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