to be.

For my grandmother, it’s a story about food. This is fitting because food was something she was known for. She could make cakes and puddings as well as she could make full-blown meals. She was responsible for a lot of our more popular lunch boxes. When she couldn’t really walk that well anymore she had to stop cooking. It must have upset her but she never seemed to dwell on it too much. She’d ask us if we remembered the cakes she used to make and of course we did, she taught us how to make them. 

When she was really sick in the hospital she had to wear an oxygen mask but she would regularly take it off to talk to people. Never for time-sensitive emergencies, just for chats. One of the things she lifted her oxygen mask off to say in her last few days was a reminder to put sugar in her tea. 

She was a diabetic and regularly got yelled at her for her poor management of the illness. But she’d been told she could have sugar in her tea and she wasn’t going to let that slide. She would never let her circumstances get to her. The smallest things were all she needed to make her happy, just sugar in her tea. Everyone thought she didn’t realize how sick she really was. If she did know, then she’s a lot braver than I thought possible. Truly nothing could get her down. Not sickness, not a hospital visit, not even having trouble breathing.

While my grandmother carried the scent of freshly baked cake and the sunny disposition of someone who loved all the world and knew the value of a good meal, my grandfather was the clacking of typewriter keys, shuffling of slippers, and Lacto Calamine lotion.

Once he was in his eighties, my grandfather, for all intents and purposes, was bald. The top of his head was no-hairs-land, aside from a few stragglers. After I started university, I’d see them every couple of months on holidays when I came back home, and each time there seemed to be more hair on his head. 

At first, I put it down to me misremembering what his head looked like between trips. But after a while it was undeniable, he had a full head of white hair. More than, or equal to the amount he had when I was younger. It blew my mind but no one else, who saw him more often, seemed to have noticed. 

To make things even more mysterious, every time I questioned him about it he’d just smile secretly to himself and deny doing anything to prompt it. He was over 85 at this point and there he was, full head of hair and not revealing how it got there. The rest of the family took it casually, the hair had grown gradually, right before their very eyes so it wasn’t as dramatic as it was to me. I was completely distracted by it, I would talk about it constantly to anyone who would listen and finally, he told me. 

“I massage baby oil into my head every day.”

That was the big reveal, and that was my grandfather. He could reverse balding. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he made it happen with the sheer force of his own will. 

My grandparents left us last year. I went to university and it felt like they had both just disappeared when I came back. They’ve left us with a lot of memories and a vacuum where their endless pride, blind faith, and love went for over twenty years. 

During the few key events that have happened without my grandparents, there’s always a – “they would’ve been so proud to see that, it would have made them so happy” moment. But honestly, while I do agree that it would make them proud and happy, that was their constant state of being when it came to us. There is no way I can imagine my grandparents being proud-er or happier with their grandkids. It was as if they reached the zenith of pride and happiness when we were born and never came down from there.

That’s my theory anyway, I can’t think of any other explanation for it. There was really no plausible reason for them to think so highly of us. 

These two stories capture who they were as people to me. As grandparents, they were straight out of a book, and I will always aspire to be half as great as they already believed I was from day one.


Colorism in South Africa tore away at my self-esteem

In 2019, Oscar-winning actress, Lupita Nyong’o, referred to colorism as the “daughter of racism”. With this simple but poignant statement, Nyong’o summarized an often overlooked form of discrimination: darker people in many racial and ethnic groups are seen as lesser than their lighter counterparts. Her particular use of the word ‘daughter’ could allude to the idea that women suffer from this discrimination more than men – a notion I agree with.

The closer you are to whiteness, the better.

The word ‘colorism’ was first publicly used by author and activist Alice Walker. She defined it as, “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.” Its roots are widely agreed upon: colonization and white supremacy. These led to the introduction and adoption of a Eurocentric beauty hegemony by communities of color; the closer you are to whiteness, whether it be having straighter hair, lighter eyes, or fairer skin, the better.

As a South African Indian who was raised in an Indian community, I have had my fair share of encounters with colorism. A country previously colonized by Europeans, South Africa has a long and sordid relationship with racism. Hence, other forms of bigotry were sidelined in popular discussion.  But being brought up in a same-race community, racism was never really the issue. Instead of judging me for my race, people took to judging me for my skin tone.

In my little brown bubble of Tongaat, a town that was built by the first Indian settlers who were brought to work in the sugarcane plantations, colorism was a subtle tool used to oppress the dark and glorify the fair. In my experience, the main perpetrators of this form of discrimination were older women or ‘Indian aunties’ as the stereotype calls for. I was constantly told (by women I barely knew) to use fairness creams or to avoid staying in the sun for too long. Ironically, many of these women were also considered dark-skinned women.

European “norms” have lingered in our societies and have taken away from various cultures’ own values of beauty for far too long.

The Association of Black Psychologists has labeled colorism as a form of internalized racism, the process whereby ethnic minorities absorb the racism of dominant ethnic groups to their own detriment. This phenomenon of internalization was clearly present here.  Reinforced over generations, it was now a part of the social lenses we viewed our world through.

What made it worse was having an older sister who was taller, thinner, and lighter than me – a direct (and personal) point of comparison. People in our age range were not largely complicit in such discrimination, but when they were, it was blatant. In high school, my sister and I had an unwanted joint nickname, “Top Deck”, referring to a Cadbury chocolate which had a bottom layer of milk chocolate and a top layer of white chocolate.

[Image description: Two girls, the one on the left with a darker skin tone than the one on the right, sit smiling together.]

Older people were more subtle in their deliveries. “You’re very beautiful,” my grandmother would say to my sister. “So slim and tall, and such fair skin. ..You’re pretty too!”, she’d say as I walked past. There was no escaping it – I was objectively shorter, fatter, and darker than my sister. It dawned on me that to many, I was automatically less attractive than my sister due to those factors. And because they thought it, they thought that I thought it too. But I didn’t…until then.

Colorism can largely be considered a feminist issue in the wider context of our patriarchal world. Women already have certain beauty standards forced upon them – shave your entire body but have voluminous hair on your head and wear makeup to “enhance your natural beauty” – but not too much or you are “falsely advertising”! Even my sister, praised for being tall, was often told not to get too tall “or else boys will feel intimidated and won’t marry you”.

Colorism is only one example from a very long list of criticisms allocated to the female body. Through arbitrary social constructs, women are conditioned to tie their self-worth to their level of attractiveness. What I saw occur in my town were efforts to become lighter (an attribute synonymous to being more sexually desirable) in the hopes of one day having a man choose you as a wife.

European “norms” have lingered in our societies and have taken away from various cultures’ own values of beauty for far too long. I have not been back to my home town for three years now. I can only hope that some progress has been made and that women are allowed to feel comfortable in their skin, no matter the shade.


Four poems that helped shape my life philosophy

Poetry, if we let it, can help us take a good look at ourselves, each other and the world and think about what we value in all three. I once read a quote by Dylan Thomas that read “a good poem helps to change the shape of the universe” – here are four poems that changed the shape of mine.

1. The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes

The Highwayman was my first love – it’s what got me into poetry; I must’ve been about nine years old. I remember my older sister was learning about it at school, and I stole her textbook and memorized the entire 16 stanza, 102 line poem. I used to recite it when my mom’s friends came to visit. 

Not only is the poem stunning to read, but it got me thinking about important questions at a young age. Questions like, are there bad kinds of love? What sort of lengths would I go to for a person I cared about? 

I’ll let you read the poem and figure out what you think for yourself. 

2. Be Kind by Charles Bukowski 

My grandmother is a terrible woman. There, I said it. Even when I was very young, I picked up on how bitter and unpleasant she was. Then, of course, there was the casual racism, the rudeness and the infuriating sense of entitlement that I started to recognize the older I got and the more I spent time around her.  People would always tell me to be patient, “it’s her age”, they’d say. But I always struggled with the notion – surely understanding and compassion should ripen with time?

In this poem, Charles Bukwsoki discusses the notion of “aging badly.” It helped to solidify what I already thought, but it also got me thinking about aging well, and what that would look like. I read it whenever I need to remind myself that I want to lead a life that sums up to something beautiful rather than bitter.

3. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

My mother loves Robert Frost, and so I find myself drawn to reading his work, especially when I miss her, and this is a poem that I always find myself coming back to.

Poets and poetry lovers will probably peg it as a cliche, partly because of its ubiquitous use in school curriculums and partly because it adorns many a mug and inspirational quote plaque. 

Like most people, I used to think that The Road Not Taken was about going against the grain, about taking risks and how that makes all the difference. But the more I read the poem, the more uncertain I got about how the speaker felt at the end. Was he looking back with fondness and self-assertion, or was it regret?

I contemplate my own choices to a painful extent, and I guess that’s why I became so obsessed with figuring out what the poem meant – for me at least. 

And I have started to contemplate the idea that the two roads in the poem are interchangeable. Perhaps, the speaker claims that his decision “made all the difference”, because that’s just the kind of thing we say when we want to assert that we are where we are because of our own choices. Nonetheless, poetry is to be interpreted, and I can’t say I’ve made up my mind yet. What do you think? 

This piece by David Orr debates the poem’s interpretations quite eloquently, and in much more detail.

4. Heaven, or Whatever by Shane Koyczan

Few people read like Shane Koyczan, which is why I’ve linked to the YouTube version of this piece rather than the actual text. In his poem, Koyczan explores the complex, and beautiful thing that is his relationship with his grandfather. The piece revolves around the contemplation of his grandfather’s version of heaven, a belief that he personally struggles to wrap his head around. 

I was raised as a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, and during compulsory religious classes at school, I was taught to believe in heaven. But the older I got, the less I felt like the heaven that I learned about was mine.

I discovered Heaven, or whatever during my freshman year at university, a time when I was particularly struggling with figuring out what I really believed for myself and what I believed because it was what I had been told to believe for eighteen years. This poem helped me find peace within doubt. 


Are you a poet or a poetry enthusiast? Link us to your work and/or favorite pieces in the comments!

Gender & Identity Books Life

Author Tamora Pierce was the hero I didn’t know I needed

When I was a kid I was obsessed with reading. Nothing was as interesting opening the pages of a book and becoming someone else. I could hear thoughts, talk to birds or sword fight a wizard. Whatever I wanted. It was amazing. 

I used to go to my elementary school’s library every other day and hand in my book and ask for the next one. My mother quickly learned that I burned through books just about as fast as I would burn through her wallet at a candy store. If she bought me a new book every time I finished one, we would be poor. I become great friends with the librarian. She taught me how to find what I was looking for on the shelves and how each was categorized. I remember getting a thin book handed to me while the librarian said, “you’ll like this one.”

I did. I liked it a lot.

That book was Alanna: The First Adventure and I finished it by the next morning. I then read through the entire The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce. I was spellbound by her world and her stories but most of all by her characters.

Alanna was not only someone I wanted to be, but someone I already saw myself in. Strong-willed and fierce, she defied gender roles and went against the status quo. But she wasn’t one dimensional. She cared about the weak and she wanted to be loved. I hadn’t read about anyone like her.

Tamora started writing young. Like me, she was obsessed with stories and books. She grew up moving from place to place due to her poor family’s unstable situation with her siblings, one of which she based her character of Alanna. She forgot about writing for a while and went to the University of Pennsylvania on a full scholarship for psychology. She worked summers at Women’s Centers and taught a history class on witchcraft at the Free Women’s University. She started writing stories again in her third year at University, it was only a couple years later she started sending out her manuscript for The Song of the Lioness.

Alanna clearly reflects Tamora’s upbringing. A no-name girl taking more than what she was given and holding on tight seems to be a theme in nearly all Tamora’s books but especially in Alanna. Tamora’s interest in both women’s studies and the arts shine through her characters.

Without knowing it at the time, her books were my first introduction to feminism. I read a lot of books as a kid but none stuck in my mind or had as deep an impact on who I am as Tamora Pierce’s did. They had a captivating story that kept me hooked for all four books and then for two series I immediately read after that were set in the same universe. They had characters that seemed to grow with me. That I could relate to as well as aspire to be. They were books that made a scrawny girl feel like she could do anything. There is no doubt in my mind that Tamora Pierce is a hero, for me and for thousands of other girls and women.

Culture Life

I grew up shy and afraid. This is how I became confident.

As someone with a very big family, I grew up with a collection of nicknames.

“Erry-Scary” and “Twiggy” were the two that stuck, though all of these nicknames alluded to the fact that I was a very small child. I was small not, only in stature, but in temperament as well. I was (and still am) very shy.

The term “shy” is defined as being nervous or timid in the company of other people. This definition makes sense because that’s exactly what happens to me in new social situations. I am overwhelmed and my prefrontal cortex seems to abandon me in new relationships, taking my confidence and ability to speak with it! I typically slip into the background and quietly observe. I become quite small.

My shyness is something I’ve grappled with for most of my life, not only because it makes navigating life somewhat challenging but because I am constantly labeled it. Shyness is not a new concept and I can confidently say that everyone has experienced it at some point in their lives. It really is normal.

But, why then, are we viewed as being less capable or “less than” when compared to those who either don’t get shy or are simply better at hiding it?

This label made high school an infuriating experience for me. I attended a small private school in South Africa. Like so many others, my school seemed to hold loudness and confidence at the top of their criteria for what supposedly makes a good leader. Leadership was recognized with titles like captain, head of house or a prefect. High school felt a bit like a race in this way – competing to be the best, the fastest, the most charismatic. As an overachieving perfectionist, I nothing more than to be one of those three things. But the reality was that those positions had already been filled within the first month of school, the race merely a show to make it look fair. 

By the time I was in my final year, I had begrudgingly accepted that I had been placed in a box labeled “shy.”

Unfortunately, this box meant that I supposedly didn’t have what it took to lead and I was never made captain or a prefect.

Funnily enough, though, I was made head of house (much to everyone’s surprise). Head of house was the “ugly stepsister” of leadership roles. Our job was to create spirit and organize inter-house events. It was a big responsibility but it wasn’t announced in an assembly like the others. A few of us were nominated by our peers and the leaders were chosen by a show of hands.

Prior to this, I had been flirting with a very cute boy in the year below me. This particular boy belonged to the box labeled “cheeky and confident” and when he put up his hand to vote for me, everyone seemed to follow. Before I knew it, it was announced that I was head of house.

My best friend and I found this to be completely hilarious.

I had rigged the system without any effort at all. What at first seemed like a bit of a joke, turned out to be something I absolutely loved. I was never going to be the girl who stood in front of 100 children screaming, “we’ve got spirit yes we do!”

But I was the girl that managed to get every kid to their sports event on time. I was the girl who organized and made hundreds of costumes and float decorations. I was the girl that people felt safe coming to when they were uncomfortable or uneasy. I was a good leader…much to my surprise!

Looking back, this shouldn’t have been such a shock to me.

I like being in control and helping others achieve something and I have always been this way. But in high school, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t deserve that position or that “Erry-Scary” wasn’t and wouldn’t be enough. I had internalized all of the negative connotations that had come to be associated with my timid nature.

We need to challenge the assumptions we make about shy people; those who are labeled and categorized as quiet and “less than” because we are so much more. We are the ones who listen and who watch – we take in all the nuances.

It’s high time we began embracing these qualities in people instead of forcing them into boxes we are clearly too big for.