Tiny footsteps into a strange, new world.

I wish I could begin this story with “Once upon a time.” But, if you follow my tale—you know it’s not about happily ever afters. It’s about a girl who had to forget about rainbows and unicorns altogether and grow up err…when she was already an adult.

You see there were no glass ceilings for me to shatter. Only a bubblegum version of real life stuck in my head. May be, it was the way I was brought up?

Growing up I was never friendly with my parents, even though they were super cool, liberal professors who allowed me to do whatever I wanted.

I grew up in a freethinking university campus in the heart of my city, on a delectable hill dotted with trees.

The campus included libraries, debating societies, theater and art.

I grew up with friends, colleagues and family who were like me.

I became the lion of my cubbyhole. The freedom, love and support I got were so omnipresent, I had no idea what life was like without them.

With no real battles to fight, I was keen to fight my parents. I always believed I was right, and was forever suspicious of their safe ways.

But my dad, a social scientist in the best university back home, grew up in a part of the country infested by rioting, corruption and poverty. His childhood was spent in a tiny room, overstuffed with brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles.

They were all being supported by his father.

My mom grew up in a tiny, insignificant village, where girls are married off at the age of 16 and go to school just to pass the time. She is now a professor of Japanese language and literature, as well as a writer and translator.

I was intelligent and hard-working. That made me want to chase my dreams in art, literature and writing in America. I had also recently married a guy I loved who lived in the US.

I was so excited to enter this new phase of life that I didn’t know I would continue to look back for a long time.

Just to get started, there were many “firsts” to encounter.

I had never traveled independently, lived alone, cooked for myself on a daily basis, did laundry, figured out my finances, figured out medical insurances, thought about loans or been married.

Here I was, in an alien land, about to learn the ropes of life in a completely different culture.

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I had a crash course in becoming an adult in the first few months after I moved to Syracuse to pursue a professional digital journalism program.

I had to find an apartment to live in, but I didn’t know what to look for. I was impatient, so I ended up going for a bad, expensive option.

The roof leaked, sanitation was substandard, my bedroom window opened to a dumpster and before I knew it, I had a bedbug infestation. I had to find a lawyer to break my lease and get me out of that living hell.

The thing is, I was terrified of what would happen if I couldn’t fix it.

I was living away from my husband, so I would take a five-hour Greyhound bus ride to Brooklyn every Friday to meet him. Between a hectic graduate school schedule and travel, I had no time for him.

The worst Syracuse winter—coupled with unsafe city grounds where poverty and homelessness are serious concerns—made staying outdoors after dark dangerous. I would think back to the days when I would shut my parents up every time they offered advice on night outs.

During this strenuous time, it was my parents’ phone calls that gave me the strength to continue on.

I was so overwhelmed with my daily trials and tribulations, that I couldn’t see beyond my selfish needs.

It was then that I realized my parents had always been there for me, battling through their lives, fears and doubts, without ever letting me notice their tired eyes.

I was entering a new phase of my life.

It started with a phone call to my mom, asking her how she was. Understanding her existence, her hopes and her fears gave me a fresh perspective.

My dad and I started writing long emails to each other, and often connected on Skype in a way we had never connected in person. I began to understand the struggles of a man in his 50s.

I finally got to find out his dreams and anxieties.

It was in these moments that I pushed myself to actually listen.

It’s not important to figure everything out and speed through your days. It’s important to stand still and assimilate who you are and where you are headed.

Conversations with my parents opened that door.

After one year of staying away, I went back to my country for a short visit.

I felt eternally grateful for the twinkles in mom and dad’s patient eyes as they sat there, listening to the stories of my life in a new country.

Then, I quickly shut up and made them talk.

This time, I listened.

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This story was first published on Elite Daily under the title “Why you can’t begin to know your parents until you know yourself,” authored by me.

“Until one day, when I decided to wear lipstick…”

Privilege has no color. But when you have privilege, no matter what you are—white, brown, black, or yellow—you are blind to it.

I know—I was.

When I lived in my own country, I had it all—the right twang of English, the right profession, the right social class, and the right color of skin. I wasn’t the fairest of all, but was fairer than most. So, I never understood why some of my friends, even an inch darker felt invisible.

“It’s all in your head,” I’d tell them. “It’s not others, it’s you. You’ve convinced yourself that you’re un-pretty.”

Then I crossed oceans, hopped continents, and found myself in a land where melanin had several more shades. And I ranked pretty damn low on the spectrum. I wasn’t the darkest of all, but was darker than most. The only difference was, I didn’t know it yet. I had grown up thinking that I was fair, so that’s how I thought the world saw me as well.

Until one day, when I decided to wear lipstick to work. I never put on makeup usually. But, this day I felt like dressing up. I pulled out a new shade of red I had recently purchased and spread it across my smile. When I entered office, everyone took notice. Either it was the right color or it was cause I looked different. But, when heads turned and I got compliments, I knew I was looking good.

It was 10 past 9. The day was off to a good start, when my boss walked in. She was a wonderful woman whom I admired. She gave me my assignment for the day and another look.

“You look beautiful,” she said. “That lipstick looks perfect on your skin color.”

The high that I had been riding all morning came crashing to a resounding low. All day long, her words kept ringing in my ear—what did she really mean? What is the color of my skin? 

I looked around at the faces of my colleagues and then mine reflected in the window pane—a tiny island swept by an ocean of white. That day, was the day, I discovered my color.

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“Don’t think…just run for your life.”

Moving to a new country has been a unique experience. At first everything was different—good different. There were new places to see, new things to do, new foods to eat…the list of ‘new’ was endless.

So, one day I decided to venture out with my camera to capture the world I saw. I had the eyes of a toddler—full of wonder. I started by photographing bridges, buildings, lakes, but what caught my attention were faces. Faces that I had seen before in my country, but they were now wrapped in different color.

As a foreigner, I felt timid pointing my lens at strangers in a strange land. So, I stuck to crowded city roads and caught my subjects when they weren’t looking. As I clicked away, my fear began to dissipate and I grew more confident.

Then, I saw an old man—his face sculpted with wrinkles, his eyes lost in contemplation, his body scrawny yet strong. I wanted to photograph him up close but I was scared to ask permission. It just so happened that he was standing in front of a mural. All I had to do was pretend that I was capturing the graffiti than him. A friend had given me tips on avoiding similar pitfalls of street photography.

“What if someone got real mad if I took a photo without permission?” I’d inquired.

“In that case,” my friend said in a serious voice, “Don’t think. Pick up your camera and just run for your life!”

Now, that I had photographed people on streets all day, I found his advice cowardly. I was happy with my results and happier that this man’s portrait was going to be the high point of my excursion. Little did I know that a woman standing right behind had seen me capture a dozen shots of my unsuspecting subject. Without batting an eyelid, she walked up to him and snitched.

“This girl has been secretly taking photos of you. You should do something.”

I wanted to say something in my defense, but I was caught off guard. I saw the confusion on the old man’s face. His face now wrinkled into a smoldering stare. He was clearly unhappy about my intrusion. He picked himself up on his walking stick and started walking toward me.

In that moment I could have done a million things. But, my friend’s words came to my rescue. I picked up my camera, turned around, and ran the fastest I ever could.

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