Jump and the Net Will Appear

When I moved to America in 1994, I was a bride of two weeks. I lived on campus at Northern Illinois University with my husband while he completed his undergrad. That year I began wearing the hijab, or the head scarf that many of my fellow Muslim women wear.
After we left NIU, I continued to hold onto this facet of my faith. I wore the hijab with diligence while I interned at Chicago Public Radio and even as I had my first child in 1997. Soon after, I began working full-time at an internet consultancy. I was one of the few people who had a family to rush home to after work. I was one of two people who sounded different when I spoke. I was one of the ones who didn't head out for drinks after hours, because it was against my religious beliefs.
Wanting to fit in and to forge friendships that lasted beyond the eight-hour workday, I began to view the hijab as a symbol of what stood in the way. Over the next few months, I gave up wearing it while on the commute on the train into Chicago. Soon, it came off completely. The Islamically appropriate loose clothes I wore gave way to more form-fitting outfits. I felt comfortable with this new style. But when my boss told me that I'd done the right thing because the hijab posed an invisible barrier between me and our team, it stung.
Happily, I realized that the people who had chosen to be my friends at work while I wore the hijab were the same people who continued to be my friends. Perhaps wearing or discarding the hijab didn't impact my relationships after all.
Over the next decade or so, I ran my own business and did many public speaking engagements. All the while, the hijab stayed off. I told myself that I was a more approachable ambassador of my faith if I didn't wear it. If people had questions about Islam, they would be more comfortable approaching me without the hijab. I noticed that no one knew I was a Muslim unless I brought it up, and my justification for not wearing the hijab began to feel hollow.

In 2011, I completed my masters from Northwestern and decided to build a career in corporate America. This was also the year that I decided to adopt the hijab once again in my own life. I hesitated with what to do at work. I decided I would only wear it outside of work. I thought the hijab could be a strike against me, especially in PR, where image was everything.
But as I reconnected more strongly than ever with my faith, I felt cowardly for hiding my beliefs.
I found the courage to lean in and to wear the hijab in public, at interviews and, if hired, at work. Didn't my faith teach me that as long as we worked hard, bounties came from our Benefactor? I began interviewing with the hijab on. Within weeks I landed my dream job. I wore the hijab with pride.
I recently changed my LinkedIn photograph to a smiling woman in hijab. Am I afraid that future employers may judge me and disregard my potential worth? Certainly. But leaning in takes courage. It is about risk. And I've decided to take one.

(Originally published on LeanIn.org

Lost in Translation

By Naazish YarKhan

If I gave you my heart today, would you still not want it? That was the only thought that flitted through Naina’s mind as she gazed out on the shroud of white that entombed the city even as the snow lit up the night. Around her, a smattering of red, green and gold lights flickered on balconies and in more than a few windows, a Christmas tree glistened. Naina’s heart hurt at their inherent promise of love, families spending time together, the making of memories. She watched as a snow plough braved the winds, a stab at recreating normal, while a spool of CTA buses inched towards shiny, hopeful Navy Pier.

If I gave you my heart today, would you still not want it? The question grazed at the edge of her conscience, yet again. It bothered her how, over the months, it had impudently grown more insistent for the answer she wanted to hear. Naina lifted her gaze eastwards and it seemed like she only had to reach out and her fingertips would graze Lake Michigan - a dream, icy and cracked in so many places. Cracked like the cocoon of familiarity once woven by her parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles. India’s smells, sights and sounds; the warmth borne from the uninhibited mingling amongst friends and neighbors – whether it was asking for a cup of sugar or sharing news of a grandchild’s birth – all of it an ever present memory.

Naina still remembered the day she’d discovered she was pregnant. Even before she’d broken the news to Ravi, she’d rushed to share her happiness with her family across the continents via Skype. Their unrestrained whoops of joy, the fountain of questions, the heaps of advice, she knew, was the reaction she most needed. It would warm her insides, make her feel loved and cared for. Yes, Ravi would have been happy with the news, but a smile from him would have had to suffice. She wished those closest to her didn’t have to be oceans apart. But then, if they lived in America, would they have learned to be as restrained as Ravi and his family were in their reactions? So polite, emotions invariably under check. Or was that self-control the American way? She had never imagined that one could look South Asian on the outside, but be all American on the inside. What was the name her siblings had given Ravi? An Oreo cookie?

With studying for her USMELE, so she could qualify for a medical residency at a local hospital, to having morning sickness throughout her pregnancy, friendships she’d created at the clinic, where she’d worked part-time, stayed there. What Naina couldn’t understand, however, was why neighborly friendliness never seemed to go beyond the perfunctory hello’s in the hallway or elevator? Why didn’t those overtures ever extend to coffee together? And it wasn’t for lack of trying on her part. Her gifts of freshly baked cookies, samosas or chocolate bark hadn’t led to any friendships. “Why did introductions to new people, in India, invariably lead to invitations to tea, dinner, the beginnings of a life-long relationship. Didn’t both countries have the same 24 hours, the same busy, demanding days, so what made people in India so open to nurturing relationships?” she wondered. 

“I’ve made fresh aloo paratha’s for dinner,” she nodded in Ravi’s direction. A smile slipped across her face as she remembered the many times she’d pulled the towel off his body, the days and nights they’d made love like they couldn’t have their fill.

Reaching for the remotes, he turned the music off, flicked ESPN on.

“Where was the hug, the kiss on the head? Their first after his two days at the hospital?” she wanted to ask. Instead, “I was listening,” Naina pressed her lips together. Then, for the second time, “I’ve made fresh aloo paratha’s for dinner.”

“You go ahead. I’m not hungry,” Ravi drawled, his eyes riveted to the game.

A knot tightened in Naina’s stomach. Why did she do this to herself, she wondered? Hadn’t he told her since the early days of their marriage that she wasn’t to wait for him for meals? That, as a resident, there was no telling when he’d be done at work? 

It was a homecoming that couldn’t have been more different than what she wanted, desperately needed. Her own father had children leaping to greet him on his return from work. It meant a family gathering to enjoy a hot, freshly cooked meal and dinner table conversation about how everyone’s day had gone. Ravi, on the other hand, saw no point in reliving his day if all he wanted to do was put it behind him. Between Ravi’s medical residency, the NFL, the NBA and whatever ESPN doled out, Naina couldn’t remember when she and her husband had last shared a meal that brought them closer. Eating food, in her new home, seemed so functional that Naina was certain it was robbing her cooking of its flavor.

Ravi eased the baby from Naina, and nestling Manal’s tiny body in his arms, he made himself comfortable in front of the flat screen TV. That was where he unwound best.

“I hope you don’t mind if I eat while we talk,” Naina cradled the phone between her shoulder and her face.

“Not if you don’t mind my baby fussing in the background. The minute I get on the phone, she gets gassy,” Sheena replied.

“Why don’t you watch the game with me?” Ravi asked.

Naina took another bite of her paratha. That this typically was the nature of their interaction after days of not having seen each other, and barely two years into the marriage, grated on her. It poisoned whatever desire she may have had to snuggle next to her husband and watch a game, especially since sports just weren’t her thing. 

Naina listened to Sheena lament the challenge it was to get a newborn bundled and ready for a trip to the grocery store, only for the baby to need yet another diaper change. She empathaized, knowing the feeling only too well, even as her eyes lingered over Ravi’s face. He was still as handsome as when they’d first met. He visiting from America, an only child, looking to get married. She, one of six children, one of the many hopeful’s he was to interview. They met at dinner, the two of them, her siblings, his cousins. Amidst the group’s non-stop chatter and the clinking of flatware against china, his quiet measured manner and ready humor had attracted her. His choice of water while everyone else chugged beer, his ease despite being mercilessly teased for taking the “desi” career path dutifully, impressed her. Unruffled, he could obviously stand his ground, be a rock she could lean on.

If their babies allowed, what Sheena and Naina would begin as a conversation about their newborns would evolve into a discussion about the price of diapers and formula, the nature of love, the emotional costs of relocating. If either of them had had any time to watch TV or follow the news online that week, then that invariably become fodder for discussion. The Sandy Hook killings, Obama's re-election, global warming, international news.

Even after all these months, Ravi was still incredulous that anyone could have such capacity for conversation as Naina did. “Can you take your call to the next room?” he rocked a now whimpering baby Manal in his lap.

Naina turned her back to him, reducing her side of the conversation to the occasional “oh no” and “uh-huh”. 

“Do you have to use the phone when I’m trying to watch the game?” Ravi asked, no sooner than Naina had hung up, her next day’s plans with Sheena shimmering like a fragile ray of sun.
Naina felt anger bubble up from deep within her. “I feel so lonely in your company,” she wanted to rage. But what use was it? It had been impossible to convey the depth of her loss to someone who lived less than a dozen miles from the home of his youth and childhood. She bit her lip, hating the game, despising the TV, loathing the shared space they called a marriage. Outside, the snow continued to fall thicker and thicker, burying everthing.

If I gave you my heart today, would you still not want it? Once again, Naina had her answer. Her eyes boring into Ravi’s, she pulled the baby out of his arms. Ravi stared, his face contorting with anger, as she stalked out of the room. Silence fell as each recoiled to nurse festering wounds, neither aware they were speaking different languages, seeking love in different tongues, neither recognizing that even love could be lost in translation.
A long sigh escaped her leaving smudges on the clear glass panel of windows and Naina clung to little Manal tighter. Padding across the polished hard wood floors, she nestled into the burgundy leather couch, gingerly placing her feet onto the coffee table. The warmth from the fireplace tickled her toes and she let her head drop against the back of the couch. Manal’s innocent and fragile scent teased her. She had imagined that the baby would give her the sense of family she so craved since moving to America two years ago. Between a somewhat colicky newborn, sleepless nights and Chicago’s cold, short days that often kept mother and baby indoors, the ache had only deepened.

Switching the baby to her other arm, she rose to turn the music up. Perhaps Bruno Mars’ voice could erase the loneliness? Tears pooled in the corners of her eyes, surprising her. Noticing Ravi emerge from their bedroom, his hair still wet, a towel wrapped around his waist, she wiped the back of her hand across her face.
“Are we planning to do anything this evening?” Naina asked at length, even though she knew the answer. He’d been home barely a couple of hours after being on call for the past forty-eight hours. There wasn’t going to be room for her needs. Her Facebook ‘friends’ seemed to hear her thoughts and feelings more than her husband, she thought wryly. She couldn’t figure out why, then, the more time she spent online, the more alone it made her feel. Besides her family overseas, who else was there to open her heart to?

With no answer from Ravi, nor insights forthcoming to any of her questions, Naina micro-waved the aloo-paratha, added a small bowl of yogurt to her plate and sat down to eat. Digging into her purse, Naina groped for her cell phone. Sheena was a new mother too, and an import like herself, albeit from Atlanta. Their ever increasing sense of isolation had knit the two women closer since they had first met at a party.

Naina’s interest in raising a family, rather than pursuing a full-time career as a physician, her easy confidence and gregarious personality, had drawn Ravi to her as they talked more after that first dinner. They discovered that their big picture ideals dovetailed – family came first, charity and hard-work were the foundation they wanted to build life on, and education was key to all their aspirations. That both of them were pursuing careers in medicine gave them so much in common.
( To be continued)