I break into a sweat and my chest tightens each time I enter an airport and reach a security checkpoint. When I catch a flight from Tegel heading to New York, there is always a special screening I have to undergo. Questions. Aggressive questions. Gone is the airport civility and courtesy there a moment ago. In rapid fire a set of questions are asked. Who packed your bag? Where did you stay? What is the address? Who lives there? Eyebrows raised. Suspicion. But that’s a Russian name not a German one. What is his profession? Are you sure he didn’t give you anything to take with you? What is the nature of your relationship with this person?
My father says the extra questioning and hostility is because of how I wear my hair. My hair is a large curly mound shaped into a sphere around my head. For a South Asian woman, it’s an uncommon haircut. It resembles an Afro popular in militant circles in the 1970s. In India I’m asked if I’m North African because all aboriginal traces in the Indian (and diasporic) populace are usually brushed out, ironed away, or chemically made to disappear. The question lingers: Who would want to highlight their aboriginal blood? The way I wear my hair has become my response to a lifetime of stares, hostility, ridicule and general othering experiences that make up my American girlhood. Maybe it’s a childish response but it’s mine, impotent as it may be. In my work there’s a similar strategy that you can spot. Hyperbole. Exaggerate the stereotype until it mutates into absurdity and loses its sting.
My father thinks that if I straightened my hair and wore it in a bun or braids, the extra security screenings I encounter would diminish. My father is practical. My father’s family, peasant farmers from Pakistan, when it was still part of undivided Punjab, knew how to get along in a group and not stand out. This part of my family developed a deep fear of authority linked to their survival. The advice on how I should wear my hair is more than a father trying to protect his daughter in a hostile world. It’s advice on how to be invisible.
My father wants me to survive. But the cost of invisibility isn’t easy to pay. The logic behind it insists on self-annihilation which starts slowly and then consumes all of you. Part of my family’s survival strategy as immigrants in California has been to develop powers of selective self-transparency. Implicit in how they live their lives and in the advice they give their frequently disillusioned children is to be invisible, humble, quiet, don’t cause trouble, no public expression of politics, cultivate deep and contingent registers of shame and pride, don’t attract attention. These messages have only gained strength since the days of the World Trade Center attacks and the subsequent rise in hate crimes. Years later and many miles between me and my family, I have a vantage point that let’s me understand better why transparency seems necessary to them as an alternative to being visibly American.