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Young, Asian and Estranged

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Hello everyone, I’m Ciona. I’m thirty, and I am estranged from all of my blood relatives. Yes, you did read that right, all of my blood relatives.

Artist self-portrait

It was I who made the decision to sever all contact between myself and my blood relations. As brutal and, maybe, as cold as that may sound, I cannot emphasise enough how necessary it was, in order for me to be able to envisage and realise a life beyond my ingrained and inherited experiences. I am not going to bare the microscopic details of everything that has happened: to comb over the entirety of my life so far is something that I have done numerous times to the point of palpable madness. It hasn’t changed anything, let alone for the better- it has destroyed me repeatedly, and irrevocably affected my life. This may all sound exceedingly dramatic and inflated, but it is not. For me, what was, and will always remain more extreme is the reality of living, infinitely, in dysfunction, bitterness, raw hatred, and being sincerely ignorant, or wilfully blind to the persistent pain you are causing to yourself, to those who you are supposed to love, and to those who are supposed to love you, to very much dilute the gravity of the situation. To call on the Tracy Chapman lyric, for me, it really was a case of, “leave tonight, or we can die this way”. Writing this piece feels an almost impossible task: I’ve hardly said anything, and I am already physically and mentally worn out.

The terms ‘emotional abuse’ and ‘generational trauma’ certainly sound like the perfect present-day buzzwords, but they are far from digestible, neatly-packaged, or palatable. They are ugly to consider, and even uglier to confront as descriptors of situations in which you may be existing.

I am English-born of Panjabi heritage. I do not consider myself, at all, a spokesperson for the British Asian community (!!): I don’t believe that any one individual has, or should be granted the authority to speak on behalf of any group of people overall. It is vital to have diverse narratives, to welcome and embrace points of view that may cause contention within groups, in aid of creating an honest, truly representative picture of the issues faced by communities, by people. We need to talk, in order to reach resolutions, to cultivate understanding of one another, to be able to dismantle destructive behavioural cycles that have, for far, far too long, been protected through fear and silence. I do not speak for my family members, or anyone else, only for myself through things that I have observed, absorbed, and encountered in my life so far.

Predominantly, we don’t even like to acknowledge, let alone talk about ‘controversial’ subjects, in any form, within the Asian community: abuse is not the only one. The problem here may be a lack of understanding about what constitutes abuse and violence (that it exists beyond the blatantly physical, for one), the fact that people may know what it is, but are forced, through fear, into dismissal and denial, or, even worse, that people choose to keep quiet, even knowing, however they do, that something/somethings are fundamentally wrong. In some cases, more prevalently than we likely consider, individuals may not have the emotional tools to be able to address and process these problems, which is often a generationally-rooted condition.

There is a culture of ‘keeping things within the family’ that I have always found incredibly insidious and unnerving. Many people may come to uphold this belief indefinitely as, at its core, is the fear of what will happen if you allow people to see in. There is so much complexity at the heart of this conversation, as with so many others; layers and layers. To whatever extent this mindset is carried out, I don’t believe it attains anything other than breeding an environment of repression that innately injures all involved. Families may think that they are protecting themselves and others within from relentless scrutiny, for example, however, pride and the fear of what various individuals will think and say are paltry reasons for endangering people and, for want of a tighter phrase, risking messing them up for good. There is a fundamental difference between privacy and irresponsible evasiveness. The whole issue is steeped in hypocrisy, really: how so many people love a gossip, but won’t be open and discuss anything where it is crucial, and when it matters. To be candid about your thoughts and emotions requires a stark vulnerability and honesty of self- the refusal to take responsibility for the effects of your behaviours on others is one significant reason for the breakdown of relationships.

Abusive behaviour rarely exists in isolation, meaning that the involved actions are linked to others indicative of a behavioural pattern, or that there is a network, often a group of people, allowing the abuse to sustain. One of the greatest obstacles, I think, to addressing such issues is that the behaviour of abuse is so normalised and, almost unconsciously entwined with the archetypal Asian family dynamic that people are unable to draw the lines between constructive, acceptable, nurturing behaviour, and ‘what families do/are like’, to their own detriment. For me, even though I logically know that what I experienced, among other things, was emotional abuse, manipulation, bullying, I still find it difficult to emotionally, internally reconcile those things. Even though I have no contact with my blood family and am ‘out of it’, so to speak, I still question and probe whether my experiences were, in fact, those things, or whether I have grossly exaggerated the narrative that these incidents happened, and were prolonged- am I a liar, delusional: have I made it all up? I am also not, in any way, the only one who has been affected by these circumstances. The behaviours I have mentioned are typical of how my family members have treated, and continue to treat each other- I sincerely doubt that my absence has changed, or made them reflect on anything. I feel that a great number of the personal pains to which I was subjected predate my birth, that I was dropped into situations that I, inevitably, inherited, became bound with, and am expected to carry as my own. In many ways, the latter has been fulfilled. There is no amount of therapy, or medication, that can undo the effects and consequences of my experiences; all I can do is continue to be true to who I am, to who I want to be, and try to navigate and untangle my past, which I can only do remotely.

Similar to life, I feel that this piece is full of ebbs and flows. It feels stilted, and adrift, which is true to how I feel about this part of my life. I have, for too many years, turned over the soil on my relationship with my blood relatives, and I have gone past the point of feeling like there is more to be found. My reasons for writing this post are embedded in a responsibility I feel, to share my experiences for those who may be in equivalent situations, but feel trapped by so-called cultural expectations and, the overriding fear of what will happen if they go it alone. I’ve been told, by a number of female mental health professionals, including those with South Asian heritage, that familial estrangement for women from this background is “more common than you think”- where are we all, then? I have searched so much for support, but, not only does there seem to be none for adult children (like myself), the resources I have found focus entirely on parents and family members whose children are estranged from them. Everybody deserves support- the latter just perpetuates the fallacy that parents and adults are largely the ones made to suffer through these circumstances, that they are consistently ‘innocent’ and well-meaning and, that it is the children who are, by default, to blame for familial divisions. I cannot tell you how much this blind assumption inflames the existing pain of being estranged, and augments the isolation and ostracism we constantly feel.

Leaving everything and everyone you’ve ever known is terrifying: I don’t feel the words exist to express how much this shakes and shapes you. However, for me, the prospect of being gradually swallowed by the effects of suppressed trauma, a dark, evermore unsupportive and emotionally vacant environment, and becoming inseparable from hatred and anger will always, always be more harrowing. My feelings towards my blood family will always be caked in ambivalence- as much as this recognition makes my soul creep, for my own calm and sanity, I’ve had to accept it as a state of being. I am not asking for permission to share, or even acceptance of my experiences and how I speak about them: I write for those who might need to hear it, and for who doing so may be their salvation, in every conceivable sense. The reinforcement in this piece is also what I need to hear- I feel unable to cling to the confidence to tell it to myself as I am so haunted by every detail of what caused this rupture. There IS life beyond and above the trauma, but you will not know anything about it if you decide to stay.

Ciona is a multilingual writer and artist from Birmingham. Her work spans a variety of subjects and is written in forms that she feels best express the content, including poetry, prose-poetry and essays. Instagram: @ciona89_


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