By Symin Adive


I’ve always felt like an outlier and at its root, it’s because I’ve never loved my parents. I don’t feel unrelatable because I grew up in an abusive household because that’s not uncommon. I feel unrelatable because every person I met that was abused in a similar or even worse fashion still wanted their parents’ approval. I didn’t. Because I questioned them, I questioned everything including their bigoted beliefs and everything they took from their own parents as gospel. At a very early age, this freed me up to think for myself but also deeply isolated me.

When I went from making inscrutable abstract art to figurative, no-room-for-interpretation rants disguised as art, I made a piece titled, “Independent Thinking: Santa, God, My Father, and Other Men I’ve Never Believed In.” I made another piece about the only two memories I had of Bangladesh, which we left for the US in 1996 when I was 8 years old (I’ll save you the trouble of calculating my age, I’m 35). One memory involved my favorite chips, “Potato Crackers.” And the other was of my father beating me with a switch till my back was peppered with bloody holes because I, a child, dared to cry in front of him. Once we moved to the US though and my parents found themselves on a significantly lower economic and social rung, it was luckily and strangely only good ol’ fashioned run-of-the-mill emotional abuse henceforth.

I was the youngest of four with siblings 7, 12 and 14 years older than I, so I’m guessing at a time in my father’s life when he felt the lowest about himself, I just became the easiest lil’ target to bully. But the positive of me not loving my parents was that their word carried no weight. When they would spout racist, homophobic, sexist and all around not so well-thought-out beliefs, I knew to question them. When my father would call me worthless, dumb, ungrateful, etc, and threaten that I was going to be an impoverished fat whore if I didn’t listen to his whims, I again turned to logic and questioned the unreliable source from which this “news” came. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t devastating and traumatic, but the fact that I didn’t buy what I was sold was a crucial differentiator. While this opened me to independent thinking, it closed me off from everyone around me. Imagine being 8 years old and being the only one in your small, southern town to not believe in the all mighty lord. 

The abuse ended exactly on the day I went off to college having secured free education and board through being smart, the thing I was told I wasn’t over a thousand times. The boot was off the neck. I went from having freedom of thought and thought only, to having actual freedom. They had nothing to hold over me anymore and magically their mouths could now exercise self-restraint. Funny how that works.

I do know my parents come from abuse themselves though I’m not sure they would ever phrase it that way. My mother had the arranged marriage fairytale of being handed off to my grown-ass 30-year-old father in Chittagong when she was a 15-year-old teenager from rural Bangladesh so I’m sure she has her horror stories. The part of me that longs to be part of a healthy, high-jink-filled family wanted to forgive her despite her less threatening but still deplorable behavior. But my parents were on the same page. They just wanted me to forget and pretend as they had.

So, I’m a “Bad Bengali.” An unrelatable Bengali. I haven’t spoken to my parents in years and I couldn’t be happier. Unfortunately, though, I did make it my mission in my artistic work to talk about these things that we’re not supposed to talk about. I have a whole series called “Notes For A Desi Utopia: Tips To Solve Every Problem Ever In My Community and Yours?” That actually is relatable because it covers so many of the issues we’re familiar with in the desi community, especially the diaspora: the competitiveness, maintaining appearances, the coddling of men at the expense of women…. But I still haven’t heard from anyone who grew up with the exact mentality I did.

Anyway, after 12 years of building a career in design, illustration and even comedy in NYC, I left last August to do a master’s in fine arts in Norway (where education for those outside the EU is free…for now). I left because walking is my favorite thing. And putting one foot in front of the other on the pavement shouldn’t be a high-stakes activity but in New York, it always was because you never knew if some man might want to try and ruin your day just because he could. I’m so tired of living life-guarded. I have a fantasy of walking around in the world as if I was invincible, the way happy, naive kids do. So, that’s what I’m trying to do here now in Norway. Play more. Climb a tree. Roll down a hill. Do everything I didn’t as a kid because I was paralyzed by fear of repercussions. I didn’t get to be soft. To be safe. To not have the light dimmed out of me and replaced with unbearable weight. I’m working on covering myself up in bubble wrap when I can. Maybe literally.

I will be making a video here in the next year or so that’s essentially a how-to video on how to be human and underlines the value of friendship in a society that values romance and family infinitely more. So, I do have to reflect upon this phase in my life often now and also during every Thanksgiving and Christmas when people wonder why I’m choosing to vacation alone. While that’s a challenge, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I liked that I figured out so many things for myself and early at that. I wish I’d known how special that really was especially as I’m still learning and parenting myself now.

Before believing societal messaging at large, we first take on the messaging from our parents. And if you never did the latter, you’re less likely to do the former. I’ve had to undo some things.

Our parents are the first line of offense or defense for societal conditioning and fighting back early means absorbing less of life’s bullshit.

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