Suburbia and its Discontents

By Talyah Basit

Scrolling through my Instagram feed, I came across a picture of a childhood friend hosting a dinner party. My friend stood poised in an embroidered Pakistani dress, the very figure of generous hospitality. She was framed in a spacious and well-lit house, which would have been meticulously prepared for the weekend dinner party, a ritual that was familiar to the community of South Asian that had grown over the decades in our pocket of the Northeast.  Instantly, Clarissa Dalloway, Virginia’s Woolf’s refined character, came to mind. But as any reader of Woolf knows, one’s public persona does not usually reflect personal anxieties Just as an immaculate home doesn’t acknowledge the differences that might exist within its interior, the nature of social media brushes all of our insecurities and flaws under a veneer of casual perfection. I can’t know what my friend was thinking or feeling, but instead of debating the pros or cons of social media, I am more interested in the social and political dynamics of the first and second generation South Asian immigrant communities and how they make sense of the world in which they were raised. A sense of complacency and an alignment with traditional middle class ideals, embodied in the attainment of a lucrative job and a beautiful house, have become the primary terms of the suburban South Asian immigrant lexicon.

Suburbia is unsettling because of its bland sameness, both in physical and emotional actuality. From the identical houses painted in slightly different shades and the carefully trimmed hedges to the cultivation of similar thought processes, living in suburbia is navigating a terse balance between acceptance and rejection from within and outside of the community. I am most familiar with the community that belonged to the relatively stable and affluent generation whose parents had flocked to the suburbs of New York City, Dallas, and Chicago. We routinely hear the narratives of struggle and strife of which we were meant to be the redemptive fruit. My mother recalls her early days in America with sorrow, before she became acquainted with other immigrants and South Asian grocers.  One of my earliest memories is coming across her crying in her closet. Upon seeing me, she quickly dried her eyes and smiled at me. Separated from her native Pakistan where the majority of her family lived, my mother had no choice but to become acclimated to America. We, the children, were humbled and promised to exceed our parents’ expectations, which would manifest in the proverbial white house, the bastion of social acceptance. White suburbia would have to deal with the influx of brown communities, which would follow in its stead of developing enclosed spaces that allowed its residents to live in relative comfort and security.

The price paid for our comfortable upbringings was the shouldering of responsibility and the fear of parental disappointment. Our material comfort didn’t exclude us from experiencing the expected anxieties of childhood and then adolescence. Compounded with the usual worries was the wave of xenophobic and, especially troubling for the Muslim population, Islamophobic policies and attitudes that trailed in the wake of 9/11. Our generation’s position became even more precarious. On the one hand we wanted to fit in, down to our stylishly torn jeans and converse sneakers. But having been fed on a diet of traditional customs, including our parents’ desire to eventually “go back”, we were understandably reluctant to relinquish the very things that made us…us. This conflicting dynamic defined much of our early struggles, evidenced in the myriad of coming of age stories and cemented by the often repeated adage: too east for the west, too west for the east. In particular, the Muslim population had to contend with increasingly hostile attitudes that manifested in policies that targeted their communities. Understandably, many turned toward upholding the image of a respectable, law-abiding citizen. As our parents moved to cities and settled in outlying suburbs, we downplayed our religious and ethnic differences and reveled in our civic “sameness”.

A relative recently bought a house five minutes away from ours in a well-to- do neighborhood. Our elders sighed in relief. She has fulfilled her part of the bargain made between parent and child, self, and country. Those who cannot or do not complete the deal are offered a close look at Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, which features the disintegration of an American family following the various members’ inability to amount to much, in the eyes of middle-class America. The last line, uttered by the wife of the deceased salesman, is particularly haunting: “I made the last payment on the house today…And there’ll be nobody home”. However enticing it may be, the dream of social and personal happiness in the attainment of material goals, is only illusory. Even if it is somehow attained, it is at the cost of a greater inequality being meted out, by virtue of a socio-economic system that rewards a select few and disenfranchises the rest. The history of suburbia is a good illustration of this dynamic: as certain groups migrated to urban areas, the upper-middle class flocked to areas outside the cities where they built enclosed communities that excluded those who didn’t fit its criteria (which was simply being white). Decades after their initial growth, our parents settled in the suburbs and gave us the keys. They experienced some local dissent given the exclusionary nature of suburbia with locals complaining about the “unsavory” new residents. A neighbor of ours once called the zoning board because she was worried we were working on some nefarious scheme. We were cleaning our backyard.

But what we do with the key is an enormously salient question that will determine the trajectory of our communities. It is unsurprising that many of us continue to place the key in its original position and use it to open the door to our meticulously cultivated upper middle class life. This isalso reflected in our artistic output, from books such as The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri’s exploration of suburban life as told through the eyes of a first generation Indian-American family, to digital narratives that emphasize that we are just like everyone else. South Asian American diaspora narratives are fatigued with Austen-esqe worlds that privilege domestic life or nostalgic ruminations for a homeland that was always out of reach and in some ways, never ours to begin with. Unfortunately, it appears that the discontent of suburbia has made its way into the content of our literature.  

However, I believe we are becoming aware that assimilation will not lead to acceptance. Regardless of the nature of our pristine lawns and the number of framed degrees on our walls, our ethnic, religious, and political differences will not go unnoticed as long as America is premised on a system of white hegemony. It is important that we re-evaluate our allegiances and our priorities. Despite our desire to identify with a certain class, given our financially stable upbringing, we have to to challenge systemic injustice and exploitation. The fact that SouthAsian Americans have to conform to the standards of white suburbia to feel acknowledged and accepted is already problematic. Living in a self-imposed bubble is a topical solution to systematic discrimination based on the misleading belief that if we act and live like you, we will be protected from the type of injustices doled out to other minority communities. Not only do we have to be cognizant of the ways in which other communities are suffering, we also have to address our own complicity in upholding a fundamentally unequal system. Whether it’s speaking out against corporate greed taking advantage of vulnerable Native American tribes or the routine targeting of the Black community by a trigger-happy authority force, the South Asian community needs  a collective conscious movement toward implementing and fighting for justice. Coming to terms with the inequality present in our system means we are better equipped to fight it-and fight it we must, as our political and moral responsibility.

South Asian Americans belong to one of the fastest growing and mobile demographic in the United States. Various studies have indicated that they tend to be highly educated and financially secure, thus bearing significant leverage. It is time that we exchange the key for a better vision, one that is not premised on the ubiquitous white house or the value of financial assets, but on the greater political and social involvement of South Asians in building a more equal and conscientious society. Perhaps then we may be able to sleep soundly, a dream worthy of pursuing.

Special thanks to Raka Chaki and Jauzey Imam for their help.


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