Thursday, September 1, 2011

Home is Where the Heart is

A few words from our guest blogger, Thalib Razi.

Hi there, I'm a blog post! I can't see you, but I'm sure you are all wonderful, beautiful people. I wonder what it's like, being a person...Oh, sorry, I'm getting off topic. My creator doesn't approve of breaking the fourth wall.

First things first: Eid Mubarak! Another Ramadan come and gone, anticipated and then missed like the visit of an old school friend. It's amazing how stepping out of your routine and going out of your way to subdue your desires can elevate your spiritual awareness. And this Ramadan, I really stepped out of my routine: I moved in to college.

None of Umma's home cooking to last me through the long summer day: hot, hearty rice porridge, sweet fruit salads, steamy red rice and vegetables, soul-awakening soups, spicy meat curry. Well, a little bit of those, because I packed some for my dorm fridge, but it soon ran out. I survived on breakfast food and the local mosque's iftars after that. It sufficed, but something about waking up by myself before dawn and not having to wake up my mom or dad or sister, or make a pot of tea, or set the table, was a bit sad. As mundane as these chores were, they were my early-morning contribution to the household. Now, I've got my own 16x11 living space, swapping a family for a roommate, and of course, it’s nothing like home.

After all, "Home is where the heart is", right? With starting college, and moving out, and settling in to my (temporary) new home, I've been giving that phrase some thought. You can interpret it in two ways:

"I'm really sorry about this motel, honey, but it's our only option until we get a new apartment."

"Don't worry, dear, home's where the heart is."


"Wow, I feel just like that turkey, I'm so stuffed! Haha, you know, I've traveled for the past six years of my life but there’s nothing like the place where you’ve grown up."

"I know what you mean. Home's where the heart is, huh?"

In the first scenario, the place you call home comes from where your affections lie. In the second, your affections lie in the place you call home. A subtle difference, but one that differentiates the immigrant from the native. The immigrant follows his affections (wealth, religious freedom, opportunity) to a new life. The native develops his affections (culture, beliefs, art) from where he already lives.

Not to say the two definitions are mutually exclusive. Most immigrants consider themselves native to somewhere. They develop their values in another country and take them with them when they move. And for a while, this works. Inside the house, they live just as they had “back home” and also benefit from whatever the outside society has to offer. Unless the native community deems the immigrants “dangerous” or “subversive” (which, of course, often happen with belief systems like Islam or massive movements like Latinos), they usually leave the newcomers alone.

But then come the children. Second-generation immigrants grow up with two sets of values and experiences, essentially. And neither is less “real” than the other. People may think that their parents’ culture is simply imposed on them and they have nothing to do with it, but how are parents’ values any more imposed on a person than those of local surroundings? You didn’t pick either; you grew up with both of them. The natives grew up with parents too, and they imposed the very cultural ideas towards which you rebel against your immigrant parents.

Essentially, until you grow up and start making decisions, your identity is out of your control. Afterwards, you must choose, but by then some things are almost set in stone. Take language: some second-gen immigrants retain their parents’ language, and some don’t. I lost so much of it by high school that, when I developed an interest to learn it, my attempts mostly failed. However, my parents make enough money that I went to Sri Lanka for summer break every two years since birth. Sri Lankan climate and culture (barring language) is literally second-nature to me, thanks to my parents. And English is so commonplace there that if I wanted to, I really could call Sri Lanka my home.

But I don’t.

There’s a great poem by Antonio Machado that goes:

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.

“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.” If you don’t walk the road, you can’t say you walk it. If you don’t live in your home, you can’t call it home. If I don’t live in Sri Lanka, and don’t plan on it in the near future, I’m not a Sri Lankan. I’m a Sri Lankan American. For me, Sri Lankan is an adjective; American is a noun.

And here we come to the third reading of the cliché that is the title of this post. Like Machado’s poem, it is a literal reading of a term people take far too figuratively.

“Home is where the heart – your physical, beating heart – is.”

It sleeps in the bed of your chest, nestled between lungs, supported by a bedframe of ribs. Through myriad corridors of blood vessels, you can visit the office space of the brain, the kitchen of the stomach, the gym of the arms and legs. You have to be at home with your body, with the air that you displace, if you ever want to feel at home in a certain place. Think about it; your power in the world ends with your fingertips. Even your facebook, your blog, your e-mail was created with your hands. So, wherever you physically are, why not make that your home?

I have no problem with immigration or immigrants preserving their cultural identity. To me, it’s like moving in to your first apartment after college; why wouldn’t I put a big Purdue poster on the wall? Why not bring my guitar, or my books, or my adorable stuffed white tiger? I’m an adult, and I belong here, so I get to decide what that means. Similarly, I’m an American, and I belong here, so I get to decide that for me, American means “Midwest nice” and “basketball” but also “Islam” and “cricket” and “desi food.”

I’ve been rambling, and if you’re still reading this, I’m glad. I think you get my message by now. I’ll end with a few quotes.

First, the Qur’an:

O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in God's sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware. -- 49:13

This is basically a summary of all I believe with regards to race and culture. Come to know one another, marry outside of your ethnicity. Live outside of your hometown. This is not to bastardize the cultures of the world, so we end up with one human race with no distinguishing characteristics, but rather to come to understand different cultures. People need to understand just how varied the human experience is, and if nobody ever moved, there would never be a concrete person to connect with what you learn in your Social Studies classes. I’ve been saved so much explanation because of this sentence: “Oh, I had a Muslim friend who prayed/fasted/etc, I get that.” (Imagine if instead, my non-Muslim friend would say, “Oh, I read about that in AP World History class…” It’s not quite the same.) Similarly, no Asian needs to explain to me why he or she doesn’t like milk, thanks to a school friend in the lunch line so many years ago.

So again, move. Live elsewhere. As the Sufis say, “Go! You will return.” But when you move, do so deliberately and carefully. Know that this is your new home; you can furnish it with your old belongings, but it will never be the old place. If you wanted it to be, why did you move? And when you furnish your new home with your belongings, be prudent. Don’t take your grand piano with you if you’re moving into an apartment. (Read: don’t hold desi parties until 2 a.m. in an apartment, assaulting your neighbors with the bizarre sounds and smells that give you such nostalgia, and expect them to hold you in high regard.) Re-evaluate yourself constantly. Are you here, or there? Why? What do you call yourself? Why? It’s a painful process, but in the end you can rest easy with yourself.

Finally, a quote from author Scott Russell Sanders, a man who advocates Staying Put in his book, titled the same:

"'The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself,' we are cautioned by Thoreau, that notorious stay-at-home. The metaphor is religious: to withhold yourself from where you are is to be cut off from communion with the source. It has taken me half a lifetime of searching to realize that the likeliest path to the ultimate ground leads through my local ground. I mean the land itself, with its creeks and rivers, its weather, seasons, stone outcroppings, and all the plants and animals that share it. I cannot have a spiritual center without having a geographical one; I cannot live a grounded life without being grounded in a place.” 

1 comment:

  1. anything's possible in America. Study you butt off and you'll do fine. Travis (Olney, IL)


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