I’m sitting on the coast, where the frothy salt water meets the sand over and over again. I’m wearing a bikini – a cigarette in one hand and a cold bottle of beer in the other. I look to my right and smile at my friends, taking a puff of my Marlboro Light and exhaling back towards the horizon. For these few hours, I think of nothing but the heat of the sun and the cool, open water ahead of me.
In a few hours, I will attempt to erase all traces of alcohol and cigarette breath by ingesting a bag of sour cream flavored chips and copious amounts of spearmint gum (not the tastiest marriage of flavors). I’ve done my research. I know these things will do the trick. I will cover my bikini-clad body with an appropriate outfit – one that modestly covers my thighs and upper arms – before I make my way back home.
I will drive along the open highway and through the more condensed streets of the capital’s suburbs. I will carefully go over the plan with my friends, making sure that everyone has the same story should our day’s adventures come up around my family: we were at an all-girls beach without men, cigarettes, or alcohol. I will walk into my house, take my seat among whatever part of my extended family is currently visiting and, after the acceptable 15 minutes of idle chitchat has passed, I will retreat to a more private area of the house.
It’s an exhausting process: to constantly rewrite the narrative of your daily life, deliberately leaving out any taboo issue that might stir up controversy. Living one way inside the home and another way elsewhere. Moving my life from a western world to an eastern one has taught me to tame my desire to shout my true opinions and live boldly, honestly, knowing that I otherwise risk all of my autonomy and personal freedom.
My family – an extended network of aunts, uncles and cousins living in the same apartment building – will never know about the fear and stress involved in consciously keeping a serious and substantial part of my life tucked away, day after day. Beyond the secret way I dress and drink, they do not know about the interfaith relationship I am in, the fact that relationships like these don’t bother me in the least, or that I maintain secular beliefs.
My father once asked me what the “community” would think if they saw me coming home late at night or committing some other “shameful” act. I remember staring back, appalled at the question, angered by the sudden image of neighbors peering over their balconies at night, excitedly foraging for gossip over coffee. In this moment, I realized that I would not likely win my father over with what I felt were appeals to logic. Although my father had lived in The States for years, he remained rooted in his conservative upbringing.
None of this is meant to be a tirade against any type of lifestyle. Were my façade of the acceptable daughter, niece, or cousin to fall away, I know that I would face an entirely new set of complications and criticisms, but I am still in the process of figuring out how to appropriately balance my need to avoid that impending doom along with my desire to live on my own terms.
I do catch a break every now and then, on visits back to The States. The privacy without secrecy is a welcomed change of pace, relieving me of the habitual glance over my shoulder while I’m out, periodically checking to see if some family friend is nearby. I can wear my sundresses without disapproving looks, drink without worrying about my breath, have a male friend pick me up from my house – all without worrying about some sort of community reaction to my “otherness.”
It’s a refreshing change, sure, but it always strikes me as odd that I eventually begin to tire of the almost overwhelming amount of personal freedom. While there are always friends and family to catch up with there, I still get lonely in a way that has nothing to do with physical space. I can be my complete, honest self in The U.S., the place where I grew up, but I eventually always find myself yearning for that connectedness in my other home.
Perhaps if I constantly move back and forth for the rest of my life, I will maintain some sort of contentment. Until that is a reality though, I guess I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.