man in Pakistan

After a particularly harrowing sequence of events in small-town America, the narrator makes a profound decision:

“I was going to stop pretending that I felt like an American.”

Wow. What a statement, . . . coming from an American!

This quote is from the novel Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar. The narrator, like the author, is a second-generation Pakistani-American. The narrator, like the author, was born in America and has lived in America his entire life as an American citizen who votes, pays taxes, and all the rest.

Then why doesn’t he feel like an American?

Well, the answer’s obvious. As a second-generation Pakistani-American, he is not always accepted by his fellow countryfolk. Some of his fellow citizens even actively wish him harm. Also, as a second-generation Pakistani-American, he doesn’t always share the same values and beliefs as his fellow countryfolk. Then again, he doesn’t always share the same values and beliefs as folks in Pakistan. Nor necessarily does he always share the same values and beliefs as members of his own family.

Things are kinda tricky.

But aren’t they tricky for the vast majority of us?

Maybe there are some people out there who fit 100% into American culture. They are probably white, Christian (but not too Christian), fans of Hollywood and pop culture, heterosexually married with the proverbial 2.5 kids and a dog, with good jobs that earn them good money so they can buy lots of stuff and duly impress all of their 100% American friends.

Does that sound like you?

It doesn’t sound like me.

I identify much more with the “I don’t always feel 100% American” sentiment.

And I’ll tell you what. I became a whole lot happier when I stopped pretending.

I used to go around pretending I knew all about pop culture. Nowadays, I’m more likely to candidly admit to someone that I’ve never been a big TV watcher, and thus might not have a clue what they are talking about—sorry!!

I used to go around pretending I had a “normal” mental health situation going on up here in my brain. Nowadays, I’m more likely to candidly admit to someone that I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and post-concussion syndrome, and thus might not have it all together today—sorry!!

Most people take it okay. Some people don’t, but, oh well; I guess it was never meant to be between us.

I love this idea of not pretending, because it opens up the possibility of being more authentic. And of “finding your tribe,” as they say. How am I supposed to find my tribe of not-big-TV-watchers but rather avid-book-readers, if I keep it a secret that I’m one of those people myself? How am I supposed to find my tribe of people-with-mental-health-issues, if I keep it a secret that I’m one of those people myself?

I also love the idea of not pretending, because there’s no hate or blame there. If you watch a ton of TV and/or have an amazingly robust mental health situation, that’s awesome. Go you!!

There’s a special dance that happens when you reveal to someone your flaws and eccentricities. By the very act of doing this, you are suddenly able to appreciate other people’s flaws and eccentricities, and are less likely to be judgmental of others. Because you were able to be vulnerable yourself, you are able to accept other people when they are being vulnerable.

It’s beautiful.

Except it’s not. Because Ayad Akhtar’s narrator is an American, but he doesn’t feel like one—how sad! When we are vulnerable, that vulnerability exists because the culture is somehow hostile to that particular thing. And so that vulnerability is dangerous. That’s why it’s vulnerability.

In fact, I chose my examples above very carefully. Being vulnerable about not being a big TV watcher and about having certain mental health issues—those were huge milestones for me. But there are other things about myself that I keep close in, things that would require even more vulnerability to reveal, things that I don’t feel ready to reveal, things that I might or might not reveal, one day.

Remember the reference to Salman Rushdie. An extreme example, but one that makes the point: vulnerability is not necessarily safe.

And yet, safety is not always the most important thing.

In what ways do you pretend? In what ways have you stopped pretending?


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