Next month, some of you will step out of a train station after a long journey and enter the car of an eager-faced relative who may be unapologetically late to pick you up. Others will pull into the driveway of their childhood home, perhaps noticing it looks smaller or unfamiliar in some way. You might pack your bags or suitcases with traditional clothes, or longer tops and baggier trousers that cover skin and shapes. Others might pack very little, knowing that the clothes and belongings from their adolescence have remained untouched, hanging safely in a cupboard in their childhood room.
The journey didn’t start here though, it started when a parent asked about the Christmas holidays. For a lot of South Asians, there are only two acceptable reasons for not going home during the holiday season, and these are work or study.
The Difficulty of Taking Some time to Look After Your Mental Health
Taking a few days to yourself for self-care or to see your friends could be perceived as acts of selfishness, for which we can be reprimanded. Even if some push these ideas aside away and decide not to go home, it is still bittersweet. They must swallow and contain their guilt whilst battling with images of their sad and lonely parents. This is enough to ruin any event in the calendar.
Living a Double Life
When we enter our parent’s home, we may find that some things have not changed. Unspoken topics like sexuality, feminism or race remain taboo. We might have grown accustomed to speaking about these topics freely with friends only to find that when we are at home, we must lock our opinions away tightly. In some cases, we have no choice but to express our thoughts, having realised that we can no longer listen to toxic views that are hurting us.
These situations can turn into stressful arguments that drain away our energy and happiness. In other cases, we are silently filled with rage, or sadness and we have to carry this with us which can be exhausting. Either way, it can be difficult when we realise that although we are walking forward, our parents are standing still.
There are parts of us that we hide from our parents, leading us to live a double life. One of the most difficult things about living this double life is having to conceal sadness and grief over things that are culturally unacceptable. This could be breaking up with a partner your parents never knew about, it could be failing an exam, losing a job or having an argument with a friend that they wouldn’t approve of.
All of these things require space and time for us to process. We are unable to take this space and time or even express the need for it because our parents don’t know about these elements of our life. How can we begin to work through what is happening to us when we are also working hard to conceal that anything is happening at all?
For some, when we are wearing a mask to hide our wounds from our family, we are also hiding these wounds from ourselves whilst we live our double life. The wounds are unable to breathe, which makes them harder to heal. On the other hand, there are times where we can talk about our problems, but these must be carefully selected to fit within what is culturally acceptable. In such cases we might not always receive the response that we desire, which can sometimes make us feel worse.
Returning to ‘Normal Life’
Sadly, the work may not end there. For many, returning to “normal life” isn’t always a smooth road, it can be bumpy and filled with difficult decisions about which route to take. When a well-meaning white friend excitedly chirps “How was your Christmas?”, do you take them the long way round, or try a short cut? The long way round can tire you out, depleting your already limited energy supply. The short cut misses out the longest road, meaning your friend won’t get to walk the path you have. Whatever road people choose to take here can trigger different feelings for them.
The Other Side Of Our Double Life
We go home to the other side of our double life not just because we are asked to, but also to show our love to our family. Allowing ourselves to recognise that showing love to our family in the way that they want us to can be both necessary and tiring for us at the same time.
We can go back to doing all the things that we used to do, only to find that they have become uncomfortable for us and perhaps even harder to stand than before. Our discomfort with returning to this life could be a sign that some parts of us don’t fit there in the same way that they used to. However, when parts of us don’t fit, it isn’t always a bad thing, it can be a sign that these parts have simply grown beyond what they used to be, into something bigger and better.
For support around these areas mentioned feel free to look through our directory of culturally competent South Asian therapists.