It is both still March and March again
Hi! I know it’s been a minute since you’ve heard from me. I was busy with some family things and then the thought of doing more reading and writing after work made my brain hurt. But I’m back now and I hope this is good news to you. Here’s some half-baked thoughts, and what I’ve been reading over the past month. Enjoy :)
Easily the dumbest pandemic purchase I’ve made, and there have been so many, was this bouquet of tulips.
Not because I don’t have a green thumb. Not because tulips are temperamental, apparently.
Because I’m allergic. And I forgot.
Last March, when I, and those of us who are privileged enough, started to work from home, I used to sit at my dining room table with my roommate. She bought a bouquet of tulips to liven up our workspace. I’d stare at my screen all day, sniffling, blowing my nose, my eyes watering, and panicking because I had no idea why I was feeling sick.
The uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic did not sit well with me, an anxious hypochondriac and a regular WebMD visitor. I was going to the grocery store multiple times a week because I just needed to get out of the house, each time more terrified that I had finally contracted the virus and that this time was it.
After about two weeks, I realized that I wasn’t waking up sick. The symptoms would kick in after I came downstairs to start working and subsided after I went to my room for the night. My roommate suggested that it might be the tulips, and she was right. We tossed them.
I’ve had periods of anxiety about my health before, and whatever I was feeling usually turned out to be a manifestation of my anxiety. Lots of people in my life would reassure me and tell me that I was fine, and while that was well-intentioned, it wasn’t helpful because I was the one feeling all of it all of the time.
With the tragedy of the pandemic, we all bonded over a collective anxiety. Having that bond, and the comfort derived from it, is a complicated feeling. When I would tell people how I was feeling in those early weeks, they expressed the concern that I had wanted all those other times. I was both alleviated and sorry that I could share my fears and know that they would be understood.
Something about this pandemic confronted my deepest fears about change and uncertainty that I thought I had resolved before. Jokes. Fears of being stuck, fears of straying from the plan, fears of not having a plan at all. Most people who know me know that I’m always working in some way. Between my job, freelance gigs, volunteer work, and just trying to stay alive, I’m always busy.
Only in the past year did I fully understand that this wasn’t my ambition. It was a coping mechanism, and it was always unsustainable. I’m not going to be one of those shitty people who says they had a “good pandemic” but I am just grateful to have learned this lesson when I did.
As much as I’d like for things to go back to normal (to not look at every stranger as a carrier of biological warfare, not the “normal” political establishment), I do not want to be the same as before.
A year later, after all of the unimaginable things (being stuck at home for a year, a new president, me exercising regularly) finally happened, I realized I hadn’t bought flowers for myself in a while. Whole Foods had tulips on sale and I picked them up, put them in a vase, and set them on the second desk I bought in 2020 (the first one was big enough for my laptop but then too small when I brought my office computer home).
Like clockwork, I was sniffling, blowing my nose, my eyes were watering, and panicking because I couldn’t believe I was getting sick when I was so close to getting vaccinated. This is it, I thought, knowing full well that coronavirus symptoms are very different from allergy symptoms. At the same time, I was looking at the tulips and confused about why they were wilting 24 hours after I bought them.
“Aren’t you allergic to tulips?” my roommate, a plant mom, asked after I asked her how to fix them.
I was, again, relieved that it was just a mild allergy, and this time, so sad and disappointed that the pandemic brain fog made me block out something that pre-pandemic Hanaa’ would have remembered.
I kept the tulips after a friend sent me tips about reviving them. I took off some of the extra leaves, trimmed the ends, and put a penny in the water. When I threw them out last week, they were shriveled and brown, but standing at their tallest. I think that sums up how I’ve been feeling lately too 😂.
What I read this month (in no particular order)
Alizeh Kohari is one of my favorite writers right now. All of her recent stories make me take a second look at something I take for granted or give me a deep dive into something I’ve wanted to know more about, or didn’t know I wanted to know more about. It was such an uncomfortable feeling to read this story and know more Mexican history immediately than my own, Pakistani history but she also hits at how difficult it’s been made to tell stories without a Western gaze. Kohari’s comparisons between Mexico City and Karachi are common ones among anyone who has been lucky enough to visit both cities, and post-pandemic I hope I get to spend more time in each one.
I moved to Mexico City two years ago and felt, immediately, both homesick and at home. Creep of bougainvillea on the walls, glut of cars on the streets. Our neighborhood awoke to the blare of se compran colchones; my drowsy ears mistook it for the raddi-wala’s cry back home. The city had an effect on me akin to the uncanny valley—Karachi, if it wore its hair differently. As a reporter and writer, this made me wary. I was loathe to trust my own instincts, worried I would mistake shallow familiarity for understanding. I felt self-conscious, too: I’d seethed at too many foreign journalists parachuting into Pakistan to subject Mexico to my own outsider’s gaze. Mostly, though, I didn’t want to report from Mexico for an American audience—I wanted to reach Pakistan without refracting stories through a Western lens.
I am exhausted by American exceptionalism. The United States, with the help of the mainstream media, perpetuates it in the wake of every tragedy. The shooting in Atlanta this week was not immune to that treatment, and I’m thankful for all of the publications, like Teen Vogue, that didn’t fall into that trap.
In tandem with domestic racism, the United States has consistently exported white supremacy through war, colonialism, and domination in Asia, and this bipartisan imperialism has only amplified violence against Asian Americans at home. How can we, as Asian Americans, expect justice when there was no justice for the hundreds of thousands who were killed and poisoned in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How can we expect justice when there was no justice for the victims of the My Lai Massacre? Or for the victims of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange during and after the Vietnam War? Or for the Marshallese communities that were exposed to nuclear radiation by U.S. nuclear weapons testing?
This is a beautifully, thoughtfully written piece about finding the words for loss and grief, and whether or not those words are ours to use. I’m going to be thinking about this for a long time.
It is a privilege to not know how to write about grief. The act of piecing together my uncle’s story from these fragmented dialogues resembles fiction-writing more than journalism. Although I record and report on other people’s lives, I cannot do the same for my own — but how much of it remains my own? I do not know if I have the right to compose a grief story. I don’t even know if I have the right to call this grief. On a physical level, I cannot mourn an uncle who has not passed away. On every other level, he is not mine to grieve.
My limited perspective has freed up my mind considerably. Other people inherit their families’ maladies. I can stop caring the minute I shut my door. If a tree collapses, its sparrows can fly away.
Oh my God, this story cut so deep. Every Desi woman I know has experienced either an othering or ridicule over body hair in some way. It made me think about my own body, and what it would look like and feel like if I hadn’t been taught to shave, wax, thread, and tweeze it to fit a standard of beauty that’s sole purpose is to exclude me.
But it also made me think of my dear friend Sarah and how her daughter will grow up confident in her skin because her mama had the foresight to break this cycle.
In the late 19th century, when a wave of immigrants came to the U.S. from Southern and Eastern Europe, there was a parallel effort to medicalize and demonize excessive body hair, Herzig said. Immigrant women from those countries had different features and more body hair — and the modern beauty standard began to take shape as part of the anti-immigrant reaction. Similar personal hygiene and beauty anxieties rose when migrants came from Asia, including South Asians, in the early 20th century. The 1950s and the 1960s brought another rise in immigration from Asia and Latin America, and the popularity of hair removal shot up with it.
I’m just so in awe by the depth of research for this fascinating story about a flawed and probably very tired man. I’m definitely going to be reading Secret Desi History more often.
The Boor Singh in the media was an absurd figure, but immigrants are sometimes captured at the most awkward moments of their lives. Was he also an avid gardener, a lover of radio dramas, or someone dealing with PTSD? The papers wouldn’t print such mundane details, so it’s on us to fill in the gaps and breathe a little more life into a historical figure we never knew we needed.
I’d be remiss not to tell you that the shooting in Atlanta has been weighing heavily on me since it happened, but I just didn’t have the right words for it for this newsletter. I hope you understand that, and if you’re looking for ways to support Asian communities in the United States, Vox’s Terry Nguyen published this very thorough guide to doing so.
As always, you’re welcome to write me back and let me know what you think of the stories and the newsletter, or even better: send me a story you wrote that you think I’d like.