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Settling in another country as an immigrant feels like a woven fabric is being pulled at and is gradually coming apart, revealing the various threads that hold it together. These individual threads — like your family, friends, city, and memories — can seem mundane; eventually, these threads develop into the core contents of your immigrant identity that you carry into a new life. Maintaining these threads while weaving in new ones is an exciting possibility until one day, the fabric of your past life looks different and unfamiliar, eliciting a wave of feelings. This is when migratory grief seeps in — the profound loss one can feel after relocating to a new country.
Graduating, working, and settling in Canada fills my heart with possibility and hope. Opportunities to continue my education, raise a family, and build a fulfilling career are all exciting prospects my family and I worked hard to achieve. Yet, in moments of solitude, I feel deep grief over the fear of losing Pakistan as my home country; each passing year lets every land and its people evolve. Thus, there is a constant struggle to maintain as many ties as possible with one’s homeland. This is a complex feeling because when you relocate for better opportunities there is pressure to be grateful for the benefits of immigrant life.
Grieving a Memory
I am no stranger to loss, whether it is a parent, grandparents, or other relatives. Loss is a part of life and one of the reasons we are motivated to cherish all that is impermanent. This time around, I experienced the unexpected loss of my home country. On paper and in memory, my roots are still in Pakistan but I feel increasingly removed each time I visit Karachi, Pakistan.
The hot, sticky air of Karachi is dense and full of fuel fumes and dust. Children are begging on the streets, and their eyes dim. The bougainvilleas vines line freshly painted white bungalows and seem to multiply after the last spell of torrential rains. The same rains left hundreds and thousands displaced from interior parts of the country onto the streets of cities looking for jobs. Their endurance is a constant reminder that I will forever be the one who left, seeking opportunities and ease.
The despair and desperation within people searching for better lives are apparent in news stories worldwide. So while I travel to Pakistan to cherish the fond memories of growing up with loved ones, I am also faced with processing and validating the lived experiences of those currently there, which are not always positive. As a country that is not in blatant war but is fighting a battle in every corner of its existence, Pakistan and her people are peculiar in their yearning for better times. Add the political and economic unrest that threatens the peace and quality of life, causing loved ones there to suffer, and you feel a sense of survivor’s guilt.
Leaving for educational and economic reasons also translates to the inability of the diaspora to process the grief of losing their home as they knew it. In Pakistan, no active threat to life calls for psychological support. The turmoil is more underlying and subtle, erupting through political, natural, and sociological unrest. When the daily struggles and complaints are sieved through the mesh of our brains, all that generally remains is a happy childhood, bittersweet teens, and many milestones for which the home country becomes called upon. It is a conscious choice the migrant made, so why lament? However, the landscape of those happy memories changes over decades, and it dawns upon immigrants that their home country is not entirely what they carry in their minds, creating this unique sense of grief.
A Balancing Act
For the first few years after leaving home, I fought the label of being part of a diaspora. I still have a house in Pakistan where my parents live. However, as I become more settled in my new home, it becomes apparent that this balancing act of maintaining ties with Pakistan is part of my new reality.
In addition to the usual connections like phone calls with family, I find myself committing to reading and learning about Pakistan’s history, culture, and people — significantly more than I did when I lived there — as a way to feel connected. Watching the news and keeping up to date with situations unfolding is a bittersweet experience but a necessary one because a part of the diaspora’s balancing act is to have a realistic outlook on one’s home country.
A Love Triangle
In an interview with the Paris Review in 1984, American writer James Baldwin said: “I think that it is a spiritual disaster to pretend that one doesn’t love one’s country. You may disapprove of it, you may be forced to leave it, you may live your whole life as a battle, yet I don’t think you can escape it. There isn’t any other place to go — you don’t pull up your roots and put them down someplace else.”
I find solace in Baldwin’s words that normalize this battle because they allow me to yearn for where I grew up, even when I do not live there. It is okay for me to desperately wait for occasions to wear Pakistani clothes and sometimes even wear them to work. I cringe a little inside when the gripping aroma of garlic and onions frying escapes my kitchen into my building’s hallway. But then, I remember that it is okay for me to want to preserve the person I was in Pakistan while still enjoying the fruits of having a diverse identity in Canada. It is also okay to grieve what I do not recognize in Pakistan anymore while fondly remembering conversations and moments with my family.
The eternal love triangle of the home country, its memory, and a new identity is a multiverse of beings for the immigrant. It is not something to be pathologized and resolved — it lingers in the stories, voices, and experiences that enrich every part of an immigrant’s world.
Edited by Toko Peters