On the Limits of American(a)

People are surprised to find out that I’m not actually from here. The standard conversation after the holidays goes: “You went all the way back to Bangladesh? So, your entire family is there? Oh, you lived there till you were 19?” And then of course: “But you speak English so well!” My brown skin and third world citizenship hide the international school education that I was privileged to receive. A childhood of Scooby Doo and Friends makes my accent familiar enough to go unnoticed. Alas, passing privilege does not an American make. Right?

I was thrilled to learn that a group called South Asian Americans Leading Together DSC_0035(SAALT) was hosting a LGBTQ-themed summer leadership institute. It boggled my mind that I might actually meet other queer and gender variant deshi students interested in creating change. But surely I wouldn’t be eligible—many semesters as a student worker in the career services office had taught me to expect a “U.S. citizens and permanent residents” clause hidden in the eligibility section. Imagine my surprise when the Young Leaders Institute (YLI) explicitly welcomed “diversity in regard to [among other things] immigration status.” As I hurriedly pulled together the application, I asked myself for the first time: Did this put me under the umbrella of South Asian American?

Was it enough to self-identify as American?

Legal papers are a poor measure of identity, but I had only ever considered this line of reasoning in the context of undocumented Americans who have lived here for years. My acceptance into a college (and the financial aid that came with it) gave me the privilege of a legal avenue of entry to the Land of Opportunity not afforded to them. I was not compelled by circumstances at home to risk arrest by ICE, or worse, incur the wrath of my punctilious father. Yet, after five very formative years in the United States, the process of my integration was well under way. I could no longer drive on the left side of the road, I grew an invisible layer of personal space, and I could even sing most of the words to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’. Yet, I knew that I could “hold on to that feelin’” only for so long.

There will come a time when my Duration of Status will come to an end, and I will need to go back. When I share my apprehension about this legal deadline on my stay with friends who have grown up here, they are rightly confused about the logic behind it. As a student of economics, I know that the potential gain to world GDP is much higher from eliminating barriers to immigration than barriers to trade, yet it is my body that is stopped at the border for further screening while iPods and Big Macs hop across with ease. There’s something a little hypocritical about insisting on an impermeable border while cultivating a global consumer IMG_0059base for all things Americana. I know, however, that the way to move forward is not through a battle of wits but by listening to each other’s stories.

Stories are a powerful thing. They allow us to see our shared humanity with those different from us, and to see beauty in diversity. Stories are also a way for those of us living at the margins to claim space for ourselves. It is no surprise to me that many of my fellow YLI participants have chosen to take on projects that celebrate stories of people like us.

My YLI project performance is an effort to share my story. I draw upon my own lived experiences to trace the cracked lines between being a Bangladeshi citizen, a queer deshi, and an American. I have struggled to find a way to tell my story with any degree of honesty, when I know that the lived reality of LGBQ and T* South Asians are invisible, or worse, erased. Yet, that is exactly why it needs to be told. As I toe the line between that beautiful spectacle of exhibitionism that is American performance art, and my deshi impulse to keep skeletons hidden deep inside my closet (pun intended), I remind myself of the comfort I have found in the voices of queer and trans people of colour. In turn, I hope that my story may offer some solace to my younger brothers and sisters and siblings (and cousin-brothers and cousin-sisters and cousin-siblings).

Wherever they are from, I hope that they feel that they belong.

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Shabab Mirza
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014