Acknowledgements, an essay

I often hesitate in sharing certain accomplishments publicly because they can be so misleading. These are usually only small respectable slivers of very difficult, complex moments. Rejections, all kinds of heartbreaks, fears, loneliness, and failures are often not included in these social media accomplishment updates. But these so-called accomplishments are not mine alone. Just as I haven’t had to and don’t have to weather many of the difficult moments in my life on my own—friends, mentors, family members, loved and loving ones have held on to me—all that I have to celebrate has not been accomplished or achieved on my own. These moments of joy are not just mine. So I write this out of gratitude to my community, to people who have held me up, who’ve shared time and parts of themselves, lent themselves and their words to me. I write this to be public about my gratitude and to celebrate them. 

I suppose I offer this as a kind of acknowledgements page that one would find at the end of a book or at the beginning of a dissertation. 

A caveat: The way South Asian middle-class respectability works is that you don’t talk about being low-income—until you’ve somehow ‘made it’ and then you can turn back and point to the fact that you used to be low-income because you are no longer. You’re quiet about the struggle of being between jobs until you’ve found a job. You are only allowed to talk about the difficult moments if you’ve survived them. It’s supposed to feel shameful. It goes like this: I went through this, but then I preserved, and now I’m here, and you can be too. Here’s some neatly bounded, packaged insta-worthy inspiration. You should feel bad if you didn’t get ‘here’ like me. 

People don’t like sharing their failures until it’s become part of a success story. Myself included. I am only able to share what I am no longer truly threatened and afraid of. Some of what I’ve survived, I’m not yet ready to share, but I hope to someday. Not as inspiration, but as testimony, as bearing witness. 

Even the ‘now I’m here’ rings false. The ‘here’ is misleading—a way to separate oneself from the past. But really, it doesn’t end. Neither does the climbing, the aspiring, being asked to live your life like a LinkedIn page. It also misleadingly points to a neat sort of happy ending, a series of success stories, often with a price tag attached, a class marker of some kind that you’ve ascended, where things are less precarious and frightening. There are many stories in our lives, some chapters have a sort of resolution, things work out, we come out of the other side of things, but they’re not neatly bounded, they spill, they’re left open. Time isn’t linear, neither is my life, neither is my class status. There will always be a chip on my shoulder, certain fears that I will always carry. 

My education gives me a kind of security that I did not have growing up as a low-income first-generation immigrant in Canada when I wasn’t sure if I’d graduate high school, when just getting to university—any university—was my biggest goal in life. Formal post-secondary education was not guaranteed; it was not a given. At fifteen, I had written ‘university’ on an index card and pinned it to a wall in the room I shared with my grandmother and my sister. I emphasise low-income here because there is something so different about being an immigrant with plenty of wealth and one with little. It was my class status that made things seem less possible than my ethnic background. Of course, they’re connected, but wealthier South Asians somehow could dream with more ease, more entitlement. To be brown without money is so different from being brown with money; don’t let anyone tell you or pretend otherwise. But somehow it’s easier to talk about being brown & Muslim than being brown & Muslim & not having money. So that’s why I’m mentioning this here. Working-class diaspora kids, I see you. I see how it cuts.

My education is a result of scholarships, grants, student loans, community, family, and so many duas. It was never a given. So, this is why I’m here, sharing this publicly, in this roundabout, rambling ‘acknowledgements essay’. I just received my second master’s degree from Oxford, with Distinction, having completed my studies as a Rhodes Scholar this year. These are words that my younger self could have never imagined. To many of the Oxford grads me around me, they may not seem like a big deal. Many of you know how mediocre it is, the learning and the education within these colonial institutions we’ve been conditioned to aspire to. There is so much more that our ancestors, our grandparents, my parents have accomplished than this piece of paper. We know how to celebrate graduations—but how about surviving wars, the partitioning of your country, the loss of your children, giving birth, years of humiliating night shifts, the loss of your language?

And yet, even then, all this was never a given. I am holding my younger self closer today. It was not easy. It was not planned. It was so unlikely. It is also not a success story, a magic wand, because it isn’t some neat sort of ending. You return home to what has always been home, with a piece of paper that you hope will make things easier, doors-you’re-not-sure-you-want-to-enter crack open a little wider. But I am so grateful, and I am writing and sharing this to express my gratitude. 

To my mentors at UBC—you prevented me from falling through the cracks, you kept catching me, encouraging me, pushing me to aspire for more when I actually believed my horizons were much smaller, showing me how, making the institution a little softer, kinder, more possible. Extending your words in letters and statements for my sake. Especially Deborah Campell, Laura Moss, Sheryda Warrener, Amber Dawn, Maureen Medved, Leslie Arnovick and Glenn Deer. I want to confirm that giving students those extensions on their assignments, letting them sit in your office to have a cry, writing them a reference letter can change the direction of their lives. Many of us don’t know how it’s done or can be done. Thank you for your tenderness, your kindness, your faith, your words. 

My parents, Ammi, Baba, who dared to raise me in an unconventional way, impatient and critical with the way things are. My parents worked and work hard—moving between countries, wanting a meaningful life for their kids but also a meaningful life for themselves. They wanted their own lives, their work, to mean something beyond the promise of the suburban dream. I respect them so much for not dreaming it because it taught me that to ‘want more’ is to want more than capitalism, a wanting that isn’t about collecting wealth, to want more of your life to belong to you. Log kya kahenge was not something my parents said to their children, and that allowed to us live lives freer than many of our peers.

My friends, my siblings, my cousins, my community, my beloveds. You know who you are. From Coast Salish lands to Karachi to Oxford, thank you. My women friends, my sisters. You rescue me regularly, sustain me, give me language, and I will never take it for granted. I give myself to you. Amna. Sarah A. Sarah M. Sepideh, Chiyi & Aliya. Sana, Zunaira, Batool, Afrin & Katongo. Apiya, Sooma. & so many more of you. Sana, for never failing to understand even when language fails me. Zunaira, for showing me how friends can become home for one another. 

And, of course, Zikri—for being by my side there through each sentence, comma, full stop, question mark and line break these past years.

I suppose all this isn’t really about the completion of a degree. When I trace how I arrived at the bottom of this piece, to the end of this year, each little shift, little opening, the possibility of a new turn, is marked by a person who has kindly ushered me through, lifted an obstacle, or held my hand. Even if I hadn’t graduated this year, hadn’t been able to complete my degree, which could have very likely happened, all this still holds. This is about marking a moment, a transition, about giving thanks to those who have been walking alongside me. Thank you. 

Zehra, outside of The Sheldonian Theatre, in her graduation robes, holding a bouquet of flowers, and smiling

November 2018, The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford


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