“Homesick” for What I’ve Never Known

How is it possible to feel homesick for a place you’ve never known – from a time that is long forgotten?

Perhaps this is unique to the children of refugees; people like me who grow up surrounded by a confluence of cultures, and yet unable to ever set foot in the place where, at last, their faces would blend into the crowd – even if they don’t quite feel they belong.

I was born and raised in the U.S. The vast majority of my friends are white Americans. My relative economic privilege and the accepting nature of Seattle has allowed me to often forget that I am even a person “of color.” And yet I know, on some level, that I’m different.

My parents fled Afghanistan in 1980. My sister was born in 1983 in Texas. I was born in 1989 in North Carolina. We moved to Seattle when I was 9 months old and stayed. My parents have never gone back, and so we have never been able to see Afghanistan. Neither does it seem my mother will deem it safe enough for us to do so in the near future.

Until I was 19 and began studying Persian in university, I spoke only a few words of Dari (the Afghan dialect of Persian). My parents had been sold the false (and discriminatory) advice of the 1980s that immigrants should teach their kids only English if they want them to succeed. This language barrier kept me from truly appreciating or understanding my parent’s culture – or even understanding them in their native tongue. (Realizing the latter was quite a shock – I had missed out on an infinite number of subtleties.)

Yet I still grew up with distinct quirks of my parents’ culture, like all second generation kids. Of course we ate different food, listened to different music (which I loved, even if I could not understand), and went to parties where it was normal for someone to recite poetry. (Afghans love their poetry.)

But it was the other things that really stood out. Like the loanwords that never quite got translated from Dari.,,I still remembering offering to trade my friend “strawberry moss” in elementary school and getting a very puzzled look. (Moss is Dari for yogurt.) Or the fact that we never really gave gifts during the holidays or birthdays (at least not to our parents), but we offered our surprised American guests endless tea and treats. And of course we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving until my dad got a turkey for free from work.

(I’m still discovering these.)

Despite these differences, I identify with Americans far more than with recently-immigrated Afghans (even my own extended family at times). This makes my burning desire to go to Afghanistan all the more confusing to my parents and my friends.

My parents – perhaps rightly – say,

Afghanistan is not the same, Dean-jan. We know it sounds wonderful in our stories, but it’s changed. All those places, the people, everything. The war has destroyed so much.

Nevertheless, the feeling doesn’t relent. I know it’s not nearly the same for me as it is for my parents and so many other refugees. They have physically left their friends, their family, and their lives behind. What I feel is not even close to the same level, or even the same form as their homesickness. And yet, I latch onto that word – “homesick.” I don’t know how to describe this strange sense of longing any other way. (“Saudade” perhaps?)

All for a place I’ve only known in stories and the few tattered photos my family brought with them.

My grandfather with my father (far right) and uncles (left) and aunt (lap). Circa 1953, likely taken in Balkh, Afghanistan.

Maybe I’m a little crazy. Searching for an identity I never fully had, and will never have.  Trying to reconnect with something different, as I become so critical of the global North. Perhaps I should content myself with the stories of a time long gone, because even when calm returns to Afghanistan, it won’t be the same the country my parents described – they lived in a time of peace, hippies, and miniskirts.

I’ll never be truly considered “Afghan” by a native Afghan, and that’s OK – there is beauty in being a cultural blend. I know I’d feel instantly like a stranger in a strange land when I go to Afghanistan one day soon. But I can’t get over the longing to know those roots. The frustration of waiting is excruciating. I can only hope Afghanistan comes to a calm before my closest family there lay to rest. (Another uncle passed away not too long ago.)

I’m (perhaps against all odds) optimistic.

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