Sunday, November 4, 2012

Familiar Feelings: When I look for a job, I am no longer human

Like many people in the world today, I am looking for a job. Without a job, I cannot keep up my way of living, nor can I even stay in the area that I want. The idea that I would be stuck somewhere that isn't my small basement apartment in Boston is almost too horrifying for me to bear.

With the threat of a huge, devastating blow to my life, I have enough stress as it is. However, like many people in the world today, looking for a job, I feel absolutely horrified by the job search system that exists in the United States (and elsewhere, but I am focusing on the U.S. since that is where I am based). Here I am, making huge efforts every day of my life on top of many other stresses, and employers cannot so much as let me know that I have been rejected. I am constantly on the edge of my seat, without anything to make me feel better. Not one single thing.

This is a horrifying place to be, as it is. However, what is most infuriating to me is that I know I have skills that would be incredibly useful to the workplaces I am constantly researching. Since I have a strong background in dealing with diversity issues, I know that I would be a very strong manager, at least in the human resources field. I also have a penchant for learning new software, so anything that needs computer skills during daily functioning would be of no issue, and in today's world, this has much relevance. However, most companies that I admire require insane amounts of experience that is unreasonable for an entry level position. While I do not meet what is in these employers' demands per se, I know I could do the very jobs they have described.

There was a time when I was told that it was not your education, but your ability to learn that would get you a job. I didn't believe it at first, but just as I started to believe it, I learnt that employers didn't believe it at all. Everything boils down to the number of years you have worked in a very specific role, or a certain type of degree.

I am not the only one feeling this way. All of us jobless feel like our life experience and qualifications mean absolutely nothing to employers. Where is the humanity in the job search? How do we bring it back in? It is so desperate that we stop crushing the souls and egos of worthy workers, who deserve to be treated like people. There MUST be a better way to do this. If there isn't, I am still completely screwed over, because there is not way I can survive in a system like the U.S.'s without a job.

This is the first time I have absolutely no clue where to even start with a dilemma. With no ways to change a system in place for many years, there might be no chance for me. It isn't hard for someone in my place (and there are so many of us!) to feel absolutely hopeless.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Consideration of Self-Labeling

I am not a fan of labelling others, but I have always felt the need to be respectful of the labels and identities others choose for themselves. I, myself, find them empowering; to be able to say what I am is an important part of a well-oiled cognition. Yet, I have no right to impose anything on anyone else, even if they use the same words as I do to label themselves. If I had a message for those I know and love, this is what I would say...

You are not allowed to say that someone is something that they are not. This applies to everyone that falls outside the realms of your understanding. You cannot tell anyone what they are, or aren't. So, listen to them if you are curious, but never put them down. They do not have the right to do it to you, so you shouldn't do it either.

Here's where I start to remember a few particular people who I felt were pushing against who I dared say I was. They seem minor, especially to those who have never experienced something like this, but I have gotten these comments over and over, in different ways.

If I could speak to one particular red-faced, white-whiskered man I met in Chicago, there are several things I would ask him. How would you like it, old man, if I said you weren't Russian? I remember you laughing when I told you I was mixed. "Mixed? Mixed what and what?" you asked, as if there could only be two. I simplified it for you out of courtesy: brown and white. Brown meaning Indian descent (not Native American), white of Eastern European descent - Ukrainian, I said, recognizing your accent.

"Naah, you don't have brown," you said. "But you're definitely Russki* like me!"

I am very glad you could see yourself in me - if you didn't say the first part of your statement, this would be a nice story. I don't get many opportunities to get in touch with my Eastern European side, being brought up in places far from it. Thank you for accepting with warmth the part you like, and literally denying the part you didn't. You put a bitter twist on things...

If I wanted, I could have said something ignorant like, "You aren't Russian at all! You're American, since you live here." But, I know that just because you live somewhere, it doesn't mean the place is yours. But, I know that just because I met you in the United States, that you may be a visitor here. But, since you failed to show careful thought, why should I?

But, I didn't say anything. I smiled. You are not a bad-hearted man, and I have learned some patience over the years. However, I still think about what you said.

Then there are those who are great attackers; who would rip the labels I give myself right off my shirt. What gave you the right, tiny Asian woman from the crafts class I sat in on, to insist I was not Muslim? I get enough scrutiny from within the Muslim world. Why should I have listened to someone outside of that in the first place?

You said that I did not accept the ideas of modesty represented in the Qur'an. I was wearing a knit dress with tights (that were in no way "hoochie," by the way) with my chunky black high-heeled boots, without a headscarf. Would a hijab make me look more Muslim to you? Would that fit your stereotype enough to make you comfortable?

My name, which was given to me by my Muslim parents, is an important part of Islamic history. I own it with everything I've got. I fast during Ramadan (when I can), I read the Qur'an (when it feels right), and when I'm really, really scared, I whisper over and over the Ayat-Al-Kursi until my breathing slows. But why am I giving you these small examples? You don't really deserve them. I can wear whatever I want, and do whatever I want. You based your judgment of me on one detail that so many outside of Islam are obsessed with: the veil.

I defended myself at the time by saying there were different types of Islam, and then I stayed quiet. I did not have the energy that day to do any more, and I didn't feel like finding out whether or not I'd have the energy at any time in the future. I never returned to the crafts class.

Then, there are the men and women (both!) that I know and love who say that I am not really a feminist. You practically spit on a word that has a history of equality. There was a time when women truly needed to have their own voice, one associated with their female-ness that showed strength and meaning. Not femininity, that has a special, demeaning connotation. I mean female-ness, as our gender and sex has forced us to see through a special lens.

Sure, things have changed since then, and feminism now encompasses giving everyone a voice, not just women. I dream of a day where people have a level playing field for saying their thoughts where their identities are part of their arguments and opinions, but not representative of them. I consider myself a feminist because the brand of feminism I am part of speaks exactly to this. If you do not want to call yourself a feminist, that's totally fine. To be honest, I could easily replace the word with "humanist" or "egalitarian" but those words have certain connotations to. To me, it is simplest for me to call myself a feminist.

Finally, I remember a dear friend during my first semester of undergrad at Wells College. Once, we were sitting in the dorm lounge when I said, "Everyone's asking me where I'm from, and I keep giving a different answer!" It was the first time I voiced those feelings to someone else. You responded with, "Yeah, I'm getting tired of that. Just pick a place and stick with it!" As soon as you said that, I knew we couldn't get that close - but I did try. I tried to see past it, and because of that, we had some great times together. We did grow apart, and part of me knows it is because there were some things we could never relate to.

What is frustrating for some are labels that do not fit what is in their minds. While I can understand it, why are we not at an age where we learn to accept the cognitive dissonance and move on? Then, there is another issue: that a lack of a label is also offensive. So, what am I supposed to do? Either you let me own what I say I am, and accept it wholeheartedly, or you are distanced from me from the get-go. I do not want to live in a world where I am distant to others. Please, let me and others say who they are to close the ever-widening gaps.

*Lord knows I do not know how to spell this word!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

To be or not to be called an Immigrant

What am I?

Mauritian, American, mixed...or shall I be cliched once more and say "citizen of the world" this time?

Yes, I am tired of that question - and yet, I am forced to revisit it again and again, either by others or on my own. Every single time, there is a new insight; something that makes me either feel much better or much worse about myself. What a roller coaster.

Once in a while, however, comes a question I don't have the power to answer, which is less of a roller coaster and more like a plane crashing into a primary school which crumbles and crushes a forest full of baby bunnies.

Today, because of the climate here in the United States recently, the question is this: Am I an immigrant in the United States or not?

Technically, I was born in the United States and therefore am an American citizen - so, in the government's eyes, the answer is no. I'm a returning citizen.

But you need to see the other definitions of the word immigrant that exist out there - whoa. That's where my head starts spinning; where my mind and heart squeeze themselves with confusion and frustration.

I guess showing you this, dear reader, would be best. I hate doing the "here's the dictionary definition" thing, but let's get one example over and done with:

From Merriam-Webster: "a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence"

Well, uh oh. That's me.

I came here to the United States later on in life. Sure, I was born in Chicago, but it's not mine. Not like Rose Hill, Mauritius, which I know way better than I'll ever know Chicago or, well, anywhere else in America, to be honest. Of course, I knew Rose Hill at a certain time, I have been away for too long and Lord only knows what it looks like now...but those are more irritating thoughts, things I can push away until later when I let THAT one drive me crazy.

That nostalgia I have for Mauritius (and Saudi, and Oman...) is special. I don't have that for the United States. I've been here for ca. 5 years out of my life so far, which isn't that much in the long run. However, how long will I stay here? Is this my place of rest? How will I ever know?

Well, I have been brought up with the idea that you never know and I moved around a lot, so I don't know if I am done yet. Even if I end up just moving about the Boston area, it will be awhile before I finally settle anywhere. And, as we know in these tougher economic times, settling may never be final.

But, am I really "returning" to the United States, my "true" country, or am I a foreigner immigrating here? To be honest, I always lean towards the latter. To be even MORE honest, I've never once felt like the good ol' U.S. of A. is my country. I am too tied to other countries, where my foundations were built. While I don't have a problem with it, other people do. Again - a story (or set of stories)  for another time.

The question of whether or not I am an immigrant is important to me because it shapes the very core of my identity. It is also important to other people that have strange views on what an immigrant is made of. I think I fit those preconceived notions of the so-called bad things that immigrants do: I name myself according to identities that are not mainstream, I stick to values and cultural systems that are not "native," and I also find myself more comfortable with those who have lived in the same countries I have and who share that same cultural norms.

I think there is a clear divide in the world between locals and immigrants. The locals are threatened by most things "foreign" and the "foreigners" stick together to survive. 

It's no surprise that I find myself in the Armenian/Greek/Iranian neighbourhood. I hate the idea of going to some American Dream-esque surburbia because I know I won't be able to find comfort there. I need a little of the Middle East, a little Mediterranean, a little of Southeast Asia (hence my visits to the Pakistani managers of the nearby 7/11) and a little of island life (hence my visits to other parts of the Boston area). I would not thrive in places that lack a presence of (or easy access to) some or all of these.

If I were able to call myself an immigrant, I would feel a sense of pride and belonging that I haven't been able to feel all my life. But my American passport doesn't allow me to easily call myself one. I don't want to give up my passport; I'd have severe anxiety without it (which is why it is always with me). I also do not want to belittle immigrants who were born abroad who may find my appropriation of the word insulting. This is why I feel like it is such a struggle to call myself an immigrant and an American at the same time.

Immigrant: a word usually spat out by those who are not like me. Also: a word reclaimed by those who share the same state of mind and emotions as I do. This word has never carried so much as it has today.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Artless Eye, Resenting Human Form

For those of you who are not yet aware, I have a Bachelor of Art's in Visual Arts with a concentration in Art History. I love typing all of that out; it's so much easier to say I have an undergrad degree in art history, but where is the fun in that? Where's the fun capitalisation? No, I type the whole thing out as much as I can. Saying it aloud does not suffice.

Anyway, it is inevitable that I write about art because I am constantly thinking about art. My education refined my critical eye and made it overly sensitive to the more cynical part of my psyche. I analyse what is in front of me, especially when it comes to visuals.

One of the most beautiful things about the internet is that I have access to a lot of art. My tumblr (which you can find here) is a mishmash of memes, articles about humanitarian and philosophical subjects, and so many reblogs of art that someone else has posted.

Let me show you some screenshots of what I scrolled through recently:

Inline image 1Inline image 3Inline image 2  

Do you not notice one huge commonality? The human form is prevalent in about 80% of the art I see on the internet. This is something that I have struggled with since being an art history student, where I was mainly exposed to Western art above other cultures. I got easily fed up with seeing the human body over and over again, used as metaphor for a number of things that I felt were so contrived and irrelevant.

I used to tell myself that this was my Islamic background. In Islam, images of people are discouraged in general, especially images of the Prophet. But beyond that, many Muslims see images of human beings as idolatry; that we are lining up these people or the human form with Allah. In Islam, we are not made in the image of Allah. This is a Christian concept, one that is prevalent in Western society, but in my view, the Western world was never mine. With all of this in mind, I could gain an understanding of why I would be somewhat revolted by the sheer number of figures I was face to face with as an art student.

You can imagine my extreme glee when I started to look at modern art from the West! The abstract forms! Conceptual art! Recycled art! Ahhhhh, my sigh of relief was a beautiful song. I felt better in this place where expression was beyond humanity, beyond biology, and back into what I felt the mind truly looked like at the time

Over time, I started to learn how powerful the human form could be. I started to respect its place in art. Once I had gotten out of my prejudiced box, I learned to love the human body in art, but getting to that opinion meant a lot of analysis and criticism: why was this body there? Who is this body? Is this body an object, a human, or an idea? Is it effective to me, the viewer? 

I was exposed to art outside of the West eventually during my studies, and by the time I saw non-Western human bodies, I was already in a comfortable place. I could see how some of the Western thought was appropriated and, most delightfully, how it was challenged. You only need to look at the likes of Shokoufeh Malekkiani (of Iran) to see the difference in theme, subject matter, and form.

All of that being said, my heart will always be with abstract, conceptual, and geometric art. I mostly prefer it when the human body is twisted (not literally) in some way - this is why illustrations like cartoons mean more to me than realism. It was hard for me to get this far, and it is still hard for me to scan tumblr's art at times, but I think I get why the body is used so much. I am only worried that we live in a world where people's bodies are the only things that sell.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Indie Game: The Movie: The Thoughts: The Research

One of the most important projects of my academic career to date was an ethnography about indie video game developers in the Boston area. It's long, so if you decide to read it, I suggest you skip to about page 3, where the data analysis starts. That's my favourite part.

Recently after I finished the research, which documented my experience in observing and interviewing some members of the Boston indie game dev community, Indie Game: the Movie came out. For you few who do not know, the documentary follows three different indie games that were developed for Xbox Live: Braid, Fez, and Super Meat Boy. The developers, at different stages in their development, were shown talking about their insights.

When it first came out, I was excited. My research seemed to come at a great time, when people were starting to understand indie game development and its place in the gaming world (and beyond). Many of the game developers here in the Boston area tweeted, facebooked, and told me to my face that I had to see it, that I was going to love it, and, most importantly, that it represented indies in a realistic and effective light. Rotten Tomatoes now says it is over 90% fresh. Amazing. Not only is this documentary available and relevant to our times - it's apparently well-crafted and thoughtful.

I finally got to see the film, in bed. I was rather exhausted that day for whatever unknown reason, but I pushed myself to watch it. I had been waiting for quite a while to see it, after all! My excitement was still there.

The film opened with a blue-grey, washed out appearance that was highly reminiscent of Portlandia. Unfortunately, Portlandia is a comedy sketch show making fun of the ultra-hipstery, very "white" (for lack of a better word), 90s nostalgic American. Uh oh. It was even complete with droning chip tune-esque background music. It is the music that I always hear whenever there is anything about video games...except this was the elevator music version.

Uh oh indeed.

Regretfully, this impacted my whole viewing of the film. It felt very drawn out, very repetitive, and very...long. The music made me doze off on several occasions, as did some of the lengthier speeches by Phil Fish specifically (no offense, man - it may not be your fault, but the choices made by the editors. Or, it might be your fault. You can't help it). Sometimes, I enjoyed the meditative aspect, and at other times, I really wished for more dynamism. How could I relate the vibrant indies I know to this?

All the moments of passion and intensity became lacklustre due to being set on a grey palate. These developers had amazing stories! How is it that the only person I truly related to was Tommy, whose discomfort pushed through the hazy aesthetic? While I felt that other developers had truly great moments of rapport with me  through the screen, Tommy was the only consistency.

My view of indie game developers is one of diversity, one of ups and downs. It is not a grey day at the beach. It is thoughtful at times, yes, and very introspective - which I understand the film was trying to portray - but that is not all indies are. Indies do things, sometimes with a great warmth and openness, and sometimes not.

Aesthetic and technical choices aside, I wish I could have enjoyed the film more. I really do. However, I find it very telling that the chosen developers were very similar - younger, white men who follow some American-esque artistic dream is what I expected, but I wanted this movie to prove to me that I could still relate to this demographic. I was wishing for the documentary to throttle me and scream, "Khadeja! Place your prejudices aside!" Instead, I, not of that demographic or mindset, am still not satisfied.

Maybe this is why my indie game developer friends and acquaintances were so moved. It was their story; it was inspiring. They want to be those guys, no matter how dull I found them (in this representation) because they already fit into that culture. But, the documentary did not move me.

The thing is, my research moved and changed me immensely - the indies I have spoken to and gotten to know are much more than an indie documentary with hipster designs. They have more color to them, to start! I know the developers involved in this documentary must have a lot more to them, too. By talking to indies myself, I know that they cannot possibly be this monotone.

I don't think my research paper is totally amazing and fixes all the problems that Indie Game: The Movie has. I think my experience doing the research, however, showed me many dimensions of being indie. Indies are not only young white men trying to make some pixel game reminiscent of their childhood. They are so incredibly diverse, despite their demographic (which is highly problematic). The biggest shame is that Indie Game: The Movie misrepresents indie game developers' in the very sense in which I absolutely adore them the most.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Analogy of Racism

Racism cannot be personified. It does not have enough heart to become a person. It cannot be anthropomorphised, as animals do not have need for such social constructions (although, physical appearance IS important for mating - the hierarchy in humanity does not, however, exist).

Racism is indeed a construct. It is more like a golem - but again, even golems are too human in form.

I am going to be a teacher's assistant for a class about race and ethnicity. The class, which I took last summer, is obviously surrounded by issues of and related to racism and classism. Before this class started, I decided to dissect some of my brushes with racism.

I then realised that you cannot "brush" racism. This would imply that I had some kind of fault in the situations where I was discriminated against, because the brushing would be MY action. My only fault was that I was present in a certain place, at a certain time, with certain people who decided I was not worthy of them for whatever reason.

Racism, as I said before, is not a living thing, but a construct given life by those who act on prejudice. But what construct would make the best analogy? I thought of one situation to try and answer this question.

When I first started school in Mauritius, there was a girl who looked at me and decided that she would hate me. Not only would she despise my presence; she also decided to act on it by saying cruel things about me and anyone who associated with me. She did not have many friends, and any friend I made angered her. I felt ashamed whenever I was under her gaze.

The reason given for her verbal nastiness was that I had a Mauritian mother, but was "too white." I looked white compared to her dark skin, but I was somewhat darker than my sisters. This made me, apparently, the easiest target. I did not speak Creole either when I first entered school, so I was teased mercilessly for that. One of my first friends said, "It's not your fault though, Khadeja. You can't help that you're so Anglais-Anglais [English-English]."

Although my friend meant to console me, she in fact made it worse. It was true, I could not help that I was "Anglais-Anglais," but what did that matter? Why did this girl have the right to put me down? I even tried saying hello to her once, meekly, and she frowned in disgust, only to walk away. I knew there was no point in trying any more, at least in the ways I could think of. I never tried to fight her, in the hopes that her teasing would die out. It did, eventually - when she left school.

I am not a perfect person. I am sure she could have found many reasons to tease me founded on things that I chose to do. What about my strange method of speaking, where I am so roundabout it takes me minutes instead of seconds to answer a simple question when I open my mouth? How about the overly pleasing attitude, where I tried way too hard to make friends, only to look pathetic and/or shifty (a fault I have been trying to correct for years)? I would have even preferred she make fun of me for being a bad singer in the school play than base her hatred for me on my looks - something I could not control at all.

So, here are the qualities of racist discrimination based on this experience: the victim has nothing to do with it, it is about the physical aspect of a person and what it represents (so it is out of their control), and the prejudiced has no interest in meeting the "other" in the middle.

In my opinion, there is a pretty good analogy for this - that of a wall. Racism is a wall, and I imagine a towering cobblestone wall with sentry towers, and no portcullis. Just a wall, on it's own.

However, even so, this analogy is imperfect for a very important reason. You can walk around a wall - you can avoid it, you can try to climb over it, and so on. Racist discrimination cannot be avoided. Walls as we know them cannot physically move on their own accord - racism can close itself around you, with no escape. It can fall on top of you, too, but what kind of wall exists like that, which falls on its own accord? There is no such wall.

You do not run into a wall on purpose; if you do, you are harming yourself too much in the process. Racism attacks you, not the other way around.

Therefore, in my search, there is no good analogy for racism. The truth is, it is exactly what it is and nothing can explain it beyond the honest experience. We cannot pretty it up with metaphor and allegory. The only choice we have is to accept that it exists in society. I believe now that the less analogies we make, the more progress we can make. In this case, tackling the problem head on is the only viable choice we have.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Qatar after Riyadh: A Denial of Solitude

When my parents invited me to Qatar for the first time, I was frustrated that I would have to leave the comfort that I had made in Massachussetts. I was also annoyed that I was supposed to go for so long, missing many opportunities for research. However, those things were on the surface: they were not the true problems. What lay deep within me was resentment. I was not going back to the familiar Riyadh I had become accustomed to.

How I hated Riyadh sometimes! I felt so stuck. But, I knew it so well. At least, I knew the compound we lived in as a family. I knew the Filipino workers at the recreation centre, I knew the cashier at the little supermarket, my driver, the Bangladeshi men who worked at our house...Sometimes, the villa was completely empty. I loved those hours of the day!

I would go to the gym and  I would swim in the pool, right under the hot summer sun. My water bottle would be warm by the time I got home from walking in the heat. Yes, I complained a lot, but it was a life that was surprisingly "me-centred." I did exactly what I wanted to do; there was no homework, no one who I felt I had to socialize with, nothing. Most importantly, I could write! I would read and write for hours of every day. In some ways, the confinements of Riyadh allowed me to create a semblance of a blissful life, albeit a very anti-social one.

When I came to the Boston area for my Master's degree, I started to force myself to go out. Sometimes, it was very difficult. Suffering from anxiety used to paralyse me. While I was in Saudi, I had learned just how much I loved being alone. Life at school does not let me be alone, even if I have my own room in my own apartment. I had boundaries, I had rules - and other people depended on me.

Going back to Qatar, I realised I was not going to have a break from the hustle and bustle of life in the Boston area. I was not going back to Saudi Arabia to spend time all alone, in the dark, at my computer. I could not avoid contact with others anymore. How unbearable and this was, and how anxious I became! It was like having a light constantly shone into my eyes.

No, Doha is a much more...let's say, "open" place. With its reputation as something of a liberal beacon in the restrictive Khaleej, Doha has opportunities for people to go out and be seen. This is a haven for those used to a more "Western" lifestyle, but not for someone like me. There is still a culture of privacy, but within this new villa in this new compound, life was different. There is a gym, but I rarely ever had the gym all to myself. And the pool? People were always at the pool; mostly expats enjoying the outdoor sun with their children. I no longer wanted to go there; I felt uncomfortable.

Obviously, this was no Riyadh, where I could choose not only how I was to be seen, but whether or not I would be seen in the first place. I could not emulate this type of existence back in the Boston area. I had lost something that I did not realise was very important.

I realised very shortly after arriving that I was never going back to Riyadh again, nor would I find the familiarity I had hoped for, secretly. A drop into depression ensued, quite rapidly, before I could realise what was happening.

I stayed in my room, usually going to sleep at 9 in the morning and waking up around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. My parents expressed concern, although they did attempt to joke about it, but I refused to change. The only time I felt truly by myself was when it seemed everyone else was asleep. But, even then, I was lying to myself.

The truth is, I was looking forward to something that I had only found in Riyadh, the place I cursed constantly (and still do, but for different, more humanitarian reasons). I had also been spoiled by my complete independence while studying in Cambridge, even if this was sometimes tarred by necessary interactions (with others). So, after all, I had no place that could give me what I wanted. I really did not know how to deal with it.

So, this made my first trip to Doha very uncomfortable. While I had some wonderful times smoking sheesha at Souq Waqif, I felt I had little else to do, and I never went there alone. In any case, even if I did, there would always be people around me there. It was not the same. Could it be that the freedom to walk freely around a Khaleeji country was no longer desirable for me?

My second trip to Doha came almost a year later, and I feel that many things have changed since then in my personal and work life. My need to be completely alone has since dissipated with the help of a new apartment in Watertown amongst other changes. While this visit has been more positive, I know I would never want to stay here for long. Hence, one of the greatest stresses in my life: how can I build a home with the correct balance? How can I make it so that I am not forced into Doha permanently?

I may never want to live in Riyadh, but there are some things I would like to recreate from there in my own home. Let us see whether or not Destiny will let me make a home that fulfills my desire, in a place that fits my needs. I have a feeling I will have to work very hard.