Being an Immigrant - The emotional costs

By Naazish YarKhan

Twelve and a half years ago, I was 22 and a big city girl from India. I arrived here as a new bride, with stars in my eyes only to run, slam, bam into culture shock. Not the kind of culture shock you expect though. This was different. ( It did take time to wrap my mind around the fact that everything in the burbs closed by 11 p.m. Where did people go for a bite if they got hungry at midnight I mused. But that was merely a hiccup.) The hardest obstacles were emotional. The Indian immigrant community is large and yet small enough that everyone maintains their connections. New husband, new family, new social circle, not withstanding, the void came from not connecting with others at a deeper level, either intellectually or emotionally.

My husband and I attended at least two dinner gatherings given by one of our many family friends each weekend. Our hosts were the older generation of aunties and uncles, who had become my in-law’s extended family when they first arrived 30 years ago. I felt at ease and fit in seamlessly. Or, we’d hob nob with my husbands’ friends and their wives, many who’d married that same year as well. Again, it was almost effortless to become friends with the women. We were all in the same boat in many ways.

Come spring and summer, there was at least one wedding every two weeks that we were invited to. I was attending more weddings here and knew more people here than I ever did back in India. If not weddings, were we at a bridal shower, baby shower, engagement ceremony or a graduation party. And yet, there was that gnawing, emotional void. The need to connect at a deeper level, to be understood for who I was intellectually, a short hand to one’s heart and mind, were missing.

It wasn’t that the friends I was making in the immigrant community were too Americanized. Far from it, many of the ‘desi’ girls I befriended here, had lived far sheltered lives than I had ever. They cooked better Indian food than I ever did, and some even spoke better Urdu, than I. And yet, there is something to be said about the comfort of cultural short-hand, and shared histories, growing up watching the same TV shows, owning a similar sense of humor. As an immigrant, I didn’t have the same baggage. My loneliness perhaps was magnified by the fact that my husband’s elementary school was still a hop skip and jump away from where we lived. That his parents’ home was still very much his own home. That he didn’t have to make the adjustments or carve into existence relationships he wanted.

It often fell to him to play the role that my aunts and grand-parents had played, my siblings had played, my parents had played. My cheerleaders, my rock of Gibraltar, he had to be all those things and no one had prepared him to do any of it. How could one man do what an entire family, an extended one for that matter, had done?

Making and maintaining friendships really was what became very important in my life. I was committed to creating for myself the support I had before coming here, the security I had felt when I was back in India, the confidants and cheerleaders I could always depend on. It took a while to realize that I had to create the same for myself, off line too. Emails to school friends and college friends and my siblings weren’t enough to sustain me for life in America.

It meant pushing myself to be vulnerable and wholly present in every relationship…just as I had been when I was growing up in India. It meant realizing that I didn’t have to have the same interests, or even the same background, as some else to become close buddies. It meant realizing that age was no consideration when picking a friend. It meant being committed to friendship and being an accessible, good friend. And as I now see, it meant having patience. A garden grows slowly. The friends I made 12 years ago, are my inner circle, my emotional and intellectual sounding board today.
Lately, I tend to get too wrapped up in my professional pursuits and need to remind myself that friends are an integral part of my life and who I am. I need to remind myself that friends make my life richer and scheduling down time with them is vital to my existence.

I’ve been in a place where not many really cared to know who I was on the inside, or what I thought or what I had to say. When I remind myself to make time for friends, I guess I am also reminding myself, not to return to by gone times and with them, to that sad, lonely place.