Neighbors

Neighbors

 

“That’s a four.”
“That’s a six!”

I am 13 years old and I am playing cricket. I’ve discovered that when I make a hit, I can get some decent distance. I seldom make the hit. My partner, some twenty feet away in front of a set of wickets we’ve propped up in a milk crate, is pushing for a higher score. I don’t totally comprehend where the line falls that differentiates a four- from a six-point strike, so I keep my mouth shut. To be honest, it would probably be better for the team if my partner was hitting and I was the one standing around waiting to run.

I am a lousy hitter. And a lousier pitcher. Actually, I’m a lousy sportsman in general.
I’m a short, stick-thin white kid who would rather read books or play video games than involve
himself in any kind of physical activity.

Perhaps the points-debate is because I so seldom actually hit the damned thing, so when I
do, wow, we really need to make the most of it.

While everyone else gets to the sportsman-like debate, pointing to various neighborhood
landmarks and ruling on where the line falls dividing a 4-point hit and a 6-point hit, I stare over
my shoulder at the house behind me. I would rather be eating Indian food and talking shit. For
someone who sucks at the game, I’m pretty good at talking shit.

In the movies, people play baseball and everyone’s white.

In my neighborhood, we play cricket and most of us are brown. I am one of three white
boys I see with any regularity. At 13, I am more likely to be eating curry than burgers, and
we’ve made a game of testing whiteness against the spiciness of peppers. I learn my limits
early—I know when to hold em and when to fold em. One of the other white kids ends up
crying over a toilet bowl later on.

Good times.

 
 

Through my late childhood, my adolescence, and deep into my teen years, almost all of
my friends were Muslim. A lot of them were 1 st - or 2 nd -generation American. That changed in college because the college I went to was just, like, so white. But for most of the years between my 10 th and 18 th birthday, my friends were brown and Muslim and my neighbors were Indian and Pakistani. Mrs. Arshad cooked ridiculously good food and always asked if I wanted seconds. I always said ‘yes,’ even when I didn’t really want to, because Mrs. Arshad was five feet of pure scary and she was somehow always holding a knife when she asked.

My best friend (Humza) and I would kill time by scouring the internet, playing video games in his basement, and, of course, talking shit. In those early pre-Google days, ‘scouring the internet’ meant we’d type random domains into the searchbar, hit ‘enter,’ and see what came up. This is how I ended up making a Steam account with the e-mail address ‘snowblind@thereisnogod.com.’ He had a Playstation and we’d take turns killing time (and just about everything else) in Grand Theft Auto 3 (San Andreas, yo), passing off the controller whenever one of us bit it.

He helped me build my first custom computer.

His brother, Aasim, has encyclopedic knowledge of New York City (where they’d lived before moving into the house next to mine), and could tell you literally anything you wanted to know about the operation and history of the subway system. He also knew just about every team statistic in the wide world of sports, both domestic and foreign, and would often pepper these into conversations as if they were widely known facts. I didn’t quite get on with Aasim the same way I did with Humza, but I owe him thanks for giving me a semi-functional knowledge of the MTA before I even moved to NYC.

Humza’s father was a cool dude, too. Many were the days when Humza would be absent when I went over to his house, and his father and I would sit on the front porch and talk. The man has a keen sense of beauty. He’d gesture to the sunset, at the way the sun boiled the horizon, and ask if it wasn’t the most beautiful painting I’d ever seen. I do not have a keen sense of beauty, and I’ve seen way more sunsets than I’ve seen paintings, but I played along anyway. “Oh, yeah,” I’d say, “it’s amazing.” And he’d nod, hands folded in his lap, and sigh. “This place really is gorgeous.”

I mean, it was just a suburban cul de sac, but sure. It could be gorgeous, I guess. I mean, it could be.

And the mother? I suppose I didn’t know her as well. She wasn’t home much—she was kind of busy being a doctor and earning money for the family and then coming home and cooking all this delicious food and giving second helpings to this freeloading white boy who kept showing up for some reason.

So, yeah, such were my neighbors.

 
 

Fun fact: Ramadan is hard.

Many of my friends and, yes, my next door neighbors, attended Mosque. I would say they attended it ‘religiously’ but that’s kind of implied, isn’t it? And they prayed several times a day. And I was young and curious, so of course I asked about it. As far as I could tell, it was a religion of peace and worship and communing with the broad universe around us. Y’know, like other religions.

As I was getting into my casual religious studies, I wanted to put some aspect of their beliefs into practice. I decided, as an act of solidarity with my perpetually-hungry friends, to start with Ramadan. I know. I’m an idiot. But I figured it would be more eye-opening to dive in rather than wade. Well, that’s not really what I figured. If we’re being honest, I decided to join in on Ramadan because my friends were doing it and I wanted to do it with them. My spiritual curiosity was a distant second to my desire to fit in with my friends. And if all my friends jumped off a bridge, well, maybe they know something that I don’t.

Anyway, Ramadan is hard. Really, really hard.

For those not ‘in the know,’ Ramadan is a period of fasting in Islam during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar (it’s lunar) and lasting pretty much the entire month. It’s supposed to be a fast lasting from sunrise to sunset. It’s a time of reflection, meditation, and prayer, when Muslims are supposed to refrain from sins (even minor ones!) and practice charity, goodwill, and other variously positive miscellany.

So I lasted about a week. A school week, I mean.

If you’re smart, you eat a big breakfast before sunrise (suhur). I am not smart. I hate mornings and I hate alarm clocks. So I struggled to eat anything before sunrise, went to school, and groggily lurched through my day. I’m not good at regular prayer. By the end of one week I broke down. I did not have the conviction or fortitude to pull off a real fast, let alone a legitimately meditative and reflective fast with regular prayers. I can’t even get the ‘self control’ thing down.

So, yeah. I bowed out pretty early on. Lunch is really underrated.

I still got a nice invite to the Eid celebration, though. It was kind of like the participation trophies people are always talking about—“hey, buddy, at least you tried.” I had a fantastic time. My memories are age-faded and incomplete, but I remember scenes of laughter and joy and jokes told in languages I didn’t speak and sometimes in the language I did. I remember big wide smiles and bunched-up cheeks and loud music. Singing and dancing. And there were some really beautiful clothes. All in all, a pretty awesome party.

For the record, I sucked at Lent, too.

 
 

Look, I can’t tell you what it’s like to be brown or Muslim or the child of an immigrant or anything like that. I’m not those things; those aren’t my stories. Those stories belong to other people. But I can tell you what it was like to grow up where I grew up, with the friends I grew up around, and with their families. I can tell you how much fun cricket can be with the right players and how amazing Indian and Pakistani cuisine can taste with the right chef. I can tell you how beautiful a holy day can be when everyone is celebrating and you’re watching them from a pillow on a family room floor and you don’t even speak the language but you don’t need to because a smile and a laugh are the same in every language.

It was an amazing, beautiful experience. And also, kind of ordinary.

When I went outside, my cool neighbors invited me to play a game in our cul de sac. When I hung out with my best friend, his mother fed me. When I showed up and he wasn’t home, his father sat with me on the porch and watched the sunset. They even welcomed a short, scrawny little white boy to hang out for Eid even though he gave up fasting at the first hunger pang. And it was an awesome party, one of the first parties I ever went to that I consider ‘awesome.’

I had the amazing luck of living next to the Arshads and being awful at cricket for a few years. I hope anyone else would be just as lucky. Hell, some people might even be luckier and actually be good at cricket.

I am 14 years old and it’s the spring of 2002. I am inconsolable. I found a news article about a Muslim woman who was assaulted in New York City. I cannot stop crying. My mother tells me that things will be okay, that my friends are safe, that Rochester is much less violent, that NYC has problems because of what happened there. Later that week, I have dinner with Humza. I am too scared to ask if he’s scared.

I am 29 years old and the year is 2017. I really want my mother to be right.

I am too scared to ask how scared people should be. I am so scared that this is a question that might need to be asked. I want to ask something easier. Is it four points or six? When are we going to eat? Isn’t the sunset a beautiful painting? Isn’t this place gorgeous? Couldn’t it be? I mean. It could be, right? It really could be.

line art by Doan Trang 

line art by Doan Trang 


Emigration

Emigration

The music of Nishi Rajan

The music of Nishi Rajan