It’s 6 a.m.: My mom has just woken up. I am sitting at the kitchen counter with a blanket around my shoulders, coffee cup in hand while lectures play on double-speed on my laptop. Finally convinced to go to sleep, I set my alarm in time for my 11 a.m. meeting with my internship supervisor, exasperated at the reality that this is what my life has become: zoom calls, sleepless nights, days in sweats, family arguments and isolation. Sighing, I scroll through my social media feeds, a nightly regimen, only to find photos of people on vacation, hanging out with friends, taking road trips… having fun. These photos fill me with anxiety — aren’t we still battling a global pandemic? Shouldn’t we be proceeding with caution? However, I also felt tinges of sadness and frustration because I am jealous — I wish I could have as much fun, but the pandemic wasn’t all to blame.
I am nearing my last semester at the University of Michigan and I cannot confidently say I have made many good friends here. I have two to three friends whom I speak to regularly, meaning at most once a month since the pandemic. Nevertheless, my struggle to foster friendships and have a “normal” college life did not only start in March 2020 but has been ongoing since the beginning of my freshman year. My time at the University so far can be best described as a tug-of-war: on one end were my parents, and I positioned myself at the opposite end and extended a rope between us. As I was the first member of my family to attend college in the United States, my parents and I found ourselves in territories we’ve never been in before: Who gets to make the decisions about my outings? When is my curfew? Who decides who comes into my room and who doesn’t? When my parents held and tightly pulled on the rope, it meant constraining the freedoms I found essential: studying in friends’ rooms, staying up late and attending events without permission. To them, I was neither an independent adult nor a needy child. I had the responsibilities of a college student but not the freedom of one, an in-between space that’s not one or the other. They tugged the rope according to those expectations and when I felt that pull, I yanked even harder the other way. I often lashed out in defiance of my parents, tightening my grasp on the rope and causing tension to build. But no matter how much we pushed and pulled, no matter how sore our hands became and exhausted we grew, we stayed in place and made no progress in either direction.
I started questioning ideas supposedly fundamental to my identity: Why should I adhere to these rules? What does it mean if I didn’t? How did these rules come to be? Is this something all Syrians followed? What about all Muslims? What does our faith say about this? As I came into my own, I felt the weight of these choices growing like rocks on my shoulder. Often, I shared thoughts or opinions that made my parents worry, especially when I didn’t share their views on some of the issues most important to them. Instead, my actions and ideas were sometimes labeled as wrong and harmful from approaches to social justice to even my ideal career path. Additionally, due to the intersectionality of my identities — Syrian, Ismaili Muslim, immigrant woman — there was no community on campus that I closely identified with. I became a foreigner in both Syrian and American spaces, not enough of either to completely fit in. Most of my peers had a very different outlook at things: College was a monumental moment in our lives where we learn to be independent and find ourselves and dream about our futures. While I did identify with their sentiments and the idea of a transition, it was difficult for me to adopt that perspective. I could not be American enough for my peers’ advice and I could not be Syrian enough for my parents’ expectations. Even other Syrian Americans I knew had college experiences on the complete opposite side of the spectrum.
During the winter semester of my junior year, I decided to take a semester off because it all became too much to deal with while also being a student. It was unthinkable to my parents that I spend this semester anywhere but home, especially Ann Arbor — a place that to them, was full of bad influences. Staying home presented its own challenges. Two months into that semester, COVID-19 hit and arguments erupted almost every day regarding questions of where I would be living for the hybrid academic year. Even as I grew and my empathy for my parents grew, it also had limits: I still could not fathom why they would not let me be on campus. Now, instead of being home for four months, I have been home for a year and five months. This period has only advanced my isolation and further distanced me and my friends. My social life was replaced by occasional facetime calls and once-a-month day trips I would take to Ann Arbor for visits.
As I reflect on these past months, I realize I may have acted out of a lack of empathy — fixating on my own negativity rather than considering how my family was feeling too. I dismissed large compromises and efforts that my family had made for assimilating into “the American life,” like allowing me to go to my first sleepover or inviting my friends over for a surprise birthday party. I focused too much on our disagreement and overlooked the tremendous amount of love we shared that allowed my parents to sacrifice so much for us with big smiles on their faces always. While I positioned myself and my parents on opposite sides of the rope in this game of tug-of-war, I realized tugging was not a way to freedom, but letting go was.
A principle I have held closely to regardless of my parents’ disagreement with it is the importance of friends, not only during college but in life. Yet, it is one that I am unable to live up to. As I’ve spent a lot of my college career holding onto the rope and tending to those familial issues and identity crises, I didn’t really make any friends. The tug-of-war game with myself took away from my social life, and more so took over my headspace even when I did have time to socialize, restricting my literal movement and presence on campus. It is foreign to me how one can be a successful student while having fun with friends, how one maintains familial relationships while pursuing deep friendships. I am trying to learn all of that. When it comes to my relationship with my family, we’ve all grown a lot in the past year. Healing takes time but we are working through it, learning to trust one another and how to best approach our still-present disagreements. I am thankful for their presence in my life and feel lucky to have so much family here when we’re so far away from our home country. With one semester left at the University and at least a year until I attend graduate school, I am stubbornly determined to make it the best it can be, allowing myself the space to make new friendships and strengthen old ones.
I am ready to let go of the rope that we all held onto for way too long that has caused so much pain over the past four years.