Comfort Food Trumps Hate

I’ve spent so much of the last month filled with anger, dread, and utter panic for what the next four years have in store, I’ve neglected the habits I often use as a crutch to zen me out.

In the time since my last post, my initial fear, disdain, and disgust for the upcoming four years has been replaced with a renewed sense of responsibility to continue living my best life, but more consciously–to give to my community, with a focus on those who will be most affected by these upcoming years, to spend more time with my family, with the specific intent to be the best role model I can be for my younger brother, and to find more time to work on my health, with explicit regard to mental and emotional stability. And in doing so, I find myself reverting back to the hobbies that zen me out most–an evening spent cooking with and for the ones I love, an afternoon with a warm bowl of ramen and a book, or maybe a two-hour breakfast by myself–a rare indulgence in the rushed madness of the adult world, as my friend Nadia pointed out to me last night.

So I called up a friend of mine, a renowned chef and restaurateur in his own right, and asked him to make my terrible electoral Monday a little bit better. I brought the ingredients and a rough sketch of the flavor profile I was chasing, he brought the technique and unreal knife skills. We poured a glass of wine, and below is the result.

FENNEL GINGER SALMON

**Recipe adjusted to serve four**

I’m separating this recipe into two parts, as the broth is an incredible winter soup on its own. In fact, we made the soup first, then later paired the salmon with it to create the actual dish.

Fennel Broth

Ingredients

4 bulbs of fennel

4 tablespoons of coconut oil

1/2 cups of roughly diced shallots

4 cups of seafood stock, preferably lobster stock

3 tablespoons of fresh, grated ginger

2 tablespoons of ground fennel seeds

1 tablespoon of ground coriander seeds

1/2 cup of coconut flavored Greek yogurt/skyr

1 tablespoon of flour (optional, as thickening agent for the broth)

1 teaspoon of lemon zest

3 whole star anise

Preparation

Cut the fennel bulbs in half, and discard the white core at the bottom of the bulb. Slice the bulbs across into thin slices, so as to speed up cook time.

Place the coconut oil in a large saucepan, and if solid, melt over medium heat. Add the star anise, fennel, and shallots, and cook until the shallots are translucent. Pour in the seafood stock and bring to a boil, then cover the saucepan. Allow the mixture to simmer for 20 minutes.

Remove from heat, and let cool for 10 minutes. Take out the 3 pieces of star anise, and discard. Then pour the mixture into a food processor or blender, along with ginger, ground fennel seeds, coriander seeds, salt, and pepper. Puree the mixture and return to the saucepan for a second boil. Add the lemon zest and a generous squirt of lemon. Whisk in the Greek yogurt.

While the mixture approaches a boil, pour a small ladle into a bowl and whisk in the flour, making sure no lumps form (this will thicken the broth to a more bisque-like consistency).

Pour the contents of the bowl into the broth, and bring to a full boil.

Soup is ready to serve!

If you want a bit more out of your broth, keep reading for the salmon recipe!

FENNEL GINGER SALMON

Ingredients

3 carrots, sliced vertically (I used a variety of purple, yellow, and traditional carrots)

1/2 cup of apple, sliced

1/2 cup of shallots, sliced

1/4 cup of fennel, sliced

1 tablespoon of ground ginger

2 cloves of garlic, minced

2 parsnips, sliced vertically

4 tablespoons of olive oil

2 tablespoons of Chinese 5-spice

4 salmon steaks

1 whole lemon

1 sprig of rosemary

Preparation

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

While the oven preheats, line two separate baking sheets with foil, and coat both with cooking spray.

On a chopping board, lay out the salmon steaks and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of Chinese 5-spice, salt, and pepper to taste. Squeeze lemon on all sides, generously. Let it sit for a few minutes.

Put carrots, apple, and parsnips on one baking sheet, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of Chinese 5-spice, salt, and pepper to taste. Toss in oven with a sprig of rosemary.

While the apple and veggies roast, heat up 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet and add the minced garlic, fennel, and shallots. Saute until the shallots are translucent, then spoon out the mixture and evenly spread it onto the sheet with the roasting veggies.

Heat up another tablespoon of olive oil in the same skillet (no need to clean it–the skillet should retain some of the garlic flavor) and on a high heat, add the salmon steaks. Grate 1 tablespoon of ginger directly over the salmon. Give both sides a good sear (about two minutes per side), and remove from heat.

Put all four salmon steaks on the second sheet, and layer round slices of lemon over each steak.

Bake in the oven for about 12 minutes.

While the salmon and veggies are baking, reheat your broth to a piping hot temperature, and place the desired amount into four shallow bowls. Once cooked, place veggies over the broth, then salmon on top, and fall in love a little bit!

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It Takes Patience to Understand Hatred

i.

I am broken.

I keep saying it like that, despite the melodramatic undertone, because that sentence captures the feeling better than any other sentence.

“A part of me broke” doesn’t cut it.

A lot of me broke. All of me. Every identity I have ever assumed–as an immigrant, and a person of color, as a South Asian, as someone who has spent the first nine years of her life in the Middle East, as a woman, and as a human being—came under fire yesterday. It’s a hurt I tried to capture in a few words when I posted this to my social media accounts at 3AM, frantic, shaking, crying inconsolably because the shock of it all hit me with the surge of a thousand volts.

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I cried myself to sleep for the hour I could muster before my 5AM alarm, and I woke to a soaking pillow, 45 messages in a thread with my closest friends, and a Facebook post from my cousin that said “Never in my life have I ever been afraid to look the way I do until now…”

He is a turbaned Sikh.

That one sentence took my “I am broken,” and substantiated it, tenfold.

Later in the day, I spoke to one of my closest friends—a cis, white, male–who of course understands the gravity of what has happened, but whom I went off on because the frustration got the best of me. Because I am not simply upset my candidate of choice did not take office. Because I feel attacked and threatened more deeply than he does. Because to me, this is not a case of “America’s going to shit, let’s move to Canada.”

To me, this is a case of feeling as though every promise this country dangled in front of my family 17 years ago has gone out the window. We left behind the comfort of our “home,” for a bigger, better one in America. We left behind our traditions, so we could adopt new, advanced ones. We left behind our identities, in order to assume an American identity characteristic of progress. But yesterday, the prospect of progress went away. And that is a hurt I feel so personally, I cannot stay quiet when someone says “get over it.” I cannot get over it. It is a grief that is personal to me because I am not simply waving goodbye to progress in one area. I am waving goodbye to progress at every level of my existence.

I am questioning the life we moved here for. I am questioning if that dream will ever come to fruition. I am questioning whether the color of my skin will affect my next trip to the grocery store, or the next subway ride. I am questioning which opportunities my cousin or my brother will have access to, and I am wondering what will happen to the 10-year-old girl who proudly wears a hijab to school every morning. My friend Nadia, who also moved to this country in pursuit of the liberties her country failed to provide her, told me she wore a hijab for two years as a child, but “I can’t imagine wearing one now.”

Yet isn’t that what her family moved to this country for? To freely practice a religion, to evade contempt, to assume whichever identity they want, not fearing consequences? We are a nation built on the backs of those who wanted a new land where they could feel free, yet we have come to a point in our history where “other” is no longer celebrated.

A Muslim name raises eyebrows.

A turbaned man evokes fear.

Refugees are to be avoided.

Our doors are quickly closing.

We are turning our backs on those who need us.

We are turning our backs on people who are no different from our own ancestors.

We have become that which our forefathers fought so bitterly never to become.

We have lost empathy.

We have adopted hatred.

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Last night, I discussed the results of the election with my mom, trying to make some sense of what had happened. We kept circling back to one word:

Hopeless

I couldn’t shake it off. But mom being mom brought in some mom logic that I have promised myself I will dedicate time and energy into understanding.

“Maybe this happened because a very large amount of Americans have felt what you are feeling for far too long.”

Hopeless

Something clicked, in that moment. I will never shake off this hopelessness if I meet it with the same anger, hostility, and divisiveness that pushed this man into office. Instead, I have a duty to at least attempt to understand why half of the American people felt hopeless enough to vote for this man because I refuse to believe that half the American people are racist, intolerant, misogynistic, xenophobic, sexist, hateful people.

They are not. They can’t be. Because despite my own hopelessness, my own feelings of betrayal and anger, I still believe in this country and its great promise. I still believe that we have it in us to create an inclusive society that offers human rights to those who aren’t afforded them in their country of origin. I still know that love is not simple, and it does not simply exist between a man and a woman. I believe that we are on the brink of being a country that treats women with the respect, dignity, and the equal pay they deserve. I know that prejudice is not ingrained in every single one of us, and that we will rightfully stand by our brothers and sisters and neighbors and community members who are the target of bigotry.

But I also know that it will take mobilizing, organizing, and a brutal amount of work. The odds are against our liberties, and we have to work together, more than ever before, to come out of the next four years with our liberties intact. It will take a great amount of patience to understand where an entire half of this country came from when they cast their ballots two days ago, but we need to fully understand the root of this hatred and this hopelessness in order to reverse it.

So we will march, and we will cry, and we will protest, and we will lift one another up. We will reach out to friends, classmates, people whom we haven’t spoken to in years. We will make sure they are okay. We will remind them they are loved. We will assure them that they are just as much a part of this country and its story as everybody else.

We will beat down hatred with inclusivity and love and the best of what this country has to offer.

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“You Cannot Find Peace by Avoiding Life”

Here’s the thing about mental peace and clarity: a lot of us want it.

We want the clear picture, the google map directions on how to get there quickly, the path, hell, maybe even the next step. We feel like we are in the dark a lot. There is a reason why every time I talk to a friend about feeling “lost,” the returned sentiment is “me too, omg, me too.” Life is weird. It is confusing. We do not always know if we are doing the things we should be doing, or the things that feel right, or what even “right” feels like. We want to listen to our intuition, but sometimes, it feels like our intuition has gone on hiatus, and left us in a dark tunnel, scratching around for some footing.

Clarity, though, is connected to timing.

Sometimes, it takes a lifetime to recognize the parts of us that need work. But that recognition, when reached, feels like an enlightenment. With dedication, you slowly crawl, stumble, then walk your way toward clarity. But it always has to start with that initial self-reflection. 

This reflection hit me in the face with the force of a hundred slaps a few days ago. And I decided to channel it, immediately. 

I decided to stop avoiding my emotions and wants and needs and real life. I decided to ask for what I want. I decided to raise my middle finger to “fitting in.” I decided to be a little selfish, a little “me-centric.” I decided I would stop being, and start living.

I decided to grab life by the horns and finally reach that clarity I’ve been chasing in my dreams.

But clarity requires more than just a realization of what needs fixing. It requires action, and sometimes, we are not in a place where we can put ideas or new information into action. That’s okay. That’s why it takes time. That’s why we need to listen and get ready. Sometimes, we’re blooming. Sometimes, we’re being planted. It’s not always easy to know the difference.

Because gaining clarity usually means something needs to be broken down, re-structured, re-learned, re-created, put on hold, shelved, and sometimes…just sometimes…discarded .

That “something” can be you, a behavioral trait, or a way of life, or maybe a friendship in need of re-modeling, something, anything. We have to act on the clarity, otherwise there’s no point. And sometimes we’re just afraid of the action we’re going to have to take. We want to know, but sometimes we block knowing, because knowing means we have to act. We have to start doing the things. We have to take the scary risk, and make the big jumps, and take all those ideas that are rumbling around in our minds and put them to work, not knowing the outcome.

Because clarity is wasted on the inactive.

So, maybe that piece of the puzzle you’ve been waiting for is waiting for you to get ready. Maybe it’s not the time. Maybe you’re not as willing as you think you are. If you’re stuck in that dark tunnel disconnected from your intuition, there’s a reason. Make sure you’re receptive. And that you’re willing to act, act, act on new information, new ideas.

Because clarity wants your commitment before it comes screaming into your life.


Rosy Complexion Smoothie

If I could rave about the benefits of rose water all day, it still wouldn’t be enough. For the last year, it’s been a featured member of my skincare routine, and its effects on my skin have been remarkable.

I was first introduced to rose water as part of skin care, when I swung by my local Lush Cosmetics store, and picked up a spray bottle of the Eau Roma Rose Water Toner. The scent was deliciously relaxing, and it left my skin feeling dewy and soft, rather than harsh and irritated. It was just light enough that it got off residual make-up, unlike pharmacy toners, which often leave my skin puffy and dry.

In recent months, however, I have begun making my own toner. I purchased a spray bottle at my local CVS, and poured in an entire bottle of Cortas Rose Water, added 10 drops of Lavender Essential Oil, 10 more drops of Jojoba Oil, and haven’t looked back.

Most mornings, I wash my face with a gentle cleanser like this coconut face wash, then spray on a couple generous sprays of my toner (don’t forget to give the bottle a good shake, as the oils tend to layer on top of the water), moisturize, put on some SPF, BB cream, and run out the door.

At nighttime, however, I put in the additional effort to dab cotton pads into the toner and wipe the day’s dirt and bacteria off my face. The results are always this soft, supple, hydrated facial texture that makes me feel brand new again.

My obsession with rose water extends to my diet, too!

Below, I’m sharing my favorite morning smoothie recipe! I’ve mentioned before how I start every single morning with a large mug of warm water and one whole lemon sliced in. This smoothie is what follows about a half hour after I gulp down the lemon water. It fuels my morning with just enough energy to hit up a HIIT class, and it wakes my skin up immediately with its rosy goodness. Since rose water is such a staple in my skincare routine, adding a tinge to my smoothies only takes my routine a step further.

Ingredients

1 banana, chopped

1 1/2 cup of ice

1/4 cup of almond milk, unsweetened and carageenan-free

1 serving of Siggi’s plain Icelandic Skyr

1 teaspoon raw honey

1/4 teaspoon grated ginger

1 small pinch of cinnamon

1 small pinch of fresh nutmeg, grated

1 tablespoon of rose water

1/2 tablespoon of coconut oil or ghee (I like to start my mornings with a healthy dose of fat)

1 tablespoon of maca powder

1 tablespoon of chia seeds

Preparation

Mix all ingredients in a high-power blender (I use a NutriNinja), blend until smooth, garnish with chia seeds, and sip away!

 

The Most Basic Time of the Year

Each fall, as the wind gets crisper, the leaves get crunchier, and that summertime humidity slips away, I promise myself I won’t give into the pumpkin spice madness that has now become synonymous with autumn. Still, I end up cheating my way toward that indulgent latte, that pumpkin ale, a slice of pumpkin bread, and maybe a forkful of pumpkin pie, too.

Even though it’s not quite fall yet, I recently came across this incredible recipe for pumpkin curry ramen on The Skinny Fork, and I just had to abandon my cooking plans for the evening to immediately produce this seemingly delicious recipe.

Anyone who knows me well knows that ramen is my lifeline in the winter months, and thanks to Amanda at the Skinny Fork, I’ll be eating this all winter long, feeding it to my family, and raving about it all over town!

I made a couple small adaptations to her original recipe to suit my own palate (I’m a big fan of lots and lots of spice), so here’s my take on this recipe!

I highly recommend you all check out her recipes, as they’re wildly innovative and one-of-a-kind, and her varied photographs give you a good idea of what the ingredients should look like at each step of the process!

Ingredients

2 1/2 tablespoons of Thai Red Curry Paste (altered from original recipe)

3 cloves of minced garlic

1 small pinch of garlic scapes (optional, and altered from original recipe)

  • Garlic Scapes, though often hard to come by, have this herbiness that totally enhances the flavor profile of any dish they are used in. Often, we tend to chop ’em off, and toss ’em away, but I love using them in my cooking, and highly recommend using them, either as a garnish, or as a flavor enhancer in the base of the food.

Small, one-inch nub of fresh ginger, grated

1 whole white onion, diced

1 tablespoon of raw coconut oil (altered from original recipe)

3 cups of chicken stock

1 large chicken breast, sliced into strips

1 cup of sliced crimini mushrooms

Small handful of dried shiitake mushrooms (altered from original recipe)

1 can of coconut milk

1/2 cup of pumpkin puree

9 ounces of ramen noodles

1 cup, roughly chopped herbs (altered from original recipe)

  • I cooked some coriander, fresh basil and scallions into the broth for added flavor
  • Set aside some coriander, garlic scapes, and juliened scallions for garnish

2 eggs, soft boiled, separately (altered from original recipe)

1 teaspoon of sesame oil (altered from original recipe)

2 tablespoons of minced jalapenos (altered from original recipe)

small handful of round-sliced jalapenos (altered from original recipe)

1 tablespoon of sriracha (altered from original recipe)


Preparation

Add the red curry to your soup pot, and heat on medium for a couple of minutes

Add the coconut oil and garlic, and cook garlic until slightly golden, but not toasted (about two minutes)

Add the ginger, crimini mushrooms, chopped herbs, and onion–cook until the onion is slightly translucent

As the onion becomes translucent, pour in the broth, pumpkin puree, dried shiitake mushrooms, and coconut milk

Turn the heat up just above medium, and bring it to a boil

Once you hit a boil, add the noodles and chicken, sesame oil, sriracha, jalapenos, and give it a good stir. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cover

While the soup mixture stews (I gave it 20 minutes for the flavors to truly absorb), in a separate sauce pan, bring water to a boil and add two large eggs

  • As soon as you add the eggs, bring the water down to a simmer, cover the sauce pan, and let the eggs cook for exactly 7 minutes
  • Once the 7 minutes are up, take the eggs out carefully, and put them in an ice bath. A small bowl with cold water and ice should suffice
  • Let them sit in the ice bath for an additional 3-4 minutes before peeling

Ladle the soup into a bowl, slice eggs in half, set on top of the soup. Garnish bowl with the chopped coriander, scallions, jalapenos, garlic scapes, and slurp up!

*NOTE: My phone rang in the midst of boiling the eggs, so mine are definitely erring on hard-boiled!

As an aside, I’ve linked back to many of the products I’ve come to love from Thrive Market. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Thrive Market is an online retailer of ethically sourced food and health products. I bought into a membership last fall, and have not looked back, since. It’s saved me money, cut back on my Whole Foods expenses, and introduced me to tons of great products I never would have known existed!

#CURRYSCENTEDB***%

A couple months ago, Azealia Banks decided to call Zayn Malik a “curry scented bitch,” and while I’m typically super secretive about my guilty pleasures (old re-runs of Gossip Girl, Lizzie McGuire, and The Hills), I am not the least bit embarrassed about my penchant for celebrity feuds because, duh, #thisiswhaticameforI was on this story like white on rice.

Jokes aside, however, my immediate reaction was abhorrence and repugnance. But I also wondered, for the first time, why anything curry-related has ever been used as a derogatory slur toward South Asian peoples, alone, when you can find some sort of adaptation on curry in virtually every corner of the world.

In fact, curry is such the comfort food, it’s been modified over the years, and introduced to lots of different cuisines outside the South Asian subcontinent. Ever had German currywurst? What about goulash? I once had an Irish friend whose mother made the most delectable Irish Chicken Curry I have ever tasted, possibly in the history of everdom, and if someone were to tell me I smell like curry, well then fuck yeah, I’m okay with it because I like spices, and ginger, and garlic, and onion, and I especially like all of them together, so go home, Azealia, because curry is goddamn, motherf*cking tasty, and anybody who disagrees must not have taste buds.

Below, I’m sharing one of my absolute favorite curry recipes–inspired by Thai green curry, but with MamAnand’s special twist. Every time my mom makes this, I immediately go from a wilted flower to the happiest gal on Earth, and maybe one day, I will be able to make it half as incredibly as she does.

Ingredients: 

2 teaspoons raw coconut oil

1 small white onion, diced

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger (about a 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped)

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Pinch of salt

½ bunch asparagus, tough ends removed and sliced into 2-inch long pieces

1 stalk of lemongrass (outer layers peeled, tough ends removed, and finely grated)

3 medium-sized carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal into ¼-inch wide rounds (to yield about 1 cup sliced carrots)

1 medium piece of yellow summer squash, sliced into rounds

2 tablespoons Thai Green Curry Paste

3/4 cup coconut milk

1/2 cup coconut water

½ cup water

1½ teaspoons coconut sugar

2 cups packed baby spinach, roughly chopped

1/4 cup fresh basil

2 stalks of scallion, chopped

1/2 cup of fennel, finely chopped (typically 1/4 of a bulb)

1½ teaspoons rice vinegar

1½ teaspoons soy sauce** (I used reduced-sodium tamari)

2 pounds uncooked, large shrimp

Garnishes: handful of chopped fresh cilantro and red pepper flakes, to taste

Preparation
Warm a large skillet with deep sides (cast iron is best) over medium heat. Once it’s hot, add a couple teaspoons of oil
While the oil heats up, mix the asparagus with half a cup of coconut water and pulse in a food processor until pureed
Cook the onion, ginger, fennel, scallions, grated lemongrass, and garlic with a sprinkle of salt for about 5 minutes, stirring often
Add the asparagus puree, squash, and carrots and cook for 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally
Then add the curry paste and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes
Pour the coconut milk into the pan, along with ½ cup water and 1½ teaspoons sugar
Bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat as necessary to maintain a gentle simmer, and cook until the carrots and asparagus are tender and cooked through, about 5 to 10 minutes
Add shrimp into the curry, and cook until it is just about opaque
Once the vegetables and shrimp are done cooking, stir the spinach and basil into the mixture, and cook until the greens have wilted, about 30 seconds.
Remove the curry from heat and season with rice vinegar and soy sauce
Add salt and red pepper flakes (optional), to taste
Shrimp Coconut Curry

 

 

Roasted Eggplant Hummus

Every now and then, I grow weary of my usual snacks–yogurt, homemade granola bars, oatmeal cookies, the usual–and reach back to those good old Middle Eastern roots.

Eggplant was always a favorite, growing up. Whether roasted and lightly spiced with potatoes, or pureed in spices and served over rice, it was a staple in our home, and has slowly become a staple in my own diet. I always find little ways to sneak it into my meals or incorporate it into salads.

Today, I’m sharing a recipe that combines eggplant with my all-time favorite, anyime/anywhere food-hummus!

Tip: I have used fairy tale eggplant, which has a mild eggplant flavor. Feel free to use any type of eggplant you have on hand, or whatever is available. I used a mixture of garlic and shallots, although any kind of onion in addition to, or instead, will work. I like to peel the light skin off my chickpeas for a smoother finish. This step is optional, but in my opinion, it’s totally worth the time. This takes about 30 minutes to make, and yields 2 cups of hummus. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Ingredients:

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

large bunch fairy tale eggplants or 1 medium sized eggplant

1 head of garlic

3 shallots

2 tablespoons tahini

juice from 1/2 lemon

1/2 cup fresh parsley + more for garnish

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

olive oil

Preparation:

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees

Wash and slice the eggplant, lengthwise

Take the bulb of garlic and slice the top off so each clove is exposed

Cut the shallots into large-sized bites. Toss with a light coating of olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

Turn the eggplants, cut side down onto a baking tray, add in the garlic and shallots.

Roast until golden brown, about 10 minutes.

Flip and continue cooking until the eggplant is totally soft, depending on the size of your eggplants, 5 – 15 minutes more.

Remove the eggplant from the pan when it is done cooking. If the garlic still needs a little more time, continue cooking.

You can use this time to prep the hummus. Scoop the flesh out of the eggplants, leaving the skins behind. You’ll want to get together about 1 cup of cooked flesh.

Once the garlic is done cooking, combine the chickpeas, eggplant flesh, garlic bulbs, shallots, tahini, lemon juice, parsley, salt and pepper in the food processor. Pulse until smooth, adding a drizzle of olive oil in as needed to loosen.

Enjoy topped with more parsley, olive oil + crushed peppers, and serve with chips or veggies!

 

The Little White Dress and the Little White Lies

As someone who has feigned confidence for years, I have been an avid proponent of the “fake it until you make it” mindset. I have faked confidence, happiness, ease, and comfort for so long, my entire life seems like a string of memories held together by the little white lies I have been telling myself. Maybe it stems from a semi-traditional upbringing by foreign parents. Maybe it stems from the way women are portrayed in the media. From a young age, I was constantly put under the pressure to measure up, physically, to what the ideal female form should look like.

But “should” is a social construct.

“Should” makes young girls go on diets when they are 8 years old.

“Should” convinces mothers that their little girls should play with barbies, not trucks.

“Should” keeps girls out of the sun, so they don’t get dark. But boys can play soccer until the sun goes down.

“Should” means splurging on skincare products, diet supplements, and anti-aging creams at an age when we are meant to live life so fully and so freely, aging should seem like a far-off event.

“Should” molds us into the girls we think guys will like, rather than molding us into the women we have the potential of becoming.

“Should” wreaks havoc on our ability to self-actualize, to take control of our lives and live them on our own terms, to abandon social constructs and societal expectations, and instead live happily–whatever that happiness may mean to us.

I have been tied down by one “should” or another for my entire life, conforming first, to cultural expectations, then parental expectations, then patriarchal expectations, then societal expectations.

About a year ago, I looked around at my generic life, and could not find a single source of originality. Nothing screamed Janam, and everything felt dull. I was a woman turning the quarter century, with no identity of her own, no true sense of belonging, and no zest in her life.

So I moved to New York.

And I naively expected this city to change my life. In many ways, it has. But the changes in my life began when I opened myself up to happiness. I stopped faking confidence, and instead, started building a character I could be proud of. I stopped trying to be like all the other girls, and instead, started molding myself into a woman who takes inspiration from the strongest women in her own life. I started asking for what I want, rather than agreeing to what I should want. I began saying “no,” for the first time in my life, to all the things that veered me away from the person I want to become. I stopped being critical of my physical appearance. I stopped hating myself for every bite I ate, for every glance in the mirror, for every soft spot on my body, for every scar, and instead began respecting and appreciating the body I have been given.

Then, at some point last week–dressed in an itty bitty white dress and sky high heels, standing on a rooftop in this beautiful city, surrounded by men and women of all shapes, sizes, and colors, from all over the world, the sun dipping in the background, the city coming to life in the foreground–it happened. I felt confident. For the first time in my entire life, and I really mean my entire life, a wave of real deal confidence washed over me. I smiled because I was happy, not because I should have been. I laughed because my friend Kartik said something funny. My hair was blowing in the wind, and it was not romantic or uniform, or perfectly timed. It was messy, and frizzy, and a disaster, and I did not care. I did not care what I looked like, I did not care what other people looked like, I did not care about how I was perceived, and every ounce of anxiety that has ever held me back sort of just drifted away in the wind.

A perfect stranger looked over at me and said

“You must be the happiest woman I’ve ever met. The happy one in the little white dress.”

On Libraries and Magic

It was a dark, castle-like place, sitting looming and immovable on a busy street, in an otherwise tired and sleepy town. It was where I learned that heaven will be two stories tall, smell like pencil shavings, come with polyester armchairs, and a giant shelf of Jane Austen novels. I went there everyday after school, usually to do my homework in the pre-High Speed Internet era, or sometimes, just to go. 

“It was something fun to do instead of sitting at home,” my mother swears, but my brother and I, we know the truth. We were taken to the library because it was the only place we were forced to be quiet. 

My mom tells me I was three when I got my first library card, though I think that sounds somewhat improbable. Maybe somewhere, in some dusty filing cabinet, there is proof of it.

“How can you be three and have a library card?” I asked her once.

“Because you could sign your own name,” she said. “And because we let you.”

Fair enough.

*

As a child, I read like I was running out of time. I guess that, without knowing it, I was. When I was in junior high, I checked out every novel in the library’s card catalogue about dragons, and read them all in a matter of months. These days, it seems like I’m scraping together leftover minutes just to turn a few pages in a book I’ve been nursing for weeks.

“You’ve probably read more books up to now than I’ve read in my entire life,” my dad told 12-year-old me. I didn’t believe him then, because how could someone who’d lived so many years not have read a thousand, ten thousand books? 

I didn’t believe him, not for over a decade, until one late winter night, I watched as he nodded off on the couch in the blue glow of an e-reader screen, and realized he was just scraping together minutes, too.

*

I recently visited another library, on another busy road, this time, in the chaotic city I now call my home. This place was not the monolithic paradise of my childhood: It was brighter and larger. It smelled more like new paint than new pencils, and I could not yet speak to its collection of Poirot and Miss Marple. I was waiting in line to apply for a library card—legitimately, this time—when I saw the little girl. Her chin barely reached the countertop, but she set her book down with purpose, and surrendered her own card to the woman in black.

“You owe a $6.29 fine,” I heard the clerk say, “and I can’t let you check out a book until you pay at least $0.29 toward it.”

I was only half-paying attention as the little girl slowly slid the book off the counter and looked around. I realized there was no one with her to pay it.

“Hey,” someone said; it was the teenage boy behind her in line. He set down his own stack of books and dug around in the pockets of his gym shorts, pulling out some change. 

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve got it.”

*

My mom always let me check out as many books as I could carry. I would stretch out my arms and stack them up to my chin; more than once, I dropped them all and was left scrambling to pick them up, for fear that some other nine-year-old was also gunning for the one remaining copy of “The Hobbit.” (They weren’t.) Checking out books in such large numbers meant that, every few weeks, one or two would be left behind on a return trip, forgotten under a car seat, or in a desk drawer. The little girl at the counter was like me all those years ago, pony-tailed and tennis-shoed and trusting, but she also wasn’t: I never had to look around and wonder if I would get to take my books home. 

My mom was always there, sliding bills or coins or both across the counter, paying my debts.

*

As those quarters clinked against the cash register drawer, the little girl whispered a thank-you, and walked away. I waited a few more minutes in line to turn in my paperwork, and then tucked my new library card into my wallet. As I walked toward the door—all that was separating me from my frenzied, hectic world with too many pages and never enough minutes—I saw the little girl. She was settled into an oversized chair, the book open on her lap.

“What a great place to read,” I said to myself, “while she has the time.”


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Immigrant Choices: Past and Present

I knew they were afraid; I knew they were reacting. So was I. In their eyes, in their hearts, in their souls,

They were asking where does she come from

They were asking what does she believe in

They were demanding what is she going to do to show me that she is of no threat

On these savannas of misdirected ignorance, the voice of reason was lost.

They–my fifth grade classmates, my teachers, my principal, my neighbors–did not understand me. So I decided to camouflage myself until I no longer stood out. Until I no longer stood in the shadows of 9/11.

No, I am not a Muslim. But I am from the Middle East. Cradled into adulthood by Benedictine monks. And yes, I am an immigrant. And yes, I live in the U.S. Yet I have spent my whole life stuck between a “them,” and an “us,” often casting disdainful glances at my culture, trying harder and harder to be an “us,” and not a “them.”

As an adolescent, I did everything in my power to scrub, then rub and peel off those layers of immigrant that still clung to my being. I watched my past wash down the drain. I wanted to consume America as much and as fast as I could. I let the whiteness wash over me–that same whiteness I had craved from the moment I stepped off my flight.

On August 15th, 2000.

Years later, my grandmother would tell me that it wasn’t my newfound Americanism that offended her. It was the fact that I thought I was trading in a culture I deemed as “less,” for a culture I deemed as “more.” She resented my inability to grasp just how much I had left behind in my home country. She told me that one day, I would understand the depth of moving to a different land, of adopting a new set of customs, a new way of life. She said “one day, you will want all of this back, and it will not want you.”

One day is today.

In the last few years, I have come into my own–an adulthood packed to the brim with everything my parents moved here for–education, career prospects, social liberalism, and their children’s freedom of choice. But choice comes with consequences. I wish I had learned that early on. In my adolescent haste to leave my roots behind, I never once considered what would happen if I wanted them back.

Today, I openly offer lost tourists directions in Hindi. I point them to the right subway stop in Arabic. I offer my opinion on the best food in Farsi. I cook my friends food from my country. I proudly share my mother’s recipes. I wear my ancestry like an accessory.

It feels feigned.

I offer insight on how much the media hones in on just one type of people, one percentage of the Middle Eastern population, one very sick mentality. Yet it often feels like too little too late.

When I discuss the complications of growing up Indian in Kuwait, and both in America, I feel as though it is not my place to offer social commentary. Who am I to pass opinions on the lives of people who actually embody the Indian culture–with its vastness, its warmth, its diversity, and its inexplicable way of welcoming anyone and everyone? That same culture I discarded as worthless years ago is constantly catching up to me–in Western clothing, in food, in music, and everywhere, it seems. That same Middle Eastern hospitality I cast off as “suffocating” and “too much,” is suddenly the premier way of explaining to my friends just how amazing the people of the region are–but that they are disenfranchised. They have been let down, time and again, by those who are supposed to guide them.

The nihilist Islamic State has hijacked the narrative of not only a religion, but also of an entire region that has utterly failed to become whole. And the reason it is in pieces, the reason it is shattered is due to its inability to govern, to educate, to have a judiciary, to have faith in humanity, and trust in free speech. It lacks an open progressive assembly of thought. It is shattered because for a hundred years, it has not been able to rise from the evisceration of colonialism and intentional manipulation, but indeed has drowned in corruption, nepotism, xenophobia, and dictatorial self-preservation. With millennial populations completely deprived (jobless, powerless, hopeless), due to the narcissism of their governments, their gaze is to the only thing that provides a distorted meaning through the lens of belonging and fear. Such is the power of extremist propaganda. It preys on the vulnerable, it feeds on the needy, and it multiplies among those who need a direction in life.

If our youth is our future, does it not fall on us to protect them? Is it not our responsibility to turn them toward education, opportunities, humanity, and community? Rather than casting an entire population off as a “them,” should we not work to nurture these children with a childhood rooted in humane values?

Once upon a time, I scrubbed, then rubbed and peeled off my immigrant layers to become more American.

But all it lead to was confusion. Internal chaos; an “in-between” area where I never felt like I belonged, not to one side, not to the other.

Perhaps such is the dilemma in the Middle East–a regional, social, and political identity crisis between a culture that is nothing short of beautiful, poetic, loving, and eager for change, and one that has been radicalized to the point of maniacal exploitation of human values.

Today, I am scrambling to sew my layers back together–to understand what can do to fix this. To hatch out what little contribution I can make to give those youths the same opportunities I had–in their own home, within the comfort of their own culture–a culture I truly believe is on the brink of a reformation–a 21st century Enlightenment. It all begins with educating the masses, with taking back power from the Western media that portrays a tainted image. It begins with tearing down our Western savior complex, and instead implementing empathy and organized action.