Family Life Stories Life

This is my open letter of apology to my sister

Growing up, I had only a few friends. From the ages of twelve to sixteen, I had a grand total of three people I would talk to and even then, I only felt comfortable messaging one out of these three friends. But, the one consistent person in my life has always been my older sister, someone I owe a big apology to. 

When we were younger, my older sister and I were often called twins – we were so in-sync all the time whether it was sentences, responses, or even emotions. My sister is in fact just under two years older than I am and although she can be a bit up herself for being the older sibling at times, I can’t say I’ve never connected with her even though my sister was always a little more sympathetic to things than I was or even still am; if I shed a tear, she shed a waterfall. 

Exhibit A; I slipped headfirst into the side of the building and got a concussion at school one time in year three and she cried more than I did as she went off to get a teacher who basically told her to calm down because not a single coherent word was coming out of her mouth. Though I had to stay home battling a throbbing headache for the upcoming weeks, my sister would spend her time at school making get well soon cards for me and coming home to just sit with me. 

I remember when she was leaving primary school and on her last day, I was filled with dread because I realized that if I now had a spat with my friends, I couldn’t run off to my sister. She was now going to be somewhere that would require me to climb out of the school gates undetected, crossroads safely and not get kidnapped by the white van that appears to be everywhere. Far too much effort for the kid who barely got off the sofa once she sat down.

I got through that year anyhow and remember my sister giving me a pep talk before my first day of secondary school with the same sentence over and over: “I’m there if you need me.” It got really sour, really fast. 

Although undiagnosed at the time, social anxiety has always been a lifelong struggle of mine and I always took comfort in familiarity in my surroundings. I expressed to my sister how nervous I was about starting school on our walk there and she agreed for both of us to meet during break time in the school canteen. The first day had already been awful for me with the highlight of it realizing that I would be picked on by this one girl for the next five years. Her reason? She thought I was ugly. 

As I sat at a table waiting for my sister, a group of girls from my class walked past me making comments about how ‘ugly’ I was. I became the focal point of their laughter when my sister walked up to me and gave me a hug asking how my first few lessons were. I was suddenly torn between being in my safe space and fitting in – would I have been spared the embarrassment if I didn’t talk to my sister? I didn’t know it wouldn’t matter either way; the class bullies ran with it, teasing me relentlessly for the next five years. 

I got teased for a myriad of things during my time at secondary school, but it was all largely in comparison to me and my sister. She was tall, fairer-skinned (colorism at its finest), pretty, and above all, skinny. It didn’t help that she was also smart so whenever we had the same teachers, I would have to face comparisons by the teachers which would just become more ammunition for the class bullies. One girl in my class spread the rumor that I was adopted because there was no way one sister could be so beautiful and the other one so ugly. Another girl told me that my sister should be embarrassed to have such a fat sibling. The comments only got more demeaning from there.

I took it all out on my sister. I started arguing with her every morning so she would leave for school without me and purposefully get out of class really late so I wouldn’t have to walk home with her. Everything anyone has ever bought me down for, I would blame on her and I made sure she knew it. I bullied my own sister for my insecurities and that is a regret that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I regret my actions especially because my sister is a kind soul who has only ever encouraged me and waited patiently for me to work through any issues I was having.

It wasn’t until I got out of secondary school that I realized how awful I had been to someone who had never been mean to me – we came out of school with an overwrought relationship on my behalf. The road to healing has been long but my sister deserves to know that none of it was her fault and if I could undo it, I would.

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Beauty Lookbook

After years of denial, I finally realized why I hated my Asian hair

Since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to dye my hair. Looking like all the cool anime characters I grew up with was a life goal for me: mysterious gray hair like my first crush Kakashi from Naruto, dark blue like Amy from Sailor Moon, platinum blonde like the adorable Chii from Chobits.

Anything but my ugly, boring, straight, black-brown hair.

There weren’t many Asian or Asian-American characters on TV while I was growing up. The few times we were represented, I felt like their appearance seemed dull next to their usually blonde and white counterparts. They usually weren’t as cool as the white girl, so I didn’t want to be associated with them. I wished so hard for my hair color to be lighter and I anxiously awaited the day that it would happen.

[bctt tweet=”Maybe it came from only seeing Asian stereotypes on TV. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

My mom promised me that when I graduated from high school, I would be allowed to dye my hair – but not without first sighing, “Your black-brown hair is so beautiful and soft. Why would you ever want it to be a different color?”

I would stomp my feet and say, “I hate it! It’s so BORING.”

Since I turned 18, I’ve dyed my hair a handful of times. It made me feel special, beautiful, and different. I felt special only when my hair was any color but the ugly, boring, Asian black. I finally felt like my hair was expressing my identity and how I really felt on the inside.

“Look at me!” I wanted my hair to shout at any passerby, “I’m different! I’m special!”

Though a part of my desire to dye my hair was self-expression, it was also based on the idea that black straight hair was boring, that being a “normal Asian girl” was boring. I wasn’t Asian, I was American and I wanted to have lighter hair to showcase that side of me too. I felt like if I had colored hair, it would differentiate me from “other Asians.”

 I don’t think this idea of a “boring typical Asian girl” came from only one source. Maybe it came from only seeing Asian stereotypes on TV. Maybe it came from people saying that all Asians are nerds and that that was why I got good grades. Maybe it came from kids pulling their eyes into slits and calling me a chink. 

Whatever it was, I knew that I didn’t want to be that.

[bctt tweet=”I wasn’t Asian, I was American and I wanted to have lighter hair.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Years later, I’d realize that I had fallen victim to a common Asian trope.

The frustration felt by Asians has been growing on Twitter in the past few months. From Chris Rock’s Asian jokes at the Oscars (leading to the creation of #RepresentAsian and #OnlyOnePercent), to the whitewashing of Asian characters in the upcoming movies “Doctor Strange” and “Ghost in the Shell(which created #whitewashedOUT) – 2016 might just mark the rise of the Asian activist community on Twitter.

With #whitewashedOUT, people shed light on the whitewashing in mainstream media and shared stories of what it was like growing up Asian in the Western world, where it felt like you never saw yourself in the media. As stories were tweeted and retweeted, and as my timeline was filled with stories from Asian people that felt like they were taken from my own life, I discovered a big part of why I was obsessed with dying my hair. I didn’t hate it because it was a boring color.

It was because I hated my Asian-ness.

I couldn’t believe it at first because I had been on this journey of self-love for so long now. I was happy with my body, my life, my friends, my family, and, I thought, my appearance. I haven’t had self-confidence issues concerning the way I looked since I was a teenager. I loved the way my hair felt. Even after it was bleached and dyed, it still retained its softness and health (something that my Asian friends envied me for).

But in actuality, I didn’t truly love my hair. I loved that it could take all of the chemicals and still impress people with its resilience. I loved that no matter how light I tried to make it, it would still flutter softly when the breeze blew through it, resulting in inquiries such as, “Oh my god, can I touch your hair?”

I loved my hair because it seemed like it was happy being any other color than black too.

Now it’s time to love my hair for what it is – beautiful, straight, black-brown hair that turns a little golden in the summertime. The same hair that Mulan, Sailor Mars, and Trini Kwan has. Their black hair didn’t make them boring or ugly. Their black hair was theirs to claim and they didn’t need it to be any other color to be an inspiring character. They’re badass Asian women who embraced their black hair. Why can’t I?

[bctt tweet=” I think I’m going to stick with my black hair for a while. It’s a good look for me.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Self-expression is still important to me (and crazy hair colors are nonetheless still cool), but I will no longer be dying my hair as an act of self-hatred. I’ll be dying it because I love myself in all my different forms – black hair or not. And damn it, if I’m going to be Othered anyway, at least it will be on my terms.

But before that happens, I think I’m going to stick with my black hair for a while. It’s a good look for me.

Love Life Stories

I’m Desi, but I grew up obsessed with being seen as a white girl

I think it all began with the rejection of my name.

When my parents enrolled me in head start at the tender age of three, my white teachers had no idea how to pronounce my name. It was them who took the liberty of changing my name to Sarah – my brown name, difficult and different, needed to be replaced with something easier. It was something that stripped me of the uniqueness that reminded my immigrant parents of the lands their tribe called home. My name was the first connection to go – against my will.

And it was the first layer of Pakistani skin that was peeled off.

By the time I was in the fourth grade, I didn’t even know how to spell Sehrish anymore. In fact, in my school records, my parents had ensured Sarah was included, so I never even had to correct teachers on the first day of school and tell them my nickname. It was better that way; I didn’t have to hear them butcher my real name, and I was happy with people not knowing that I had a name that was foreign and different.

I was Sarah.

[bctt tweet=”I was happy with people not knowing that I had a name that was foreign and different.” username=”wearethetempest”]

During the summer before sixth grade, I visited Pakistan for the first time since I was a toddler. I suddenly had a renewed pride in being Pakistani. By the time school started, I was donning shalwaar kameez and other traditional Pakistani clothes as I happily trotted myself to school. I had no preference when people called me Sarah or Sehrish.

That didn’t last long. The constant bullying and loneliness that came along with being and looking different had me dragging my mom to various clothing stores so I could get the same baggy pants and sweaters that all the cool kids were wearing.

It would be the beginning of my specific hatred of going out in public while wearing the clothes of my parents and ancestors.

By the time I was in high school, I had taken a specific interest in the punk rock and underground hardcore music scenes. I was in love with bands such as NOFX, Good Charlotte, the Misfits, and other various bands that rejected conformity and being like everyone else. This intense interest wasn’t because I was Pakistani, but because I was a bullied kid who needed an outlet. My style fluctuated from gothic punk rock to emo as I copied the styles of all the scenester girls.

It’s ironic and funny, really. While I was joining a subculture all about not conforming and rejecting the system, I was doing everything to show that I had conformed and fit into that particular scene. I wanted to be like the pale white girls that dominated the subculture with their dyed black hair and heavyset eyeliner. I wanted the white boys in their tight jeans and girlish bangs to like me.

It never occurred to me that I would never fit in – no matter how hard I tried.

It was at this time that I became obsessed with rejecting all of my brownness and proving just how white I could be.

[bctt tweet=”While I was joining a subculture all about not conforming and rejecting the system, I was doing everything to show that I had conformed and fit into that particular scene.” username=”wearethetempest”]

When Pakistanis told me they envied my pale skin, I was ecstatic. There is little doubt in my mind that the internalized racism of my community fueled my own hatred of Pakistanis. They, too, were obsessed with white skin and copying the ways of the white people. But I took it further than they did. While they still proudly claimed their heritage and culture – and refused to let it go – I rejected it.

When people said I sounded white, I was happy. I started telling people that I was mutt instead of the pure Pakistani that I am. When people claimed that I did not look Pakistani at all, I told them it was because I was “barely Pakistani”.

“That’s why I’m so pale for a Pakistani,” I would tell people proudly. “One of my grandparents is white – Irish or British or something.” (Yes, the present me is CRINGING writing this).

In my early twenties, I stopped trying. Not so much because I realized that I wouldn’t fit in, but because I was too busy with college and work to care about fitting in anywhere. The only thing I really cared about was fitting into the Dean’s List. By then, I had internalized certain things. Most my professors knew me as Sarah while one particular professor and adviser of mine refused to acknowledge me as Sarah because I would “always be her Sehrish.” I still refused to wear Pakistani clothes in public and had a specific hatred of “fobs”. When people assumed I was “Persian” or Spanish, I didn’t care to correct them. I was indifferent. I was an assimilated American, and that was the only thing that mattered to me.

I’m not sure if there was an exact moment that I “woke up”, but during my graduate studies that often covered race, colonization, and imperialism, it started dawning on me just how much I was playing into the system of white superiority. Furthermore, as the global dialogue on Muslims and Islam gained steam, I found myself defending Islam and Muslim countries – including Pakistan. The Islamophobia that started running rampant all over social media and television pushed me to defend Muslims and Pakistan. I defended because my Muslim and Pakistani parents didn’t deserve the stereotypes and unfair treatment.

[bctt tweet=”I went from being Sarah the American who pretended to be a part-white girl to Sehrish/Sarah, a Pakistani-American woman who was proud of her heritage.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I also defended, because I realized that this was an attack on me: an attack on the part of me that I myself had attacked and rejected for so long. And as I started defending Pakistan and Muslims more, I started realizing just how precious this part of my identity was. I went from being Sarah the American who pretended to be a part-white girl to Sehrish/Sarah, a Pakistani-American woman who was proud of her heritage.

In retrospect, it’s frightening to see how close I was to the edge of letting everything that made me who I was, go. It’s even more troubling to see that the society that I live in is what encourages white superiority over cultural and racial uniqueness. My story is not unique. In fact, I can guarantee that many first-generation American born children of immigrants grapple with their race.

In 2013, my now-husband was invited to the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball. As he wore the obligatory Air Force blues, I debated on a ball gown or something that I felt was more true to me.

I wore a black sari.

[bctt tweet=”It’s even more troubling to see that the society that I live in is what encourages white superiority over cultural and racial uniqueness.” username=”wearethetempest”]

“Where did you get that?” Countless people asked me as they fingered the delicate gold jewels on the embroidery.

[bctt tweet=”My story is not unique. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

An Indian Commander even commented on how nice it was that one of my Indian or Pakistani friends would give me such a beautiful sari.

My reply was the same every time.

“I’m actually Pakistani,” I would tell them proudly. “This is one of our formal dresses, and I felt like it was more fitting for me than a ball gown.”