One of the first concepts introduced in Physics 240 at the University of Michigan — Coulomb’s Law — has a lot more to offer than just a description of the physical world. The law, critical to the understanding of all concepts under electricity and magnetism, helps quantify the electrostatic force of attraction between two charged objects.
While people aren’t exactly charges floating around the vacuum of space, the attraction and connection felt between two people is, without a doubt, one of the strongest forces within our observable universe. But what bonds people together — love, as it’s commonly called — does not act independently from other forces that are at play, forces like weight.
As a Pakistani-American, I’ve felt my culture, background and family weigh on my love life constantly. Undeniably, I’ve always found my culture to be a great power, one that can offer purpose and guidance in times of need. With great power, though, comes great responsibility — a responsibility to carry culture with you always, lest you let it become diluted. And, for the most part, it’s doable, albeit extremely difficult while immersed in a culture that is fundamentally different from your own. The problem becomes infinitely harder when dealing with love. I can turn away from pork and alcohol, speak Urdu and arrive late to parties — all pivotal aspects of Pakistani culture — much easier than I can turn away from love.
Because I lacked the freedom to experience love much elsewhere, I often found myself in parking lots: an in-between, neither an origin nor a destination. To be stuck in between love and culture is to inhabit these liminal spaces, both voluntarily and not.
Errands, as it turns out, are one of the easiest ways to get an excuse to go somewhere. Since my only available method to develop a meaningful romantic relationship with anyone centered around excuses, I found myself partaking in them often. I would go to many different places — Target being one of the most frequented — just to spend time with someone I loved. I walked through countless aisles, looked through countless items, but bought absolutely nothing. After all, I was only there to spend time, not money.
Being a Pakistani-American college student in a predominantly white institution like the University of Michigan’s is a weird feeling. It’s as though everyone around you is either talking about love, in love or dealing with the repercussions of love. The collective mood that results from the culture of date parties, marriage pacts and Tinder almost makes me forget that there was ever a point where I wasn’t able to love freely. That is, until I actually think about loving someone.
I don’t want to frame the problem of cultural pressure surrounding love as a challenge that others inflict upon me. It’s really an internal struggle, a voice in the back of my mind that seems to feed off of the impossibility of my fantasies. I tell myself that we’re too different, or that our parents wouldn’t get along or that they wouldn’t understand certain traditions in an attempt to undermine my own ability to love.
I found myself window shopping. Looking endlessly through many different aisles filled with different things, but being unable to buy anything. In an attempt to stalwart my own sabotage, I defer to the parking lot.
There’s a small marsh in front of the usual spot. Crates and shipping containers surround it and a couple of cars crawl by, but really there’s no one around. I sit in the Target parking lot and I can still imagine that I’m going to enter, while saving myself the pain of having to look at anything that I cannot buy.
Movie dates are something that most couples like to do. So, when the perfect opportunity arises to say you’re watching a movie with one of your platonic friends, it only makes sense to go — one perfect moment that resembles a relationship without constant cultural and familial pressure hanging over you. In a way, going to the movies felt like living in one, independent from the real world and its responsibilities.
When you are attempting to love under the burden of culture, there are a lot of experiences and expectations that won’t be met. You won’t meet the parents — they aren’t even supposed to know that you exist. You are forced to make do with the opportunities and the experiences that you have in order to keep the safety of your relationship secure and avoid backlash from your parents and others.
It only gets worse when you see the people closest to you, who don’t feel this burden to their culture, experience the epic highs that are paired with freedom. You begin to wonder why you can’t go to their house, go on dates on a whim or just listen to music together late at night.
The tension between the expectations and the reality put stress on the relationship. It became hard to love when the idea of ever being able to love fully and freely seemed utterly futile. In times like those, I deferred to the parking lot.
From the moment I entered the movie theater lot to the moment I exited, everything felt normal. I’d sit in the car, hesitant to go back to the world where reality rang harsher tones. In this parking lot, caught between fantasy and reality, it was easier to stay put than to venture towards either end.
Lifetime Fitness was one of the few establishments that seemed immune to familial control. Whereas the transient moods of my parents would often determine my accessibility to the aforementioned places, the idea of paying some amount of money for a membership turned them off from the idea of barring me from going to the gym. The times spent in this parking lot are synonymous with the times when familial pressure and cultural burden weighed the most on me and my relationships.
When I was younger, I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things because of my parents. They have a certain set of beliefs, rooted in Pakistani culture and Islam, and rules that stem from those beliefs, like no dating and no going over to a girl’s house for any reason. I broke these rules multiple times because they seemed ridiculous — and because I wanted some sort of semblance of a life that everyone else around me seemed to be having. As I grew older, though, I ended up internalizing some of those beliefs. Now, my actions are not because of my parents, but instead out of respect and adherence to the cultural values by which many generations before me abided.
After understanding that these rules were in place in order to preserve culture, my decisions became a lot less simple. If I choose love over my culture, what does that say about me? If that love fades, what am I left with if not culture? Do I even want to live in a world where I can’t love who and how I want to?
There was simultaneously a push toward the future and a pullback to the past. To escape from this struggle, I found it easiest to engage in a push and pull of the physical kind instead of the metaphorical.
The Lifetime parking lot grew to be a complicated one. The conversations held there were simultaneously the best and the worst. Best in the way that you know you’re talking about something important with someone important, but worst in the way that you don’t know if there’s going to be a good end to the conversation. In the Lifetime parking lot, it was easier to remain there, rather than leave without having concluded the conversation.
The park was a magical place. It embodied the perfect idea of the parking lot, an almost metaphysical place, where time and space themselves seemed to converge into one idea. Everything started and ended in the park.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t question whether it was worth it, jumping through fiery hoops to do even the simplest things. I questioned myself a lot. But, no matter how much I questioned myself, I still came up with the same answer every time.
I don’t know which side is better: culture or love. I don’t know if I’ll ever leave the parking lot, or if I’ll ever need to. All I know is that I never regret doing what I could, when I could. Love is too fleeting to try and capture, and any attempts to bind it to a single narrative can often do more harm than good. For me, the pursuit of love is honorable enough a cause to devote yourself to, regardless of the circumstances.
The nature of parking lots forces you to focus on the present. When you find yourself between two forces, you also find a third, new one that’s equally important. Sure, maybe you aren’t exactly where you want to be, but it’s a new place in and of itself.
As time in the car passed, condensation formed on the glass until it was covered with a misty, opaque screen of water. As the windows fogged, the world outside became harder and harder to see — and feel. In that moment, nothing existed except for what was in that car; nothing mattered, except for a connection.
Statement Contributor Zhane Yamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.