First Generation Guilt
It was my sister’s 14th birthday party when I first realised how naive my parents were.
Henna ran upstairs wiping mascara-coloured tears with the back of her palm. I turned to see my mum standing with crossed arms, swaying side to side with an uneven smile. When my sister came back downstairs a few minutes later, Mum stepped towards her, speaking speedy, agitated Farsi.
“It’s okay, but it’s weird, that’s all,” she kept saying as the party carried on outside. “I just don’t really like seeing your friends kissing boys, especially in my house. I don’t want you to kiss boys.”
I was only 11 and still covered my eyes when boys and girls kissed on the movie screen, but I was shocked at my mum’s reaction. How could the sight of two 14-year-olds kissing scare her? She’d escaped war and terror – how was this frightening?
This is the way we live in the West mum, I found myself thinking. What’s the big deal?
My mum spent her 14th birthday party at home studying. The idea of landing a 9-to-5 excited her; the dream of having a nuclear family and living in the ’burbs was not stultifying, but motivating. In her world, hard work and family were the cornerstones of her culture, so she studied in her basement and she studied in darkness, driven by the thought of how proud she would make her parents.
Like most immigrants, my parents had it rough. When they first came to Australia from Afghanistan, my dad worked at a run-down factory by day and as a taxi driver by night. Between these underpaid jobs, he re-studied all the years of med school he’d already completed back home. My mum had a similar story. She was an eye surgeon in Kabul, but was placed in a housing commission flat upon arrival in Australia. Together, they spent their weekly budgets bargaining at the Queen Victoria Market.
Soon enough, my parents both became doctors again, overcoming the rhetoric that immigrants don’t contribute to society. They pay tax, they vote and have even done jury duty. They’ve done almost everything to become Australian.
But there’s still one thing they can’t do, and that’s watch their kids become westernised.
It was the uncomfortable jiggle as I furiously tried to pull my dress lower that reminded me I should have reconsidered my purchase. But I was 18, so I could wear whatever I wanted. That’s what I kept telling my mum. It was the morning I spent vomiting in the toilet that made me think perhaps I shouldn’t have drunk so much the night before. But if my friends and I wanted to abuse our bodies, we could – we were 18 now. That’s what I kept telling my dad.
It was the hot bodies pressed against my mum in the back of a truck as she tucked her knees under her head that kept her “safe” when she fled her home in Kabul. That’s what she did when she was 18. It was the lonesome trek across Afghanistan’s mountain range with the score of war bombs in the background that painted my dad’s escape. That’s what he did when he was 18.
In a few quick months, the arrival of Russia, America and all their allied forces took my parents’ teenage years away. So they left their homes and moulded their morals to fit the Western ideal. Then they strove to build something intangible for their kids, something that couldn’t be taken away so easily like it was for them.
The first time I went to a nightclub, it was Dad who insisted on driving me there.
“Nothing is going to happen!” I told him, crossing my arms with a big sigh and refusing to make eye contact. I placed my head on the cold window of the car. Its vibrations were loud enough to block out what he was repeating throughout the whole drive.
“If you do, which you shouldn’t, have one, but that’s okay because you won’t anyway.
Are you going with boys?”
“Why am I asking? Because boys are not the same when they are under the influence.”
I gave a quick glance into my tote bag and reshuffled my legs so that my bottle of cheap vodka was not in the line of sight of the driver’s seat.
“Nah, I’m not going with any boys. Just a few girls from high school,” I said. My phone buzzed with a message from a guy friend who was already in line at the club.
“Dad, I’m 18. Everyone goes clubbing here. Some people even go clubbing every weekend, why can’t I just go?”
He didn’t actually say I couldn’t go; in fact, he was driving me there. But I jumped to assumptions and ascribed them to him anyway, because the other parents let their kids go to pre drinks. The other parents even bought drinks for their children, and had been doing so since my friends were 15 or 16.
The car tires screeched right in front of the bouncer’s feet. I stepped onto the street and speared Dad with a bitter look. “Thanks. I’ll catch a cab home.”
As I gave the bouncer my ID, he rudely questioned my age. He should have known I was 18. My parents knew. They just didn’t accept it. They didn’t get that once you’re 18, you’re of age in Australia. You can go to the club. It’s your right.
They didn’t understand, because they’d spent the last 18 years trying to construct a life for me that was worth more than $5 vodka shots.